Friday, April 29, 2016

Time flies like an arrow perhaps?

It's one of those favorite remembered misunderstandings--the child who stares at flies, watch in one hand and plastic-tipped arrow in the other, obeying an edict that was meant to be an observation: Time flies like an arrow.

But this week time has truly flown. I had great plans of books to read, and instead I filled the hours with efforts to fulfill the promise of good news.

  1. Good news number one was an email asking for copies of Dribble-IT. Currently only available from Lulu, the price is fine for purchasing online, but I'm not sure what price I can afford to sell it at. I'd long intended to add the book to Createspace, so now, at last, I did it--well, I nearly did it; watch this space and I'll give you the link when the files are finally done.
  2. Good news number two was an email from my publisher with a tentative cover image and interior files for my next novel: Infinite Sum. So hours were spent re-reading the interior file, checking for errors of writing or formatting, and, thankfully, finding almost none.
  3. Good news number three was another email, asking if I'd be willing to edit a novel, and how much would I charge. Long internet searches to learn an appropriate fee; much heart-searching to cut the fee down to something I can honestly ask for. I really want to do it. So watch this space, again. At least checking the files for my own novel gave me a good reminder of how much time it will take.
  4. Good news number four is I'm working on formatting a book of short stories for someone else. After time spent on number one of this list, I'll be more efficient and have a better idea of how to charge for that too.
The bad news, of course, is that time has flown like an arrow and I still have eleven book reviews due by the end of this week, besides the ones below. My apologies to those still awaiting my efforts. I'll catch up eventually, I hope. Or use fly-spray. But here are some reviews, and I'm sure you'll have coffee available.

Shy Violet by Sherrie Hansen is a thought-provoking romantic mystery with touches of faith, guilt, forgiveness, honest candor, and genuine relationships. The story's a roller-coaster ride of misunderstandings and danger, but it's well-balanced with humor and evocative descriptions. Enjoy with some nicely well-balanced three-star coffee.

I'm reviewing the novella, A Sacrificial Matter, by Ilona Fridle, for Nights and Weekends next week. It's a cool mystery set in Alaska in the 1920s, dealing with questions of how women are treated in the workplace, and how native women feel in a world that quietly tries to reject them. There's a great sense of time and place in the story, and it's clearly part of a series, so be prepared to drink more lively two-star coffee as you follow the adventures of a married couple with a very genuine and pleasing relationship.

Dream Reunion by J.J. DiBenedetto continues the story of another delightful married couple, convincing growing older and wiser while their children reach the teen years, and the world of dreams continues to entice and entrap. Sara's heading for her 10-year reunion at college. But she's promised not to interfere in other people's lives, and now she has to learn how to both keep the promise and offer help. It's a really cool series, and the characters deal with very real emotions in their slightly paranormal world. They probably drink elegantly complex four-star coffee too.

Christine Amsden's Kaitlyn's Tale is set in another paranormal world, again, one that exists just slightly outside of our own. Kaitlyn, a character from the Cassie Scot series, is one the run with her son, and refuses to trust anyone, not even herself. But this is a story of secrets and lies, and the hope of renewal. It's a fast-action adventure with great characters and thought-provoking plot. Enjoy with some elegant, complex four-star coffee.

The Making Of Socket Greeny by Tony Bertauski keeps romantic elements suitably low-key as it follows the adventures of a high school teen in a world not so far in our future. Told in first-person, it's scarily convincing, set in a world where computer technology has moved just that little bit further, and filled with the sort of small details that make the world real. Enjoy with some dark five-star coffee, because there are scares and mysteries in store. And be prepared to be hooked - this is just the short-story introduction to a series.

Meanwhile, Love Without Limits by Nick Vujicic with Kanae Vujicic, is a story of real romance between real people, and a book of wise advice to those seeking, losing, hurting or despairing of love. As Nick points out, if someone with no limbs can find love, anyone can. Meanwhile Kanae describes the sort of falling in love that forgets what separates when finding what unites. The story of their love is fascinating, but best are the details of how they can help others find and maintain a true unity, guided by God. Enjoy and share with some well-balanced three-star coffee.

But now my time is flying like an arrow again. My husband's coming home for dinner, and it's time to stop writing and return to my real life. Where has your time flown?

Thursday, April 21, 2016

What Happens When Characters Die?

Death scenes are strange--in fiction I mean. We authors choreograph the steps of a fight, as if the characters are puppets compelled to their fatal dance by our tune. Or else we stand aside and watch, trying to make sense of what we see in our minds, drawing those steps so others might see them too. Or else we wait for the conclusion and weep. But characters die, and we who made them are compelled to see their demise. Like them or hate them, the characters we've made all belong to our minds, and we bear that strange responsibility for death or life.

I've seen a few strange characters lose their lives in books recently. So pull up a chair, pour some coffee, and see which books and deaths most appeal to you. Because, I guess, the reader who chooses to imbibe the book's strange brew must bear some responsibility too.

First in my list today is One False Move by David Callinan. Protagonist Delaney is a trained assassin who has made a vow to kill no more. Graphic well-staged violence ensues all the same, with threats against women and a wheelchair-bound friend. But there's enough depth of character and backstory to make things interesting. Enjoy the story for itself, with a short dark five-star coffee, or be tempted by these interesting characters to read more of the series.

A young woman is threatened in Kill Switch by Steve N Lee as well, though, as time tells, this threat is against many, not just one. Another young woman just might prove equal to neutralizing the threat, with equal and opposite violence of course. There are some surprising smiles among the investigative research and well-choreographed battles, but this is still a dark tale, dealing with serious terrors, and deserving a dark five-star coffee while you drink.

Murder At The Johnson House by S. M. Senden has another scarily skillful female protagonist among its large cast of characters. Slowly bringing her disparate group together at the Johnson House Hotel, the author leaves one to the die and the rest to be suspects in a well-plotted mystery. The story takes a long time to get going, but the characters are cool and dark, so brew up a nice big pot of five-star dark coffee while you read.

Initiated to Kill by Sharlene Almond takes a long time to reach its conclusion too. A complex tale, it involves the deaths of many women, in a puzzling trail from ancient worlds to modern, Whitechapel to Russia to Spain and beyond, with a wealth of characters in between. My favorite character speaks her part in first-person and listens to body-language as much as words, since she's hearing impaired. But darker characters lurk and kill and nobody's safe. This one's a seriously long slow read, needing lots of long dark five-star cups of coffee.

So now I'm wondering, why did all these books involving death also involve violence against women? There again, women are approximately 50% of society, and there's plenty of violence against male characters as well. So perhaps I'll quit my wondering and just continue to ponder why do we authors keep killing the people we've made.

Friday, April 15, 2016

When Is A Story A Soundtrack?

There's music in movie soundtracks, of course. But there's music too in words, easy to hear if the words are poetry, and still there in sentences and stories; in the flow, internal rhyme, the lilting rhythm and cadences of speech; and old-fashioned storytelling around the fire. Those first storytellers, memorizing their lines, must surely have heard them to music in their minds--that's why they turned so many tales into song. But what about the written word? I wonder sometimes if those first storytellers didn't argue that pen and ink might spoil their craft. When printing came, surely all the uniqueness of sound would be lost to identical shapes on identical page. And then the internet...

But there's music in words, and the best of stories still sing their songs to us, subliminally or deliberately sliding sound into our minds as the words reach our eyes. It's not a music that depends on a sound recording--it's the storyteller's song.

I love to read aloud. I really do hear what I read if the writer manages to bring me "into the zone." And, oddly, I really haven't learned to enjoy recorded audio-books--they take too long (I read too fast), and the speaker's voice so often comes between me and the song. But perhaps I just haven't had enough patience to listen to the right ones yet.

I enjoyed two very consciously musical books this week, so I'm going to start my collection of book reviews with them. Find a nice soothing coffee and enjoy.

First is The Music Of Us by Uvi Poznansky, billed as the third in a set, it tells the beginning of a story already offered in Apart from Love. It's a love story set between a soldier and a musician, at the start of the second world war, but it's so much more than that. Music, classical and modern, echoes through the lines, and an aching sense of impending loss is balanced against the way the memories are inspired by tune. The writing is beautifully lyrical. Symbolism is natural. Emotions, from laughter to tears, are very real. And the story has a compelling honesty that's truly beautiful. Enjoy with some elegant complex four-star coffee, and enjoy the soundtrack to a life.

Second is A Piper’s Song by C. K. Johnson, a wonderful take on the Pied Piper, and a pleasingly different teen novel - sometimes dark but not dystopian, musically convincing, and with a fantastic climax that combines music, magic, and real character development. Think Harry Potter crossed with a touch of C.S. Lewis, add music, and pay the piper. Enjoy with another elegant four-star coffee.

These books are both consciously musical of course, with characters to whom music is supremely important. But Pepe: homeless slum kid versus evil wired up president (a cyberpunk urban fantasy) by Robby Charters, despite its intriguingly long subtitle, has a music all its own - the quick-witted, sharp-edged, fast-flowing beat of street-kids, combined with the magic of Prince and Pauper, coolly natural future-history, and allusions ancient and modern. It's another great teen novel, pleasingly (completely) different, and great to enjoy with a dark, intense five-star coffee.

Music and the sound of words matters even more in books meant to be read aloud, I guess. Janet Ruth Heller's A Passover Surprise is a chapter book for young readers, so you can easily imagine it being shared between parent and child. It works well, simply and clearly written, with interesting questions addressed very naturally. Should a girl get the same rewards as a boy? What was going on in the Civil Rights movement? How were soldiers treated in war? And how does communication solve problems? Perfect for Passover or anytime, it's one to enjoy with some lively easy-drinking two-star coffee.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Are there Heat Ratings for Faith in Fiction?

They have heat ratings for romance novels. Since I sometimes review romances I've been trying to work them out so I'll use the right words. To the best of my knowledge:

  1. Burning means vividly graphic detail in sexuality and vocabulary. These ones probably go further than I'd choose to read.
  2. Hot means detailed sex scenes with plenty of body parts. They're not my scene either, but I'm happy to read and review them once in a while.
  3. Moderate might be moderately explicit, but spares the reader's worst blushes. More about feelings than body parts. More euphemisms rather than intricate detail.
  4. Warm emphasizes the feelings even more, letting the action slide under the bedsheets.
  5. Subtle stays above the belt (a euphemism I learned at a Christian writers' conference).
  6. Soothing closes doors.
  7. And cool keeps sensuality on the backburner in favor of unencumbered emotion.
(Okay, I like sevens. I had to have seven ratings in my list!) But what about ratings for faith in novels? Some religious fiction has me wanting to hide the book in the same way I'd hide a burning romance, while other books with spiritual leanings keep them well below the belt, or only let them off the backburner when there's a death in the fictional family. That doesn't mean spirituality's not important in all these books, just as romance is important in all romances. It just means it's less "in your face," and easier for different audiences to read. So, here's my list of heat ratings for faith in fiction.
  1. Burning means the reader will have to agree with the author, politically (all fire is red of course), spiritually, emotionally, sharing a desire to proselytise and prove all non-believers wrong. These books haev a place, but they probably "go further than I'd choose to read."
  2. Hot keeps the detailed need to agree, with black and white politics, religion, preaching, and more, but story matters almost as much as belief.
  3. Moderate stories tell of people of faith, sharing their faith, but allowing some good guys not to be converted.
  4. Warm might even love the unconverted without converting them. Characters are guided by and strengthened by their beliefs, but readers don't have to agree.
  5. Subtle lets readers and characters question their beliefs.
  6. Soothing keeps faith and questions in the background.
  7. And cool just slips characters' faith to the fore when the story demands it of them.
Do you have a list? Do you want to change my list? I'd love to know if you do. But in the meantime, I believe in coffee as a great accompaniment to reading, and here are some books where faith (not always Christian faith) plays an interesting part.

First is Mercy’s Sunset by Lindsay Luterman, a story that blends past lives, historical and modern romance, and some really intriguing questions about the decisions we make. A reader who believes in past lives will buy into the story completely, but fiction doesn't have to be true, and this reader, who doesn't, can still enjoy a well-told, intriguing tale. I guess that puts the heat rating at 4 or 5. Meanwhile I'd suggest a well-balanced three-star coffee to accompany the read.

Chocolates in the Ocean by Eva O’Reilly tells the story of a woman rebuilding a house and her life, after being betrayed by the man she hoped to love. This time the questions raised are whether women really need men in their loves, whether love can ever last, and what gives us purpose. With evocative portrayals of Denmark and relationships, it's an introspective, absorbing novel, perhaps a 7 rating for beliefs, and deserving another well-balanced three-star coffee.

An American Gothic by Alice Krenz rates a warm number 4 on the scale. It tells the story of a woman writing a gothic romance, who finds life following art (or the other way around). Faith is important in the story, but there's no attempt to ram it down readers' throats. It's just part of a character whose interests include handsome men, lifestyles of the rich and famous, and the well-being of a wounded child. You might want a dark five-star coffee to hand as you read some scary scenes.

Waking Dream by J.J. DiBenedetto is the fifth in an intriguing series of books, each set two years after its predecessor. The protagonist, Sara, has a curious ability to enter other people's dreams, a skill that lands her deep into mysteries, murder and mayhem as years go by. But the series' scifi and mystery elements are beautifully counterbalanced with the genuine affection of family life, childbirth and life as a doctor. Waking Dream advances both story and characters, and includes some serious soul-searching as Sara ponders why she has this skill. Probably another 4 on the faith scale above, this is one to enjoy with some elegant, complex four-star coffee.

Faith is somewhat more explicit in Finding Amanda by Robin Patchen, where a young man who has turned to faith finds himself turned out by a wife who has not. Amanda was abused as a teenager. Now she's risking all with a memoir, but seems blind to danger. Husband Mark struggles to cope with anger, betrayal and love as he tries to keep her safe, and prays for guidance. Enjoy this dark tale with some dark five-star coffee. And on the faith-heat scale, it's probably a 3 (with a touch of 2).

Finally That Dog Won’t Hunt by Brandilyn Collins hits the sweet spot with a warm heat-rating of four. A great blend of darkness and light, it combines the story of an abused young woman with the zany capers of a crazily normal family, blends unexpected weakness with hidden strengths, and keep the reader on that happy edge between laughing and crying all the way. Enjoy with a well-balanced three-star coffee.

Fun books all of them. It's been a good reading week.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

How Will You Tell Your Future History?

Great futuristic fiction demands great future history to make it real. But the balance between showing and telling in a novel can make it hard to provide all that backstory to the reader. The question, of course, besides making it all make sense (or seem to make sense), is how much does a reader need to know?

When it comes to describing the carpets and curtains in a room, the reader should see what the protagonist will notice, then ignore the rest. Seeing through a protagonist's eyes can help the author avoid excessive description, and make for a good read. Meanwhile, of course, many readers will become convinced they know exactly what the fair Maid Marian looks like, without ever being told, only to be disappointed when the movie comes out, but that's a different issue. It's good, surely, to let readers use their imaginations. After all, isn't reading meant to inspire?

But what about those things the protagonist knows, or needs to know, using memory rather than senses - things he or she has learned long ago, or things that are just assumed in the cities of the book? Sometimes the reader needs to know these things too, but how does the author avoid sounding like a teacher in school?
  • One way is to actually send a character to school. As this character learns, the reader is taught. As this character feels bored and looks out the window... please don't make the reader bored as well. 
Author Paul Nemeth uses this technique very effectively in The Vault. Crossing horror with mystery and scifi, his novel is set in an imagined future where a professional dreamer provides entertainment to the masses, and a well-structured society keeps careful tabs on its members. This is the American Northwest after the second Civil War, and there's a vault, dreamed or remembered, that haunts the dreamer while a figure of horror, dreamed or real, invades a young boy's dreams - the boy of that first-chapter classroom. Future history is made very clear as the dreamer goes to school. But this history has to be clear; it's going to be twisted, questioned, denied and changed as the truth is revealed. The Vault hides a very scary truth, and a scary message for today. Enjoy some dark, intense, five-star coffee as you read.
  • Another technique, used very effectively in  Whispers of the Dead (Miraibanashi, Book 1) by James Litherland, is to include surprising details that reveal hidden facts. When a protagonist thinks he's recognizes someone, then complains that all these Causasians just look so alike, the reader learns that the protagonist is not Caucasian and the people he's meeting are, all without being told. If these people are the ones in power, the reader learns something more of how our future history has strayed. 
Whispers is set near Mount Fuji, where a new Tokyo is controlled by the rich and powerful Batsu, while the rest of the land struggles in poverty. The protagonist is rebellious, but holds to a strict code of honor, avoids killing, and has remarkable physical and mental skills. The world he lives in is strangely divided. And his task is to share (surely not steal) information. I'm left with lots of questions about this future history, and an eagerness to read more. Enjoy with some elegant complex four-star coffee.
  • Third person omniscient histories can lead the reader in. Think Star Wars movies, where they're short, sharp, and nicely inclined. But longer histories can be just as enticing, especially if they engage the reader's imagination of the present, or when, as in Robbie Charters' intriguing short stories in The Wrong Time. A master of the art of not-telling, the author uses short phrases such as "the viewing public had been satisfied with 100 percent reality 3D" to tie future and present and intrigue the reader.
  • Then there are personal comments that truly intrigue, such as "the last time I ordered ice cream at Baskin Robbins, I created thirty-one universes," again from The Wrong Time.
The Wrong Time includes a finely imagined collection of short stories, plenty of ads for the author's other writing, and so much to intrigue that I shall probably reread it over again. From fascinating flash Biblical fiction to multiverses, murder and mayhem, it's a great collection to enjoy with some elegantly complex 4-star coffee.

A lot can be told about an imagined future (or past) with a simple phrase. But then a lot is left untold. Perhaps the author's task is to imagine enough to make it all consistent, then leave out enough to keep the reader engaged. But what do you think?

Monday, April 4, 2016

When impeccable character meets insoluble crime

Today I'm delighted to introduce a fictional guest, Sadagopan, from the new novel, Surpanakha by Hariharan Iyer. Read this character sketch, and imagine the kind of man who will investigate a massacre... But first, please enjoy the slide show - keep your eye out for Sadogapan himself. Then read on, and don't forget to read to the end, where you'll find a cool giveaway. Enjoy!


A 1972 IPS cadre officer. A person of upright character. Impeccable track record in Tamil Nadu police for 38 years. Precisely the reasons for which Madras High Court appoints him as a special investigator to go into the role of Sesha in the massacre of 73 Kannadigas.
Sadagopan looks more like a mathematics professor than an ace cop. Though the world has moved towards progressive lenses, he still uses a pair of bifocal spectacles, which adds respectability to his personality. Post-retirement indulgence in tasty food has left him with a small paunch, which looks more pronounced because of his lean structure, and earns him the taunts of his wife. To pacify her, he has been climbing the stairs to his third-floor apartment everyday.
Sadagopan knows Mythili from her childhood. He was her neighbour in Srirangam. Her father and he were buddies from school days. And this—that he is a family friend of Mythili— was enough for Zarina’s lawyer, the one who was prosecuting Sesha, to trash Sadagopan’s findings.
Has he let down Mythili? Has his acquaintance with Mythili’s family turned out to be his undoing? He curses himself for accepting this assignment. All his achievements would be forgotten and only this would be remembered.
He is a trained cop. He can’t afford to feel diffident. He can’t accept defeat till has put in his best. The judgement is just a few days ahead. A chance viewing of an innocuous documentary aired by a TV channel to mark the 2nd anniversary of the killing of Kannadigas offers him an interesting lead. In the next couple of action packed two days, he comes up with incontrovertible proof.
That is Sadagopan. He fights till the last. And he succeeds.
But then when Sesha faces sexual harassment charge, see what he has to say to Mythili when she seeks his help in proving Sesha’s innocence: ‘Sexual harassment cases are not pursued to the end. The trial does not happen in courtrooms, especially when the accused is a celebrity; it happens in the studios of TV channels. We don’t ever come to know whether the charge was real or false. The alleged perpetrator lives with a constant blemish on his character. They’ve learnt to live with this. Perhaps Sesha also has to…’

Is he giving up before even trying?

About the Book:

Educated, young, no-nonsense bearing, able administrator—these are the qualities that won Sesha the loyalties of the people after three years of rule as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. An allegation that he was the mastermind behind the murder of 73 Kannadigas threatens to bring him down but he is miraculously saved in the 11th hour.

Even before he can relish his victory, Sesha is slapped with the charge of sexually offending a young nurse. This time round, the case is strong and his supporters are uncertain. Worse, his teenage daughter calls him 'vile' and walks out of the house. While Mythili, his wife promises her full support, her secretive activities—undertaken with the help of a retired cop—is a cause of concern for Sesha.

Will Zarina, the human-rights activist, succeed in bringing him down? What about the insinuations of a celebrity lawyer that he is casteist and antiminorities? When the young nurse is found dead, the case becomes even more complex. Who is innocent? Who is guilty? And who is the mastermind?

Buy Links:

Links for downloading e-books: Amazon India | Amazon US | Amazon UK
Links for ordering paperbacks: Amazon India | Flipkart

About the Author:

Hariharan Iyer is a finance professional based in Dar es Salaam. Not content with just a rewarding corporate job, he took to writing a couple of years back. He blogged on media and current affairs for a year at before hitting on the idea for this novel. An idea so powerful that it convinced the accountant in him that he could put together not just a balance sheet but an intriguing political thriller as well. He has definite views on politics, NGOs and media ethics and has tried to package them in the form of an interesting novel.

Hariharan lives with his wife in Dar es Salaam while his two sons are pursuing their ambitions in India.

Contact Hariharan:

Facebook | Twitter | Blog

Enjoy an Excerpt

Hebbar spotted the Chrompet outlet, his maiden venture, a hundred
metres away, across the road, beyond the divider, next to Vetri theatre. He
would have to go all the way to the flyover, which was a kilometre away and
do a U-turn beneath it to reach the restaurant. He was excited to visit the
place. It had been a year since he had visited the restaurant. From the humble
500-sq.ft eatery he’d started 40 years ago, it had grown to a two-storey
building—a non-A/C dining hall on the ground floor and an A/C hall on the
first floor. There was underground parking for 20 cars.

A huge flex banner announcing the fortieth anniversary with his and
Padmavathy’s photographs covered the entire frontage of the restaurant.
Madhav had told him that he had identical banners in all their outlets.
He saw a small crowd in front of the restaurant. Just around 30 to 40
persons. Did Madhav send him to manage this small crowd? Anyway, it was
an opportunity to spend a day in the restaurant, after almost 10 years of being
away. He smiled. As he neared, he intuitively felt that something was wrong.

The crowd did not look like one of enthusiastic customers waiting for their
turn. Two Tata Safaris parked haphazardly in the front with their doors wide
open warned him of something amiss. Then, the sight of a few customers
looking terrified and running out of the restaurant caused a queasy feeling in
his stomach. The problem was different and perhaps more serious than
handling a few unruly customers. He slowed the car a bit to get a clear view
of what was happening. Did he see smoke emanating from inside? The honks
of impatient cars from behind forced him to move fast.

He speeded up towards the flyover to take a U-turn. It would be at least
fifteen minutes in this heavy traffic. He had no option. The timer in the traffic
signal below the flyover tested his patience. 79…78…77…

An auto driver passed by him, stopped just in front of him and killed the
engine. 45…44…43…

He was too impatient to curse the auto driver. 3…2…1… Oops! The auto
refused to start. Other vehicles behind him moved left, passed by him and
turned around. He could not navigate around the auto.

His restaurant seemed to be burning and he was stuck in this mindless

Finally, when the auto responded to the driver’s frantic efforts and started,
the traffic light had turned red. Shit! He waited for the next green light and
turned around and reached the restaurant. By then, the damage had been
done. The building was in flames.

“Kannada naygala, savungada!” A deafening chorus welcomed him. As he
got down from his car, he saw a few men whose looks did not give him much
comfort, throw their sickles and hockey sticks in the boot and board the
vehicles. The doors were slammed shut and the vehicles started with a
screech. Who were they? Why did the vehicles carry the ruling Progressive
Democratic Party’s (PDP) flags?

The shutter at the entrance had been rolled down and locked. Why? Loud
screams for help came from behind the closed shutter.

Numbed by what was happening to the eatery he had bought and so
passionately developed, Hebbar remained mute till the observations of
someone in the crowd brought him to life.

“All the customers have been sent out. Only the workers have been burnt.
All Kannadigas.”

My workers. Have they been burnt alive? What is their fault? Being Kannadigas?
“They should have anticipated this; at least they should not have indulged
in these overt celebrations,” said another in the crowd.

Anticipated? How? Hebbar’s knees wobbled. His cell phone rang. His
General Manager was calling.

“Sir, bad news. All our restaurants in Chennai have been attacked.”

All his restaurants in Chennai? Adyar and Thiruvanmiyur as well? What had
happened to Padmavathy? Madhav?

He called his wife.

Her phone kept ringing.

He called his son.

His phone kept ringing.

He learned two hours later that they were not alive to take his calls.
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Friday, April 1, 2016

How do you make manna? An interview with Eric Lotke

Today, I'm delighted to welcome Eric Lotke, author of the novel,  Making Manna, to my blog. We're going to sit down and drink coffee while we talk, so grab yourself a mug too while I introduce the book.

Making Manna has a strong theme of renewal - perfect for the Easter season. It tells the story of Libby Thompson, who is just fourteen years old when she flees her abusive home with her newborn son, Angel. Now they must build a life for themselves on hard work and low wages, dealing with police who are sometimes helpful-but not always-and a drug dealer who is full of surprises.

As Angel gets older, he begins asking questions about his family, and Libby's tenuous peace threatens to crumble. Can a son without a father and a young woman without a past make something beautiful out of a lifetime of secrets?

Making Manna explores the depths of betrayal, and the human capacity to love, flourish, and forgive in the face of heartbreaking odds. This book will appeal to fiction fans and nonfiction fans of books such as The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Intrigued? I know I am, and I'm really looking forward to reading this. I've already read the excerpt at the end of this post (don't miss it, dear reader). But the coffee's brewed, so before we send our readers to enjoy the excerpt, let's chat. 

Since Making Manna is being compared to the Glass Castle, I have to ask, what are your favorite books, Eric?

I don’t really have favorites. My tastes are diverse and changing. I enjoy biographies by Doris Kearns Goodwin and political science by Jacob Hacker.

The best novel I read lately was The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich. It’s copyright 2002 but the setting is America post WWI and the characters are timeless. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward was a highlight of 2015 and I expect it to last a while. It’s the memoir of an African American woman in low-income America. All of the men important in her life disappear over a couple of years — shot, drugged, suicide or jailed. But somehow the police who happily patrol the neighborhood every night with searchlights can’t manage even to arrest the drunk white driver who kills her brother.

I’ve also been delighted to re-read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. The first time was on my daughter’s recommendation. The second time was voluntary after seeing the movie. 

I read The Fault In Our Stars too. I hadn't expected to like it much, but I loved it! So, what are you reading right now?

I just started Viral by Emily Mitchell. It’s a collection of short stories and I’ve only read a few so I don’t have an opinion yet. But it came highly recommended and the first story is terrific. It’s about a small business where the staff are measured, marked, ranked and made miserable because they aren’t smiling enough.

Do other people's books inspire you to write? What inspired you to write Making Manna?

Trigger warning. This story has a really bad beginning.

Twenty years ago I was working on a death penalty case. The young man on death row was the product of an incestuous rape. I wrote those words in his social history — “product of an incestuous rape.” The phrase was so distasteful that I horrified even myself. The case came and went but those words stuck with me.

Years later, I wanted to write something hopeful and uplifting. The world is a mess. I wanted to say something nice.

So I went back to that kid. I started there but gave him a different ending. I took the worst beginning I could imagine and turned it into something positive. 

That's quite a start to the writing process. How did you continue, say with outlining, plot and character?

I had a beginning in mind, from that death penalty case. And I had an end in mind. But I wasn’t sure how to get there.

I found that I could always and only see a few chapters in advance. So I would tell the story that far, then taking that as the baseline, outline what happens next – with the endpoint in mind. The characters and internal details developed as they went. 

What was your favorite part about writing the book?

This was really interesting. When I wrote a scene that was happy and light, I was in a better mood at bedtime. When I wrote a scene that was dark or dreary, I wasn’t as joyful in real life. Putting myself into the mood to create the scene expanded beyond the page.

I suppose it went the other way, too. One weekend I had a lot of time to write and I was looking forward writing the scene that came next. I expected it to be happy and triumphant. As it turned out, I was a little blue that weekend. Maybe I had a cold, something was wrong at work or the kids were annoying. Whatever. I don’t recall. But I remember being a little down as I started … and it is quite clear that this fundamentally happy scene has a melancholy undertow. I always wonder if that undertow was inherent in the material and it would have been there anyway, or if it reflects my temper over the weekend.

In any case, I quite like the complexity and I never sought to iron it out. 

Why did you decide to write from the perspective of Libby rather than her son, Angel?

The book begins from Libby’ point of view. Angel is a baby. Yes, he’s occasionally cute, but he’s more of a prop than a character. Mostly he’s a logistical problem that needs diapers and daycare. Starting in Part Two the story moves to Angel’s point of view, and it ages with him from kindergarten to high school. In the end the two points of view come together. Now they’re equals.

One smart reader described it as a “coming of age” story of both the mother and son at the same time. I think that’s exactly right. Libby was so young when he was born! She has so much to figure out, and so does he. I think changing the point of view helps bring that development to life.

I love that description! So... Libby comes from a tough background but manages to work hard and support her family. Do you think you've portrayed her life  accurately? Are there really people like her?

All of her problems are real. She has a bad boss and not enough money, and she’s (justifiably) afraid of the police. She solves her problems in ways that are always credible and based on real world experience. I readily admit, however, that her success is unlikely.  Does one in five people like her succeed? One in twenty? A hundred? I want to show the hopeful possibility – while also making it clear that life is hard and the odds are against her.

Good luck makes a difference, too. Libby meets Sheila at the outset, and her health stays good. She gives the good luck back, though, doing favors for others. I think it’s honest to show that luck makes a difference. That’s not a novelist’s trick. 

Libby talks about one day getting her GED and maybe even going to college. Did you try to imagine what would be her major in college?

Heavens! I don’t know. I’d have to put her in college, have her meet some people, take some classes and live some college experiences … then she’d be in a position to decide.

During the story, a supporting character decides to go to college. As an author I was struggling to decide what college she should go to. So instead of thinking, I worked it out as a story.

First, I knew she was on a tight budget and could only afford a small number of application fees. Second, the logic of her situation defined her choices, for example, her state school. Third, her profile as a candidate determined which schools would admit her and under what terms. In the end she made a choice that followed naturally from the options available.

The point is that instead of deciding where she should go to school from a big fat Barron’s book, I just followed the situation to its conclusion. It feels real because it is. 

 What do you hope readers will take away from Making Manna?

First, I want readers to have a good time. Escapism is okay. You deserve a break today. You bought my book: I owe you a good time.

But I also want readers to reflect on the understory and worry about the injustice, especially in the justice system. The obvious problem is bad cops and excessive prison terms. The subtler problem is that people who need protection don’t get it, and people who’ve been hurt don’t get help. That’s a different failing of our justice system. I explore those failings and show a different way out. 

Will you plan to write a sequel?

I hadn’t planned to, but people have asked and now I’m tempted. A plot is starting to take shape. I have another book in mind, too. It depends, of course, on how this book is received.

Perhaps she'll get to college in the sequel and we'll learn what she studied. Meanwhile, thank you for stopping by my blog, and I am really looking forward to reading Making Manna.

If you want to know more about Eric Lotke, you can find him on his blog at:

Eric Lotke has cooked in five star restaurants and flushed every toilet in the Washington DC jail. He has filed headline lawsuits and published headline research on crime, prisons and even sex offenses. His new book, Making Manna, is an uplifting tale of triumph over economic and criminal injustice. 

Press info:

Social media handles:

Blog tour hashtag: #MakingManna

Buy links:
Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indiebound

And here's that promised excerpt. Enjoy!

Making Manna by Eric Lotke

The kindergarten classroom is bright with color. Sunny windows with rainbow curtains look over a grassy playground. The floor is carpeted in blue, scattered with yellow throw rugs and purple pillows. In the center is a cluster of red tables with little green chairs; on each table sits a stack of paper, and jars with pencils, crayons, and little scissors with rounded points.
Angel stands by himself in the corner. His clothes are all new to him, but every one of them came used from Goodwill and the Salvation Army. The room is filled with kids, but nobody seems to notice Angel standing quietly.
Two girls in matching red Elmo sweaters greet each other with a hug, and chatter excitedly about a playgroup called LittleKinz. Two boys in Redskins jerseys dare each other to jump into the deep end of the pool when they get home. One tells the other that his parents can’t use their opera tickets on Saturday. “My mom said to tell your mom that you can have them if you want.”
The only African American child is in the center of a little crowd, dressed in bright pink from top to bottom. She wears a pink shirt covered by a pink vest, pink pants with pink socks and shoes, and a pink hat with a pink feather. “We made the biggest dog fort!” she is telling the other kids. She and her sister found “every blanket and towel in the house” and hung them over the sofas and chairs in the living room until the “the whole room was full.” They crawled around in the space underneath and made space for all their “stuffy dogs” so each one had a room of her own.
“We played in it all day,” she says. “But then the maids cleaned it up. That ruined it.”
Eventually the teacher moves to the front of the room. “Come on up, boys and girls. Welcome to kindergarten. I’m Ms. Milton and I’ll be your teacher. We’re going to spend the whole year together!” Ms. Milton is wearing blue jeans and a green blouse with flowers, and her hair is entirely silver-gray.
“Who here knows how to write his name?”
Almost every hand in the class goes up. Angel’s doesn’t.
“That’s wonderful!” Ms. Milton cries. “I thought you looked smart!” She ushers them toward the tables and sets them to work making name tags for themselves. “There are stickers and crayons,” she explains. “You can decorate them anyway you like.”
Angel stays where he is, rooted in place at the edge of the hurly-burly, while Ms. Milton bustles around setting the kids up and passing out the supplies.
“Done already?” she says to the African American girl in pink. She peels the back of the sticker that now says Veronica West and places it in the center of her shirt. “Everyone else do like Veronica,” she says. “Peel off your sticker and put it on when you’re done. You can keep drawing until everyone is finished.”
Another girl raises her hand. “I’m done,” she says.
“Peel your sticker and put it on,” Ms. Milton replies.
She turns and all but stumbles on Angel, standing silently in his space. “What have we here?” she asks.
Angel straightens his back and stands tall. “My name is Angel Thompson,” he says. “I don’t know how to write my name.”
Ms. Milton seems almost embarrassed that she hadn’t seen him earlier. “Then we’ll teach you,” she says with a smile. “That’s what we’re here for.” She waves toward a teachers’ aide who Angel only now notices, also standing quietly to one side of the room. She brings Angel to a special table by himself, not far from the others, but clearly separate.

By the end of the morning, Angel is pretty good at writing his name and knows a lot of other letters besides. The teachers’ aide, Miss Stephanie, spends most of her time with Angel, though occasionally another child comes over for a few minutes’ attention. For lunch he eats the sandwich his mom made for him, peanut butter and jelly, with two Hershey’s kisses on the side. “That’s what my mom always made for me,” she’d said.
The activity after lunch is drawing. The children are again shown to the desks with the papers and crayons, and invited to draw pictures of their families.
“Can I draw my dog?” asks Veronica West.
“Your dog, your cat, your house. Anything you want,” says Ms. Milton. “But start with your family.”
Angel is placed into the tables with the other children, but near an edge, and Miss Stephanie gives him special attention.
This at least is familiar to Angel. Miss Josephine’s day care had crayons and papers—though not as many colors—and Monet loves to draw at home. With encouragement from Miss Stephanie, Angel draws three stick figures in a row.
“Who’s the tall one?” Miss Stephanie asks. She’s pretty tall herself, with long black hair and eyeglasses in a big round circle. She wears blue overalls over a yellow turtleneck.
“That’s my mom.”
“Which one is you?”
Angel points to the smallest stick figure, drawn in the same pink crayon as his mother. “That’s me,” he says. “My name is Angel.” He points to his nametag and his face lights up in a smile. Then he reaches back for the crayons and for a minute it’s as if Miss Stephanie doesn’t exist. He leans close over his drawing, all his attention on the little figure at the end of the row. Carefully, deliberately, he retraces the lines and redraws the figure. Then letter by letter, he spells out his name under the drawing. He looks back up at Miss Stephanie, and points back and forth between the picture and the word. “Angel,” he says. “That’s me!”
“That’s you, all right,” Miss Stephanie cheers. She reaches down for a hug and a pat. “You’re the Angel.” The she points to the third figure, midway in height between Angel and his mom. “Is that your dad?” she asks.
Angel looks at her like she asked which one is the elephant. The question makes no sense. “I don’t have a dad,” he says.
“Surely, you have a dad somewhere,” protests Miss Stephanie. “Are your parents divorced?”
Angel stays silent.
“Does he live in a different state?”
“Mom says he died in a car accident,” Angel explains at last. “With my mom’s parents too. It’s just the three of us that’s left.” He pauses as if he’s going to have more to say, but then nothing follows, and he looks blankly down to the page.
“So who is this?” Miss Stephanie asks, her finger is still on the third figure. “Your older brother?”
“She’s my sister.”
“Why is she drawn in brown?” Angel and his mom are stick figures drawn in pink crayon, but his sister is brown.
“Because she looks like her.” He points toward Veronica West. “She says to tell the truth when I draw.”
Lights are starting to go off in Miss Stephanie’s eyes, as if she is starting to understand. She looks carefully at Angel, who clearly has no African blood in his veins. “Do you and your sister have the same mom?” she asks.
“No,” says Angel. “She has her own separate mommy.”
“The same dad?”
“Nope,” Angel replies. “She has her own daddy too. His name is Zeb. She tells me that I met him once. But I was a baby. I don’t remember it.”
Now Miss Stephanie is again looking confused. “If you have a different mom and a different dad, what makes her your sister?”
“She’s not legally my sister,” with an emphasis that suggests he’s heard it said this way before. “She’s in a different foster family but she lives with us.”
“Why’s that?”
“She likes us better. We’re nicer than the foster family. I met them a couple of times. They have lots of foster kids and my mom—my real mom—says they only do it for the money.”
All this time Miss Stephanie had been standing up over Angel, and leaning down toward him. Now she gets down on her knees so she’s nearer his height. “What’s your sister’s name?”
“Monet. Like the artist.”
Miss Stephanie smiles. “Does she like to draw?”
“She loves it! Especially with colors. We draw all the time.” He leans in close, takes advantage of her proximity to whisper confidentially in her ear, “She’s in sixth grade.” Then he gathers himself to say something difficult, and minding his diction, he concludes, “She’s in Sidney Lanier Middle School.”
“Good work,” says Miss Stephanie, beaming. “That’s great. I was an intern at Sidney Lanier.”
Angel looks brightly back at her. “Her bus leaves at 7:10, a whole hour before mine.”
“Thanks for telling me,” says Miss Stephanie. “Do you know where Monet’s parents are? Her real parents?” She smiles as she echoes his way of saying it.
“Where are they?”
Angel slows down and straightens up to tackle something difficult again. “The Virginia Department of Corrections,” he says. He pauses to make sure he got it right.
Miss Stephanie stands up and steps away.
“Mom is in Fluvanna and Dad’s in Nottoway,” Angel concludes with a triumphant smile, naming the prison where each is held. He got it all right.
And just in time, too. Because at that moment, Ms. Milton calls everyone’s attention back to the center of the room. “Time to pack up,” she says. “All done drawing. Now it’s quiet time.”

Miss Stephanie and Ms. Milton shepherd the kids to a giant double-door closet, filled with rolled-up soft mats, one for each kid. The two boys in Redskins jerseys have a little push scuffle about who goes first, but it is quickly broken up, and soon enough each child has unrolled a mat and is lying quietly on the floor. Angel picks a spot on the edge, between Miss Stephanie’s desk and the window. He doesn’t sleep, but he lies quietly listening to the sounds. Some kids are reading, and turning pages in their books. Other kids are breathing in a way that makes Angel think they’re asleep. Outside he hears birds. They sound like the same ones he has at home, sometimes singing at random, and sometimes in response as if they’re talking to each other. A teacher quickly hushes any children who talk.
What seems like a few minutes later, a church in the distance chimes one o’clock. Ms. Milton starts to circle the room. “Wakey, wakey,” she says. “Time to roll.” She and Miss Stephanie supervise the kids standing up to roll their mats and use the bathroom. Angel is the first one with his mat rolled and returned to the closet. He helps some other kids roll their mats and work out the tricky elastic bands that hold them shut.
“Thank you very much,” says a blonde haired girl in a blue tank top.
“You’re welcome,” Angel replies.
Veronica West has her mat rolled but can’t get the elastics to stay in place. “Want a hand?” says Angel, scooting in beside her.
She looks at him like he’s holding a gun to her head. “I can do it,” she declares. The elastic snaps loose again and the mat starts to unroll. She scowls at him. “Look what you made me do!”
Angel reaches down to arrest the mat. “Hold it like this,” he suggests.
“Like as if you know,” says Veronica West, as she rips the mat away from him and sets it down to start anew a few steps away.
Angel leaves her be and stands quietly to the side until all the mats have been put away. Veronica West is last, until Miss Stephanie takes her mat away, fixes the elastics and replaces it gently into the closet.
“Story time,” says Ms. Milton. “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” She holds in the air a giant book, with a picture of a little blond girl and a family of bears on the cover.
Some children shout out in enthusiasm. “Hooray!” Angel hears, and from behind him, “My favorite!”
Other kids aren’t so happy. “Not again,” says one of the boys in a Redskins jersey. His friend grumbles but Angel can’t make out the words.
Angel himself doesn’t know the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Indeed, he doesn’t know many stories at all . . . though he knows he likes them. The other kids all push around Ms. Milton, and she directs them to sit around her in a loose circle. Angel soon finds himself on the outside edge.
Ms. Milton opens the book so it stretches across her lap. He’s never seen a book so large in his life. Miss Josephine had a scattering of books, though none nearly so big, and she rarely read them.
“Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks,” begins Ms. Milton. She holds up the book so everyone can see the giant picture of the pretty blond girl.
“She went for a walk in the forest.” Again she holds up the book to show the pictures. Trees in the sunshine, a deer in the shade and birds flying above.
“Pretty soon, she came upon a house.” Ms. Milton holds up the picture of a wooden cottage. “She knocked and, when no one answered, she walked right in.”
The audience murmurs in anticipation. Angel, too, senses the possibilities.
Showing the pictures as she goes, Ms. Milton tells the class how Goldilocks explores the house. One bowl of porridge is too hot and one too cold, but the third is perfect so she eats it all up. One chair is too big and one is too small, and the small one breaks when she tries to squeeze in. Then at last Goldilocks comes to the beds. One is too hard and one is too soft. But the third bed is just right. She lies down to take a nap.
“Don’t do it!” cries one of the Redskins boys. Other kids laugh.
“Stay awake,” warns another.
But Goldilocks can’t hear them. Soon she falls asleep in the bed.
Angel leans forward in anticipation.
Soon the owners of the home come back, and they’re bears! Ms. Milton holds up the pictures for all to see. A big scary papa bear, a friendly momma bear, and a cute little baby bear. A family of bears who live in the woods. Before long they find the chairs that didn’t fit and the smallest one that broke. They find the porridge that Goldilocks tasted and the perfect one she’d finished off. Each discovery makes them angrier than the last. Eventually, they find her upstairs in their bed.
Goldilocks wakes up in horror at the three hairy beasts . . . “and runs straight out the door and into the forest, crying mommy, mommy, mommy all the way home.”
The kids all cheer. Ms. Milton holds the giant book aloft, pages open to Goldilocks tearing through the woods with the bears chasing behind.
One girl echoes, “Mommy, mommy, mommy all the way home.”
Another cries out, “Run faster!”
Ms. Milton lets them celebrate awhile, then encourages them onwards. “How’d you like it?” she asks the class.
The children respond with more cheers.
“Do you think she made it home?”
Again more cheers.
“Does anyone have any questions?”
At first the room is silent. The children don’t seem to know quite what to say. Eventually Veronica West raises her hand.
“What’s on your mind, Miss Veronica West?” Ms. Milton inquires.
“I want to know if bears can have dogs.”
“I didn’t see any in the story . . . but yes, I suppose they can. I don’t see why not.”
The blonde girl in the blue tank top who Angel helped with her mat raises her hand.
Ms. Milton singles her out. “What’s your name?”
“Tammy Atford.”
“What’s your question, Tammy Atford?”
“Does she get in trouble?”
“What do you think?”
“I bet she does.”
“Then I bet you’re right. Seems like she didn’t even make the bed!”
All the kids laugh. Ms. Milton keeps the conversation moving on along those lines, calling on every child by name and sometimes asking them to repeat their names for all to hear. Some kids are worried about the broken chair and want her to say she’s sorry. All of them hope she gets home safely. Angel doesn’t say a word. But he’s sitting in a place with a good view of the book and he studies the artwork on the cover, especially the red cardinal in the tree.
“Is there anything else?” Ms. Milton asks at last. Does anyone have anything else to say or ask?” The room is silent while she looks around.
Finally, Angel sits up straight and raises his hand. Ms. Milton sees him immediately and leans his way in encouragement. “What’s on your mind, little Angel?”
“My name is Angel Thompson,” he says.
“Thank you, Angel. What’s on your mind?”
He gathers himself to speak deliberately. “It’s about the porridge,” he says. “That’s like oatmeal, right?”
“Yes, porridge is like oatmeal.” She makes a gesture as if stirring and eating from a bowl in her hand. “Is there something you’d like to say about the porridge?”
“Why doesn’t she mix it?”
Ms. Milton looks at him in confusion. “Mix it?”
“One bowl is too hot. One is too cold. She could mix them. Put too hot and too cold together. Then she’d have more porridge that’s all just right.”
Ms. Milton’s eyes open wide in comprehension. Mix the porridge, of course!
Angel forges ahead boldly. “She could still eat the bowl that’s just right. But if she’s hungry she can eat even more.”
Now all of the kids seemed to understand. A positive murmur fills the room. He catches some words behind him. “Mix the porridge, mix the temperature!” Someone else says “hot and cold together” while a different voice says “more to eat!”
Veronica West’s voice rises above the hubbub. “She’d get fat.”
“Not from one bowl of oatmeal,” protests Angel. “And she seems to be hungry.” He finishes with words he’s heard many times around the house. “You never know where your next meal is coming from.”
The kids fall silent and look at him in surprise. They don’t seem to have heard that before.
“But she still needs to pay for it,” he concludes. He looks deeply troubled, like he’s solved one problem but raised another. “I don’t know how she can do that.” He turns to Ms. Milton for answers. “Does she have any money? Does her mom work at night?”
Still Angel is the only one talking. The room is silent while Angel waits for an answer, but at that moment the school bell rings. The kids all jump up like they know what it means, though Angel waits for Ms. Milton to make the announcement. “All done for the day. See you tomorrow!”