“Chasing Greatness” by Mike Roberts

My husband will tell you that it’s easy to observe when I’m obsessed with something: I start my own total immersion program, usually by reading a stack of books as tall as the Frankfurt “tv tower” that used to be visible from our balcony back home. My most current obsession, and one that doesn’t seem to want to let up, is learning about teaching. Weird? Well, I am lucky enough to co-teach two biology classes at my current school, and after I finish CELTA certification this summer, I hope to have my own EFL classroom soon. In my head, that translates to “there’s no time like today” to figure out how to be the best instructor possible.

“Chasing Greatness” would not have been picked up by my book radar, had it not been recommended in a newsletter I subscribe to (thank you, newsletter!). The title alone is not that descriptive, where content is concerned, and the cover features a road and a footprint. Author Mike Roberts cleverly finds parallels between teaching and running a marathon (say what?). Although I am not ambitious enough to go long distance, I used to enjoy running when I had the luxury of doing it on beautiful forest paths, which are somewhat lacking here in fields-in-a-square Indiana, so I understand the attraction of the metaphor. Incidentally, it not only works well, but is also presented in a very readable, interesting format.

There are 26.2 chapters (really), each with a title that relates equally to marathon training and teaching, like “It Takes Planning”, “At Some Point, You’ll Want to Quit”, and “People Won’t Understand Why You Do It”. In almost every chapter but one, you will find an introduction that has to do with running, an interview with a marathon veteran, a part that goes into teaching, and an interview with a teacher. In between, you will find questions to ponder and things you can implement in your classroom tomorrow. Each part has a running-related title like Warm-Up, Aid Station, or Cool Down.

People who have been teaching for a very long time might complain that there’s nothing new in this book. I’ve only been at it for a year, so I can’t judge if that’s true or not; personally, I found the book a fast read with lots of great ideas, and I really appreciated the teacher profiles! You may shy away if you’re not athletically inclined or find the color choices for the cover too male-oriented, but please don’t let that keep you from reading this book if you’re looking for inspiration and/or ways to improve your and your students’ time spent in the classroom.

“Chasing Greatness” is published by Times 10 Publications. I actually bought my own copy, nobody is expecting me to review it, and all opinions are totally my own. Read this!

“Challenge Accepted!” by Celeste Barber

In the life of every social media celebrity, there comes a moment when someone finds it a great and original idea to have that celebrity put out an autobiography. If one is extremely lucky, the outcome is funny, witty, or at least interesting. Most of the time, luck has other places to be, and the reader is stuck with something that could best be described as “meh”.

For quite a while, I was a fan of Celeste Barber’s Facebook page, on which she regularly posts photos of herself spoofing outlandishly ridiculous photos of outlandishly photoshopped models in ridiculously outlandish poses. Of course, Ms. Barber looks nothing like an undernourished, photoshopped model, but she’s doing this primarily for fun (often with the assistance of her husband, who is best known by his handle #hothusband), and that’s why fans laugh with her and love her.

When the book was first announced, bearing the same title as the most famous hashtag on the page, #challengeaccepted, I was rather hoping to get a kind of “Best Of” collection of photos, perhaps some outtakes, perhaps some anecdotes. Instead, I got a collection of swearword-peppered, stream-of-consciousness stories that somehow apparently make up enough content to be sold as a biography these days.

Now, generally speaking, cussing doesn’t disturb me much. One of my favorite cookbooks is Thug Kitchen, after all. I just think that overusing language like that is like those drawn-out car chases in movies: mainly filler.

Ms. Barber opens with a reality-lit-type recollection of her son’s birth*. I am one of those seemingly rare women who don’t particularly care to be regaled with blood-and-goop-stained vignettes of childbirth. A couple of chapters later, we delve into Ms. Barber’s school years. I don’t really think it’s funny or cool or inspirational to tell young people who might be reading this book that being bullied isn’t a big deal, because, well, the author was able to laugh it off and now feels like a stronger person for it. And just in case some of that even later stuff in the book was brought forth by some subconscious pang of guilt about writing insensitive remarks like that, devoting an entire intermission to proclaiming how much you love the gay community doesn’t vindicate anyone. Sorry.

It’s a sign of our times that I feel it necessary to sidetrack to tell you that I am not implying that dedicating a chapter to your love of your friends and fans is somehow wrong. It is, like a lot of things in this book, unnecessary. Ms. Barber talks early on about one of her close friends who happens to be gay, and what she says about him should make her feelings clear to any but the dullest of readers. There, glad we’re past that.

Anyway, the bullying incident really rubbed me the wrong way, and I very nearly decided not to finish the book at all. I did, though, and it wasn’t complete rubbish. It also wasn’t particularly funny, or witty, or inspiring, and I really don’t see the point to it. Somehow it has an odd tang of being aimed directly and primarily at an American audience. What version do the Aussies get? Or do they already know everything there is to know about Celeste Barber?

My take on “Challenge Accepted!” is this: if you love her because of her self-deprecating humor and the way she casually skewers advertising, decide if you primarily do so because of her photos. If the answer is yes, this is a challenge you do not need to accept. But if you’re curious about what goes on in the life of an Instagram celeb who is more like you than most, go for it.

“Challenge Accepted!” is published by Amazon Publishing. I received an ARC via Netgalley in exchange for a review, although I’m sure someone is regretting that decision right now. All opinions are, unless otherwise stated, my own.

*if there is no such category as reality-lit, someone’s been snoozing at the helm.challenge

Review: “Divorcing Mom” by Melissa Knox

With this and my last review,  I seem to be on a bit of a mental health track, but I assure you it’s complete coincidence. I was sucked in by the promise that “Divorcing Mom” would be humorous, and while it is very well written and engaging, you won’t find much to laugh about.

Melissa is fourteen when she is first sent to Dr. Sternbach, her mother’s psychiatrist. This is New York, don’t you know, and for decades (and perhaps still) it was stereotypical that at some point, as a New Yorker, you would go to therapy. If there was no discernible reason, the shrink would surely find something wrong with you. What is wrong with Melissa is her parents’ sham of a marriage, orchestrated and dominated by “Aunt Berkeley”, her father’s therapist and muse. Dad is an abusive alcoholic, mom is an overly naive narcissist with masochistic tendencies. Melissa’s younger brother escapes from this setting by embarking on a course of substance abuse and truancy early on. All Melissa wants to do is dance, but soon she is informed by Dr. Sternbach that dance merely serves as a replacement for the sex she so obviously craves and as an outlet for her need for attention.

Through high school, college and beyond, Sternbach directs every aspect of Melissa’s life, dangling her pathetic mother in front of her like a Virgin Mary to be emulated. Her only confidante is her cousin Ceci. But when adult Melissa learns of her own mother’s abuse at the hands of her grandfather, this fragile alliance proves to be built on shaky ground.

I’m not sure why the book stuck with the title “Divorcing Mom” since every effort Melissa makes to do so is thwarted quickly and effectively by her psychiatrist. Only well into her grown years can she finally emancipate herself and find the distance she needs to maintain her relationship and her sanity.

“Divorcing Mom” is a shocking insight into a different kind of abuse, perpetrated by a professional who seems to care very little about his patients’ well-being, as long as he can be in total control. If psychology and mental health are of interest to you, I recommend you give this a read.

“Divorcing Mom” is published by Cynren Press. I received an ARC via Netgalley. All opinions are entirely my own.

divorcing mom

Review: “The Quick Guide to Classroom Management” by Richard James Rogers

Some of you know that I started a new job in August. I was looking for a way to do something resembling a practicum in Teaching English as a Second Language, but I also needed to get paid. What worked out for me was taking a position as ESL School Assistant at a local high school. When I started, I knew that I wouldn’t really be teaching anyone. The job description sounded like providing assistance to kids who were struggling to keep up with their school work because of language restrictions. After my first day, during which I shadowed an experienced assistance, I was ready to throw in the towel: it appeared that her day primarily consisted of trying to get kids to be quiet and persuade them to do any work at all. Fortunately, I decided to go back the next day and see my own students, and I have been committed to the cause ever since.

However, I also quickly realized that in fact I would need to find a better approach at getting students to do what they needed to do to get the work done that was due. Yelling, talking to them in the hallway, and pleading with them to pretty-please do the reading wasn’t going to help anyone. So, being me, I sought help from experts. At some point during my research, I ran across Richard James Rogers’ book, which had garnered some good reviews and looked useful at first skim.

For a beginning teacher, a career changer like me, or someone who is in dire need of some new ideas on wrangling kids, this is a great resource. As Mr. Rogers is a graduate of the British school system, the real-life examples are based on it, but they are quite easily transferable to various subjects and settings. The tone of the book is wrought with gentle humor, a trait that is certainly helpful to any teacher. There are also wonderful illustrations by one of Mr. Rogers’ former students, some of which are lovely examples of what great note-taking can look like – useful when you’re trying to show your students how to take notes properly.

As you might have guessed from the title, you will find plenty of classroom management tips in these eight chapters, all of which aim to ignite students’ interest and keep them hooked to prevent bad behavior or nip it in the bud. There are tips on using tech in classroom, building good relationships with parents, doing proper exam preparation, and what pitfalls to avoid with new colleagues. The final chapter talks about teaching overseas, which is of particular interest to anyone in my future field of employment.

Every once in a while, Mr. Rogers runs a promotion of this book on Amazon, where you might be able to snag a copy of the Kindle version for free. But even if you don’t, if you fit any of the profiles mentioned above, this is a good investment.

“The Quick Guide to Classroom Management” is self-published using Create Space. I purchased my own copy, and all opinions are, as always, my own.

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Author Interview: Peter Stafford-Bow of “Corkscrew” and “Brut Force”

During this hectic time of year, it is as difficult as necessary to occasionally take a timeout and allot a few minutes to enjoy the lovely things in life: a mug of hot chocolate, a foot rub, a good book, or at the very least, a good interview. I am tickled to present to you today a mini interview I was able to snag with Peter Stafford-Bow, whose novels I had the pleasure to review this year. Click the book title to find out more about “Corkscrew” and “Brut Force.” Then grab that chocolate, put up your feet, and get ready for the inside scoop about Felix Hart’s upcoming exploits, the secret to remaining incognito, and what should be on your wine list this season.

Stop and Smell the Pages: There has been relatively little time between your first book, “Corkscrew,” and the latest, “Brut Force.” How many adventures did you plan for, and how has the initial concept for the novel(s) changed?

Peter Stafford-Bow: Actually, Corkscrew was written 3-4 years ago and self-published. I landed an agent and publishing deal after I’d sold a few thousand copies – I’d been working on Brut Force since well before Corkscrew was ‘discovered’ by the traditional publishing industry! I definitely have another couple of Felix Hart novels in me. After that, it really depends whether my readers want more! Or, whether Netflix insist on a five-series deal, of course.

SSTP: The ending of “Brut Force” gives a pretty big hint that Paris-Blois may not be done with Felix quite yet. What could possibly follow a rigged wine tasting, assassination attempts, and multi-layered conspiracies? Will Lily return, and could she be the woman to permanently partner up with him?

PSB: I’m not sure whether either Felix or Lily are the type for settling down! The third novel sees Felix sent on a sabbatical, after accidentally killing his Gatesave CEO, to work for an African charity. Paris-Blois make an appearance, as do the Minstrels of Wine. That’s quite enough spoilers though, you’ll have to wait until summer 2019…

SSTP:  In an interview after “Corkscrew”, you made a joke about turning the novel into a movie, if only Hollywood would get in touch already. Personally, I’d love to see an on-screen adaptation. Has anyone picked up on the idea? And even if not, who would your casting choices be for any of the characters?

PSB: I haven’t sold the rights yet, though I understand my agent has had a couple of enquiries. I think Felix should be played by Bradley James. I think he’d bring great depth to the role of a drunken, caddish layabout.

SSTP: After two successful novels, how much longer can you remain the Banksy of viticulture? Has anyone managed to discover your secret identity just by reading the books?

PSB: A few people have tried to guess, but to no avail. Most people get my gender wrong, for a start! I have employed a few tricks to obscure my identity. I have a body-double to attend book signings, for example, and when I dine with my agent, I suspend a silk screen across the table, so he only sees my silhouette.

SSTP: In a similar vein, are you doing author readings for “Brut Force”? How are book sales overseas? Do we stand a chance of seeing you here in the US?

PSB: Over half of my sales are in the US! The market is much bigger, of course, and I’m honoured to have quite a big readership in the wine regions of the West Coast. I would love to do a Stateside publicity tour – and I’m well overdue a research trip to Napa, Sonoma and the Willamette Valley.

SSTP:  And finally: with the holidays approaching, what are your wine tips to make a grape enthusiast happy?

PSB: My top tip is to seek out relatively unfashionable wine regions! Germany and Austria make superb wine, of course, and there are some gems in Slovenia too. I’m a big Sherry fan and, as a patriot, I have to recommend English Sparkling Wine. There are some magnificent fizzes being made by some of the very small, boutique producers, such as Oxney, Wiston Estate and Hoffmann & Rathbone. Cheers and Happy Holidays!

Review: “Sugar” by Monique X

Sounds enticing, doesn’t it? After her divorce, Monique suddenly finds herself struggling to make ends meet for herself and her two young daughters. When she loses her job on top of everything else, she decides to follow the advice of her friend, Amanda, and gives the world of Sugar Dating a try. This book chronicles her two-year adventure with various Sugar Daddies and duds. Monique enjoys gifts, travel, sex, and as a bonus learns how to become more self-confident. Finally, she decides to dedicate her professional life to writing.

If you think that all sounds like a load of fluff, you know how I felt about it. The cover art seems to support the idea, and honestly, in the middle of a stressful semester of teaching and taking another TEFL course on the side, I was very much down with the idea of gossipy brain candy. Alas, the content was more stale cotton candy (or candyfloss, to my Commonwealth readers) than Quality Street (that’s toffees and such, in case you’re not familiar with it). Monique likes to compare her Sugar Dating career favorably with other services, such as escorts, which she considers as soulless business arrangements for sex. Honestly, I don’t see how, if that were the case, any of them would be different than prostitution: you need money, so you meet men of different financial standing for sexual favors and, in the case of Sugar Dating, free extras like trips, clothes, and meals. If that is your choice, so be it, but don’t pretend like one form of arrangement is somehow morally superior to another.

The wealthy men who enjoy Monique’s company remain mere sketches, shadowy nobodies whose biggest qualifiers are the different ways in which they perform in bed (or other locations). Despite the fact that the reader is told several times throughout the book that Monique is in fact a writer, it’s pretty obvious that she is not an editor. Her choice of descriptors is rather limited and sometimes a bit unfortunate, as when she goes on and on about a client’s “Asian eyes.” She also loves the word ‘just.’ I mean, LOVES it. If the letter E is the most commonly used letter in the English language, then the word JUST is the most frequently used word in this memoir, which reminds me way too much of the teenagers I work with and gets a bit old after a chapter or two. I read every single word of the astonishing thirty (yes, 30!) chapters of this book and cannot find any reasons to change my initial assessment of ‘meh.’

Does that mean there isn’t an audience for “Sugar”? Not at all. Fans of E.L. James who are sad there aren’t any more “50 Shades” books might like it for the sex, even if it is described clumsily and explicitly in equal proportions. People looking for travel destinations might enjoy the occasional vivid descriptions of the places Monique is invited to. Readers looking for relationship advice may safely skip this book and take away this piece of wisdom: if it’s a personal connection you’re looking for, sugar dating is not the best choice for finding a partner.

“Sugar” is published by Thistle Publishing. I received an ARC in exchange for a review. It should be fairly obvious that all opinions are my own, unless otherwise stated.

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Author Interview: Emilia Bernhard of “Death in Paris”

In September, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Emilia Bernhard, whose book “Death in Paris” I had reviewed not long before (see my review here). We spoke about inspiration, creating characters, and future plans for Rachel and Magda. Ms Bernhard hails from the US, but is now living and teaching in the UK.

Stop and Smell the Pages:  So, how did you end up in the UK?

Emilia Bernhard: The simple answer is, I just wanted to be here.  I had some connections at Cambridge, so I got a job teaching writing there, and that was enough to live on until I got a real job teaching English Literature.

SSTP: You’re living in Bristol now, right?

EB: Actually, I live in Exeter.

SSTP: Oh, right! Did your cat move there with you or did you get him later? I noticed you named him after a son of the city (English poet  Robert Southey, England’s poet laureate for 30 years. He wrote a children’s story, The Story of the Three Bears, which served as inspiration for Goldilocks)

EB: Robert Southey, who is indeed a Bristolian, really, really, really loved cats; he was a huge lover of cats. He’s a terrible poet, really terrible, but I’ve always been fond of him because of his love of cats. So when I knew I was going to get a cat, I decided to call him Robert Southey – he’s just called Bob, actually.

And now he’s got a companion cat who’s named Humphry Davy. Humphry Davy was a scientist of the same era as Robert Southey, so I thought I’d keep it in the family. (Humphry Davy invented, among other things, electrochemistry, and nitrous oxide owes its nickname, Laughing Gas, to him. While living in Bristol, he became friends with Southey)

SSTP: I like that! So, one interesting thing about your novel is that as an American living in England, you chose Paris as the setting for the book. How did that happen?

EB: I have hypothesis that everybody has another country that’s not the country they were born in and not the country that they live in, and when I went to Paris, I was just very comfortable there. I used to spend a lot of time there; in the summers, when I would come to England for research, I would stop over in Paris for a couple of days. So I knew enough when I started writing the novel to set the novel there, but I did have to go back and spend more time there.

SSTP: I think you mention in the back of the book that you had to go and do a lot of research for the street layouts and those kinds of things.

EB: (laughs) I did! I have zero geographical sense; I always tell people I could get lost walking around the block! I would go to Paris and I’d walk, like I walked the First Arrondissement. When I got home, I’d be able to tell you where I had walked and the whole path, but I had no idea what the street names were, so I had to use Google Satellite. That thing is an author’s gift! It’s weird, you can get so close. It’s not like you forget you’re not there, but you can get so close that it’s weird that you’re not there.

SSTP: Another thing I liked about the novel was that your protagonists are just two regular women. There’s not the usual cop with a chip on his shoulder or anything like that. How did that come about?

EB:  That was a conscious choice. I’m 50 and I wanted the people in the book to be an age that I could write with some understanding, but also an age you almost never see in books. You see women who are fifty and above, and you see women who are maybe in their thirties, but you don’t see women who are in their forties. There aren’t a lot of women in books, generally, who don’t have children. I don’t have children, and so I wanted them not to have children. They are based very loosely on me and my best friend. I knew I wanted the heroine to be married, to have somebody to kind of balance her out, but I also knew that I wanted her to have a very specific kind of equal marriage. I didn’t want her to have his last name, I wanted to show a kind of woman that, at least at the time, which was three years ago, and I think still now, you just didn’t see very much of in books.

SSTP: Yes, that is true. I was also happy to see that you kind of hinted at possibly writing a continuation of your Death in Paris series. Are they going to be the same people in a similar setting?

EB: Oh yes! It’s planned as a whole series of books, at least three, and I would hope more. It’s planned , for example, that Rachel’s husband, who only comes in and out in the first one, plays a larger role in the second one, and people who appear in this first book will also appear in later ones. The idea is to build a kind of a world, like Agatha Christie with Hastings. It’s not just Poirot, he also comes with various other characters.

A very big part of that is, when I got an agent and it looked like the book was going to be a real thing, I decided that throughout the series every person who was in a position of power would be female. With the exception of the police detective- it was too late to change that- in this mystery and all forthcoming mysteries, anybody that they have to deal with who has a power role will also be a woman.

SSTP:  That was another point I really enjoyed, a lot of strong women characters who aren’t bystanders to the whole plot.

EB: You know, just recently in England a couple of women, I think it was newspaper critics, got together and started offering an award for Best Mystery in which no woman is killed or raped or assaulted, because they felt that the women that you see in mysteries, that’s basically what they do, they’re the victim.

SSTP: You kind of hinted at where the idea for the murder came from. It isn’t, as Law and Order used to say, “ripped from the headlines,” but it is based on a real instance, isn’t it?

EB: Sort of. Not the specificity of the murder, but that murder just seemed so weird. I understand why you would kill someone if you weren’t in their will, you’d be overcome with rage and then you’d do that, but if you were thinking at all rationally, it just seems like a weird choice. I’m working on the second novel right now, and in both cases, the solution to the mystery has been about emotion.

SSTP: How did you come up with the means of your murder, though? Chucking someone off a balcony may not be that unusual, but drowning in a vichyssoise certainly is.

EB: That happened because I wanted to make the joke! That he’d died in his sleep, when he’d actually died in his soup.  The real difficulty was figuring out how someone could actually die in their soup, so the joke kind of forced all the rest of it. [One of the other murders], I just wanted to write a scene where someone had been bashed over the head. I’d read an article about different kinds of mysteries: cozy, light, thriller, suspense, there’s all these different categories. And it said that in the cozy mystery, they never really describe the body, so I was like, “well, mine is not a cozy mystery, so I will describe the body!” As a writer, there’s just some things that you want to write. And the soup thing just made me laugh every time I read it.

There was an episode of CSI where a woman dry-drowns. And that is why there is a scene in the novel where Rachel calculates how much soup is in the bowl.

SSTP:  I’m assuming you probably did more research on this than going back to old television shows.

EB: Well, I did a lot of research at various points, things like, how deep is a soup bowl. I actually measured soup bowls. I took a deliberate trip to Paris to figure out the area. But I did a lot of research backwards. For example, when I was in Paris, I didn’t know there’d be a scene where they take a taxi cab. When I got home and wrote that scene, I had no idea what a cab in Paris looked like. The internet was my best friend. I don’t think I could have written this without the internet.

SSTP: For your police inspector, did you have anyone you talked to about police work? Or was he going to be a minor character so that you could just say ‘we’ll have him come in when we need him to’?

EB: Basically! To be honest, I’m pretty sure I got some stuff wrong. I just have to hope that nobody who actually knows anything about French police work reads the book. I’ll have to try and get that right in future. He’s just a generic policeman in this book. And also, the women are very excitable. They can’t believe their luck, having watched all those true crime shows, that something strolls along.  I needed to have somebody who sort of knew what was actually plausible, and somebody who was just very calm, and he was designed to do that.

I really love the scene where he makes Rachel another cup of tea, because up until that point, I was like “I don’t really know what this guy is here for”, and then he was there to kind of take her seriously in a way that maybe she doesn’t even take herself seriously.

SSTP: Now that we’ve talked about it, it’s more noticeable that there aren’t many male characters in there that have much of a role, but it still feels like a very balanced book. Alan being there to ground Rachel a bit and perhaps to stifle her enthusiasm about the murder, and the policeman coming in and saying “this isn’t really how we can go about things,” I think that worked out really well in the novel.

EB: Well, thank you, first of all. And second of all, that’s partially down to my editor because she noticed that in the unrevised version, Alan is actually a lot more unpleasant. That’s odd, because in life, I socialize more with men than women, but apparently, on paper I have trouble capturing men. I could really only make them sort of patronizing. If it weren’t for my editor, I don’t think Alan would be a calming influence. There’s not much to him, but he’d be even less rounded. He comes into more prominence in the next book, he takes a more active role, so he gets a little more fleshed out there. I need to write a lot more men to get used to writing men.

SSTP: Since you are teaching at the moment, I would imagine that for a good chunk of the year you’re fairly busy anyway; how do make sure you have time for writing? Do you have a routine or do you just try to fit it in whenever you can?

EB: A bit of both. As I said, I don’t have any children and I don’t have a partner, and I think it’s important to recognize how much free time that leaves you with. I don’t want people to think that I have some fantastically organized schedule because I don’t; I just don’t have anything else to do. But at the same time, you make a good point because when I’m teaching, I can’t do writing. So what I try to do, and I’m trying to do even more this time, is complete a first draft during the summer. Then while I teach, I can revise.

What also makes it easy is, I try to write 1000 words a day. Graham Greene did this, he did it all in one sitting. You just sit down and then you don’t get up until you’ve finished. That I cannot do, but I try to write a thousand words a day. I try to do a rolling outline, meaning I know where a story’s going to go up to a certain point, and that makes it much easier to write it. I’ll write up to the point that I know, then I’ll take two days off and have an idea for the next part and I’ll write that. I think Julian Barnes once said that the only things writers like better than writing is finding excuses not to write, and in my case that’s certainly true. Up until adulthood, I never really stuck at anything, so this is a change for me. I really do stick at this, and I think it’s because it’s the thing I’ve always wanted to do.

SSTP: How long was “Death in Paris” in the making?

EB: As Mr Monk would say: here’s what happened… I got dumped. Right before I got dumped, I had this novel that I had been holding on to for years and years, and I sent it out to every agent in England. Then I went to America – I was there visiting- and when I returned to England, I got broken up with. A couple of days later I got this email from the woman who would become my agent, Laura MacDougall, and the email said ‘this novel is good enough to make me want to see whatever it is you’re working on now.’ I wrote to her and I said, ‘here’s ten pages (which was all that I had) of this mystery that I’ve just started to write.’ She wrote back and said ‘I would like to see the rest of this.’ And I said… ‘there is no rest of this.’ Then I thought to myself, well, I just got broken up with, it hasn’t destroyed my life, but it’s not something I really want to think about, so I could just focus on writing the rest of this book. So, I wrote back to her and said, if you give me six weeks, I’ll give you a first draft. That’s how long the first draft took. But after that… it was not a good first draft. I feel like anybody who is a writer should know that: all first drafts are terrible. In my experience, all you’re doing is to write the first draft so you can finish the first draft and revise it. It’s the revision where all the fun stuff happens. So after that, it took basically two to two-and-a-half years to revise it. I’ve never been good with plot. I’m really good with characters and description, but the long bit in the middle where stuff has to happen, I’ve never been good at that. I’m still not good at it! There was a period where we sent it out and nobody wanted it. I said to Laura, send me all the comments, which she did, and everybody said ‘it really doesn’t have much plot.’ That was pretty close to the end of the two-and-a-half years. For a while, it seemed to be done, and then it needed to be revised. They still sit around and talk an awful lot.

SSTP: I felt that it still had a very good pace, though. Even if they sit around and talk, the reader gets to know the characters, and now that you’ve said you’re working on the next book, the reader will already know what these people are about before you get there.

EB: That is a good point. If it wasn’t billed as a mystery, it wouldn’t be such a big deal that they talk so much. But when something’s a mystery, people have certain expectations. Publisher’s Weekly called it ‘a comedy of manners’.

SSTP: For future books, should we eventually expect one of those this-time-it’s-personal novels, or is that a road you don’t necessarily want to go down? Even though, since Rachel used to know Edgar quite intimately, that has already happened in a way.

EB: I think of it this way: like you’ve said, these are just two ordinary women, there is no earthly reason why they should get involved in detection if it wasn’t someone that they knew. Now that they’re involved, they really like it. In the next one, they do get involved accidentally, but it’s not because they know someone. Essentially, Rachel just happens along right as there’s been a murder. In the third one, I’m not really sure, but I know that I want to have a firm base in which they progress as detectives, and then maybe bring it back to something more personal. It’s difficult. Are you familiar with “Midsomer Murders”?

SSTP: Yes.

EB: You’ve probably thought to yourself, the streets of that town must just be littered with corpses! I don’t want it to be that every friend Rachel ever had is murdered!

SSTP: Now that you’re published and you’ve started on the second novel, are you on a schedule when it should be finished?

EB: It should be finished by February, but the whole process takes much longer than anybody thinks. It will be out next October, I know that for sure. The first one is out in October of this year, the second one is out in October of 2019. You learn all sorts of fascinating things; my agent told me that there is this whole timetable for publishing. It just so happened that my book was accepted at a time that meant it would be published in autumn, and then they wanted a quick follow-up. And then of course when they have an author, they want to grow a following, so they like to get the first and the second [book] out quickly, and then there’s a breather.

SSTP: Are they going to send you on a reading tour?

EB: I would love that! I’ve always yearned to be a celebrity, so I would adore a reading tour. The difficulty is, if you’re a first-time author, you get two people in a bookstore as your audience. I don’t have the self-confidence to do that. The way the world of publishing has changed, there’s a lot more stuff online. They might want me to do some online publicity.

SSTP: How important IS a well-made cup of tea in the writing process?

EB: Extremely important! I would say a well-made cup of tea is essential to the living process. Not only that, but I’ll tell you how to make it, because I know that a lot of your readers will be American. Here’s the first thing: I’m sorry, America, but you’re getting it wrong. Bag first, then the water. I don’t know why, but that’s all that works. Ideally, the water should be boiling; you don’t put it in the microwave, you didn’t get it out of one those little spigots. Put the bag in the cup, add the water, leave it for ideally five minutes, although three minutes is good. Then add milk, if you happen to be a milk person. Ideally, you would add whole milk. In the UK, everywhere they’ve started using semi-skimmed, because people are fooling themselves into believing that that way they’re losing weight – so, whole milk, and you want it to turn a kind of fawn color. And you want to sit down with it and drink it slowly!

SSTP: How do you feel about lemon in the tea, though?

EB: I’m pro lemon! You obviously don’t want lemon AND milk, but it is especially good with Earl Grey.

SSTP: Thank you very much, I really enjoyed talking with you today!

EB: Oh, it was a joy!

Emilia Bernhard’s Facebook page

Emilia Bernhard Amazon author page

Author Interview: Joe Milliken of “Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars”

When the Cars burst onto the music scene in the late 1970s, they were rock’n’rollers in a vast sea of disco dancers, new wavers, and punk rockers, but that wasn’t the only unusual thing about them. All band members but one were in their 30s, most of them had quite a few years of experience as musicians under their belts. Although lanky lead singer Ric Ocasek may be the most prominent face of The Cars, he frequently shared vocalist’s duties with bassist Benjamin Orr, whom he had met in Cleveland, Ohio, a decade earlier. After The Cars broke up in the late 1980s, most of the band pursued other projects, drummer David Robinson leaving the music biz behind entirely. Benjamin Orr sadly passed away in 2000, from pancreatic cancer. Consequently, he did not appear on the one-off album, “Move Like This,” released in 2011, nor was he present when The Cars were inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in April 2018. Ric Ocasek remarked in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine: “I think it’s kind of a big thing for me and the band. I know Ben would have been flipped out by it. … It’s certainly a very positive thing.”

Like many fans, I am tickled that in only a couple of months, on November 11, to be exact, Rowman & Littlefield is releasing a brand new biography titled “Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars.” The book is a labor of love by journalist Joe Milliken, who graciously answered a few questions for me.

Stop and Smell the Pages: The Cars are a band that most rock aficionados of a certain age will be familiar with on some level. Yet, the forthcoming book, “Let’s Go! A Biography of the Cars’ Benjamin Orr” obviously focuses primarily on Benjamin. Why did you decide to put him in the spotlight, and who is your target audience?

Joe Milliken: When I was contemplating what music subject my first book would be about, admittedly Benjamin Orr and even The Cars were not at the top of my list even though they are one of my seminal favorite bands. Truth be told, a fan contacted me out of the blue and suggested I write a biography specifically about Orr.

I was unsure but curious, but when I did some research I discovered this whole other aspect of his life that I didn’t realize, and figured a lot of other Cars’ fans didn’t know either. Ben growing up in Cleveland (home of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame) as a “young celebrity musician” if you will, over a decade before he ever became world famous with The Cars, was the hook I needed to make this book come alive. And did it ever!

My target audience is not only The Cars fans around the world, but rock, new wave and pop music fans alike. There is also special interest in Cleveland where Orr grew up, as well as the Boston area where The Cars signed their first record deal and launched their careers.

SSTP: You’ve already done quite a bit of campaigning for the book release, which is coming up fast. How has the feedback been from the media and music fans?

JM:  We have really gotten some great feedback from the fans who’ve discovered the book and in fact, some fans have been loyal to this project since I started it a decade ago. Our book mailing list has grown to nearly 1,000 fans, my Public Relations Coordinator, Donna Neale, and I have been promoting the book for months and the select media we have contacted so far has been positive. Pre-orders for the book is growing every week and the momentum is building towards the November release.

SSTP: In April, the Cars were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and you attended the event. If you had a free hand and no fund limits, how would you have liked to put together the Cars’ part of the inductee exhibit?

JM: The Cars’ exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was very cool, it was just presented in a very limited space. If I had it my way, there would have been an entire room dedicated to exhibiting “Cars artifacts” and I would have searched out and invited “Cars collectors” around the world to display their treasures for all to enjoy.

SSTP: While Ric Ocasek’s musical style always seems to have a flamboyant edge to it, Benjamin’s style, especially in his solo work, seems far more grounded in traditional rock’n’roll, both musically and lyrically. By this I mean that Ric’s lyrics are often very much open to interpretation, whereas the lyrics to the songs on Benjamin’s solo album, The Lace, seem more like personal vignettes in the vein of traditional storytelling. How do you think his having grown up in Cleveland may have influenced his musical development?

JM: Cleveland (obviously) has a rich rock-and-roll history and it surely influenced Benjamin during his formative years. One of his early bandmates said to me in an interview: “Benny was influenced by Elvis, the Beatles and the British Invasion, and he always loved to play rock-and-roll!”

As for the songs on The Lace being of a personal nature, even though some of the lyrics may pertain to personal feelings, it is not meant to be any kind of narrative of his life, if you will. The songs could be about anyone’s relationships and feelings, and actually can be open for one’s own interpretation.

SSTP: Are there any plans for an international release of the book?

JM: We are lucky to be backed by a major publisher in Rowman & Littlefield, who markets their book releases internationally. Additionally, Donna and I have been working hard to promote the book and have launched a website, a Facebook page (over 1,500 “likes”), and have assembled a growing “promotional team” of enthusiastic fans who are helping to promote the book globally by reaching out to their local medias on our behalf. We currently have promo team members in roughly 30 states, plus Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and England.

SSTP: And finally: If you had the chance to ask Benjamin one question, what would it be?

JM: I’m going to cheat and mention a few questions I would ask Benjamin. On a music level, I would ask him what his top five bands/artists are, what his favorite Cars’ song, and album is, and what was his favorite bass to play. On a personal level I would ask him what the significance is of a modest bracelet he wore for most of his life, and who really was the true love of his life.

Considering the madcap round of interviews Joe has been giving to promote the book release, I very much appreciate his taking the time to answer yet more questions. You can stay up to date on book news on the Let’s Go Facebook page. Scroll down to the official press release below to find even more details on the book, its author, and how to stay in touch!

book cover

Press Release:

Vermont Writer Milliken Has Book Deal to Publish Biography of The Cars’ Benjamin Orr
BELLOWS FALLS, VERMONT – Veteran music journalist Joe Milliken recently announced a publishing deal with the Lanham, Maryland-based publisher Rowman & Littlefield Publishers to produce his first book, a biography about the late Benjamin Orr. Orr was the co-founder, co-lead singer, and bassist for the platinum-selling rock band The Cars. Titled Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars, a release date is set for November 11, 2018.
Often considered the band’s heartthrob, Orr possessed an incredible voice, diverse musical talent and rare stage presence, all balanced by a magnetic, yet enigmatic personality, striking good looks, and a relentless determination to reach rock stardom. Born Benjamin Orzechowski (aka “Benny Eleven Letters”) and raised in the Cleveland suburb of Parma Heights, Orr was, prior to becoming a worldfamous rock star with The Cars, a “teen star” as a house band musician for the nationally syndicated television show Upbeat.

A few years later Ben met his musical partner and future Cars’ bandleader, Ric Ocasek, and by 1976 their quest for the perfect blend of songs, bandmates, and musical landscape finally materialized as The Cars. They would go on to sell over 30 million albums worldwide resulting in 15 “Top 40” hits.

From his early success in Cleveland through his stardom with The Cars, to his solo band efforts and eventual rebirth with the emerging supergroup Big People, this definitive account of Orr’s rock-and-roll life is not a backstage ‘tell all,’ but the story of a charismatic musician with a vision, a sense of adventure, and unwavering perseverance. Orr passed away much too young at 53, but he achieved his dream through hard work and determination, a long road that began in Cleveland and culminated with The Cars coming back to his hometown to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in April of 2018.

This first-ever biography about Orr spans 11 years in the making, as Milliken draws together interviews with over 120 family members, friends, bandmates, and music associates from Orr’s life, as well as many unpublished and never before seen photos from private collections, to reveal an intimate portrait of one of classic rock’s great talents.

About the Author: Joe Milliken has been a music journalist, editor and website publisher for two decades. A die-hard music fan with a degree in visual arts, Joe turned to writing as his creative outlet, first as a local reporter, then a sports/arts & entertainment editor and freelancer. In 2014, he launched Standing Room Only, a website dedicated to promoting music and the arts on a local (New England) and national level. Originally from Boston, Milliken now resides in southern Vermont with his wife, Kelly, and his children, Nate and Erin.

Learn more about upcoming book-related announcements, events, discounts and author interviews online at http://www.benorrbook.com and http://www.facebook.com/BenOrrBook, by email at benorrbook@gmail.com, or follow @benorrbook on Twitter. Let’s Go! is available for presale at http://www.benorrbook.com.

 

Review: “Victoria of England” by Edith Sitwell

Dame Edith Sitwell was an interesting character. Due to an extremely unhappy relationship with her parents, she lived with her governess for a long time, until that lady’s death of cancer in the late 1930s. She fell in love with a gay artist and never married. As a tall woman who liked to dress in unusual garb, she certainly stood out. Like her younger brothers, Dame Edith had literary leanings and began publishing poetry before the first World War. She also wrote books on poetry, as well as biographies. “Victoria of England” was first published in 1936.

This fact presents one of the major problems with this work: its wording is often somewhat archaic, which younger readers may find tedious. It is also somewhat repetitive: after all, we do not need reminding that Victoria disliked a certain politician or presented herself as a grieving widow after the early death of husband Albert in every single chapter following the event. If you can look beyond those faults, you’ll be delighted to discover a sprightly, slightly gossipy narrative about Victoria’s early life, her ascension to the English throne, and her adult years, occasionally peppered with personal notes from Dame Edith. Most chapters are augmented with quotes from letters to or from the Queen, excerpts from her diaries, and quotations from contemporary biographers. Unfortunately, we find the sovereign such a private person that her daily routine remains largely unexplained; we do, however, learn that she loved her family, never got over her beloved husband’s death, apparently managed to remain quite diplomatic when dealing with foreign powers, and strongly disapproved of women’s suffrage, somewhat ironic considering that she herself was a woman in charge of a nation and a Commonwealth.

Two chapters seem odd among the rest: Edith Sitwell spends a very thorough bit of time enlightening the reader on the plight of the British laborer of the Victorian age, which is certainly interesting, but entirely out of character from the rest of the biography in tone. The same goes for the odd, rambling listing of fashions of the time, inserted after the French Queen’s visit to London.

As an extra, the new edition of “Victoria of England” also includes 1933’s “The English Eccentrics,” which must have been a very short book indeed, considering it barely seems to take up room at the end of the biography.

“Victoria of England” is published by Agora Books. I received an ARC via Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are, as always, my own.

victoria

Review: “Simply Bento” by Yuko Yagi and Noriko Yura

It’s been more quiet than usual around here this week, and that has two reasons. For one, I’ve started my new job, which is cutting into both reading and writing time (as jobs tend to do). Secondly, I’m a bit under the weather at the moment. The queue doesn’t simply read itself, however, and there is already another little surprise for my readers in the making, so stuff needs to get done.

I thought “Simply Bento” would be a great title for review, since I’ve been looking for easy lunch options to take with me. Authors Noriko and Yuko also run the popular blog Japanese Cooking 101, which features a huge variety of recipes, many with videos. Their new cookbook begins reasonably with an explanation of what bento is and its history. It turns out that as a meal, bento has been enjoyed for far longer than I would have thought! The seven key points in “How to Make Bento” reemphasize the fact that you are taking a meal for the senses, something that should be prepared with a bit more care than a baloney sandwich wrapped in cellophane, while keeping in mind as well that raw meats or fish and dairy require certain food safety practices.

Next, you learn about essential utensils and accessories for bento, like choices for containers, then move on to find out which staples make regular appearances in Japanese cooking. Finally, as bento aims to provide a balanced meal, there are some notes on how to create exactly that. Now you’re ready to delve into the recipes!

Altogether, there are twelve recipe chapters that cover topics like Classic Japanese Bento, Noodle Bento, Low-Carb Bento, Bento for Special Occasions, Bento at Home, and even Side Dishes. There is even a separate section on Vegan Bento, although I don’t need a whole cookbook to tell me to pack a falafel lunch. On average, the sections feature seven recipes each, some a few more, some a few less. Every recipe is laid out the same way: after a brief recipe introduction, there is a box titled “How to Make this Bento” in which you find a main dish, plus suggested side dishes. The next line tells you the estimated prep time, cooking time, and number of servings for the main dish, immediately followed by the recipe for the main. For people frequently finding themselves in a time crush, there is a very helpful box titled “Plan Ahead” to make quick assembly a snap. This layout makes the book very easy to use. The recipes are accompanied by full-page color photos.

Overall, I think this is a great book for omnivores who are curious about Japanese food. There certainly is a great variety of different dishes in here. Personally, I find it disappointing and, frankly, a bit lazy to say that a lot of the dishes can be adjusted to fit a vegan diet without concrete tips on how to do so, and that is why I would not get this book for myself. The only cookbook I have come across so far that actually tries and succeeds quite well in providing both vegetarian and vegan variations of the vast majority of recipes included, is Kathryne Taylor’s “Love Real Food.” Still, I am at least motivated to check out Yuko and Noriko’s blog for ideas.

“Simply Bento” is published by Race Point Publishing. I received an advanced reader copy from the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own, unless otherwise stated.

simply bento