Saturday 25 March 2017

The Idea of You - Amanda Prowse

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a huge fan of Amanda Prowse so I was so excited when my review copy of her latest book The Idea of You arrived. I kept looking at it (well it's just so pretty isn't it?) but didn't want to read it too soon because then it would be over. If you love books as much as I do then you'll know exactly where I'm coming from when I say that, I soon gave in though and I can assure you that it's another stunning book from this hugely talented author.

Lucy Carpenter unexpectedly meets Jonah, the man of her dreams at a christening and after a whirlwind romance the couple are soon married and life is perfect. . . . .almost. The only thing missing in Lucy's life is a baby. While Jonah's teenage daughter, Camille, lives in France with her mum, Lucy yearns to have a child of her own. When she discovers she's pregnant the couple are overjoyed but it's a short-lived joy as a few short weeks later she miscarries leaving her devastated.

The couple manage to muddle through this devastating time but it's clear that Lucy is hiding her distress and sadly this is just the first of several unsuccessful  pregnancies. Each time the loss hits Lucy harder and the once blissfully happy marriage starts to show the strain which is only made worse by the arrival of Camille who has come to stay with them for the summer.

I have to admit that not being maternal myself, I did have a slight niggle in the back of my mind that I wouldn't enjoy this book as much as other novel's by Ms Prowse due to the subject matter but of course I needn't have worried. The Idea of You is a sensitively written and emotionally charged novel - everything that I have come to expect from Amanda and knowing that she has her own personal experience of this subject makes it even more moving. Hard to read in places, especially when you see some of the somewhat seemingly harsh and heartless medical terms for some of the procedures, but is difficult to put down.
Dealing with every aspect of motherhood as well as family, love, courage, loss and acceptance, this is a book that highlights a difficult to broach subject with real compassion and honesty. Amanda never fails to deliver a beautifully written story that grips the reader right from the outset and one that will resonate with many women. This is another brilliant book and one that I would highly recommend.

With kind thanks to author Amanda Prowse and publisher Lake Union Publishing for the review copy.

Saturday 18 March 2017

Midnight's Chicken - Tom Jeffery - Review and author Q & A

Every bookworms dream job would be to work in something bookish related right? So how great would it be to work in a bookshop? That's exactly where the story in Midnight's Chicken takes place, and what a story it is!

Russell Hobbes is the manager of Books-R-Us in Baytown and he has a profound love of the printed word, well, the good printed words. He often wonders how some books manage to get published at all and that leads him to thinking about his own, uncompleted manuscript, lovingly titled NOVEL.doc on his computer. He was hoping to have completed it before his idol, Internationally acclaimed author Abhinav Raksha comes to Books-R-Us but with everything else that's going on it doesn't look like it's going to happen.

Meanwhile Abhinav has his own problems to deal with, number one being that he's left his wife for a high maintenance nail technician called Madison closely followed by the fatwa that's been dealt to him for misspelling the name of the second prophet's daughter in his book The Devil's Poetry.

If all that's not enough, there's the little matter of the terrorist cell that are planning their own welcoming committee for Abhinav's arrival at Books-R-Us.

I loved reading Midnight's Chicken, it's a book that has a little bit of everything and three strands of a story that smoothly come together for a more than satisfying end. The characters are wonderful and Tom clearly has an eye for detail as the way each person is described, no matter how briefly they appear, conjured up an almost photographic image of them as I was reading. Russell desperately wants to impress people by writing his great South African novel, but he just can't find the time inbetween work and ferrying his tattoo-headed girlfriend Griselda around to her  poetry slams. Rafiq, Ali and Kwikspar Muhammad (not to be confused with Autozone Muhammad) are the very inexperienced members of their own terrorist cell and I have to mention the zebra print clad customer who is carrying her Maltese dog, Peekaboo, in her handbag, demanding the hardback version of a book as she wants to read the interviews and the inferior version they have on the shelf isn't acceptable. Talking of books I so want to get my hands on some of the ones mentioned. I'll give you a few examples; Chakra's: Real or hippy bollocks, or how about Fifty More Reasons To Be Glad You Don't Have A Penis (I was left wondering how many reasons there were in the first book!) Maybe I'll google Vagina Press when I've finished writing this and see if I can order a copy of that too, but the one that made me laugh the most was Donkey Hotey - you've heard of it haven't you? It's the one about a donkey who liked windmills. Yes THAT one!

This is a book that will make you laugh one minute and then have you thinking about some more serious and very relevant worldwide issues that sadly we hear about in the news on what seems like a daily basis. It's a fantastic and thoroughly enjoyable read and one that I would highly recommend to every bookworm!

                                                *    *    *    *

I'm absolutely thrilled to welcome author Tom Jeffery to The Hippo today for a chat about himself, bookish things and of course his fabulous book Midnight's Chicken!

Photo courtesy of Tom Jeffery

Hello Tom and welcome to my blog. It’s a pleasure to have you stop by today.

Firstly can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
My first job was at an Oceanarium, where I worked with dolphins and seals and rehabilitated injured and orphaned sea creatures. I loved that, but it could be a bit heartbreaking. I still love animals and nature, which comes out in my photography. Reading has always been my favourite thing to do. I have an MA in English Literature, and I was fortunate to get a job at the South African National English Literary Museum just after I completed that degree. I work there now as the Curator of Exhibitions, a job I love. We’re just busy finishing a massive exhibition on the history of South Africa as told through the country’s literature. I’m working on a PhD in museology, which I’m hoping to finish at the end of 2018. I’m always writing in one way  or another, either creative or academic. I am married with three lovely cats. Every author needs a cat. I love Formula 1. I have a plan for a novel set in the racing world, but it’s not number one in the queue to get written. One day I want to have a house by the sea, from where I shall travel the world. I am interested in everything except accounting and Fox News. I don't like fundamentalists of any sort, people who are mean to other people and animals, or anyone who shouts a lot. Which are often the same thing. My favourite number is 42, and I am drawn to things that are blue or green or that say ‘Nikon’ on the box.

How would you describe Midnight’s Chicken to entice someone to read it?
Midnight’s Chicken will make you laugh. It will also, if you let it, make you think. I think that everyone can relate in some way to the experiences of the characters in Midnight’s Chicken, particularly if you have worked in retail or if you have felt somehow trapped in your life. Midnight’s Chicken is funny and easy to read, and also has some insight into what it is to live in the world today. 

Can you describe how your book took shape and how long did it take you to write?
I had the idea for a novel set in a book shop drifting about in my head for a few years. When I actually started to write it, it went really quickly because I knew what I wanted it to be, but more importantly, I didn’t agonise over it too much during the writing process. I just let it come out. It took probably about four months to get the first draft down, and then I spent the next six or seven months reading it and rewriting it. All told I would say it took about a year and a half to get to a point where I felt that it was ready to go into the world, which I feel is quite fast. I was helped a lot by a good friend of mine, Jayne, who is an editor at a publishing house in the UK and was kind enough to read Midnight’s Chicken and give me a lot of good advice. Sadly, she works for an academic house, so no go for a publishing deal there. Though of course, we live in a world in which self-publishing is a respected discipline which, if you put in the time and effort, can earn you a decent living. Apparently. I’m just setting out on that road.  Wish me luck.

I love the cover, despite having a fear of clowns, and it perfectly depicts an event later in the book. Did you design it yourself?
My mum did it. She writes children’s books, and she is an artist and illustrator. Her work is absolutely beautiful. I wonder what it is about clowns that is so scary? Personally, I blame Stephen King.

There’s lots of laugh out loud moments and fantastic characters, but there’s also some serious issues raised. How easy was it to integrate these into Midnight’s Chicken whilst still keeping the story humorous?
I’m really glad you asked that. I wanted Midnight’s Chicken to be funny, but it’s impossible to live in a country like South Africa, and a world like ours, without the issues we face shaping your writing in some way, without the experiences we daily have coming into the stories we tell. It wasn’t hard to integrate the more serious issues, because they are right there, all the time. It would have been harder to write characters who didn’t experience them and it would have been, I think, rather meaningless. Religious fundamentalism is not as visible in South Africa as elsewhere in the world, further north in Africa for instance, but fundamentalism comes in many forms and it certainly shapes the way South Africans live. I enjoyed creating my religiously fundamentalist characters and telling their story. Fundamentalism of any sort is such an inherently ridiculous position, so obviously flawed, that it lends itself to satire. Though of course fundamentalism is also a form of oppression, of tyranny, and there is the frightening side of it, people killing others who don’t share or who somehow threaten their narrow beliefs, which I hope I have captured. I don’t take tyranny lightly, but I didn’t want to come across as too earnest. I don’t like preaching. I think that planting an idea is more effective than telling people what they should be thinking, and making them laugh while you do it helps.
I also feel that the division that exists between so-called literary fiction and ‘genre’ fiction is in many ways artificial. There is no reason that writing can’t be simultaneously meaningful and entertaining, or funny on the surface with serious issues lurking beneath. What you get from a book depends on how you approach it, and if you dismiss ‘genre’ writing as inherently less worthy, then you won’t see the depths that it may possess. Surely ‘literary’ writing implies nothing more than the skilled use of words, and that can be found in any genre. There is an intellectual arrogance in the division that I find to be shallow and which lacks any sense of irony – which is a part of Russell’s character in Midnight’s Chicken. Irony is so important for a healthy world view. Fundamentalists have no sense of irony. This is what I believe to be wrong with them.

If you were a character in your book who would you be and why?
It has to be Russell. Some of the things he thinks and does come straight from me. Not all of them, mind. I’m not as messed up as he is, hopefully. I suppose his experience of life in South Africa is the closest to my own.

You work full time, you write and you take amazing photographs, how do you find the time to fit it all in? If you could only do one full time which one would it be and what would your reasons be?
Thank you for saying my photos are amazing, that means a lot to me. I get up early. I try and structure my time as much as possible. Get up, work, come home, write, take photographs whenever I see something I want to photograph. That said, structuring time is good, but it’s also important not to be too strictly regimented. If I planned to write this evening, say, but I have a good idea for an exhibition I’m working on, then I’ll do that instead. Sometimes I have a great writing idea when I’m at work, so I do that. I try and make as much of my time productive as possible. It’s not easy though, some days you’re just not up to it and that‘s when I come home from work, we make supper and veg on the couch with a bottle of wine and the TV. You have to let yourself chill sometimes, otherwise your brain will melt and be no use to you. I’ve heard of some superhuman people who never stop, but that’s not me. I like to stop sometimes.
If I had to do one thing only it would definitely be writing. That is what I love the most. Ideas. I think that if there is one thing I do that is most likely to have an impact on the world, it is my writing. Isn’t that what we all want, to have an impact on the world?

Photo © Tom Jeffery

Are you currently writing anything new that you can tell us about?
Yes. I am busy with a series of three novels, called The Eden Deception, which are in an advanced draft. They are dark adventure stories, set in our world but with gods and monsters and the fantastic. In the first book of the series, Revelation, the central characters discover the other world and their lives are transformed by it. The next two books follow them on a journey towards the ultimate truths of human existence. The story is inspired by mythology, San/Bushman myth for Revelation and Biblical mythology for the two sequels. The series tag line is: ‘There is a god, but it does not love us’. So not comedy, but hopefully just as enjoyable.
I also have a plan for a novel with an environmental theme, but as I said, I don’t like to be too earnest. Like Midnight’s Chicken, this one will be influenced by some of the serious and urgent issues we face as a species, in this case climate change and human overpopulation, but it will also be funny. I hope. This one is next on the ‘To Write’ list, after The Eden Deception books, and I’m really looking forward to it.

In the ‘About Tom Jeffery’ section at the end of your book you refer to your time spent working in a bookshop and you say that we wouldn’t believe some of the stuff that customers pulled off. Is there any one particular incident that sticks in your mind that you could share with us?
Well, it might not be very funny in itself, but the one that really sticks in my mind is the woman I found between two shelves scanning books with a portable scanner. It was just so balls-out brazen. She was quite grumpy when I asked her to stop, too. Actually, it is quite a weird thing to do, isn’t it? A lot of the customer incidents in Midnight’s Chicken are based on real events, by the way.

Who are your favourite authors and which book do you wish you’d written and why?
The two authors for whose work I have the deepest feeling are Clive Barker and Douglas Adams. Clive Barker introduced me to the dark fantastic, as he calls it, which is the genre to which I would say my Eden Deception books belong. I love his novels Weaveworld, Imajica and The Damnation Game, reading those was a formative experience for me. For writing which is both hilarious and deep, Douglas Adams is in a class of his own. Marvin the Paranoid Android is one of the best characters ever written. Some say that beer is proof that there is a god and that he/she/it loves us, but the corollary of that argument is surely to be found in the fact that a man like Douglas Adams died so young and yet that orange muppet Trump continues to befoul the planet.
More recently, I was totally captivated by The Martian by Andy Weir, and also World War Z by Max Brooks. World War Z is actually a perfect example of ‘genre’ fiction with a profound literary element and real insight into contemporary issues.
I have to mention The Lord of the Rings. I will always return to that book.

On your website there’s a sample of ‘Skrik’ (a South African word for a sudden fright or panic) which was an experimental collaborative story that started life on your Facebook page. How did that come about and would you start another one?
I was looking for ways to get people involved in my Facebook page, and starting a story on there seemed like a good way to get people to interact. It turned out to be too cumbersome to work in the comments field so I moved it off Facebook quite soon after it started. It worked out that only me and two friends really got into it so we ended up writing it together. I’d write a bit, email it to MornĂ© and Jonathan, they’d add a bit and mail it back, like that. I edited the final draft, MornĂ©, who’s a graphic designer, did the cover art,  and there it was. The whole story is available on my site, by the way. It was a lot of fun, and I’d definitely do it again. It’s interesting how the people you write with interpret your ideas in ways you would never have imagined. I suppose the process of writing collaboratively is so interesting because the people involved are simultaneously writers and readers of the story, creators and consumers, so the two perspectives meet and give you a new way of thinking about what you’re producing.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to the readers?
Please read Midnight’s Chicken. Is that too obvious? If you want to write, don’t overthink it, just start. Write something, anything, and it will take shape. That’s some simple advice that really helped me, so I hope it will help somebody else.

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions Tom.
No worries. Thanks for the interview.

 If you'd like to find out more about Tom, his book and his photography you can use the links below:

Amazon US

I'd like to thank Tom for the review copy, for taking the time to answer my questions and finally to say sterkte with Midnight's Chicken!

Saturday 11 March 2017

The Hippo Hands Over to - Christina Hoag

Today I'm delighted to be handing over to Christina Hoag, author of Skin of Tattoos and Girl on the Brink (Fire and Ice 2016). Christina's journey into publishing was a tough one but I'll let her tell you in her own words. Firstly here's a little bit about the lady herself.

Photo courtesy of Christina Hoag

Christina Hoag is a former journalist for the Miami Herald and Associated Press who’s been threatened by a murderer, had her laptop searched by Colombian guerrillas and phone tapped in Venezuela, hidden under a car to evade Guatemalan soldiers, posed as a nun to get inside a Caracas jail, interviewed gang members, bank robbers, thieves and thugs in prisons, shantytowns and slums, not to forget billionaires and presidents, some of whom fall into the previous categories. Kirkus Reviews praised Christina as a “talented writer” with a “well crafted debut” in Skin of Tattoos (Martin Brown Publishing, 2016), a gangland thriller. Her YA thriller Girl on the Brink (Fire and Ice, 2016) was named to Suspense Magazine’s Best of 2016 YA list. She also writes nonfiction, co-authoring Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence (Turner Publishing, 2014), a groundbreaking book on violence intervention used in several universities. Christina makes her home in California and lives on the web at

                     My Long, Winding and Rocky Path to Publication 

I was incredibly excited when I landed my first offer of representation from a literary agent for what was then my novel “Skin of Tattoos,” a YA coming-of-age thriller set in the gang underworld of Los Angeles I’d sent out about 90 queries, had received a few requests for pages but no bites and I was starting to despair.
Then I got the call. During our conversation, the agent said, “I don’t really like agenting. I’m just, sort of, doing this.” It struck me as odd, but I couldn’t turn her down. What if I didn’t get another offer?
 I signed and we met. During the conversation, she told me that a publisher had agreed to take one of her books but had never followed through with the contract. Again, it didn’t paint her in the best light, but I figured that could happen to any agent.
          Several months later, my book had been rejected by about 10 houses, and she stopped submitting. Then I got an email – she had submitted to one more publisher. Relief. Then I waited. Was she submitting it to more? Was this really it? Wasn’t she supposed to keep submitting? Or maybe this agent didn’t have a very deep “bench” of editors? I recalled her previous comments. She didn’t like being an agent and she couldn’t close a deal. It was dawning on me that I hadn’t made a good choice.
Nevertheless, I tried to make the best of it and soldiered on. I told her about my second novel, “Girl on the Brink,” a YA about a teen romance that turned abusive that was inspired by true events. She seemed excited, and I pounded out a draft in several months and submitted it, hoping for a meaningful critique that would help me develop it further, a la Maxwell Perkins. That’s what agents do, right?
          Nope. She was scornful about my manuscript, but couldn’t articulate what was wrong, instead telling me to read “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” which I’d heard of but never read. I looked it up. It was published in 1964.
She made it clear she didn’t want to read revisions--“It’s not good for us to read the manuscript multiple times.” Huh? Instead, she recommended a “book doctor” so I called the person. By now, my eyes were far less starry and I asked discerning questions. The “doc” had no publishing background. She’d been a screenwriters’ agent and her YA credential consisted of having a 15-year-old daughter. For $500, she’d read my manuscript and give me a critique over the phone. She repeatedly stressed the phone part. Talking, of course, is much easier than spending time writing a detailed critique, and it’s far more convenient than meeting in person.
Luckily, I wasn’t convinced. I got off the phone and immediately felt the crushing disappointment of realization that I had simply signed with a lousy agent. I had fallen in the trap warned about on so many book blogs, advice sites for new writers, etc. My depression lasted a week, then I realized something else.
What I did have were two detailed critiques from top editors at major New York publishing houses. I studied what they said, pulled “Skin of Tattoos” apart and rewrote extensively. I made it an adult book by upping the age of the protagonist, which turned it into a full-fledged thriller, and chopped it into two books. It worked far better.
By the time my contract expired six months later, during which time I never heard again from the agent (She never even responded when I sent her a polite email thanking her but stating I wouldn’t be renewing the contract.), I had a new manuscript.
I started seeking an agent once again. This time I honed my search carefully and eventually landed an agent whose name I had plucked out of the acknowledgements section of two crime books published by major houses. This agent really was a professional. She loved the book and promised to keep sending it out until we got a deal.
 While this novel was on submission, I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote the “Girl on the Brink,” working on the voice and inserting more suspense elements, turning it into a romantic thriller with a social message. My agent didn’t want it (in fact, she was cross that I had written a YA: “You’re all over the place. That’s not how you build your brand.”) so I submitted it to publishers on my own and eventually got a deal.
To my great disillusion, however, “Skin of Tattoos,” didn’t sell after about 40 submissions despite garnering some real praise from top houses. I realized a hidden truth about publishing – the quality of the writing didn’t necessarily matter, nor even the story, as much as whether it was deemed commercial and fit neatly into a genre.
Eventually, I started researching publishers on my own and sent lists to the agent, who sent it out to those she deemed worthwhile. She took longer and longer to respond. After two years, the agent told me she could do no more.
I went back to the manuscript yet again, cutting about 12,000 words, deleting stuff that both agents had told me to include but really didn’t fit the story, again paying attention to the few worthwhile things rejecting editors had said, and mostly to my own gut.
Five months later I had a contract with a small publisher and I wondered if I had done the right thing. Should I have just shelved the manuscript? Waited until I landed a major publisher and developed an audience and then dusted it off?
I’m so glad I didn’t. Both “Skin of Tattoos” and “Girl on the Brink” were published in August and have received excellent reviews from Kirkus Reviews, as well as from readers. “Girl on the Brink,” in fact, was named to Suspense Magazine’s Best of 2016 YA list. It had been an unbelievably long journey but I am thrilled I never gave up. There are far more routes to being published than the traditional one. The key is to believe in yourself and your story.

If you'd like to find out more about Christina or connect with her you can use the links below:

Her books are available in eBook and paperback from leading retailers including

Skin of Tattoos: Amazon UK    Amazon US

Girl on the Brink: Amazon UK    Amazon US

I'd like to thank Christina for her guest post and for taking the time to stop by today.
I'm planning on adding both of these to my ever growing TBR and if you've read either of Christina's books then I'd love to hear your thoughts.