Quills and Pencils

First, let me wish you a happy 2018! It should prove an interesting year. I am working on book 3 and 4 of the Dunnhill series, and hopefully they will both be ready before the year is through.

I love writing. Modern technology, and specifically the DELETE-key are good friends of mine. My writing process involves a lot of delete-rewrite-delete-rewrite. Can you imagine writing four hundred years ago—without that DELETE-key? So, no complaining here, we have it easy.

I assume Shakespeare used a quill. Quills were often made from the wing feathers of a big bird, like a goose. I suppose you didn’t have to wrestle one for it, but still. Then you had to prepare the quill, after which you could write with it after dipping it in ink. The metal dip pen, which replaced the quill, made an entrance in the nineteenth century. It didn’t require sharpening, or chasing a goose, but you still had to dip.

So, which ink would you use? The most popular one was something called “iron gall ink”, which, to me, sounds quite unappealing, since it reminds me of a gall bladder.  It actually has nothing to do with that. The oak gall, or oak apple, is an 1-2 inch “apple” on an oak leaf that arises from the secretions of the tree reacting to the gall wasp larva, after the wasp lays an egg in the leaf bud. Apparently, the gall contains tannic acid, which you can extract by crushing and soaking the dried galls. After you strain the extract, you add some ferrous sulfate and voilá, you have ink. Quite honestly, I am still baffled someone thought this one up—making ink from oak galls?

Roald Dahl, whose books I am extremely fond of, wrote (and rewrote) many of them with a pencil. I can feel my hand cramping up just at the thought of it.

Speaking of pencils, for the past two years I had to buy pencil lead for my son’s school supplies, which always left me a little confused as to why it’s called “lead.” It never made sense to me, since it’s obviously made out of graphite.

Perhaps I’m a bit of a nerd, but I like to know where words come from. Apparently, after discovering a large graphite deposit in England around 1500 AD, people first thought it was a form of lead. They noticed the lead, or “black lead” as they called it, was excellent material to write with. The wooden holder was invented, because graphite is rather soft and brittle. The name “graphite” wasn’t given until 1879, and comes from the Greek “graphein” — to write.

The pencil, if you are dying to know, comes from the Latin word “penis” (which means tail) or more precisely, the diminutive “peniculus,” which referred to the artist’s fine brush of camel hair. I don’t think I will ever look at a pencil the same way. Or a tail for that matter.

Obviously, being a writer in current times is great. I think I will return to my laptop and delete-rewrite some more words…

Keep checking in for more upcoming book news, or follow me on Facebook!

Author Interview – Sarah Stovell

This month I interviewed Sarah Stovell, the author of Exquisite, a psychological thriller. Exquisite was a great read. It was not too long, not too short, and had just the right amount of suspense. I can’t say too much about it—it would ruin the fun. The story is about two women; one is an aspiring writer, the other a happily married, well-known author.  The book alternates between the two women, as they describe their life and their deepening relationship. But, as you’ll find out, something is clearly not right… 

Welcome Sarah. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I am about to get a puppy because I am that stereotype of a woman whose children are now at school and I clearly have a compulsion to keep on cleaning up shit. That’s all you need to know.

What made you go into writing?

I didn’t much fancy any of the other jobs.

Exquisite is a psychological thriller. Your other books aren’t. What made you change genre?

Money.

Where do you get your inspiration for your stories?

I’m not a fan of the word ‘inspiration’. I don’t think I’ve ever really felt inspired as such. I get ideas when I’m out walking. I try and walk at least four miles day, and that’s when I get small ideas that slowly, after a lot of thought, develop into bigger ideas.

Is there a genre you prefer, as a writer? As a reader?

As a reader, my tastes are fairly eclectic but veer towards women’s literary fiction. As a writer, I like to produce a page-turner.

Your descriptions of the Lake District in Exquisite are beautiful. Locations of your previous books The Night Flower and Heartwood include Tasmania and America. Did you do anything special for your research on all these places?

I set ‘Exquisite’ in the Lake District because it is a place I love. I really, really love it. I could wax lyrical about the Lake District for literally a million hours. I plan to live there one day with a Border Collie and he and I will tramp the fells for ten hours a day. I can’t wait… Anyway, what was the question? The other books … Well, I just read about the places and imagined them. I actually don’t think that is the best way to do setting. It makes a massive difference when you are psychologically connected to a place, as I am to the Lake District.

Your books seem to revolve primarily around women (who are often damaged in some way), and female-female relationships, like the mother-daughter bond, friendship or even obsession. What is the appeal for you about these female characters and their interaction with other women?

Yes, I am very drawn to female relationships. Partly, this is because I am a woman, but also because the most significant (by which I mean complicated, not necessarily fulfilling) relationships in my life have been with women. I am interested in the deep bonds of friendship that women often forge. I also interested in mother-daughter relationships, which can be the most fraught relationships around but can also, if you get it right as a mother, be incredible (so far, I have a great relationship with my daughter, but she is only eight, so there’s a long way to go). I am also interested in romantic relationships between women, how loving and nurturing they can be, but also how terrible. I wanted to look at female violence, which is often psychological in action, but no less wounding for that.

Are you working on a new book? (And if so, can you tell us about it?)

I am almost finished! It is about an eighteen-year-old woman named Annie, who is impoverished and desperate and who goes to work as a nanny for a very wealthy family because her mother has gone missing and Annie has been evicted for not paying the rent. While there, something happens to a child in her care…

 

I am looking forward to reading it. Thanks so much, Sarah!

Giveaway Alert! A chance to win both my books!

Help me out, and you will have more to read!

This Giveaway is hosted by TravelByBook. Click the link, and you could win a copy of The Baby on the Back Porch and The Charm of Lost Chances (ebook only). All you have to do is come up with a name for a character in my next book…easy enough right?

Go check it out!

(Unfortunately, you can’t leave names in a comment here, since it it hosted through Travel by Book.)

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Changing The World—A Book at a Time

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird

Recently, it was Banned Books Week. Books get banned for many reasons: religious concerns, too much sex, the wrong kind of sex, too much violence, or just the language the writer uses.

As a parent, I don’t let my children read every book that is out there for them. They are still young, so I can control what they read—for now. Some books may be age appropriate, but just not “my child appropriate.” If I deem a story too scary, or think they may not fully grasp the content, I will put it aside for another time. Obviously, this is not the same as “banning,” where I would make the decision for my child that a certain book is not appropriate, ever.

I believe that fictional stories will help children to better understand the world we live in. Our (global) society, has a broad variety of people, with many differences in backgrounds, lifestyles, and convictions. But without exposure, how are we to understand one another and find common ground?

Books can do so much more than just take the reader along to faraway place, a beautiful romance or heartbreaking tale. Books can increase knowledge, stimulate the imagination, and transport the reader into another person’s mind. Reading can force us to walk in the protagonist’s—or for that matter, the antagonist’s—shoes, albeit for a limited time. This can make us love the book, or resent it, but whatever the outcome, it will hopefully stimulate some understanding or empathy, and perhaps help us form more nuanced opinions. A book can unveil and challenge our prejudices, and make us reconsider them.

Obviously, books can have the opposite message as well, like one of hatred, or intolerance. History has shown us the power of propaganda. Nevertheless, I believe reading stimulates the ability of critical thinking—that is, if we dare to reach outside our own bubble.

As a writer, I must confess I write mostly to entertain. That by itself is hard enough, without having to aspire to more lofty goals. But the notion that books can change the world is a powerful one.

Writing can be difficult—even frustrating— demanding a lot of effort, and sometimes offering little in return. But, despite all this, keep on writing. Your story can do so much more than you realize. It can break down barriers.

The Women in the Castle

Books I enjoyed

I have wanted to read The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck for a while now, and I finally got to it. I had high expectations. It did not disappoint.

51VVuJSj7TL._SY346_-2The book is set in the world war II era, as well as the post-war years; a familiar theme. However, what sets this story apart is that it revolves around three women, three German women—each experiencing the war differently—but all scrambling for survival afterwards. As fate binds them together, they take care of one another and their children, trying to find a better life.

The three women are nothing alike; Marianne is independent and strong, Betina beautiful yet vulnerable, and Ania tough and pragmatic—but every one of them brings something unique to the symbiotic relationship. Along with their strengths, they each have their weaknesses and faults, which makes them above all, very human. None of these three women are exceptionally bad or cruel—regardless of some of the bad choices they make. In many ways, they are like any of us, just born in a different time and place.

This book tells a very nuanced story, from the viewpoint of these three women, without making any excuses for their behavior or past actions. I couldn’t help but feeling sympathy for each woman as their memories took me on a journey of their past. Through the characters, the book explores some of the reasoning behind the world war horrors, and the blindness of the German people, or their willingness not to see.

It is a story of loss, guilt and shame, but also of love, hope, friendship and forgiveness. It is incredibly hard, in my opinion, to write a story like this, and write it well. But Jessica Shattuck did just that, and more. She did it exceptionally well.

Let me leave you with a quote from the book and some thoughts:

For so long Marianne and Albrecht and many of their friends had known Hitler was a lunatic, a leader whose lowbrow appeal to people’s most selfish, self-pitying emotions and ignorance was an embarrassment to the country. They had watched him make a masterwork of scapegoating Jews for Germany’s fall from power and persuade his followers that enlightenment, humanity and tolerance were weaknesses—“Jewish” ideas that led to defeat.”

If only we, as humans, would learn from our past mistakes. I’ve always believed that, back then, Germany was a country like any other—with its usual share of monsters and power-hungry enablers, and a lot of people willing to blindly follow a dangerous leader to the point of no return. Many atrocities were committed by average people, who didn’t enjoy them, but were already carrying too much guilt to turn back. This is why we need books like this. To stay vigilant. To remember that, in the end, any of us could be one of these three women.

Author Interview – Melissa Burovac

Meet Melissa Burovac, a writer living in Hawaii. She has published two books so far, and I read her second book, Sylvie Writes a Romance, which I took with me on vacation. There were many things I liked about this book. It’s light—nothing too heavy—I read it on the beach, and it left me with a smile on my face. The lead character, Sylvie, is funny and brave: a woman in her forties who’s trying out the online dating scene, which leads to all sorts of awkward moments. But…she is resourceful and not afraid of discovering new things. Be careful though, it really made me want to go to Hawaii (without the dating though).

Aloha Melissa! Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I am a writer and photographer on Kauai, Hawaii. An avid outdoors woman, I enjoy outrigger paddling—both one-man and six-man—SUP, running, surfing, sailing, and scuba diving, as well as yoga. I’m always up for adventure and loves doing things that scare me a little. My days are divided into two sections – mornings are in the ocean looking for wildlife to photograph, usually by swimming out with my Nikon and watching for animals to swim by; the afternoons are spent writing short stories or working on the two novels I have in progress. My entire life was interrupted in July when I adopted a rescue puppy, Lucy, who is far too cute to ignore when she wants to play; I am training her to be an ocean dog and my photo assistant, and eventually she’ll be independent enough to allow me to get more work done.

Why did you start writing a novel/how did you get your inspiration to write?

I began blogging when I did a round the world solo trip, mostly to reassure my mother that I didn’t die in some horrific accident somewhere in the world. I got great feedback from my blog, mostly from women who couldn’t believe I spent nearly a year on my own, and several mentioned I should write a book. From childhood I’d written short stories and had dreams of writing books but just never got around to it, so I decided I’d give it a real try; I had much of the material written in my blog, with all the detail of my day-to-day travel written daily on the road, so I spent the time to make it a coherent story and self-published my first book – Wandering – published in 2014. I was so pleased at writing a book and started a second shortly after – Sylvie Writes a Romance – a romcom published in 2016.

What is the hardest thing about the writing process for you?

The hardest part of my writing process is sitting down to get it done. I dream of stories all the time, but allow my life to get in the way too much. Scheduling writing time is essential for me.

Your first book is about your travels. Where did you go? Can you tell us a little bit about the book?

 My first book, Wandering, is the day-to-day account of my life on a solo RTW trip. I detail everything, from the adventures to the mundane to the anxiety of travel and meeting new people. I am not a great traveler, being directionally challenged and full of social anxiety, but waiting for a partner to travel with me was not working and I wanted to see more of the world. Some parts of the book are exciting with crazy excursions I took while other parts show the loneliness of spending so much time solo. I travelled to Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Cuba, Australia and Tasmania, Cambodia, and Thailand. I made many new friends, found some old friends, went scuba diving in all but Cambodia, and drank a little too much trying to escape my fears.

Your second book is a romcom. This is very different from the first. Is it in any way auto-biographic? Why did you change genres?

 I wrote a romcom, Sylvie Writes a Romance, because of an idea I had while reading an article about female romance writers. I wanted to be a full-time writer, but my first book wasn’t selling enough to quit my day job (and I hadn’t started a photography company yet). The article was about a few writers who made several thousand dollars each month from mass market romance novels, and I thought I would give that a try, make some money, then go back to writing books more my style (and I have yet to figure out exactly what my style is…). After a few tries at writing a romance I gave up, they were awful. And the idea of writing about a writer trying to write a romance novel was born. The book is autobiographical in that it is about a writer, but her methods of going about her writing – using online dating to learn about romance – is fiction.

Are you working on a third?

 I have two additional books in various stages of progress. One is a sequel to Sylvie Writes a Romance, and the bulk of it was written during NaNoWriMo 2016; I had just ended a relationship and wasn’t in a great mental space, and used the writing challenge to take my mind off my sorrows. The result was a full-length novel which was just a little too depressing – I write a lot of comedy – and I’m currently trying to untangle the story from my emotions at the time. The second book is a biography of a smuggler on Kauai. I have been conducting interviews with him for nearly a year, but progress is slow both because I have never written a biography and have spent a lot of time reading, and also because he is so fun we end up drinking a little too much on his boat during our “talk story” time.

What has made the deepest impression on you while traveling?

My deepest impression from traveling is the kindness of people all over the world. If we all simply stayed at home and read news stories we might think evil things about every other culture – but the fact is most people are well-meaning, helpful, and just as wonderful as our friends; plus they have so much to teach us about their histories and ways of life. In my nine months of travel I met very few individuals who had bad intentions, and none of them as violent as my mother imagined. I truly enjoyed the people I met in every country.

Thank you Melissa!

 
You can reach Melissa on her website, Facebook and Twitter.  Her books Wandering and Sylvie Writes a Romance are available on Amazon. You can also check out her photography company.

Our Basque Experience (with kids)

I have a great passion for traveling. Nothing is as fun and exciting as discovering new places, food, people and, yes, stories. Every place has its own stories, some from the past, some from current events, and some from imagination. I love going places, seeing places, and reading or hearing about them.

A while ago, I visited Basque Country, in Northern Spain (and Southern France). With vistas that are beyond stunningly beautiful, friendly people, wonderful food, it was a fantastic experience, both for us and the kids. And the stories, ah, the stories, were plentiful!

Basque Country has a turbulent history, and I do not presume to know the place well, or to fully understand its struggles or know its people. The Basques have their own language and culture, despite being part of Spain (and France). And in case you forgot while being there, the Basque flag is visible in so many places it will quickly remind you that first and foremost, you are in their territory.

Basque Country has so many things to offer—too many for this blog post.  The Camino de Santiago, of course, is famous, and something that is still high on my list of things to do. But for now, my children are too young, so we had to find different entertainment. A beach is always a great place to start. And Basque Country has plenty.

Its northern Atlantic coastline is breathtaking, with sandy beaches, steep rocky cliffs, lush vegetation and scattered old villages and towns waiting to be discovered. One of my favorite trips was to the chapel of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, and old chapel on a small peninsula connected to the mainland by a walkway with ~240 steps. The site goes back many centuries, but the chapel has been demolished few times. According to tradition,  when you get to the chapel and ring the bell three times, you can make a wish and it will ward off evil spirits. Let’s face it, we can all use some of that while traveling.

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Fun fact on the walkway: if you are a Game of Thrones fan, you may recognize the walkway to Dragonstone, where Daenerys Targaryen walked up to the mighty castle. Even though there is no castle, and no dragons either, the walkway is very real!

While exploring some of the villages in the rolling foothills of the Pyrenees, we came across Zugarramurdi, a pretty village tucked in between the hills, where time appears to slow down to a snail’s pace as you wander through the streets. It’s very peaceful now, but has a tragic history. The village was the site of the ruthless persecution of witches, during the time of the Inquisition. There is a small museum dedicated to the women who were taken away, some of them never returning. My kids thought the museum was a little scary, but they did like the witch cave, which is also near the village—presumably the site where the women came together to do whatever it is that witches do. There was a short but appealing hike to the cave itself (many steps, wet slippery rocks and a bridge over a stream), with the cave having plenty of opportunity for them to explore and let their imagination run wild.

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Zugarramurdi

More inland we visited the charming town of Oñati, which means “place with many hills.” The city sports many frog images as logos, and one of the stories in our guide book explaining this referred back to a count from long-ago, who apparently had a black and white checkered tile floor in the entrance of his estate. Annoyed at the villagers, who were muddying up his white tiles when visiting his castle, he ordered them to only stand on the black tiles. Thus, the villagers hopped from black tile to black tile, after which he mocked them and called them frogs. Even so, the town has adopted the frog with pride.

Oñati also has an ancient, extensive and beautiful cave system (the Arrikrutz caves), albeit a very chilly one. An English-speaking guide took us on a tour deep down in the earth, escaping the sweltering heat outside. The caves with all its stalagmites and stalactites, as well as the prehistoric finds, were telling their own fascinating story. Nothing makes a vacation as precious like a good reminder of your own short life-span.

For me, when I travel, it’s the stories that make a place come alive, give it that little extra, and paint my memories more vividly. When I think back of Basque Country, I think of all these places, and many more. But mostly, I think of sitting at the sea-side with my family, eating an unidentified fish-dish with a name I can’t pronounce, drinking a bottle of txacoli, and telling stories to my children. And I hope they will remember.

The Invention of Wings

Books I enjoyed:

Growing up on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, my history knowledge of the American (pre)Civil War era was fairly limited. Most of my information probably came from watching North and South episodes on television. Yeah…I know. I had and still have quite some catching up to do.

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The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is set in the first half of the nineteenth century, and tells the story of the Grimké sisters, but mostly that of Sarah Grimké. Born in the South and despite being raised in a slave-holding family, Sarah grows up abhorring slavery and believing things should be different. As the book describes her life and her slow but steady progress towards not just standing up for herself, but also for abolition and women’s rights in general, I can’t help but admire her for her enlightenment, her courage, and her will to do what is right, despite the restrictions the era—and society—placed upon her.

I had never heard of the Grimké sisters, so I was surprised to find out these ladies really existed, and yet are so little heard of. Therefore, I am grateful to Sue Monk Kidd, for writing this book. If nothing else, these women deserve some attention. In fact, Sarah and Angelina Grimké were one of the first American female advocates for abolition and women’s rights. They were both famous as well as infamous for their viewpoints.

Sue Monk Kidd has, for the most part, tried to be truthful to the life and voice of Sarah Grimké, through examining letters, diaries and so forth. The part of the book that is fiction is the voice of Handful, a slave girl that is given to Sarah on her eleventh birthday. Switching back and forth between the two girls, and later, women, the contrasts are stark; one is in a position of privilege, the other of captivity, submitted to the cruelty and whims of her oppressors. In my opinion, even though the story of Sarah is fascinating, it is the voice of Handful that carries the book to a whole new level.

Both girls endure confinement, albeit in different ways; Handful is owned—her lack of freedom is absolute—for Sarah there are the restrictions of her gender. As Handful points out to Sarah: “My body might be a slave, but my mind is not. For you it’s the other way around.” However, once Sarah manages to break free, she is able to continue along this journey, chipping away at the barriers holding her back, whereas for Handful, the road to any sort of freedom is permanently closed off. Yet, despite her circumstances, Handful’s spirit remains unbroken.

This book reminded me of a quote attributed to Goethe: ‘There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings’. How true.

After reading the book I was left with a variety of emotions, but mostly, hope. Even in our darkest times in which we display our most terrible behavior, there are still people willing to do the right thing—people who have a vision of how things could be, if only…

That’s something to hold onto.

Author Interview – Amy Vansant

Get ready for Amy Vansant, who I got to know after reading Pineapple Lies, the first book in The Pineapple Port Series. In Pineapple Lies, Charlotte, a young woman living in a retirement community in Florida, discovers a—eek!— body hidden in her back yard. But…Who is the deceased? And who in the community is the killer? A fun read all over, despite the dead body. The dialogues are strong, fast and often hilarious. I could easily picture the ‘older’ people in the retirement community, especially Mariska and Darla, each with their own quirks. If you are looking for an entertaining book this summer that will put a smile on your face, this is it.

Welcome Amy. Can you tell us a little about yourself. (And why does your website describe you as a “delusionist?”)

My writing bio wanders a bit…

  1. I was a freelance writer in high school and college. Also quietly worked on novels that were really terrible.
  2. I sent an article to Surfer about colleges near waves and they bought it.
  3. A week later their east coast editor quit and I think I was the only east coast writer they knew. They asked if I wanted to be east coast editor and I just about fell over with happiness.
  4. I did that along with freelancing for five years or so, and then I started to do graphic design for some extra money.
  5. I sent a novel to a publisher who loved the first three chapters and asked for the rest. I hadn’t written it. So I rushed through it and lost my opportunity.
  6. Started doing web design (again to support my writing “career”, started a company, and then quit writing for about thirteen years like an idiot.
  7. Then in 2010 I had literally had a dream that would turn into my novel Angeli.
  8. I started blogging to get used to writing again and all of a sudden I remembered I was supposed to be writing.
  9. For the blog I went back to humor, which is what I’d always liked to write best. After Angeli was finally done, I decided it was time to do straight humor and wrote Slightly Stalky.

Then I just kept writing!

As for “delusionist” – That’s sort of an inside joke with my husband.  I’m so overly optimistic about everything he jokes that I’m delusional.  He says I’m not allowed to be excited about how many books I’ve sold until I’ve sold as many as Stephen King, so it will be a while…

Where or how do you get your inspiration to write?

I was “born” with the general inspiration. As for specific ideas, things will just grab me and I’ll feel the need to write them.

Do you have a specific writing routine?

I write about an hour or two a day if at all possible…sometimes life intervenes!

What is the hardest thing about the writing process for you?

Plots, probably. The characters literally talk in my head, and I just write down what they’re saying, so that part comes easy. The problem comes when they’ve run out of funny things to say and look at me as if to say “What now?” and I don’t know! Then sometimes I have to take off a day or two and chew on what comes next and how it all wraps up in the end.

Do you have any advice for other Indie authors?

Do things right. Don’t throw books together with no editing and cobbled together covers because you can’t afford it or can’t wait any longer. You’ll just end up with bad reviews or no sales. Take some time, bounce things off other people, save up. Join Facebook groups with experienced Indies and learn from them. Don’t think you know it all…ever. And don’t throw money at every promotional opportunity that rolls down the pike — there are a LOT of people out there trying to rip you off.

The Pineapple Port series are cozy mysteries. You have branched out to different genres. Why do you like to cross genres? What can you tell us about your other books?

I get ideas I really want to explore and if they don’t fit a series, I need to start a new one. It’s been a good way to find what genres sell better than others too. Angeli (3) was my first (urban fantasy), then Slightly Stalky (that’s autobiographical so that had to come out), Pineapple (4), a middle grade book (The Magicatory) I wrote for my nieces, and then finally the latest series is Kilty as Charged (2) – a highlander time-travel romance thriller. That happened because I realized I liked writing mysteries like Pineapple, but I wanted a series that could have a little more edge.

If you could choose a character from Pineapple Port, who would you want as a neighbor and why?

Mariska is my mother-in-law, so I have to say her or she’ll kill me. 🙂

What can you tell us about your upcoming Pineapple Port mystery?

The group goes traveling to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and gets trapped in a house full of body bits! I’m about 70% done.

Which country have you not been to yet that you want to visit and why?

I think I need to go to Ireland. All the men in my books end up Irish! I had a crush on Pierce Brosnan when I was a teen, so I guess I’ve always had a thing for Celtic men. Ha! In fact, my husband, who thought he was mostly Polish, took a DNA test and it turned out he was mostly Irish! I must have known it before him!

Thank you Amy, for your time! I look forward to reading the other books in the Pineapple Port Series.

If you sign up for her newsletter on her website, Amy will give you a copy (ebook) of Pineapple Lies for free!

Check out Amy’s books on Amazon, or follow her on Goodreads, Facebook or Twitter.

The Lost Ones (Part 3)

This is the final post on The Lost Ones: Writers we lost in 2016. After all, we are about half-way through 2017.

I had not heard of Helen Bailey before, but if you live in the UK you may have. She was a YA writer (the Electra Brown series), but wrote one book for adults: When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis.

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In 2011, she and her husband went on vacation to Barbados, where her husband drowned while swimming in the ocean. She witnessed his death. “A wife at breakfast, a widow before lunch.”

Trying to deal with the loss of her husband, she started up a blog, Planet Grief, in which she reached out to other people who had lost loved ones. The book When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis is a memoir of her journey through the process of grief, based on that blog. She tells about life without her husband, of the simple things that would make her break down in tears, and of her dog, Boris, her loyal companion.

Her stories are filled with raw emotion—especially in the first half of the book—her writing poignant, and sometimes funny. Reading about her experience of loss, of which she writes in a very honest and open way, is heart wrenching.

Her tone gradually changes in the second half of the book. Maybe, there is a way through the hurt, a way toward accepting. Eventually, she meets another man with whom she starts a new relationship.

The book probably had a different effect on me than on people who have experienced a similar loss. For me, it was humbling. The devastation of the loss of a partner, her grief and pain, are almost palpable. She talks about friends being there for her, friends not being there for her, and people being awkward, or even inappropriate. In our society, I feel as if we often try to ignore death. Like many, I have been afraid to say the wrong thing to people who have gone through loss, or I just don’t know what to say or how to be there for them. This book may not have solved that, but at least it has given me plenty to think about.

In her last entry, she has sold her old house and bought a new one with her new partner. She closes the book with “It will all be OK in the end. We promise you.” She, and many of the widows and widowers she had been in touch with, had found new purpose, new joy in life, and some, new love.

We all like happy endings. But for Helen things turned out differently. She disappeared in April 2016. Three months later, her body, and that of her dog Boris, were found hidden in her house. She was 51. In February 2017, her partner was convicted of her murder.

Reading the book made me sad, but reading the book knowing how it all ended for her made it infinitely sadder. Her voice was so personal, almost like you are getting to know her while reading.

One story in the book especially stuck with me. Helen’s best friend gave Helen and her husband a bottle of champagne, which Helen wanted to save for a special occasion. All of a sudden, the best friend dies. The champagne is now symbolic, and no occasion is ever special enough. But then Helen’s husband drowns, and the opportunity for sharing the champagne was gone forever. She writes:

Why couldn’t I have seen that just being alive and with [my husband] was the only reason I ever needed to open it? I had been waiting for some big flashy occasion to come along, when in fact life with him was the big occasion.”

Finally, Helen takes the champagne to a party. But, as irony has it, when they open the bottle, the champagne has gone bad.

There are many things I will take away from the book, but most of all it will be that. Cherish the times you have with your loved-ones. Make every moment special. And when life offers you champagne, drink it.