Sunday, June 13, 2021

Letter From A Reader

Zoë Sharp

 

Last weekend, I received an email from a reader who said she had read my Charlie Fox series and hated it.



When I read that opening line, my heart did one of those strange little lurches in my chest. 

 

After all, you accept, when you write fiction, that your work is not going to please or suit everybody who gives it a try. That aspect makes it a lot harder than writing non-fiction, which is where I first started out. Non-fiction is a retelling of someone else’s story and doing your best to make it as cohesive, dramatic, interesting, and accurate as possible.

 

But when what goes onto the page is entirely made up from your imagination, there are plenty of opportunities for people to find it lacking. And, with the anonymity of the internet, most of those who don’t like what you do will have no problem saying so!

 

Also, Charlie is not—and never has been—a conventional heroine. (I rather like the term SHEro, actually.) If I had to sum her up in a sentence, I suppose I could say that she’s a prime example of ‘that which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.’



Ex-British Army, ex-Special Forces trainee, thrown out of her career before it really began, she starts off the series teaching self-defence classes in a northern English city. She doesn’t go looking for trouble, but trouble has a habit of finding her anyway. And when the former SAS sergeant who trained her turns up again in her life, she’s set on a course into the world of close-protection. It’s a good use of Charlie’s capacity for violence—an aspect of her character that I’ve been exploring throughout the series.

 

So, as I said, you’re not going to please all the people, all the time. Although, I have to say that just about all the people who take the trouble to get in touch with me, do so because they’ve enjoyed the series. And when this particular reader seemed to be taking a different approach, I did the proverbial girding of loins to read the rest:

 

‘I hated all thirteen of [the books] (and the short stories), I hated how they made me feel things, made me cry and ruminate for days and wake up in the middle of the night feeling heartbroken for Charlie (and myself).

 

‘Hate how the story still lingers with me as I contemplate Charlie’s future, will she ever have someone she can fully trust? Will Sean ever come back into her life or is he gone forever? (Is that a good thing or a bad thing?)

 

‘And finally, I can’t stop thinking about what a happy ending (not that you do happy) would look like for Charlie that wouldn’t cheapen her experiences and take away from her being a strong, kick-arse woman.

 

‘You have ruined me for all other books that come after and I wish you the worse of life filled with accolades and awards, don’t you dare write anymore books on Charlie Fox, I don’t think my heart could take it. 

 

‘Thank you

 

‘P.S. in case my sarcasm didn’t translate well, I love your books and am desperate for more.’

 

Sometimes, something arrives, out of the blue, and changes the way you look at what you do, how you feel about it. I’ve always said that I take my work seriously, but myself not at all seriously. To receive something like this is, honestly, rather humbling.

 

It makes all that agonising—over a scene or chapter that just won’t come out quite as I envisaged it—all rather worthwhile.



It makes me feel incredibly privileged, to be able to do what I do, and gain satisfaction from it—never mind the small matter of also making a living by the written word. And when I learn that other people get enough enjoyment out of reading that made-up stuff from my imagination, so that they’re inspired to write such a letter to the author, well, that’s just the icing on the cake.

 

This week’s Word of the Week is chthonian, an adjective meaning of the underworld of the dead, its spirits or gods. From a Latinised version of the Greek khthonios, meaning of the earth, in or under the ground, from khthon, the surface of the earth.


Saturday, June 12, 2021

Start Your Engines, the Summer Is Upon Us

 


Jeff–Saturday

 

I think it is evident from my blogmates’ posts this week, that we’re all anxious to put Covid behind us and enjoy the summer in a vaccinated state of swashbuckling security.  All of which seems appropriate, considering the myriad invisible word balloons of joy I sense springing cartoon-like above so many newly unmasked heads.

 


By the way, is it just me or are you having trouble recognizing people you’ve interacted with regularly on an in-person basis for over a year, but never knew unmasked?

 

Just asking.

 


So, here’s my agenda for my wife and I breaking out of sixteen months of near isolation in rural New Jersey. In less than a week I jump on a plane (for the first time in eighteen months) and head to Texas to see my son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren.  Yes, that’s one of the states where positions on the pandemic and vaccinations are treated more as political statements than public health concerns. Thankfully, all in the proudly Texan contingent of my family have been vaccinated, despite how far the rest of the state lags behind the national average, both in persons vaccinated with at least one dose (45.3% TX / 51.7% US) and among the fully vaccinated (37.2% TX / 43.0% US).

 


I’m hoping that despite the vitriolic pandemic politics raging across America, the country achieves herd immunity before this fall’s flu season hits us.  Sadly, that’s not looking likely, but rather that those parts of America heavily immunized will achieve a “community immunity,” while other areas of the country will face what is yet to come, unprotected.

 

Then there’s the international aspect of our escape from New Jersey, one that may keep us away until October (aside from a return to New Orleans in late August for Bouchercon). Two weeks from today, I depart for Greece, to be soon followed by she-who-must-be-obeyed.  YAY!!

 


To those of you who would point out that Greece is under a US State Department level 3 warning to “reconsider travel,” I have two points to make. First, it was just lowered on June 8th from a Level 4 warning “not to travel,” and I take that as a strong sign that the situation is moving in the right direction.  Second, the islands (where I’m headed) are rushing to vaccinate all inhabitants by the end of June.  What’s generally keeping vaccination rates down in other parts of Greece is an absence of vaccines, not a lack of desire or political posturing over public health measures.

 

Greece's Prime Minister takes his jab

But what’s my bottom line reason for going?  Simple, I miss my friends and the creative fire that burns brightest for me only in Greece.  In addition, I’m being honored on the island of Naxos, a Cycladic neighbor of Mykonos.  My just released A Deadly Twist is set on Naxos amid its enchanting history, locales, and characters.  The presentation will be held in the dreamy neoclassical village of Halki, at what many consider the most beautiful gallery in all the Aegean, Fish & Olive.

 

Katharina Bolesch & Alexander Reichardt

The event has been planned for a long time, and I could not possibly miss this extraordinary show of friendship. After all, when you get right down to it, a loving family, loyal friends, and good sense is what keeps us going through the darkest of times.

 

Take care, stay safe, and enjoy your summer responsibly.

 

 ­––Jeff

Friday, June 11, 2021

Location, Location, Location

 Last week Scotland opened up. A little. Except for central Glasgow which was still in lockdown tier 3. Our little bit of the country was top of the infection table  but as it was considered localised and under control,  we  were not moved up a tier.

And I had work  to do. We looked at the weather and  it was going to be sunny one day.  This got us very excited. 


There's still much confusion over the next few books but I  do know that I want to set them up in Oban, home of the famous folly and  near the Connel Bridge and the falls of Lora.  In my head, given a certain time of year, and a combination of the tides - the sea coming in meeting  the River Etive on its way out with a height difference of a few feet. I'm trying to put a body in there and see how long it gets  caught in the tidal bore.


For another bit, we drove around for a wee while looking for an area where a baddie could park a vehicle and roll a different  body down the shore into  the loch.


We drove down roads  that weren't on the map,  roads that were 4 feet wide, dodging motorhomes speeding in the opposite direction. We were in the speedy and trusty sandero,  a car, that one day,  will grow up to be a Land Rover.

 We came to many peaceful little bays.


Every single piece of access to the water's edge was  covered in tents or motorhomes or caravans, all wild parking.

 at each site were also signs written by frustrated farmers saying,  'please no campers',  'animals grazing' and  'please keep dogs on leads'.


Maybe a few more vicious animals  might help to educate those that have no idea of the Countyside Code- you know the sort that never closes a gate behind them.


 Highland cattle are generally friendly beasts, unless with a calf, as they are at this time  of year.
 And sheep will tend to run away rather than  charge at you, but if annoyed enough they will have a go.
Beavers have been succesfully  reintroduced  on the east coast.
They are now talking  about reintroducing  wolves.
Why not some bears?

I think mother nature could do with  a hand in  sorting out the shallower end of the gene pool.
Or anybody that annoys me. ( That's quite a long list)



Back in Inverary.


A lone seat and a lost scarf.
I'm sure there's a story here.

The famous castle was closed but we were allowed a walk up the 'long  drive.'


Semi wild, semi cultivated woods.

Everything was buzzing and fuzzing in the sun.


First glance at the castle.


The gates were closed but I had my zoom. This is the home of the Duke Of Argyll.   The phrase Duke of Argyll is rhyming slang for hemorrhoids. Just in case  you ever need to know that.

Glorious Bluebells.



The town of Inverary and the famous bridge below.



It is all rather lovely, isn't it?


 And of course, the  famous puffer, the Vital Spark.


Caro

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Assets

Stanley - Thursday 

I received an email this week that made me think about assets.

 

My introduction to assets was as a teenager, particularly to physical assets, but not of the gold bar variety. For me, such assets were to be admired at a distance, but not touched. Sort of like the Mona Lisa. But even as a teenager, I knew that at least the Leonardo da Vinci painting was a real asset that would appreciate over time.

 

My father was a businessman and introduced me to the stock market in South Africa. I remember well my first investment – one hundred shares at about two rand each. That was a fortune since my monthly salary as a computer programmer was about R200 a month. 

 

I learnt several lessons from that adventure. The first was that I found myself fretting about the investment, checking each day’s newspaper to see whether I was enhancing my net asset worth. Or not. I realised early on that for me the pleasure of gains did not compensate for the anxiety I felt when the share dipped by a cent or two.



The second lesson I learnt was that I was fascinated by what made the share price move – forces that I did not understand at all. Good news would be reported: sometimes the share price would rise, sometimes it would fall. Why the difference? My enquiring mind needed to know. Sometimes there was no news at all – at least discernible to me – and the price would fluctuate. Bizarre.

 

I don’t remember whether I made or lost money on that terrifying first stock trade, but it left its mark. I was hooked; I was afraid; but I was determined not to live in anxiety. That was when I started developing my emotional strategy for investing. Instead of hanging on every move of the market and being a worrywart, I decided it made more sense to write any investment down to zero the moment I bought it. Then whatever value it had was profit. I became a happy investor.

 

I learnt a third lesson at about the same time, namely that I had a need to enjoy my investments, or at least some of them, on a day to day basis. A price on the stock-market page of the newspaper wasn’t enough. So, I started reading about South African artists whose painting or sculptures I liked. And when I had saved up some money, I’d head off to an art auction and occasionally found a piece that I could afford. Over time, I acquired some lovely pieces, most of which I still have today.


Part of my collection

There was a fourth lesson wrapped up in this that I didn’t realise for some time. As time passed, I found that I enjoyed interesting pieces of art more than new cars, fine furniture, and fashionable clothing.

 

Some of the investments I’ve made have been both fun and potentially scary. When I was a grad student at Illinois, a friend and I decided we wanted to explore the world of futures. Being in the Midwest, there was a very active market in corn, soybeans, hogs, and so on. Again, I can’t recall whether we made or lost money, but remember vividly nearly having to take delivery of five contracts of pork bellies. I think that was in the thousands!


One pork belly

To get back to the email that sparked all these memories. As you can see from the above, I’ve been active in traditional and non-traditional investing. In one instance, I made an investment in one of my hobbies – stamp collecting. The oldest and probably best known stamp dealer in the world is Stanley Gibbons of London which opened its doors in 1865. Many years ago, they had a great rarity for sale. The 1969 British Ships with red funnels omitted. I bought it because there were only two pairs and one single example recorded.






It did go against some of my philosophy since it is stored in Guernsey and not in a frame on my wall.

 

Back to the email. Last week the world’s rarest stamp went on auction. It is the 1856 British Guiana One-Cent magenta, with its three-masted sailing ship. It sold for $8.3 million and was bought by none other than Stanley Gibbons. You can read the stamp's interesting history here.

THE stamp!


When I read about this, I was puzzled. Why would a retail outlet like Gibbons buy such a stamp? What are the chances that it could flip it for a profit? I shook my head.


Then I read further and found out that Stanley Gibbons is NOT going to sell it. In its words, it is going to democratise its ownership. What this means is that it is going to sell shares in the stamp and keep it on display in its shop on Strand Street in London.

 

If it is really going to make this opportunity available to the person on the street, say at £1000 ($1400) per share, each shareholder would have 1/8300th of the stamp. If the anti is upped to £10,000 per share (hardly democratic), you would own 1/830th of the stamp. Either way, you would need a microscope to view your share of this physical asset.


A very enlarged $10,000 share

 

My guess, in order to bring owners into the shop, shares will be about £100. This means 83,000 shareholders will own a very, very, very small piece of the stamp. For its annual meeting, Guiana 1856 Ltd. will need an arena bigger than the one Berkshire Hathaway uses.

 

What an interesting idea. 

 

However, just as I don’t understand cryptocurrencies, I don’t get this. I pass.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

LET THE TRAVELS BEGIN (AGAIN)

 Now fully vaccinated with the Moderna vaccine, I am once again ready to travel, and this season will be a busy one. Of course, it was impossible to do any travel during 2020 to travel to Ghana to research the third Emma Djan novel called LAST SEEN IN LAPAZ--that's Lapaz, Accra, not La Paz, Bolivia. However, having to stay home in 2020 facilitated my finishing Emma #2, SLEEP WELL, MY LADY in record time, as well as starting on LSIL, which I'm scheduled to turn in to the editor on or before July 1, 2021. The deadline looms large!

Now that I've passed the halfway point writing LSIL, I know which areas of research I need to focus on. In addition to the standard visit to Ghana, I need to travel to Nigeria and Niger, because substantial portions of the novel take place in these countries. You can get an idea of my itinerary from the map below, which is numbered in sequence according to the destinations during the trip.

So, for your reference, I will be in Lagos and Benin City, Nigeria, for ten days in July; Niamey and Agadez, Niger, for eight days; and Ghana for the remaining four weeks or so.


My destinations in West Africa (edited, original image Shutterstock / Porcupen)


I went to Nigeria as a small child but remember little to nothing about the trip, so Nigeria will be a new experience for me, as will Niger. The issue with these two countries is that neither scores high in the safety category. The US Department of State puts Nigeria at its Level 3 warning: reconsider travel; and Niger earns a Level 4: do not travel.

Then, why am I going to these two countries? I considered not doing it, but anyone can do Google and YouTube research. I believe I owe readers a lot more than that. Being "afraid" to travel somewhere is not going to cut it. On the other hand, I'm not throwing caution to the wind. I've secured a guide and escort to be with me at all times in both countries.

The unofficial jacket cover copy will help you understand what I'll be looking into during my travels.

When Nnamdi Ojukwu’s daughter Ngozi elopes with boyfriend Femi, Nnamdi appeals to Emma Djan and her detective agency boss to investigate Ngozi’s whereabouts. Weeks later, Femi is found murdered at his opulent residence in Accra, but Ngozi is still nowhere to be found. How is she connected, if at all, to Femi’s killing? As Emma digs further, she discovers Femi was part of a horrifying network of sex traffickers in Europe and several West African countries. Migrants from Ghana, Nigeria and other West African countries are duped into thinking they are on their way to success and riches in Italy. But once there, they are manipulated into prostitution with little chance of escape.
As successful as Femi has been, he has made a lot of enemies, all of whom have had possible motives to murder him. The question is, which one of them did it? Not only does Emma have to hunt the killer down, she’s in a race against time to find Ngozi—that is, if she’s still alive.

As you can see, LAST SEEN IN LAPAZ tackles the complex and uncomfortable subject of human and sex trafficking with scenes in Ghana, Nigeria, and Niger. The West Africans one sees on TV attempting to cross the Mediterranean, sometimes perishing in the process, depart mostly from the shores of Libya, but they originate primarily from Nigeria, and to a lesser extent from Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, and Mali. Agadez, in Niger, is the legendary transit spot for migrants before they make the hellish trip to Libya across the brutal Sahara desert, which is fraught with danger from armed gangs, the intense heat, and the threat of dehydration. Needless to say, I'm not going to Libya.

Migrants crossing the Sahara packed into a pickup truck (Shutterstock/Torsten Pursche)    

Many migrants get stuck in Agadez or Libya because they find they don't have enough money to proceed. Sometimes, it takes months to gather the wherewithal to continue on. During that time, they may be subject to physical and sexual brutality, particularly in Libya. If and when they get to Italy--surprise, surprise. Contrary to the glowing picture painted of making tons of money working in a store or being a travel guide, migrant women discover they will be working as prostitutes for the "madam" who paid for much of their arduous journey. Now they owe her money--lots of it. The madam is often a woman who has been a prostitute herself. The blatant disregard for human life in this trafficking world is quite stunning.

Migratory routes from West Africa to Libya



Regardless of the present, this region of Africa holds a long and storied past--periods of epic achievements in culture and learning on the one hand, but strife on the other. Apart from researching for my novel, I'm hoping to make a connection with aspects of West Africa's history.

In addition, there'll be something new: I will be vlogging my journey, allowing for any slow or absent Internet connections I might encounter in different locales. My vlogs will be on YouTube. It's going to be quite an adventure.



Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Hit the rue!

 Bienvenu, Wilkommen, Welcome as they say in Cabaret. France opens tomorrow for vaccinated US travellers.


 I could be on the the first plane since I'm vaxxed but I'm holding off until end of August. There's two reasons; my French friends will be out of town, on holidays and doing 'les vacances'. Second is the writing retreat workshop I'm part of end of August near Bordeaux. In a chateau!

This is wine country and down the rue from St. Emilion.

That's if no hiccups happen and France doesn't close it's borders again. This incredible week was planned for last year and had to be rescheduled. Crossing fingers this will take place.



I'll be teaching with a journalist and non-fiction writer and my job is to hold up the fiction tentpole.  My secret agenda will be to subvert the attendees into crime writing and mystery afficianado's and writers, bien sûr!


Please cross all your digits that this happens! I'm also proposing that MIE host a writing retreat in a chateau, a Greek island, a zen retreat in Japan, a Scottish castle, a Ghanian beach resort, a farm outside Christchurch, wherever Zöe or AMA will be, a game reserve of Kubu's choosing or a Rajah's place in Bombay. We at MIE have so many places to choose from!

Cara - Tuesday



Monday, June 7, 2021

Apopo Hero Rats in the News


 Annamaria on Monday


My thanks today go to that sterling member of the MIE tribe, our regular reader  Everett Kaser, affectionately known as EvKa. Everett knows from my posts here of my enthusiasm for African Giant Pouched Rats whose work it is to sniff out landmines and tuberculosis.  

Here is the article EvKa tagged me with on Facebook this past week.  From Huffington Post, it lauds the retirement of one of the little heroes.

Thank you, EvKa! Though I still can't sit for hours slaving over a new blog--not to mention my WIP, I can share something that feels current.  And I can give proof that we here on MIE have scooped this subject.  Thanks to Michael's first post on Apopo, MIA readers got to know in 2015 what HuffPo readers only just discovered.  

My adopted hero rat has been working at mine detection for six years now.  For a monthly donation that is tantamount to invisible in the total of my credit card bill, I get bragging rights to Victor!  I gave him that name so apt for a hero.  And he has been victorious!  Here is my post from five years ago to prove my point. 

 



Good things are happening all over this planet!  Here is the story of one of them.

About fifteen months ago, Michael posted here about Apopo, an organization headquartered in Tanzania, that trains Giant Pouched Rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis.

The worldwide landmine infestation was a cause that concerned me.  When, thanks to Michael, I found out that I could help in a small way to solve it by donating  $8 a month to support my own mine-detection rat, I jumped at the chance.  I got to name the little guy.  I thought about the future I wanted for him, so I chose to name him Victor!


Since then I have reported here about his birth, his growth, and his training.  It’s been a while since I updated you.  Today I am proud to report that he is fulfilling a great purpose.  In my last report, I bragged that he had proved his capability at sniffing out explosive material.   Here are some milestones that Victor has achieved since then:


March 11th—At the young age of ten months, Victor was accredted as a explosives detector in Tanzania and earned his airline ticket to his first job in Mozambique.


March 28th—He was on his way to join a 200-strong team that has, so far, returned 11 MILLION square meters of land to local Mozambique communities.  They have found and destroyed

  • ·      Landmines—13,273
  • ·      Explosive remnants of war—1,113
  • ·      Small Arms and Ammunitions—28,792


April 8th—Victor earns his International Mine Action Standards accreditation.  He gets a feast of bananas and avocados to celebrate.

April 22nd—Victor finds his first Landmine.
         **cost to me for this achievement, at that point: $96!

All this before…
May 8th—Victor’s first birthday

So on he goes.  Here is Apopo’s description of the problem he now continues to combat.

At almost three thousand, annual global landmine accidents are unacceptably tragic; 80 percent of them involve innocent people unrelated to the original conflicts; 46 percent of these are children.

Every bit as tragic, yet going largely unrecognized, is the immense and negative impact posed by landmines to the development of mine-contaminated countries such as Cambodia and Angola. Vast tracts of productive land have been rendered off-limits for decades, yet only about three percent of that land typically contains any explosive material at all. The rest sits needlessly idle, whilst desperate nearby communities are too afraid to use it.

This is where the HeroRATs step in where others fear to tread.

APOPO specifically targets large areas near towns and villages where the existence of landmines is not certain, checking them swiftly and efficiently for explosive remnants of war.


And here is great story about from Apopo’s efforts in Angola:


"For years, school children in Angola played football 20 meters from a live landmine recently detected by the HeroRats

The sight of children playing is commonplace all over the world. For youngsters in Ngola Luije Town, Angola, the landmines add an extra, and deadly dimension to their games.
Angola’s prolonged conflict was a bush war. Rural populations fled to the cities to seek refuge, whilst their towns and villages became fierce battle zones, strategic military encampments and no-go areas.
Fourteen years after the conflicts have ended, rural Angolans have returned to their villages to find themselves surrounded by explosive remnants of war such as old landmines, unexploded bombs, grenades and bullets. This leaves them unable to develop their towns and farms and makes everyday activities such as playing, agriculture, or collecting firewood, a deadly endeavor.
The children would nominate one of them to go and get the football.
In Angola, APOPO supplies mine detection rat units to its mine clearance partner NPA. Together they cleared the land surrounding Ngola Luije in 2014, which was a defensive military base during the war. In the process, a landmine was discovered less than twenty meters from the town school. It had lain hidden for over twenty years. 

Francisco Mauricio, the school’s headmaster explained that while the minefields were clearly marked, the children’s football was inevitably kicked into the mine-ridden overgrowth. If no adults were around, the children would nominate someone to sneak into the minefield to retrieve it…"


 Now, thanks to Apopo's HeroRats, the danger is gone.  The children, who were at risk of losing their legs, their classmates, their lives, can play in safety.  


Mine is a hope-seeking soul.  Perhaps because I had to find my way to adulthood through some considerable obstacles, I am drawn to warmth and light.  To joy.  To dancing.  Rather than to darkness. Or despair.


Victor, and all those fabulous, patient, determined, optimistic people who make his feats possible: theirs is a road I am happy and privileged to travel.  The sunshine of hope glows at its end.  Hooray for good news!


You can find more about Apopo and how to join the fight at apopo.org.