La Stanza – The Room

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How queer it is to be moved by a room. It happened to me in Sils-Maria, a place I now carry with me. I stood on the doorsill of the cordoned-off restricted space where a man of great intellect had sat at a small desk – the original piece of furniture still there – and pondered the human condition by lamp light. He had rented this room in a private boarding house in a remote village in the Swiss alps, hoping the mountains with their pure glacier air would act as a restorative. I imagined him breathing in deeply as he opened the small window, letting his gaze rest on the stoic grandeur of the scenery, contemplating the path of his first walk when daylight faded.

Some of his copious notes and manuscripts were displayed downstairs: his philosophical stance was controversial − God is dead. For a long time his name evoked the excesses of fascism and Nazism but dedicated scholars continued to engage with his work as philosopher, cultural critic, Latin and Greek scholar, and artist. Today German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is generally viewed as having exerted a profound influence on Western culture and modern intellectualism.

That holiday room, where he spent so many hours ruminating and writing, making palpable ink marks on paper as he held poor health and incipient madness at bay, moved me. Not as a student of philosophy or as an admirer of his intellectual prowess but as a writer. It frightened me to know that at the age of 44 he succumbed to mental illness, . His modest upstairs room came last in the museum tour. You came to it after studying the well-lit writings and photographs and mementoes, on walls and in display cabinets, of other great thinkers and writers whose lives had intersected with his. The Jewish doctor and scholar who believed Nietzsche’s ideas had been misappropriated and devoted his writing to bringing the philosopher’s legacy to public attention. The Swiss poet Fasani who wrote exquisite lines in Italian that pre-empted any attempt of mine to distil that room and its emanation into something true.

We’d come to visit Sils-Maria after I’d overheard snatches of a conversation between a German lawyer who knew the area well and a Canadian girl in my ski school group. Sils-Maria. You cannot come to St Moritz and not go to Sils-Maria. My skin had prickled at the older woman’s hushed tone; she spoke as people do when a place is special, its effect not quite explainable, as when one has had some kind of a spiritual awakening.

And she was not wrong. It cast a spell over us, its visitors, from the moment we left our car on the outskirts and wandered into the radius of its strange magnetism. It was an entrancing place in the frosty light of late afternoon with its majestic mountains,  in the distance a flat plain with solitary trees on the edge of a lake, the wintry sun an incandescent fireball trailing pale golden light across the horizon and onto the shimmering surface as walkers roamed its shores. We walked into the picturesque village and peered into garlanded shop windows, the dream landscape enveloping us, feeling as if we’d stepped into a Christmas snow globe. A local pointed us in the direction of the best bakery and coffee shop in town.

The woman behind the coffee shop counter considered my question, eyed the soft toy husky puppy in my hands, thought a little, tried a name out as she looked at it, shook her head, and then said in decent English, “Olaf. Yes, Olaf. Maybe that is a good name?” I tried it out, holding the furry toy in my hand and looking into its arctic blue baby dog eyes. I’d expected Swiss but I’d gotten Russian. Olaf. It was perfect. I explained it was a gift for my nephew in South Africa. She smiled, popped it into a bag, and processed my credit card. The coffee and cake was excellent. That’s the kind of town it was. It made you feel as if you’d stepped into a magical fault line where a perfect place existed, but the moment you drove away, or acted outside of some unwritten set of laws regarding what it meant to be a civilised human, then it would no longer exist. Then all that remained would be a thick white fog where ghosts roamed unhampered by visitors, and you’d never find it again.

Refreshed, we donned thick jackets once again and headed for the impassable striated mountains just beyond the town, under a traffic boom, past converted luxury apartment blocks in the shadow of the town’s only ski lift, past traditional homes with curious paintings on their walls and grand old-time hotels, past an avant-garde glass barn house on a flat open field its relaxed occupants clearly visible, past the town library with its carved wooden totems. The soft falling snow grew denser. Horse carriages with passengers passed us in the gloam, the clip-clop of trotting hooves echoing eerily as they disappeared into whiteness. Realising we’d lost track of time we hurried back to the Nietzsche museum we’d seen on our way in. As we approached the tall narrow house, dusk settling around us in descending ruffles of pluming darkness, we saw lamps had been lit in some rooms and ceiling lights illuminated others. It was set a little back from the road with a long straight path and stairs that went up to an entrance porch. The front door opened as we reached it and a young Japanese couple slipped out as we slipped in.

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Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche by Edvard Munch, 1906

PS. It is widely believed that Nietzsche’s final descent into the darkness of dementia was triggered by an act of cruelty to an animal. In 1889 Nietzsche witnessed a horse being whipped within an inch of its life by a coach driver in Turin. He rushed to the horse’s aid, embracing it and refusing to let go, and the police had to be called. I didn’t know about the Turin horse when I stood on the sill of that humble and sombre room, but somehow it seems apt.

High as a kite

Today I reached the end of School Side Road and a madwoman was yelling at a figment hiding in a tree. I slowed to a walk and went right up to the tree and peered into the electric-green leafy boughs (given that we’re in the midst of a drought this seemed odd) and there was no one there, at least nobody that was present in the way she and I were. She eyed me suspiciously, her filthy headscarf pitched at a perilous angle, but then continued with her diatribe in street Afrikaans, haranguing an unseen partner, possibly dead, but perhaps passed out just around the corner in a shady spot. “Jy’t my gedonder … Jou bliksem… maar ek … roep vir security, en hulle kom onmiddelik … klap!… Jy gaan sien!” All the way back to busy Old Kendal Road her presence followed me, high as a kite, invoking the forces of law and order upon the unseen entity’s head as she careened around that tree.

It was the turnaround point for that day’s circular route so the small event had come just in time. Some club days when I’m out on the road, jogging the kilometres away in silence, nothing interesting happens but it’s rare. Usually something does.

To run is to leave the body and then return to it, a little surprised to find one’s physical body still stepping out to some ancient rhythm, still anchored by earth’s gravity. To walk is to pause and pay attention. To write is to imagine. The sighting of a homeless woman wailing fulminations up into a hapless tree makes me laugh and then it makes me serious. We live on the same planet and yet we dream in different galaxies. Who knows how she will re-appear on some distant day, which fictional character she will inhabit and inform, which new life she will live? I can present her with choices she never had. If I write her right upon the page she can wrench the same hearts that walk past her heartlessly every waking day.

I ask myself “What is the meaning of this post?” Eventually, beneath layers and layers, the snake of knowledge lies coiled and waiting for me; across the divide of class and culture the madwoman and I have things in common: born female in Africa, a dread of emptiness, an inexplicable urge to challenge deaf gods, a liking for eccentric headgear. Something subtle and paradoxical has drawn me into her scene as surely as if it were from a famous play with important themes, performed by a world-renowned actor.

And then there were three (NYNs)… Do you find plot more difficult than character? Plus the midpoint of Blade Runner

Nail Your Novel

SONY DSCPhew, the plot book is ready. It seems to have taken a marathon of effort; much longer than the characters book. So much that I’m wondering if this tells me something about the nature of plot.

In writing the book, I’ve been pinning down the ultimate essentials – what a plot is, what it needs – whether you’re a genre author, a literary author, or anywhere on the spectrum between the two. Indeed, if you want to defy convention, are there some story and plot principles that still hold? I found there were. I also found that even an apparently loosely structured book followed a few simple patterns.

But honestly, Roz, you’ve been promising this book for most of the year.

Yeah, why did it take me so much longer than characters? As I wrote up the tutorials – starting from blogposts and mentoring notes – I found that each…

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Consuelo Roland

My Memories of a Future Life

for logo‘Skinny-dipping in greenish-hued waters’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is award-nominated novelist, poet and essayist Consuelo Roland @ConsueloRoland

Soundtrack by R.E.M., The Beatles, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Youssou N’Dour, Bob Marley

Lady Limbo began with a cancelled flight and a personal tale of sexual liberation imparted to my mother at Charles de Gaulle Airport.

The details of a mysterious organization reside in a little black book belonging to a helpful ground hostess whose name is forever lost in the torrential downpour of a stormy Paris night. It was fun to turn things around and evoke a world where men are paid ridiculous stud fees to be at the beck and call of willful women who can afford…

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A Strange Affair

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The writing of a novel is a desperately strange affair that puts the writer somewhere between heaven and hell, between earth and clouds – yes, every work a cloud atlas of sorts – a geographical and historical imposition upon fantastical reality. And in that cruel, crude version of a reality that the writer fervently imagines has never happened, so every work of the imagination remains trapped forever in an ethereal dimension that blurs real life and fiction. The writer’s head is full of spires and windmills, places that are tilting dangerously, even maybe toppling as the words spill upon the page; for every batch of useful words so much irredeemable flotsam upon an ocean of used-up time.

Frequently in imagining our characters we must resort to real life to ensure we get our facts at least mostly right, so that the reader might say “at least the author did their research…” It’s a rare novelist that plays sleight of hand with reality and fiction, and succeeds in creating magical characters out of the degrees of separation. Just three come to mind unsolicited: Haruki Murakami (whose twisted dreams become your own), David Mitchell the chameleon (can’t wait to read The Bone Clocks) and the inestimable Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The Fall, with Catinca Untaru

The Fall, with Catinca Untaru

The Fall by Indian movie director Tarsem Singh is one of those big-screen wonders that catapulted me into unexpected wonder. Its swashbuckling premise is that if you can trust in a paradigm where reality and fantasy are allies then anything can happen and brave little girls get to be Zorro. The heroine Alexandria, a small girl who befriends a fallen stuntman (fallen in both the ways of movie horses that gallop away instead of standing still for an important second when the stunt actor is jumping off a railway bridge onto their back, and in the way of the hopeless romantic adulation of beautiful women who love the things money can buy and are hence shamelessly loose with their affections) is played by Rumanian child actress Catinca Untaru who is not only ferociously talented but utterly convincingly charming as she slips between reality and fantasy with the easy agility of an old pro (think Meryl Streep 10 years old).

Suffice it to say that I deeply, jealously, wished that I had invented her before they did. I resented that director and his whole film crew for having discovered this amazing child before I could breathe her form onto the page. As entertaining as the film was I considered Alexandria (or was it Catinca?) ill-used. In my novel, the one I might have produced if someone else hadn’t dared to pluck her out of the ether, she would have reached full potential as a fully rounded character. This is the deceit of every writer – we believe that we can invent a world entirely from scratch and people it with such original, such charming, such fully breathing characters that we can trick our dear readers into not only suspending disbelief but believing this is a scene of reality that has never happened in life.

Catinca became the first Rumanian child to star in an international movie, winning the role from hundreds of hopeful child stars, after learning english in her native Bucharest from the age of four (indeed showing such an aptitude for it that she could do various accents). Catinca’s agent Andreea Tanasescu convinced Tarsem Singh to let her audition and she was apparently so good at slipping between fantasy and reality at the audition that the director adjusted all his ideas of who should play the role and selected her. Her mother said that Catinca returned to being Catinca, leaving Alexandria behind on the film set, as soon as she arrived back in the hotel room. But I cannot help thinking that only Catinca could have created Alexandria, and in that sense her imagined interpreted Alexandria is quite singular and unique, a fruit picker’s daughter in 1920’s Los Angeles who exists as an avatar of Catinca Untary. Out of a strange affair of a movie called The Fall, has come a personality that DID NOT EXIST BEFORE.

It is possible, that’s all I’m saying.

Postnote: I discover only today that Catinca Untaru nearly missed her plane to the film shoot because of difficulties getting a visa for South Africa (my home country) where The Fall was being filmed. I regard this as a strange coincidence. And so it is that the imagination, a rubber elastic band with its own tension, bounds back and forth between reality and fantasy with remarkable pliability.

What a generous fellow writer can do for you

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LADY LIMBO starts out with a bang. It gets picked up by the extraordinarily generous Joni Rodgers, a New York Times bestselling author, who gives it a fantastic Amazon review followed by a YouTube review that stuns me.  But LADY LIMBO doesn’t have an overseas publisher and for many months it’s not even available on Amazon for overseas buyers. At home in South Africa reviewers have the enviable task of wading through a deluge of high quality overseas thrillers and mysteries – and the local writers who do get decent coverage are way cooler and better connected than others. LADY LIMBO gets a mixed bag of reviews. It becomes clear that marketing it as a thriller hasn’t been a good idea since expectations of a speedy high-octane read aren’t met. LADY LIMBO is repositioned as a mystery novel aimed at those readers who savour long satisfying reads.

The other day, suddenly, out of the blue, LADY LIMBO is given a breathtaking thumbs up by a fellow writer I’ve never met in person, who gets that LADY LIMBO is just itself. This is the power of social media and Facebook. The power of generous connectivity can replace negative energy with positive energy. Writing a blog post seems like a sensible way of making sure I keep remembering this lesson.

I’m one of these funny people who appreciates clichés in the same way I like my old shoes. These funny reworked sayings become part of us, accumulating nuances and overlays of meaning that attach themselves to the words in stages, stages of a life. When we say them we believe because we’ve said them before and heard others say them. And belief is a powerful weapon in a writer’s arsenal.

So, for those of you starting out: every cloud has a silver lining, let it go like yesterday’s snow, everything passes, you can’t be everything to all readers, no writer is an island, whining or complaining never helped anybody (thank you Johnny Depp and Kate Moss), there’s always another review, the show is not over till the fat lady sings, and finally – a personal favourite borrowed from a minibus taxi slogan – ‘Don’t be a Hater’! Oh, you get the idea. Dredge them up. Whatever makes you sit down and write another paragraph, another page, another poem, another short story, another novel. Whatever keeps you focussed on the act of creative energy.

When an unpleasant review comes along my first thought is to crush it into a tiny ball and bin it, and then never think of it again. Unfortunately, modern-day social media doesn’t allow for quick relief, it’s more the slow water torture variety of psychological torture. So, every time the compulsive, nibbling urge comes upon me to check on new reviews for LADY LIMBO I find myself opening the negative energy reviews and regurgitating the critical comments as if I were grinding stones between my teeth. Sticks and stones may break my back, but words will never hurt. Not true. Google likes  online publications that publish regularly and have huge audiences so a bad review can stay top of the pops for a (very) long time. An immovable obsession. Maybe I should try writing something completely different? Oh dear, isn’t that what I said last time?

Honesty is so confusing. I’ve been in the situation myself where I’ve had to weigh honesty up against something else; usually a feeling of camaraderie with my fellow writer. Knowing how much blood, sweat and tears it takes how can I condemn anyone else’s attempt to tell a story that never existed before? But it seems that some reviewers don’t believe, as I do, that the stories are out there waiting their turn, and that we are merely conduits to untold readers. All I can say is that powerful voices intrude when I write; voices that insist their story be told and they’ll take their chances. Allowed plenty of leeway but with strict oversight I am pressured to remain faithful to the essential message. If I stop listening it’s a bit like being underwater without a pen; garbled speech bubbles rise to the surface and come to naught. The story loses its sinuous sense; my hand is restless but inadequate. It keeps writing and rewriting, an unstoppable itch, but wrong roads are gone down and gibberish emits, dissonant tracts out of sync with the whole; the rhythm lost, the writer forlorn. Listen, listen, listen.

It’s as if all the stories ever written were in a huge calabash and occasionally a giant medicine woman stirs them up and they scatter into the night’s firmament, twinkling messages, all jostling for attention. The lucky ones get picked out by the readers who were meant to read them. So it was with John van den Berg and Lorraine I like to think.  John mentions an illustrious literary quartet – Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie,  Khaled Hosseini and Umberto Eco. I am a devoted fan of these grand masters of chiaroscuro fiction – how did John know? I’m listening to Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns in audio book format at the moment and it’s breaking my heart. This is the power of fiction – to make us feel. For LADY LIMBO to be on the same bookshelf as any one of their books would be amazing. That is a dream worth contemplating.

Such is Life: Jeri Walker-Bickett

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A long overdue review commitment is squeezed into a tightly packed mid-year vacation.

Such is Life

Such is Life eBook

I read Such is Life by Jeri Walker-Bickett with the distinct feeling that I am missing something that is staring me in the face. I suspect that my mind, steeped in academic learning for the past several months and feeling akin to a pickled gherkin removed from its saline solution, is not fit to attempt this task that involves being a reviewer in the real world of social media.

The first read I act like a tourist in an art museum, my needs immediate and my expectancy urgent, waiting for a piece to strike an emotional cord so that I can take a mental snapshot of its noteworthy nature. Occasionally, the words flying at me coagulate into something more, then there is a brief leaping of the blood, a flush of recognition. But I struggle to stay involved, to feel what I know I’m supposed to feel; my head space is wrong.

It’s at this point that I do some short story research, the idea being to come up with a solid scaffolding for judging the merits of short stories. I also look at the author’s notes on Such is Life and other reader and blogger reviews – and there are a great many to choose from since Jeri Walker-Bickett is a well-known blogger and writing teacher.

I am entranced by Larry Crane’s excellent blog post (http://69.195.124.64/~mainelar/2013/02/02/review-of-such-is-life-jeri-walker-bickett/#axzz2YX5dV0PV) which throws a bright fresh light on Walker-Bickett’s deftly crafted collection as literary realism. From the other reviewers I gather that it’s okay to have a strong favourite in the collection, and between their fulsome enjoyment of Such is Life and Larry Crane I re-read the collection, more slowly this time, looking at each story with newly opened careful eyes.

It works! I get into it this time. I begin to appreciate the sometimes unusual language constructs which lend colour, the local humour which adds authenticity, the distinctive nuances of plot, place and character and I get a good glimpse of what it is that is holding the characters back and what it is that they are looking for and desire so badly. I start to see each story as a different framed episode in a bigger frame; the four shorter stories framing the teacher-versus-writer story, acting as emanations from her rebellious pen.  I grasp that it is this structure which frees Walker-Bickett to make no judgements – such is life, after all – but also to imply in a clear ringing tone (the teacher’s voice) that as hard as it might be, sometimes the only solution is to make a life choice which gets one closer to what one wants.

“Not Terribly Important” is the centre-point around which the other stories rotate as misaligned planets (different tempo, different drama) might do. Each of the characters in the four varied encircling stories have choices to make which will determine if they break away from their claustrophobic circumstances or not. The teacher is the emblematic central character of the collection; only she makes the big break, deciding that she will do what gives her satisfaction and write with no restrictions, rather than teach. By rebelling against the narrow mentality of the Mormon community she ‘escapes’ and becomes a talisman for choosing a different fate. Interestingly, in what for me is the most moving story, “For the Love of Dog”, the main character shows no sign of planning to leave her claustrophobic marriage, and that is perhaps the source of my sadness, understanding that the dog is a momentary interlude of reciprocated love, and there is no possible cure for her loveless existence.

It strikes me at some point that Such is Life is a worthy title – even if, indeed because there are other books with the same title which lend their own echoes of gravitas and wry humour.  Such is Life implies nothing and everything about a few ordinary lives, lives that might easily appear small and unimportant if viewed from a zoomed-out perspective. But the power of Such is Life to affect readers comes from its zoomed-in perspective on the emotional jeopardy faced by each central protagonist. Walker-Bickett appears to have intimate knowledge of her characters’ dilemmas, telling their stories with delicate precision. I experience the pleasure of human kinship that bridges differences, as if the secret life of the artist has some tenuous extraordinary relation to my own inner life.

After reading “Pretty Girl” I conclude that it takes a certain kind of bravery to have a Such is Life philosophy. By the end of “Not Very Important” I’m wondering at what point such a philosophy becomes counter-productive, encouraging lethargy and stasis rather than reaction and decision-taking? But Walker-Bickett allows for no easy answers, choosing her next two stories with care.

The tragic situation that unfolds in “For the Love of Dog” suggests that death may provide some kind of a solution, or resolution, to our unseemly untidy emotions. My heart breaks for the dog’s distraught mistress.

I reach “River Walk” with a strong sense of human fellowship; we are all in this together, a strange unscripted adventure that requires our participation and involvement. “River Walk” unsettles me. Is it a good decision to opt out when life can no longer be adequately lived? Walker-Bickett leaves this question open.

I’m left with the finality of unresolved sadness: some will find it in themselves to change the circumstances which restrict and limit their lives and some will not; some will find a way to endure and some will not.

“For the Love of Dog” hums quietly in my head; I consider it to be that rare pitch-perfect story, not a word too much or too little, not an emotion portrayed too sparingly or too excessively.  Such is Life, a collection of edgy and engaging stories about modern life, enlarges my worldview and shifts my perspective. What more can one ask?

Genre Genre Genre

In Writers’ World (think of it as an unscripted version of The Truman Show), ‘Genre Genre Genre’ is the equivalent of a property developer or estate agent’s ‘Location Location Location’.

It’s taken me a long time to accept the validity of this line of thinking. Partly because I’m stubborn. Partly because I’m ignorant. Partly because I’m naive. Or should that be ingenuous? Probably all of them. And there’s plenty of other partly’s I could come up with to explain why it’s taken me several years of devoted attention to the art and craft of writing to properly comprehend that not writing in a specific genre puts you out there in no man’s land. If the truth be told it has less to do with the ‘partlys’ than with my own inability to suspend belief. So this post has been sitting in draft mode since June 2012 (!)

I’m finally ready to accept it. The undeniable truth is it’s much harder to emotionally reach readers and garner good reviews if there is no framework or context to prepare the reader or reviewer for the story they are about to read. Covers and titles and even the splurb on the back book jacket are all necessary to create a consumer brand impression, which relates back to a genre type. This is how publishing works in the 21st century; the less hidden surprises the better. It’s become understandable if a reader feels cheated or misled, and just as understandable for a certain type of reviewer to slate a book publicly that is not their preferred genre/brand.

But easier is not always the way to go. Sensible is as sensible does. There is space for something harder to achieve, something that strives to be different. This post is finally being published because a penetrating and far-seeing clarity has been thrown on the matter by a guest post hosted on Jeri Walker-Bickett’s ‘Best Books’ blog, which focusses on Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin as a mixed genre novel. Thanks to A.K. Andrew’s thought-provoking essay I am ready to proceed knowing that, while as Andrews puts it “Mixing genres in one novel is not for the feint-hearted”, it is a way of writing novels that can be justifiably pursued.

I shall persist in calling it chiaroscuro fiction until I find a better term to describe the depth and breadth of mixed genre fiction.

Kill Smartie Breedlove by Joni Rodgers

A romp with a noirish underside

Posted originally on Amazon and Goodreads, December 19, 2012
 
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Joni Rodgers has enough chutzpah to turn a crime mystery tale with the requisite hard-boiled ex-cop and gutsy female protagonist into a romp with a noirish underside. I adored Smartie Breedlove and the way she really really loved her dog, and the hilarious turns of phrase that flowed so naturally, even at moments of high drama.

Rodgers allows her main character to act in a `fa-woosh!’ fashion without too much interference (good writing makes it seem that way!). Would the blowsy wit of phrases like “fracketty froo” and “fribbles in a snivet” have made it past the gatekeepers of traditional publishing? Probably not. Instead we get to chuckle out loud and be entertained. Some of the dialogue was so great I kept on getting the urge to share it with someone by reading it out loud.

With all the witty dialogue it’s easy to forget the opening scene. But Rodgers does a weirdly smart thing; interwoven with the investigation and writing of her own pulp fiction book are frequent mentions (by Smartie) of Hebrew rites and rituals for death and mourning, and somehow it’s effective. It makes Smartie a real person with a big heart, and it adds an uneasy painful layer to the frenetic action scenes. I thought the idea of Shiva – 7 days to mourn a loved one – was something Western civilization should adopt.

The obfuscation of the real story with Smartie’s fiction writing works brilliantly; the two versions continually appear to coalesce and then separate again. I couldn’t help wondering if Smartie wasn’t going to confound everyone by returning from the dead to participate in another near-fictional adventure of her own making.

Kill Smartie Breedlove is a great holiday e-book read!

See Joni Rodgers’ other fiction here.

1581591430/06/2013 Footnote: The original cover had super-long sexy legs in black pantyhose and stilettos which I thought stood out head-and-shoulders above the crowd in terms of ultra-cool eye-catching design, but it suggested a noir thriller. The new cover version on Amazon and other sites featuring the very cute dog with jowls should attract readers who enjoy mystery novels with a smart, very human protagonist (more in line with Joni’s other novels). It would be interesting to know how the cover change affects sales.