Saturday, August 19, 2017

An Updated Zilly View of Mykonos


Four years ago I offered a view of Mykonos in August, captured by my partner in Crime, Barbara Zilly.  Back then her focus was on pencils and pastels, plus stealing away for a few hours from her portraits of children and dogs to visit her special places of inspiration with her camera.  But then she discovered oils!   Above and below are some of her more recent pencil drawings of the canine persuasion (plus one cat and kid), followed by examples of her oils inspired by the images of Mykonos.

Now onto photos of Barbara's favorite island places...followed by some of her oils.  By the way, I photographed these oils secretly, solely to share her talent with you.  And I did so at great personal risk, for Lord knows what will happen when she learns what I've done.  







My favorite oil of our favorite place...

And last--but not least--what Barbara's working on back in NYC...


Friday, August 18, 2017

To Ben Cleuch and beyond....

This week I have been out and about driving across the country to a place called Tillicoultry, deep in the shadows of Ben Cleuch. It turned out to be one of those beautiful events, it was as if the entire village had turned out to see me.  I don't think a lot goes on In Tillicoultry. The Sava centre shut at 6pm and my event was on at  7.

There were people standing at the back and sitting on the stairs, and there was that most marvellous of sights; a big pile of books turning into a small pile of books as people bought them. It was also pleasing to see a few teenagers there, who also went on to buy books. In Scotland, school leavers had just found out the previous week how they got on in their big exams and if they were going on into the University of their choice. One girl said she was going on to do chemical engineering. 'Oh,' I said, 'Are you going to work on weapons of mass destruction.'  'Yes,' she replied, smiling sweetly.
I had elected to be interviewed by Ian Keane, who was a very charming young man with his best tie on and what I later found out was a newly rumped hair do. I judged from the conversation that his parents were in the audience and he knew the young attractive female bookseller well enough to give her a bit of the banter. To non Scots this sounds like swapping very rude insults, but it's basically being 'pals with insults' which is not the same as 'friends with benefits'. 

We had an initial chit chat about books, life the universe and somebody in the audience pointed out that Ian had been challenged to write a Mills and Boons book - big mistake, i think he realized as I turned in my seat and said..Oh really.

It was probably a drunken bet over a late night curry but of course I knew now. So I asked him how many words he had, 10,000 but that's a detailed synopsis he said - he's not started the book yet. I told him the average Mills and Boon reader might not be able to cope with that much plot. He said the book was about a shepherdess, I asked if the shepherdess had a faithful border Collie - oh shit he said, I'd better put one in. It would seem unromantic to have the shepherdess tootilling around in a quad bike.
                                           an ochil

                                                                  two yokels

I could now see the hatred in his eyes, I have that effect  on most men.  I asked him what the title of the novel was and he responded - twilight in the Ochils. The locals in the audience heard twilight in the ochils, we far flung Glaswegians of which there was many in the audience, burst out laughing as we heard - toilet in the yokels. So once we got that sorted out, he explained it was twilight because it was a bit like the twilight series on the tv, and the Ochils were the range of hills that go across Scotland around Stirling and Perth. Those of you who have been to Bloody Scotland have probably perched on an Ochil. 

                                                  some american yokels

Crap title, I said with my usual subtlety  and then explained in a helpful way while being totally insulting, about the Brataslava effect and how you would only know what an Ochil was if you were local. I then went on with the help of the audience to expand his novel for him. As it was a Mills and Boon we should incorporate a Colin Firth type in a wet shepherd's outfit lying face down in a babbling burn ( small river !) and the shepherdess can come along and save him, although at this point the novel deviated towards the horror genre when I suggested it might be nice if Mr Firth was dead and his back covered in the hoofprints of the feral goats that are known to roam the moors. 

I don't think he thought much of my suggestion, but the audience were keen to see the film and kept adding ideas for product placement, the  casting couch and it it have enough legs to be the next Game Of Thrones.  The Feral Goats Of Ochil  doesn't have the same ring...
                                                          A toilet
Afterwards, he was saying that he's actually a huge sci fi fan and I said that a good story is a good story and can be set anywhere - in any genre, in any time or place. A faraway look came into his eye and he said he has a recurring sentence that comes into his mind, and the sentence was 'the shadow of the dark son...'.
                                            some feral goats...

That's not a sentence from the novel you numpty I said, that sounds more like the title of the book!

 I considered my work done. I had signed books, made people laugh and I had totally confused someone who spoke like he might be a really good writer and could be my opposition in a couple of years time.  I don't need the competition.

nice ochils!
Time to go home and eat chocolate

Caro Ramsay  18 08 2017

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The North South Divide

Today’s guest post is by Frank Owen—or if you prefer today’s guest posts are by Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer, because Diane and Alex write novels together under the name Frank Owen. They are both well-known South African authors in their own right. Diane has won the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa and the Caribbean) for her novel, Gardening at Night, and is a teacher, reviewer, and poet. Alex wrote The Space Race for adults, and also writes and illustrates children’s books. An unlikely combination to write a dystopian and totally scary alternative history thriller set in the United States? Don’t judge until you’ve read South. Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz loved it—Lotz called it a “post-apocalyptic game changer.”

They take us to a US where the civil war didn’t happen until much later, when unification of the North and the South became more a matter of political ambition than of policy. By the time the war does happen, it has many modern warfare horrors available and spirals into germ warfare. The North uses the wind and multiple mutated viruses to destroy the South, and also builds a wall across the continent to enforce the separation. (This idea seems to remind me of something but I can't quite place it...) The world that Diane and Alex build on this foundation is as real and bitter as McCarthy’s The Road.

Alex and Diane chose to write one piece each linked to the background of the book. Here’s Diane on research for the book and more:

Fun guy

One thing leads to another. It’s true of murder mysteries; it’s true of life.
And it’s also true for research – which for me is one of the enduring joys of writing: that sense of being a scholar, of filling myself up with the collective knowledge around a subject that has piqued my interest, of discovery for its own sake. It’s a luxury. It requires time. It requires the right amount of neglect by other people so writers can get it done.  
And we can’t, of course, ever know our areas completely, but that is the other joy – of rediscovery, or of the strange-making of the familiar.
Dead by Alex Latimer
What first interested me passionately about South was Alex’s annotated illustrations of the plot. He actually had the whole story – the big picture – stored somewhere in his head. And the final image (a doodle, really) was of a cowboy lying dead, with mushrooms springing from his corpse. There was something spare but also terrifically visceral about that kind of sacrifice, and it plugged in visually to all sorts of stories and films I’d been encountering my whole life.
Not least of it was the Christian mythology of sacrifice and rebirth, which is, as we all know, really an enduringly pagan story: the Green Man, Yggdrasil, Isis and Osiris. It recurs in every culture, and there’s a reason: the archetype is real. It speaks to us. That little pencil illustration spoke to me.
It spoke most directly to my background in trauma studies: how some people recover from personal and communal trauma, and how some people never do. As I get older I’m beginning to understand that it’s not the terrible thing that has happened that counts. It’s what you do the morning after – how your body has its own way of dealing with grief; how your mind has these wonderful coping mechanisms it can turn on and off.
South isn’t only an escapist tract. It also seems to be about how people live – or don’t live – in the aftermath of stupid, horrendous political decisions that have direct and damaging effects on their lives. But we also wanted it to be real in the sense that all the remedies that people are experimenting with in the novel could actually be replicated in the event of a viral onslaught – not unlike the ones we’re experiencing already.
Mushrooms by Alex Latimer
The mushrooms filled that gap nicely. I started seeing them everywhere: in shops, of course, and online (when you do that Google search, you want to be super-specific about your terms…), in Chinese medicine and New Age remedies and Christmas baubles and funerary practices, in the artist Jae Rhim Lee’s mushroom burial suit that was seeded with spores.
But the surprising and satisfying thing for me was that they had been there all along, in more ancient settings: as the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, in Buddhist carvings, in monks’ illuminated manuscripts. I just had to look with new eyes.
If we’re lucky, that is what happens with research. It flips a switch somewhere in our minds that allows us to see beyond the literal, to make connections between things, ideas, and people: to see, ultimately, how it all fits together, and what our place is in that order.

And that’s really what we’re here to do, as humans: that reaching out is at the heart of most religious cosmologies, and at the heart of why we write novels. The best books are summations of the experience and wisdom of other people. They’re trying to pass it along, spreading the stubborn, healthy spores so that we can regenerate, as individuals, as communities. So that we can survive, and thrive.

Weather map by Alex Latimer
And Alex tells us why they chose the US as the place to set the story, and the rather surprising outcome:

R of SA vs US of A
It wasn’t an easy decision to set South in the USA. We’ve been to New York and Florida to visit and teach, but those places aren’t representative of the entire country. But there was the obvious draw of the American market over the South African one. A few years ago I was on a science fiction and fantasy podcast with Lauren Beukes and she mentioned that her novel The Shining Girls had become a bestseller in in South Africa. I cheekily asked her how many sales make a bestseller here. The podcast host almost choked when he heard her answer: I think it was a couple of thousand, which for Americans is approximately the number of review copies a publisher sends out before a book hits the shelves.
I know money isn’t everything, but it’s definitely something.
The decision to set South in America was experimental. Both Diane and I have published locally and we knew what to expect if we chose to go that route again: some nice reviews and brief celebrations at literary festivals, but no one’s giving up their day job. Aiming overseas was unpredictable and exciting. Besides, why even write under a pseudonym if you’re not going to change things up a little?
But even after we’d decided on America, the whole notion still felt uncomfortable. The uneasiness for me came down to my own right to set a novel in America. I felt as though I was betraying some unwritten agreement between author and reader: ‘Write what you know’ and all of that.
But as soon as we started on writing the actual chapters, those worries evaporated. I found that I knew what Colorado looked like. I knew how people talked there and how they dressed. I knew the rivers and the colour of the dirt: the Internet helped with the names of the plants and the trees, but everything else was there inside my mind. How do I know what a diner in Nebraska looks like? The answer is that America has been culturally colonising the rest of the world for decades. We’ve all grown up on a diet of Clint Eastwood and Coca Cola and Nike and Hollywood blockbusters. It’s so entrenched in our minds that writing in America is like writing in a genre of its own. And feeling bad about turning it round and sending it back to Americans suddenly seemed like a quaint notion - like the owner of a burger stand worrying about the business he might be stealing from McDonalds.
We also have tame American readers, so we make sure that the facts are the facts. One turned out to be from the exact town we were using, and he was happy with the accuracy of the novel. His main criticism was that he couldn’t remember that particular grass growing on the top of that particular ridge. Otherwise, we were spot on.
But there were more surprises along the way. Setting a novel outside of your home territory is also strangely illuminating. As South African authors we’re never going to move away from writing about South African issues, even if the setting changes. We care too much. South is about segregation and the impact that has on the people on both sides of the dividing line. It’s apartheid. Once that ideology is given a common culture, readers can begin to imagine how they’d have reacted given similar circumstances.

The punchline to all of this is South is published globally, but we’ve yet to sell the American rights. So until that happens, maybe I’m wrong about everything. You’ll have to judge for yourself.

More about Frank Owen and the book at

Monday, August 14, 2017

The East African Rift Valley: Where We Became People

Annamaria on Monday

To geologists, the most interesting place is in East Africa: the largest seismically active rift system on earth.  What’s happening there is that new tectonic plates are being formed by their spreading apart from the landmass.  This the opposite of where tectonic plates have pushed into each other to form mountain ranges.  In this case, when hunks of a tectonic plate separate, it causes chasms.  In the distant past, other such divorces have taken place on our sacred planet, but they are all now underwater or silted in—no longer active.

The separations—and there are two of them—taking place in East Africa have been going on since the onset of the Miocene about 25 million years ago.   The Nubian Plate and the Somali Plate are still moving, now at the rate of six or seven millimeters per year.  In another 10 million years or so, the Somali Plate will be completely broken off, and the sea will surround it.

Earth scientists are fascinated to be able to study this process and to theorize about why and how it is happening in this geologic wonder of the world.   The rift area includes not only parts of Ethiopia and Somalia, but also extends into Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and the African Great Lakes.  The rift is deepest north of Nairobi.  Theories vary as to why this process is underway just there and no where else on earth.  It seems that, like many thorny scientific questions, this one is a result of interactions of more than one force, making it difficult to sort out.

We know that the East African Rift Zone is the site of many dormant and active volcanoes, fifty of them in Ethiopia alone.  The Crater Highlands of Tanzania are part of this system, even though they now lie outside the rift area.  One of the active volcanoes is unique: The magma of the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano contains no silica, so it has extremely low viscosity.  National Geographic described it this way: “Its lava fountains crystallize in midair then shatter like glass.”  Wow, wouldn’t I love to witness that!

Ol Doinyo Lengai
Most fascinating to me is that this is where our race Homo Sapiens evolved.  The bones of our hominid ancestors have emerged from the sediments of the Rift Valley highlands.  These include the famous “Lucy”, the partial australopithecine skeleton from 3 million years ago, discovered by anthropologist Donald Johanson.   The rift in Ethiopia more recently yielded two other 10-million-year-old hominid ancestors: Chororapithecus abyssinicus and Nakalipithecus nakayamai.

Since so many hominid fossils have been found in the Great Rift Valley, scientists have begun to think that the evolving conditions there played a pivotal role in the development of our species.  Current theorists believe that the local situation caused the climate to alternate between wet and arid, which forced our hominid ancestors to adapt by becoming bipedal, increasing their brain power, and developing culturally.  My favorite article on this theory is the 2008 paper by Beth Christensen and Mark Maslin, delightfully titled “Rocking the Cradle of Humanity.”

For me personally, the African wilderness plays in my blood and in my soul in such a way that my response runs far deeper than ordinary joy.   This is where our species evolved, and I believe that, when we human beings go there, regardless of where we were born, on a cellular level, we recognize the place as home.  Ever since I first went, when I am not there, in my soul, I am homesick for it.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Long Time Coming — Zoë Sharp’s FOX HUNTER: Charlie Fox book 12

I freely admit that there were times when I truly thought I was never going to finish the latest Charlie Fox book. Number 12 in the series, FOX HUNTER seems to have taken me longer to write than anything since the very first novel about Charlie, way back when.

(US print/ebook edition)

The extended gestation period has had nothing to do with character fatigue, though. I’m still as interested in the nuances of Charlie’s psyche as I was when I started out. More so, if anything. She’s become far more complicated as a person than she was, and although she’s rather more practised when it comes to taking a life, the conflict it causes her internally is just as strong — if not stronger.

Yes, the locations for this story were trickier to realise than the books that went before it. While I’ve been to the Middle East, going into present-day Iraq was always going to be a dubious proposition. Getting across a flavour of the places, without making it into a travel guide, is always a fine balance. As with all research you put into a novel, I was aiming for realistic rather than real.

Sometimes I think you spend more time describing the locations you know less well, just to try to ensure you’ve got them right. On the other hand, it’s also difficult to give a first impression of somewhere you know intimately. If a stranger was visiting your home town for the first time, for instance, how would they come away feeling about it? What would be the thing that struck them most?

In FOX HUNTER, I had to take care with my descriptions of Iraq, Kuwait, and Jordan, in an effort to make them distinct without overdoing it. I’m thankful, yet again, for my years as a photographer, working almost entirely on location rather than in a studio, which makes you look at places in a different way.

(UK print/ebook edition coming Sept) 

On top of that, of course, was trying to overlay how Charlie would view her surroundings. She’s worked in close protection for long enough to always be looking for the next threat, and here there were plenty. I read widely, mainly memoirs of people who’d worked in those countries as outsiders rather than written by locals.

The actual storyline of FOX HUNTER follows on directly from the previous book, ABSENCE OF LIGHT. Sean Meyer is missing, last seen crossing the border from Kuwait into southern Iraq. The next thing Charlie knows, the body of one of the men who ruined her army career turns up dead:

‘The dead man had not gone quietly … There was a time when I would have given everything I owned to be the one responsible for that.’

Charlie Fox will never forget the men who put a brutal end to her military career, but she vowed a long time ago she would not go looking for them.

Now she doesn’t have a choice.

Her boss and former lover, Sean Meyer, is missing in Iraq where one of those men was working as a private security contractor. When the man’s butchered body is discovered, Charlie fears that Sean may be pursuing a twisted vendetta on her behalf.

Sean’s partner in their exclusive New York close-protection agency needs this dealt with—fast and quiet—before everything they’ve worked for is in ruins. He sends Charlie to the Middle East with very specific instructions:

Find Sean Meyer and stop him. By whatever means necessary.

At one time Charlie thought she knew Sean better than she knew herself, but it seems he’s turned into a violent stranger. As the trail grows more bloody, Charlie realises that unless she can get to Sean first, the hunter may soon become the hunted.

I worried that this novel might contain too much of Charlie’s past for new readers, although I’ve tried to explain the role the recurring characters play, again without overdoing. The further on in a series you get, the more you either have to explain the back story, or ignore it entirely and have each book stand alone with no reference to the others. And if you want the protagonist to grow and learn from their experiences, you can’t escape having progression, and therefore history.

(US audio edition)

I hope I’ve created a couple of engaging and entertaining new characters in FOX HUNTER, such as slightly jaded CIA operative Aubrey Hamilton, and private military contractor Luisa Dawson. I’ve also brought back characters from much earlier novels in the series, like Ian Garton-Jones — owner of Streetwise Security from RIOT ACT — and Balkan gangsters Gregor and Ivan Venko from HARD KNOCKS.

FOX HUNTER also marks the appearance on stage for the first time of characters mentioned but never seen — Charlie’s former army comrades, Donalson and Hackett, and Commanding Officer, Colonel Parris. This involved going back through quite a few of the earlier books to see what snippets of information I’d included about each of them.

In fact, the more I think about it, I’m surprised it didn’t take me longer to finish writing this one …

Especially when there were delicate subjects I had to tiptoe around, from ISIS to honour killings. I admit that when FOX HUNTER came out in the US this week, I was holding my breath on its reception. The first reviews have been good:

“Gritty, hard-hitting, all-around outstanding crime fiction.” Booklist (starred review)

“Nonstop action and an intricate plot weave together to create another thrill ride for fans of Sharp's heroine.” Kirkus

And emails so far from readers are enthusiastic. The only trouble is, they already want to know when they can expect the next one.

Note to self: Must Write Faster …

This week’s Word of the Week is insidious, meaning evil by stealth, as oppose to invidious, which is a more open kind of nastiness.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

It's Time to Save Mykonos.


I was inspired to write a piece on Mykonos this week based upon an article I’d read in the Greek online newspaper, Protothema, offering a disturbing assessment of the state of our island (For those interested in reading the article, if it doesn’t automatically translate into English, you can get its essence through Google Translate). As I started to write my post, I experienced a sense of déjà vu, and so, I dropped “Mykonos” and “crime” into my browser and voilà, up popped a post I’d written three years ago almost to the day. Titled “Mykonos Shame On You.”

I couldn’t believe it.  The points I’d covered back then within the power and authority of the municipality to address had not only festered or worsened, but in neglect had attracted a host of additional opportunistic, insidious infections.

The only genuine improvement to what I’d described back then was that the island no longer faced drought, something I think all would agree was attributable to divine intervention raining down on the island, not political will.

Come to think of it, from the way things are going over here, divine intervention may be its only salvation.

In my original piece I wrote, “The new mayor does not take office until September [2014], so none of what I’m about to say is directed at him, except of course to point out what I trust he already knows: Mykonos is in desperate need of order.”

Three years have passed, and as I said at the time to the newly elected Mayor when handing him a copy of my then new novel, “Mykonos After Midnight,” fictionalizing where I thought the island was headed, “If this book comes true, it’s on your watch. So take care.”

Three years have passed…on his watch.

In the interest of full disclosure, it’s well known that I’m a close friend of the candidate that the Mayor defeated for office.  But I’m also a close friend of Mykonians of all political persuasions who feel defeated by the current state and direction of their island. In that, Mykonians are not alone, for international party hotspots, such as Spain’s Ibiza and Mallorca, face similar threats, yet they are taking action to contest their fates, and not just sitting idly by in the cannibals’ pot enjoying all the dancing around them as the heat cooks them up for dinner.

Here’s what I wrote three years ago. Kick it up a quantum level or so for a better idea of the tack Mykonos is on, and with no course correction in sight, I fear for its future. 

As I said then, and repeat now, Mykonos is in desperate need of order.

A half-dozen years ago, one of the fictional characters in my debut novel, Murder in Mykonos, said, “I’m like a Mykonian: I’m used to living in a bordello—filled with police.”

Just the other day I heard a Mykonian say, “Mykonos is a brothel run by police.”

I guess you could call that evolution.

Frankly, I’m not sure who’s running it now.  Certainly not its elected officials.  The new mayor does not take office until September, so none of what I’m about to say is directed at him, except of course to point out what I trust he already knows: Mykonos is in desperate need of order.

Those with influence build as they wish wherever they want—beaches and building codes be damned; all drive and park with reckless disregard for each other and pedestrians; garbage and construction materials are dumped with impunity wherever convenient; noise regulations are disregarded if it stands to make the right folks money; and municipal licensing and tax laws selectively ignored or unenforced.

And why, pray tell, is all this done?

For the benefit of the tourists is the answer, or rather the benefit of those who profit off their presence—for one could hardly say the lack of pedestrian walkways, taxis, and public bus transportation benefits tourists.

Yet, it’s incontrovertible that tourists love it here.  At least a certain kind of tourist does. Why wouldn’t they?  Amid its beautiful beaches, heavenly weather, and pristine sea they can behave in a manner utterly unthinkable back home, for Mykonos has evolved into a place where rules are not enforced nor statistics made public that might shock some into clearer thinking on the downsides of unfettered personal freedom amid a place literally immersed in natural (and artificial) intoxicants.

It’s a three-month open party. One that Mykonians once treated as a harmless tourist tsunami—sweeping in each June and receding by September—providing what they needed to keep their treasured island alive for the balance of the year. But the tsunami now carries away far more than it contributes, draining away the very spirit and identity of the island.

It is a place for profiteers unconcerned with the long-term health of the island. The businessman who avoids paying the fees and taxes he legitimately owes is not a colorful character beating the system, he’s a villain wrecking the future of every Mykonian child in the island’s underfunded schools, damaging the year-round quality of life for every Mykonian who must suffer with bad roads, understaffed public health facilities, and garbage polluting every vista, every nostril, every day. 

And it is a place where thousands of fish are about to die as one of its two municipal reservoirs runs dry because of poor municipal planning. There is an old adage that “a fish stinks from the head down.” In this case I think there are thousands of heads to blame.

Welcome to September, Mr. Mayor, we’re all rooting for you.