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Friday, August 31, 2018

Secrets of the Lighthouse

I love a great ghost story, and Secrets of the Lighthouse by Santa Montefiore is a unique one. The first page instantly drew me in as I pictured a young wife and mother looking at a lighthouse in the beautiful Connemara region of Ireland and a tiny chapel by the sea where family was gathering for a funeral. As the chapter drew to a close and I discovered the narrator, a woman whose shoes I'd set myself into, was actually a ghost watching her own funeral, I was completely intrigued. I had to find out what happened in the charred remains of the abandoned lighthouse.

In between the ghost’s chapters, we follow the story of Ellen Trawton, who has decided to run away from her family’s home in England and visit her mother’s sister Peg, whom she has never met. In fact, Ellen’s mother had been adamant that her family never visit Ireland so when Ellen arrives, she is shocked to discover that she not only has an aunt but a number of uncles and cousins. Ellen is running away from an arranged marriage she never wanted to a man she doesn’t love, as well as the pretentious trappings of her mother’s life—a life she wants her daughters to emulate. Aunt Peg’s home sits along the same coastline as the abandoned lighthouse and Ellen is intrigued with the rumors of what happened there, each piece of gossip more salacious than the last.

The author causes the village to come alive. I could feel the Wild Atlantic Way as the ocean’s spray reached Ireland's west coast, could smell the salt on the air and taste the rain that is ever present. Within the pages, I witnessed a large group of characters spring to life and yet I never felt overwhelmed by them all, and each was easy to remember. Each, in fact, carried a story of their own, a small piece of the larger puzzle that brought the mystery to life.

Secrets of the Lighthouse is a story of decisions made, often in haste and without regard for the consequences. In turn, they placed each character on a particular path, some by their own choice and others as collateral damage.

Ellen discovers secrets that were hidden for thirty years, secrets that impacted both her past and her future. Her mother’s story unravels to reveal the lies that were told, the life that was chosen—and that life which she left behind, the consequences of which reared up when least expected.

When Ellen falls for Conor, the ghost’s widower, she must decide whether to believe the tales told in the village pub or discover what really happened that fateful night at the lighthouse. As she grows ever closer to Conor, his dead wife must decide what she will do, where she will go, and whether to leave this life behind or continue haunting it.

If you enjoy stories set in Ireland, a ghost story, romance, mystery and adventure, you will enjoy Secrets of the Lighthouse. I am looking forward to reading more from this author.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Closure and the Hero

One major way in which fiction differs from reality is with closure. Readers need to have most of their questions answered by the end of the book or they feel dissatisfied. In reality, a lack of closure is commonplace and often leads to a great deal of angst.

A common circumstance that prevents closure is through a death, especially if the death is sudden or unexpected. We may have a tendency to believe that the people surrounding us will always be there and will always be available to answer our questions, when in reality none of us carry any guarantees. A loved one’s unexpected death might then leave us with unanswered questions for months—or even years.

In fiction, the plotline may begin with the death of a loved one. We find our hero suffering from heartbreak due to the physical loss as well as experiencing a sense of loss from all their unanswered questions. This, in turn, places the hero—and the reader—on a journey. A notable bestseller that uses this plotline is The Shack by Wm. Paul Young.

Or we might discover the deceased led a double life and the person we thought we knew was someone else entirely. In A Double Life by Flynn Berry, the deceased is someone that is murdered and the loved one—the hero’s father—is missing for nearly thirty years. In Claire’s journey to discover what happened, she is placed on a path that will determine whether her recently discovered, estranged father is a murderer. The book is inspired by the real life story of Richard John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan and better known as Lord Lucan, who disappeared in 1974.

In other stories, we discover things about the deceased that might have pulled the hero closer to their loved one, if only they had known. A notable one is Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Hg, in which a couple’s favorite child is found dead in a local lake, plunging the family into a journey filled with secrets and longing.

In other stories, the hero might have inherited property from the deceased, often from a distant relative they barely knew. The property is never in the hero’s hometown, but always in an unfamiliar setting, which takes us on a journey of discovery together. They often encounter secrets long hidden, a haunted property, or in forging a new life for themselves, they fall in love or otherwise are placed on a path they had never foreseen. Many times they confront problems, often seemingly insurmountable, and through the act of perseverance they come through the fire, forever changed.

In reality, not having closure is also increasingly common through ghosting, a term I (being of an older generation) was not familiar with until recently, although the AO (Always Online) generation considers it a fact of life. In this case, the loved one has not died but has simply become a ghost to someone with whom they had a relationship. The one that is left may have been unfriended or unfollowed on social media, have had their phone numbers and email addresses blocked, often rendering the other party impossible to reconnect with. This leaves even more unanswered questions as the biggest question of all—Why?—remains elusive. This is particularly frustrating when the parties live far apart, even on opposite sides of the world, preventing the party that was left from physically reconnecting.

One novel that dramatically covers this phenomenon is Ghosted by Rosie Walsh. Two people meet and fall in love and when one disappears, the other is left with a million questions. This is a page-turner that takes our hero on a quest to discover what happened to the man she loves.

Then there are novels in which closure doesn’t occur until decades later, such as Secrets of the Lighthouse by Santa Montefiore, the story of a woman that travels to Ireland and discovers thirty-year-old family secrets—and in so doing, discovers her future.

In fiction, unlike real life, authors must make sense of the journey we’ve put the reader on. In reality, much of our lives appear to have no rhyme or reason and we are constantly discarding those things our subconscious deems unimportant to fill our brains and our time with those things our subconscious considers important. Novels must dispense with the unimportant and focus only on what is critical to the plot. Every scene must perform double duty, and by the end of the book the reader must be satisfied why they were taken on this journey. The best books leave lessons behind. The best books contain characters that come alive in our minds and heart, characters that have become our friends or our foes during the course of the book and that remain with us long after we have finished that last page. To leave the character in limbo or the reasons unexplained is to leave the reader with the sense that closure has eluded them.

The exception is when a book leads us to the next in the series. We still require closure of those challenges that brought us through the plot with the characters, but we also begin to see clues that the characters’ stories are continuing. Perhaps they are given a new job, different mission, a move is imminent or a romance is beginning. We have become invested in the characters so we will eagerly await their next adventure as we have done with James Bond, Jason Bourne and others.

And in that continuing adventure we discover that the novels now imitate life, and once one chapter is laid to rest, another begins.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Judging a Book by its Cover

There have been a lot of comments about the cover of Checkmate: Clans and Castles. Eye-catching and unusual, reviewers and contest judges have been keen to connect the dots between all the different elements, leading to this post on the thought that goes into a cover.

The background is a photograph of fire, inspired by the fact that “all of Ulster was burning.” The fires began in Derry, bordered by the River Foyle to the east and County Donegal to the west, set by the last Gaelic Irish King of Ireland, Cahir O’Doherty, and his men at the same time as O’Doherty killed Derry’s Governor, Sir George Paulet.

William Neely and others that had sworn allegiance to King James were a scant group against O’Doherty’s more powerful and numerous forces and as the sun set, Wills asked, “What day is this? I am afraid I do not even know the date.”

The men thought for a moment. “April 19,” Tomas said finally. “A Tuesday, it is.”

They fell silent then, each with his own thoughts, as the last vestiges of the sun descended beyond the horizon. It was odd in a way, Wills thought; he could not recall a single day in which it had not rained. Even on the most beautiful of mornings with naught a cloud in the sky, there was always rain by afternoon. It was the hide of the beast, being on an island such as this with nothing to stop the clouds as they blew over the Atlantic. And it was the reason, he knew, for the varied shades of green; for the forests that sprang back up even after they had been trampled down or burned out; for the lush vegetation that stubbornly grew amidst the rocks and the limestone. And yet on this date—Tuesday, April 19, 1608—as Derry was torched and burned to the ground, not a single drop of rain had fallen to douse her flames.

O’Doherty would rally all of Ulster together, joining clans that had traditionally fought against one another, in a brazen attempt to regain Ireland and drive the English and Protestant Scots from their island, depicted on the cover as soldiers on horseback within the outline of chess pieces:

All of Ulster was burning.

Colonists flooded the tiny settlement of Fort Stewart in the ensuing days; each questioned regarding their village, its inhabitants and possible identification of clans involved. They came from the east and west, north and south, all with the same tale: surprise attacks, civilians ordered out of their homes before they were torched, and men killed when they fought back. They came in overwhelming forces flying flags of a dozen or more clans and in each instance they were urged to return to their native countries. It appeared as if the Irish were expelling the immigrants and there was nothing and no one to stop them.

Some simply passed through on their way to Donegal and a ship to carry them back to their native country. Others were en route to Dublin, where they believed they would be safer. Outside of Ulster, there was unrest but nothing like the uncertainty of attacks and rebellion they faced here.

From the fields, he could watch the water on Drongawn Lough and his eyes would inevitably wander to the land mass on the other side of it; O’Doherty property, it lay like a silent sentinel, waiting, waiting.

The chess outlines were inspired by this scene that included an altercation between Cahir O’Doherty and George Paulet:

Cahir made a move for the sword he carried across his back, but Phelim held him steady. “Not here,” he said, the pressure on Cahir’s shoulder visibly increasing. “Pick your place and time.”

After an awkward moment, Cahir glanced meaningfully at the chess board and said, “You have allowed yourself to become flanked.” With that, he reluctantly shifted his eyes away from Paulet and slowly continued toward the door. When Wills turned back to the bar, he found three mugs waiting and Fergus had joined his side.

“I’ll just be taking these two,” Fergus said, his large hands grasping two mugs.

As Paulet returned to his chair, he shouted, “Serving wench! Where is that disgusting bint? Bring me another ale. Someone has absconded with mine!”

Wills made a move to point out Paulet’s mug but Fergus moved into his line of vision. “Don’t,” he said. “Stay out of it.”

“I am afraid,” Paulet’s chess partner stated, moving his bishop to capture Paulet’s king, “that the ruffian was quite correct. I flanked you, dear George, and now your king is finished. Checkmate.”

Usually, only one of the elements would have been used on the cover: the fire, the men or the chess pieces. But the book is non-stop action and adventure as William Neely seeks to find his fortune and his future in Ulster, only to be caught up in O’Doherty’s Rebellion. The Neely family had originally lived in Ulster, ironically in and around the Inishowen Peninsula that the O’Doherty family ruled for over a thousand years. They left in the 13th century for Scotland, and William returned in 1608. As O’Doherty’s Rebellion broke out, he had a choice: to remain loyal to King James I of England or switch sides and fight alongside men that might have been his distant cousins.

Watch the book trailer below or on this page:

The book is available in all book stores; if you don’t see it on the shelf, ask for it. Or you can buy it today on amazon. It is also available in all ebook formats.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

The Hero: Confronting the Inner Saboteur

Our heroes often feel larger than life: Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan, Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta or Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone.

But in reality, most heroes are filled with self-doubt at one time or another and many appear to fling themselves into self-sabotaging behavior. When we consider it in terms of book characters, there are people that allow themselves to be swept along by Fate while others attempt to mold or destroy—and sometimes, mold and destroy—everything around them.

A character that is swept along by Fate is someone that is searching for a peaceful, idyllic existence. They don’t want to rock the boat, but the boat ends up rocking them. We can see this in Melanie and Ashley Wilkes in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: they are content reading their books, participating in polite society events and overseeing their fortunes. Their world is rocked, however, by a war that neither of them wanted but in which they were destined to participate, if for no other reason than precisely because of the lifestyles they both enjoyed at the expense of slave ownership.

A character that is intent on molding their world into something they want can be seen in the autobiographical The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort. Once a teenager selling Italian ices, he became a stockbroker, earning thousands of dollars a minute through microcap investing. He saw what he wanted and he went after it with a single-minded focus, a tunnel vision that created an empire and made his name infamous.

But often the characters—in our books as well as real life—sabotage themselves. When they are at their zenith, they develop an almost pathological tendency to tear everything apart. In Jordan Belfort’s case, it took the form of excessive binges (including a $700,000 hotel tab), extramarital sexual excesses, drugs, money laundering, fraud and prison. (Belfort was both the protagonist and antagonist, because he turned out to be his own worst enemy.)

Often our heroes exhibit self-sabotaging behavior in more subtle ways: the mediocre businessman afraid of real success, the character that we’re begging to turn around and walk away but feels compelled to enter the dark, frightening house filled with ghosts or bad guys… The hero that destroys every relationship until they meet someone with equal strength that won’t allow him or her to walk away… They could be brilliant at what they do with their lives and then destroy it all through alcohol, drugs, gambling or simply poor choices.

It has been said that there are no truly good people and no truly bad ones; only those that have a mixture of both. Some move from one side to the other in subtle ways, while others careen like trains hurtling off the tracks. The best characters, the most memorable ones, are those that show us both their sides: Rhett Butler, in his tender love for his daughter Bonnie as well as his illegal blockade running; or Jesse Stone Novels by Robert B. Parker featuring Jesse as a top-notch police chief and investigator with a dark side battling depression and alcohol while still carrying a flame for an ex-wife who has moved on. (Made into a fabulous film series starring Tom Selleck.) Often we cheer for the hero that is acting outside the box but with altruistic motives.

Authors walk a fine line with these characters. The reader must be able to identify with them or place themselves in their shoes, so their foibles cannot be so off-putting as to turn the reader away. Sometimes it’s the character’s weaknesses that draw the reader closer, creating sympathy but also admiration for the way they carry on despite their personal demons.

And let’s face it: no one really wants to read about the perfect character living the perfect life. Do they?

Watch the video below or on YouTube at