Category Archives: Blog entries

A Ghost Story with a difference

Ightham Mote - inspiration for my new ghost story

I’m halfway through writing my next book, which I’m describing as a ghost story – with a difference.

The idea for the story came from a real life event. When I had just started dating my wife she went for an interview for a very intriguing job. It was a Property Manager post in an isolated country house that had recently been given over to the National Trust. There was accommodation for the postholder in the building. For security purposes, she would need to spend most of her time there, day and night. It was a wonderful opportunity, a beautiful property set in remote rural England.

But there was a catch.

The house was still lived in by the previous owners, who had been forced to turn to the Trust when the financial burden of running it became too much. This scenario is not uncommon, as few rich and aristocratic families now have the funds to sustain such enormous, old, leaky buildings. Some manage to generate sufficient income by opening the property up themselves, but not many. Most either get sold on to hotels, or go to into terminal decline and get demolished. A few get passed on to the National Trust.

It was at the job interview that my wife found out more about the set up. She gathered that the previous Property Manager had left under unusual circumstances. A breakdown was even mooted. The implication was that it was not because of the stress of managing the house itself. It was because the former owners had their own ideas as to how the property should (continue to) be run.

They hadn’t let go. And subsequently they made the manager’s life difficult. Very difficult.

My wife was offered the job, but she never took it. I’m glad as it was a long way to travel for us to see each other. Who knows whether our relationship would have survived that distance.

But I’ve always been fascinated by the set up. I’ve always known there was a story in there somewhere. And now, with the addition of a ghost or two, I have it. Why is it a ghost story with a difference? Well let’s just say, she ain’t afraid of ghosts.


Up in the Air – poems on video: The Cormorants

Here’s the second in my series of videos in which I read poems from my book Up in the Air. This time, The Cormorants, one of the first poems I ever had published. It’s a short poem about yearning and restlessness, seabirds, and the remote and lonely Scottish island of Iona.

As always, if you like it, please leave a comment.

You can buy Up in the Air here:

Up in the Air – Poems on video: Weather Map

The first of an occasional series of videos in which I read poems from my book, Up in the Air.

I wrote Weather Map when I was living in a small flintstone folly owned by the National Trust on the edge of a housing estate in London. At the end of the garden was – beyond a tricky pile of thorny scrub – a beautiful and little-known tributary of the Thames, the River Wandle. I had just started going out with the lovely woman who was to become my wife.

So, here is me reading Weather Map. If you like it, leave a comment.


You can purchase a copy of Up in the Air here:

Up in the Air poetry book – my first ever Youtube review!

I’m hugely grateful to New Zealand book blogger Pauline Reid for this review of my poetry book Up in the Air – my first ever Youtube review!

In it, Pauline talks about the sections in the book and shows her own Instagram photo of the book. She does a lovely reading of my poem ‘A Bird on the Moorland’. She also flags up the local interest for some of her subscribers, as one of the poems features the Albatross Statue in Wellington, her home town.

Have a watch and leave a comment if you like it!

Olga Tokarczuk: Go read

Two years ago a Polish friend at work went to a publishing event and brought me back a gift. It was a beautiful book called Flights by a Polish author named Olga Tokarczuk. (It really was a beautiful book, cobalt blue that appeared freshly inked, with fine white lettering, published by Fitzcarraldo Press.) The book was a real gem, a connected series of stories and meditations on travel, the body, and hope. The next year, my friend lent me a second book, House of Day, House of Night, which I also read and loved. Next thing, Olga Tokarczuk won the International Man Booker Prize for Flights.

This year I bought Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead which, in my view, is the best of her books I’ve read so far. (The wonderful title is from William Blake). The narrator, Janina Duszejko, gives us a whole new way of seeing the world, peppered with Medieval-style capitalised nouns, her own made-up names for people, a love of Blake, astrological ‘insight’, and a deep feeling for animals. The story centres around a series of gruesome murders on the remote Polish plateau where she lives, with only a few eccentric friends for company since she lost her beloved dogs. It’s far from a conventional detective story and focuses more on the narrator’s longing for a creative, numinous world free from suffering:

“Blake would say that there are some places in the Universe where the Fall has not occurred, the world has not turned upside down and Eden still exists. Here Mankind is not governed by the rules of reason, stupid and strict, but by the heart and intuition. The people do not indulge in idle chatter, parading what they know, but create remarkable things by applying their imagination. The state ceases to impose the shackles of daily oppression, but helps people to realize their hopes and dreams. And Man is not just a cog in the system, not just playing a role, but a free Creature.”

So, all I want to say is this: go read Olga Tokarczuk. You won’t regret it.

The Secret of the Tirthas is now on Kindle Unlimited!


Secret of Tirthas Kindle Unlimited

Just a quick post for all you Kindle Unlimited readers:

All 5 books of The Secret of the Tirthas mystery adventure series are now available to read for free on Kindle Unlimited!

What would you do if you inherited a garden full of portals to sacred places all over the world… only to find a killer was using them?

Start reading today:


2018 Year Review – a big thank you!

The Secret of the Tirthas books

2018 was a very full year for my books and writing. In July I published the final volume of The Secret of the Tirthas, The Unknown Realms. Following Lizzie’s journey from her initial move to the Herefordshire cottage with its strange garden of rooms all the way to her final showdown with the demons and their followers at the Fountainhead has been a real delight for me. I never knew just how much the story and characters would grow, and particularly how much I would come to love Lizzie, Pandu, Raj and Ashlyn. A huge thank you to all of you who have joined me on this journey, especially everyone who let me know what they think through reviews and emails. Your support means a lot to me!

Whilst the publication of the final novel might mean the end to readers in English, it’s just the start for readers in China and Taiwan, as the series is being translated by Mandarin publisher Fiberead. In September The City of Light came out on Amazon’s Chinese site and a range of other Mandarin retail sites, followed quickly by The Book of Life and The Dreamer Falls. The final two books are also being translated, so it’s a very exciting time for me.

The City of Light Mandarin CoverBook of Life Mandarin Dreamer Falls - Mandarin cover

And on top of all that, I have an Argentinian friend who is now translating The City of Light into Spanish. It’s great to see the series opening more portals in the real world!

In October I also brought out my first book of poetry, Up in the Air. I’ve been writing poems since my twenties, and had quite a few published in magazines such as Poetry Ireland, The New Welsh Review and Poetry Scotland. Up in the Air brought the best of these together, alongside a few unpublished poems. I was over the moon when the collection reached no.8 in Amazon’s Inspirational Poetry category!

I love this quiet period between Christmas and New Year. It’s the perfect time to do some thinking – and in my case, some plotting of the next novel, something with a very different twist.

I hope you have a fabulous New Year – and many thanks again for your reading and support!

Image: Paintings and Poetry in Up in the Air

Up in the Air poetry book

My new poetry book, Up in the Air, is divided into five sections – Air, Love, Water, Air (again) and Image.

The Image section consists of eight poems inspired by paintings, photographs, a display, a poster and a line drawing. In this post I’ll identify some of these pictures and talk about how they inspired my poems.

First off, the paintings.

The section begins with On Justice, inspired by the painting of Margareta van Eyck by her husband Jan van Eyck. The painting hangs in the Groeninge Museum in Bruges. When I saw it, I was mesmerised by the character in the woman’s face. I could see her intelligence and what I thought was a hint of sharpness, possibly even bitterness. My poem (check it out here if you don’t have the book) wanted to capture that, as well as meditate on the failure of even the greatest art to transcend mortality.

Image: Margareta van Eyck Portrait

The next poem, Self-Portrait, is based on one of Van Gogh’s paintings. There’s a lot going on here, as you can see, plenty of light, colour, chaos and energy. This painting is a gift to anyone’s imagination, so I just let mine run riot.

Exhibition, Merton is a long poem based on the paintings of the artist Jocelyn Merivale. I used to work with her husband, John, and so had the pleasure of studying her paintings in their home. Jocelyn’s main theme was water and especially the sea – but she also painted birds and portraits. Jocelyn died a few years ago and her website is currently down whilst her paintings are being professionally photographed, but below is a close up of Field of Birds. You can see more of her paintings here.

Image: Field of Birds, Jocelyn Merivale

The other poem based on a painting is Looking at it Now. Paolo Uccello’s Saint George and the Dragon in the National Gallery is a masterpiece. But, as with the poem that follows it, Beast (based on a gallery drawing), I wanted to re-imagine the relationship between man, woman, and ‘monster’, to reflect more modern sensibilities.

Image: St George and the Dragon

The Ogrw-Garw Display was an exhibition about one of the valleys in South Wales, created by a friend. The exhibition comprised beautiful photographs of the ancient oak woodland scattered across the mine-scarred landscape. But in the middle of the display was a single black-and-white photo of… a group of school children.

I wrote Ugandan Bestiary after a safari holiday with my wife in 2007. Back home, I studied the photos of the trip, mulling over the animals we’d had the good fortune to see.  In doing so, I came up with this series of short, vignette-style poems.

Image: Ugandan Bestiary

Finally, Christ in the Crowd was randomly inspired by this poster for Jesus Christ Superstar. As they say, inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere.

Buy Up in the Air here:

Guest Interview with US Author Hoang Chi Truong

Hoang Chi Truong

I first connected with Hoang Chi Truong, the author of Tigerfish, on social media. We quickly built up a rapport. I read Tigerfish and thought it was a beautifully told, often harrowing, memoir of Chi’s escape with her family from the Vietnam war to America. You can read my full review here. Chi interviewed me in the summer on her website and now I’m very pleased to return the favour. In this interview Chi tells me about her life as a refugee and how she came to write and independently publish Tigerfish. She speaks about her mission to promote her timely message of compassion for refugees.

Hi Chi, first can you tell us about why you decided to write your memoir Tigerfish?

Hello Steve, thanks for giving me the opportunity to share my author journey as a Vietnamese refugee in America on your blog. I’ll retrace my steps to publishing Tigerfish for your readers and perhaps afterwards they might consider sharing their own stories of struggle so others won’t feel they’re alone.

I wrote Tigerfish for my children in 1992, with the sole purpose of preserving our family history. I never intended it for public consumption. However, the Syrian refugee crisis in 2011 changed my mind. I published Tigerfish in 2017 as I felt I had a moral obligation to speak up for the Syrians from the perspective of a former refugee.

TigerFish

I felt that, as I’d received my US legal status as a teenager to achieve my American Dream, I now had to use my voice to raise awareness of what it means to be a refugee. I wanted to appeal to readers to have compassion for the plight of refugees, like others did for my family. With this new mission, I dusted off my manuscript and decided to self-publish TigerFish.

Recently, I received a request for an electronic file of TigerFish on behalf of a student with a print-disability at Santiago Canyon Community College, California. My book is going to be converted to an accessible, unencrypted format for his History class! I reread this request several times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Two years ago I would never have imagined this as a remote possibility for a first-time, independent author like myself.

Can you tell us what it was like to be a refugee?

I was born in Vietnam to a high ranking military officer and lived a protected and privileged life, but all that disappeared when we fled from political persecution. As refugees, we were conflicted between our overwhelming gratitude to be in America and our struggle with our suppressed and delayed grief, anxieties, and survivor’s guilt. We didn’t have the luxury of grieving for the siblings, relatives, friends, country, and culture we left behind. Instead, we forged on stoically to learn the language, excel in school, and better ourselves economically. Our family suffered discrimination, racism, and assaults but we persisted, convincing ourselves it was the cost of freedom.

Thank you for sharing that Chi, it’s very insightful and moving. Can you tell us about how you became an Indie Author?

I had a steep learning curve going from Chief of Emergency Response Mapping to being an independently published author. I was now a team of one, assembling editors, cover designers, formatters, beta and advanced readers, proofreaders, and a launch team. I relied on online resources as I designed a website and created a social media platform to share my story with my modest following. In the end, my debt is to the online indie author community and my social media followers who made my publishing dream come true. I can’t pay it forward enough to all the generous friends and writers for their support.

After publication how did you let the world know about Tigerfish and its key messages?

I used a number of ways to connect with readers and promoters including:

Press Release:  Before I launched Tigerfish I crafted emails, ready to send them to local radio stations, TV stations, newspapers, schools, libraries and bookstores. I persisted with the Sacramento Bee until Stephen Magagnini featured my story Vietnam’ documentary opens old wounds, offers new lessons for Sacramento author when my book became timely and relevant to the U.S. Administration’s Travel Bans in 2017 and the Vietnam War Series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novak. My recommendation when contacting the press is to emphasize how relevant your book is and why it’s important to feature your story.

Social Media:  I made online friends through social media, learning by trial and error. These friends became my most ardent and enduring supporters and promoters. I didn’t consider myself an extrovert and had to put on a brave face on various platforms. I always stayed accurate and authentic with my audience.

Blogging:  Before I published Tigerfish, I blogged about Minimalism to share my journey from my  first day sitting down to work on my book to its launch date and thereafter. I chose Minimalism as a subject to create an online following because at the time I couldn’t focus on my author’s job working from home until I’d minimized my household tasks. I shared my tips with readers. This process gave me the inner calm to dedicate 12 hours a day to reach my goal of publishing by May 2017.

Community Engagement:  The initial emails and phone calls brought immediate support from libraries, schools, and indie bookstores. Word of mouth brought more speaking engagements with colleges, rotary clubs, churches, book clubs, and nursing homes. Over the past 20 months, I’ve presented to an audience of one just as respectfully and enthusiastically as to 122 people. I’ve welcomed requests to write to me with follow-up questions.

Hoang Chi Truong Map

Most of all, I’ve been grateful that readers have valued my message of empathy and compassion to refugees. I hope I’ve helped to humanize instead of demonize millions of helpless and vulnerable people fleeing violence, hunger, and persecution.

That’s very inspiring, Chi. What are you working on now?

I’m currently living in Northern California with my husband, and we’re empty nesters of two grown children. While I continue to speak at libraries and book clubs I’m working on my next book, a continuation of TigerFish with a hopeful publication date of Summer 2020.

Thank you so much for your time, Chi, and for sharing your amazing story. Lastly, where can readers find out more about you and your book?

You can find out more about Tigerfish here:

Paperback: https://www.chibeingchi.com/about-my-book-tigerfish/

Kindle: https://www.amazon.co.uk/TigerFish-Vietnamese-Colonels-Daughter-America-ebook/dp/B071YMS2GS/

Audiobook: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hoang-Chi-Truong/e/B071H73G6V/

And you can find out more about me here:

Website: www.ChiBeingChi.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ChiBeingChi

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/chismith/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/hoangchitruong.author/

Facebook: https://facebook.com/beingchi

And finally, here are my PBS (Public Broadcast Station) interviews:
Valley PBS
PBS KVIE

My Top Ten Books for Children and Young Adults in 2018

So, I’ve already told you my best reads for adults in 2018 here. Now it’s time for my Top Ten books for Children and Young Adults that I’ve read this year.

La Belle Sauvage: top ten books for children and young adults 2018

A quick note. I have two boys aged 7 and 9 and this collection includes several I’ve read to them at bedtime. When we finish I discuss the story with them and ask them to rate it out of 5. I then give my own rating and we average it for Goodreads.

La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1), Philip Pullman

How great was it for those of us who followed Lyra Belacqua through His Dark Materials to hear Philip Pullman had written another book about her? But the twist is… it’s a prequel and this time she’s a baby being cared for by nuns! Lyra lives in a Priory opposite an Oxfordshire riverside pub run by our hero Malcolm’s parents.

La Belle Sauvage is an interesting read. The first half – nearly 300 pages – follows the steady life of Malcolm. He learns handicraft, serves at the pub, and gradually comes within a circle of revolutionaries who dare to criticize the Authority. In the context of today’s high-octane novels it’s quite an innovation, a return to old-fashioned slow-build storytelling with a low level of peril. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, and how quickly I read it. The second half – when Malcolm and a local girl have to save baby Lyra following a massive flood – is more action-packed and exciting. 4 stars

Tigerfish: top ten books for children and young adults 2018

Photo courtesy of Linda Lou Oliphant

Tigerfish, Hoang Chi Truong

I was fascinated by Hoang Chi Truong’s memoir of her family’s escape from war-torn Vietnam, and how they sought refuge in the United States. A very powerful story, with a message more relevant than ever in today’s world. You can read my full review here. I will be interviewing the author soon – watch this space. 5 stars

The Mystery of the Silver Spider, Robert Arthur

I loved The Three Investigators adventure mystery series as a boy. They’re now out of print, so it was a huge pleasure to stumble across this title in a second hand bookshop. In this episode, Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews find themselves working as spies on behalf of the CIA, trying to maintain the integrity of fictional Eastern European country, Varania. I read it to the boys at bedtime and they adored it. We’re now on to our second book in the series, The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot. 5 stars

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

Another one that I read to the boys at bedtime. As it had been with me as a child, it was very popular with them. The seven-year-old did however have a delayed-action burst of tears in the scene with Aslan on the Stone Table. It’s a fairly gruesome and sustained horror scene, as far as middle grade fiction goes – be warned when reading to younger listeners! 5 stars

Danny the Champion of the World, Roald Dahl

Another classic read to the boys, one of the few Roald Dahl books I have never read. We all enjoyed this saga of a boy and his poacher father. The ending is particularly poignant. 5 stars

Peacock Pie, Walter de la Mare

“Peacock Pie is surely one of the greatest children’s books of the century.” said The Times. I’ve had this secondhand book of Walter de la Mare’s poems for a while and had occasionally picked out a poem or two to read to the boys. But this year I read them a lot more and realised how brilliant this collection is. The majority of the poems are great fun, carried along by a crisp rhythm and rhyme. But many also have a subtle mystery. They appear as simple vignettes of people’s lives, but the more you read them, the more they resonate with darker, more adult themes. 5 stars

Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers, Dav Pilkey

My youngest son adores Captain Underpants. Pick any book and you will see why – this is rocket-fueled, imaginative storytelling for kids, full of ebullience, good will and humour! 4 stars

The Explorer: top ten books for children and young adults 2018

The Explorer, Katherine Rundell

Katherine Rundell is one of my favourite children’s writers. I’ve loved all her books I’ve read – Rooftoppers, The Girl Savage, and The Wolf Wilder. The Explorer is the story of a group of children trying to survive in the Amazon after a plane crash, who come across a long-lost explorer in a ruined city. Whilst I found this story more conventional than her others, it still includes her trademark blend of excitement, suspense, poetry and mystery – exactly what I strive for in my own writing. You can read my review of Katherine Rundell’s other books here. 4 stars

Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, Lynley Dodd

A re-read, because my children love this book so much. It’s a great story, with a colourful cast of dogs ranging from Hercules Morse (‘as big as a horse’) to Muffin McClay (‘a bundle of hay’) and the eponymous Hairy Maclary, from Donaldson’s Dairy. The gang go for a doggy strut downtown – only to be sent packing by Scarface Claw, the toughest tom in town. 5 stars

Finn Family Moomintroll

Finn Family Moomintroll, Tove Jansson

The Finnish writer Tove Jansson features in my A-Z of inspirational authors on Instagram, #stevegreads. The magical Moomins series was the first set of long books I remember reading as a child. This year, I read Finn Family Moomintroll to the boys. They weren’t quite as enamoured with this tale of the magical and tricksy Hobgoblin Hat as I was, but they still enjoyed it. It reminded me why I’d loved these books so much. The author’s gentle, wistful storylines; her delightful, eccentric characters; and above all, her deep empathy and reverence for nature. 5 stars

So that’s my top ten books for children and young adults in 2018. What did you read this year that inspired you?

If you’d like to find more books I’d recommend for children and young adults, check out my post for 2017 here.