Information theft is a crime like any other. It’s invasive, terrifying, and overwhelming. You find your contacts compromised, your identity used, your name degraded. It affects your health in terms of stress and anxiety when hackers steal your information. But the thing these crooks steal the most of is our time. Dealing with the fall-out of hacking can take days of effort. The thing that held me up most when I fell victim to a phishing scam was that I didn’t know what to do. When my initial attempts to regain control of my accounts failed, I had no idea how to fix things. The crooks had stolen the keys and locked me out. It was a powerless feeling. I had to get up to speed fast, and the way I did that was by ringing the police and getting their advice, which was helpful. Then I spoke to my eldest sister – aka the fount of all wisdom – and lastly, I went to see an I.T professional.

In the afterword of being hacked, being virtually locked out of my accounts, and spending four days fixing the mess, I guess the silver lining is I am more aware of cyber safety.
I am far more security conscious. As a writer, my natural reaction is to write about it. We need to protect ourselves from the dirty rotten scoundrels of this world by sharing our stories. There is strength in numbers and power in information and networking.
It’s times like these when a blog comes in real handy. Last week, I shared a hacking checklist and the warning signs to watch out for in my first post, Dirty Rotten Hackers, Part 1. This week, let’s talk about how to prevent it from happening to you.

Prevention:
*If in doubt about those emails and messages that seem like phishing, run them by a site like http://www.moneyhelper.org.uk/en/money-troubles/scams/types-of-scam
Or try those sites found on your police website like those offered by our New Zealand police force. https://www.cert.govt.nz/individuals/explore/scams-and-fraud/?topic=scams-and-fraud

*Unfortunately, when it comes to phishing emails, while you can not stop them altogether, there are some things you can do to mitigate these emails from coming through to you. Firstly you can block the senders. The following page has some information on how to stop particular email addresses from being able to email you:
https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/block-senders-or-unblock-senders-in-outlook-on-the-web-9bf812d4-6995-4d19-901a-76d6e26939b0

*You can also change the rules on your email spam filter to catch these types of emails. You can find information on how to update your spam filter here:
https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/change-the-level-of-protection-in-the-junk-email-filter-e89c12d8-9d61-4320-8c57-d982c8d52f6b

*Become more aware of how to stay secure online https://www.cert.govt.nz/individuals/guides/get-started-cyber-security/
*Look up the best password managers available. Some are free, some have monthly fees, but all offer a safe place to store all your passwords.
*Log in and log out each time you use online accounts
*Remove the “shortcuts” to your accounts from your desktop
*Do not click on links or attachments. When in doubt, phone the people/company involved.

*Marketing gurus will tell you that you should get your domain and set up a branded email (MyName@MySite.com). Never use that email address to set up an account. If the domain registration expires, anyone who registers the domain will receive your emails. Go into your accounts and replace any MyName@MySite.com with, say, a Gmail account. (Thanks for the tip, Nate Hoffelder)


Here’s to halting the scammers and hackers in their tracks. How do we do that? By talking about it, as I have done through these posts.


Stay safe, everyone, and let’s foil the bad guys by staying one step ahead.

Keep Creating!
Take care,
Yvette Carol
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‘One day, you will tell your story of how you overcame what you went through, and it will be someone else’s survival guide.’ ~ Bene Brown

Last weekend got off to a bad start. At 8 am Thursday, I woke up to find I was locked out of my Outlook and Facebook accounts, and dirty, rotten hackers had taken virtual control of my life. It seems I learned nothing from being scammed (by phone) back in 2016. I had fallen victim to a phishing scam. Gherkins!

Unfortunately, I am not alone. Hacking and scamming can happen to anyone anywhere. These jerks can take our money, ruin our credit rating, scam more people through us, and then they will sell our details to those people who compile sucker lists. One hour after changing the password to one of my accounts, I was alerted by my provider that there had been a new attempt to hack into the same account. Thursday morning, the suspicious activity came from Nigeria, and by Thursday afternoon, the suspicious activity had skipped countries to Australia!

Four days later, however, and I had restored peace on all fronts. Let me tell you how I did it, with a hacking checklist of the steps to take to recover control of your accounts. But, first, let us have a brush up on the signs to watch out for whenever you are online, so you can avoid getting hacked or scammed in the first place.

Three red flags to watch out for:


*First Red Flag: They will say they are from a big reputable company because you are more likely to take them seriously. Microsoft is one of the most commonly-used covers. Scammers called me on my old landline and told me they were calling from Microsoft in 2016, and then the hacking event last week came apparently from Microsoft Customer Service.
*My Tip: Find the local phone number. Every country, even little old New Zealand, will have a landline for a branch of a giant corporation like Microsoft, and you can ask them if the request for action you have received is bonafide.

*Second Red Flag: They want you to act immediately.
*My Tip: Anything can wait till the next day. If they have given you a deadline to act by, wait until morning. If you pass the deadline they have given you, and nothing happens, then you will know they are dirty rotten hackers.

*Third Red Flag: They always want money, sooner or later. The request might not come first or second, it might be months down the track, but as soon as they ask for money, you can smell a rat. In my case, they did not request money from me but from all my friends and contacts, who they asked to purchase $300 Amazon gift cards on my behalf.
*My Tip: As soon as they request money and you smell that rat, trust your instincts and ask for proof of identity. If they are your friend, ask how you know each other, where did you first meet? Or ask to speak to them by video face-to-face call. Then, see how fast they run.

Hacking Checklist:


*Call the police. Yes. Information theft is a crime, and you need to report it. It will not only grant you as the victim support and guidance, but it will also help the police protect others. In New Zealand, the police encourage us to email a report to the police as well, via the site https://www.cert.govt.nz/individuals/
*Find the phishing emails and forward them to the police, as this helps keep them up to date with cyber-crime. Then block the senders.
*Call the bank. Alert them to your situation, ask them to put a hold on your credit card until you have had your computer cleaned of viruses and malware.
*Contact all the people on your friend lists to alert them to your situation.
*Tell your email provider about the scam.
*Change your online passwords to ones that are long and strong. Make sure you create a unique password for each account. Enable two-factor authentication.
*To recover your Facebook account, follow the steps by visiting https://www.facebook.com/hacked Report the problem to Facebook.
*Take your computer to IT professionals and check your system for malware. It is the only way to be 100% certain you are free. I backed up all my files then had my laptop wiped clean and reset.
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In these ways I was able to reclaim control of my virtual life. I hope this post helps someone else! I will share Part Two next week with some of my tips on cyber security.


Stay safe, everyone! Let’s foil the bad guys by staying one step ahead.

Keep Creating!
Take care,
Yvette Carol
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“There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind!” – C.S. Lewis.

I’ve finished reading my thirteenth novel for 2021, The Enchanted Flute, by James Norcliffe.

‘A flute that will only play one mysterious song? A strange old man in a wheelchair somehow rejuvenated by this music? A leap from a window into a strange and often frightening world where nobody can be trusted and from which there seems to be no escape?’ So goes the promo material. The mythical base to this story and the new take by placing the protagonists in the modern day and age is solid. However, we readers can often be simple creatures, easily led. Here’s a secret some of your fantasy writers may want in on. As any fan will tell you, merely including a word like ‘enchanted’ in the title guarantees a certain amount of reader interest. I picked up this New Zealand novel purely for the word enchanted on the cover, so I congratulate Mr. Norcliffe on a wise choice.

The Enchanted Flute gives us fully realized believable urban fantasy. Norcliffe, an award-winning poet, author and lecturer in New Zealand, is an assured storyteller. I’m a sucker for anything to do with mythology, so I truly savoured the way he took mythology and more or less wove various strands together to give us a new twist. The Greek tale of Syrinx is about a chaste nymph pursued by the God Pan. Syrinx escapes by turning into some pond reeds. Pan scythes down the reeds and makes a flute to console himself. Mixed in with this key ingredient of Greek myth, the author adds parts of fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel and Jack in the beanstalk. It seemed admirable to me that Norcliffe could look at an ancient folktale in a new way and be bold enough to dare to say, What if I did this and this? I became quite fascinated as the modern story unfolded, reading about characters from mythology, and I really wanted to know what it all meant.

Close-up of a woman playing the flute. Musical concept

The flute Becky’s mother bought at a pawnshop turns out to be enchanted. Becky, herself, as the one who plays its enchanted music, becomes the focus of everyone’s needs and animosities. Because of this mythological flute, Becky Pym and Johnny Cadman literally jump from the realities of modern day life out a window into an ancient world. We experience this strange, scary, Arcadian place as they do, which makes the ride really exciting. It was seat-of-the-pants stuff. There seemed to be a palpable feeling of their entrapment, that there really seemed to be no way out. We were not let off the hook until the end. Talk about suspense.

Born on the West Coast (Kaiata, near Greymouth), James Norcliffe currently teaches at Lincoln University and lives in Church Bay with his wife and ‘an ungrateful cat named Pinky Bones.’ Norcliffe is both an award-winning poet and author of a dozen novels for young people including The Loblolly Boy series (Penguin Random), winner of the 2010 New Zealand Post Book Award, published in the United States as The Boy Who Could Fly. His novel, The Assassin of Gleam, received an award for the best fantasy published in New Zealand in 2006.

Fresh off the heels of his enormous success with The Loblolly Boy and its sequel, The Loblolly Boy and the Sorcerer, I’m sure they expected much of his next title. The Enchanted Flute did not make quite the same splash. The reviews were mostly good and star ratings were excellent. However, some folk criticized the length of the story, as too slow and drawn out. Other people found a little too much juxtaposition between the two very young naive protagonists, Becky and Johnny, and the lecherous intentions of Faunus or Pan.

Those things aside, I dived into the narrative wholeheartedly. The base of ancient mythology, the twist by basing it in modern day, and taking us with the main characters step by step, never letting too much information slip, teasing out the answers so we cannot tear our eyes away, building the mystery and the oppressive feeling of being trapped in Arcadia with them is taut stuff. What a thriller. It’s a master class in fiction. As an author I’m always looking for the nuts and bolts but when the writing is next level, the mechanics become invisible. Am I biased because he’s a fellow Kiwi author? Yes! But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t great fiction. Well done, James Norcliffe. Now I want to read The Loblolly Boy.

My rating: Nearly four stars.

Talk to you later.

Keep creating!

Yvette Carol

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“Literature is news that STAYS news.” ~ Ezra Pound

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It’s time for another group posting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Time to release our fears to the world or offer encouragement to those who are feeling neurotic. If you’d like to join us, click on the tab above and sign up. We post the first Wednesday of every month. Every month, the organisers announce a question that members can answer in their IWSG Day post. Remember, the question is optional!!! Let’s rock the neurotic writing world! Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG.

July 7th optional question – What would make you quit writing?

Whatever it is, I haven’t discovered it. I’ve kept working through sickness, deaths in the family, divorces, the pandemic, the kids’ dramas, you name it. I took a break when I finished my trilogy The Chronicles of Aden Weaver, but that was fine. It didn’t occur to me to be scared I’d never write again. This year, for the first time, I wondered if the writing was going to quit me. I’ve heard many authors say this over the years that after completing each book they feared that it was the last. Well, that had never been a problem for me in the past. I had never experienced “writer’s block,” there had been a constant flow of prose since the day I learned how to hold a pen. Even as preschoolers, my brother and I used to play storytelling games. Stories came easily. And I loved it so much. Growing up powerless – the third child from a big family cramped inside a small house – creating stories was a great escape. The hours would disappear.

Writing was my secret super power! My window to glory.

At fifteen I started keeping a journal, and I still write in one every day. Writing as therapy continued, proving a terrific release valve throughout my life. It is wonderfully cathartic. In fact, I have preached at Toastmasters and elsewhere about the “benefits of having a creative outlet.” Everyone needs a creative way to express themselves, and storytelling has always been mine. It didn’t occur to me to be scared until I walked away from publishing my trilogy and thought, what next?

I released The Chronicles of Aden Weaver in October 2021, collapsing with relief. The exhaustion was so complete that for the first time in my life I took six months off to recover.

When the time came to start the next book, I looked at that empty page and shook like a leaf in the wind. There were no words boldly appearing from nowhere, no inklings for stories. The muse had gone strangely silent.

I was wandering in the wilderness, let me tell you. It was a scary place to be. To not be able to write was hideous. Disenfranchised: a writer not writing, a storyteller not working on a story, like being cast adrift, existing in a weird state of limbo or stasis with no sense of direction. “Writer’s block” is a gnarly ride. An uneasy month went by. My life was still wonderful. I love my kids, friends, my family, and my home. I enjoy looking after this property, but here’s the thing, we all need a creative outlet.

I wasn’t fully enjoying life and without my author’s work I was never fully at ease in my skin. I wasn’t ME.

Each weekend I faced the enormity of the empty page, doing my relaxation techniques, and freewriting. Eventually, this started the cogs turning, and that was the best feeling to break through the blockade. What a relief to write again! I sat down and “blathered away,” as my grandmother would say, no longer floating idle, no longer rudderless.

The rush of joy reassured me. The muse was back, full of ideas. I was still in the author business.

Writing stories, I have realized, is not just about getting the words from head to page, or crafting them until they take on a high sheen. Being an author is a way of life. At this stage I don’t know whether I’ll ever self publish again. What I know is I must write stories to know my purpose. Now, I feel aligned in my skin, that my wheels are back on the tracks and life has meaning. It doesn’t get any better than that.

There’s a Carl Jung quote that goes,what did you do as a child that made the hours pass like minutes. Herein lies the key to your earthly pursuits.’

What did you love to do? I’m interested to know.

Keep Writing!

Yvette Carol

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“Publication of a book is a misery… writing to write and enjoy it, that’s the best—it’s the Eden that we writers lose.” ~ Anon

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I’ve finished reading my twelfth novel for 2021, The Diamond Brothers in Two of Diamonds, by Anthony Horowitz. He wrote the book for World Book Day 2013. World Book Day and World Book Night are creative initiatives designed by all those in the literary industry on both sides of the fence in the UK and Ireland. They run the events annually in both countries to encourage people of all ages to read. Now that’s an idea I can get behind.

The Diamond Brothers are among Anthony Horowitz’s least known characters. The elder Diamond, Tim, tagged as ‘the world’s worst detective,’ makes for an intriguing start. Then I love the twist that it is the kid brother, Nick, who is the protagonist and who is solving all the mysteries. Tim bumbles from one error of judgment to another and has his neck saved repeatedly by his underestimated little brother. The entire premise is kid-centred and a hoot.

Two of Diamonds gives us two stories,The French Confection (2002), and I Know What You Did Last Wednesday (2002) packaged together, with a special cover that “comes to life” when you download the app and hold your phone over it. 

Though I had heard of his name, this was my first time reading an Anthony Horowitz. After reading the line, ‘I like horror stories–but not when they happen to me.’ I knew to expect these stories would be firmly tongue-in-cheek. Here is an author going for the laughs and the fun quotient. ‘It’s not fair. I do my homework. I clean my teeth twice a day. Why does everyone want to kill me?’

The Nick Diamond character is relatable and lovable. How many of us have had the experience of being the beleaguered sibling in the family? Here, poor Nick has to look out for his elder brother, Tim, portrayed as thick as a plank. The smarter younger brother Nick watches over the hapless Tim in an easy-going way that endears Nick to us. He is literally “saving the cat” throughout every case. But that’s what the key is to our interest in the characters and the series, is that the elder boy is an oaf while his thirteen-year-old brother saves his bacon on the regular. Kids win. Score! Meanwhile, the eldest is none the wiser and still thinks he know best. Hilarious. It’s a premise to have every child reader groaning with recognition–a deft move by Horowitz.

The enjoyable part is that in Nick’s superior intelligence he can have a little laugh at the elder brother’s expense, which is enough to make any kid titter. ‘Tim said little on the journey. To cheer him up, I’d bought him a Beano comic and perhaps he was having trouble with the long words.’ It makes the child reader feel they are in on the joke, which is a pleasant feeling. The sense of irreverence coming through in the wit and humour is cool, too. ‘The boat was old and smelly. So was the captain.’

Yet Horowitz does not shy away from the tough stuff. The trail of bodies surprised me. It gives his stories an unexpected element. It keeps the reader on their toes. Anthony Horowitz, OBE, is an English author who has been writing fiction all his life. He is best known for his Alex Rider books. He is also the writer and creator of award-winning detective series, Foyle’s War, and more recently event drama Collision. In 2011, he gained a significant feather in his cap, being the first author ever endorsed by the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle to write a new Sherlock Holmes novel, titled The House of Silk.

As for Two of Diamonds, where did Horowitz get it right? In the unique premise, the humour, the “in joke” of the siblings, the tone, the mystery aspect. Everyone, young and old, gets sucked in by a mystery. I think the entire thing works and made me an instant fan. Where did Horowitz go wrong? Great premise, intriguing characters but the books are too short, about 80 pages per story, which left me wanting more. Great story, but not enough meat on the bones! Some critics also complained that the mysteries were too easy to figure out. I’m guessing they were adults and as this book is for middle-grade readers, I think it is fine. To be left wanting more is a good sign, right?

My rating: Two and three quarter stars.

Talk to you later.

Keep creating!

Yvette Carol

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“I don’t think anything takes the place of reading.” ~ Beverly Cleary

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Do you remember turning 16? I do. Like it was yesterday. It was the summer holidays. My friends and I were hitchhiking up north. We stopped at a cafe. There were four of us hunched around a Formica tabletop with sodas, and I remember saying I didn’t want to turn 16 (the next day). Why not? It was too close to 20! Who could imagine being “so ancient?”

Funny how the vantage point of time changes things.

The youngest of my three sons had his sweet sixteenth birthday two weeks ago. He is more mature at this age than I have ever been. I guess for some people it just comes naturally. The other day, he said, “Do you know what I’m looking forward to the most about growing up?”

I said, “No” although I imagined he’d say beer, driving, or possibly not going to school.

He said, “I’m looking forward to having logical, rational conversations.”

Huh? Jaw drops to floor.

We’re definitely different, he and I. At 16 I fretted about getting old, while my youngest son pines for more adult conversation. How shallow was I? He’s already a better human being than I am. Huzzah!

What did the son want to do for the big milestone birthday? After offering him every adventure option or fun experience available, what he most wanted was ‘a cake and to hang out’ with his friends uninterrupted. Could they hang here? Sure, I said, smiling, although I secretly dreaded it. Idiot Trooper that I am, I let him invite all his mates over regardless.

My friends and I at 16 were rebels. No self-respecting adults wanted to be around us.

To my surprise, my son’s friends were delightful. They had the run of one part of the house the entire day, while I kept food and liquid coming. They played online games, outdoor games, jumped on the trampoline, took photos of themselves, played music, and sang in harmony together the entire day. In the afternoon they demolished an entire chocolate cake and then left en masse to buy supplies from the supermarket, returning an hour later to cook a feast. So lively, so fun, were they, I even missed them in their absence.

In the late afternoon, the girls drifted home. Finally, just “Da boys” remained, playing online games into the evening, still singing in beautiful harmony along with their favourite songs. By the time Da boys left, I felt tired but mostly buoyed by the experience.

They’re mature, considerate kids. Who knew?

That said, they’re still only 16. They still like to play games the same way they did when they were little, but with a lot of music, singing, slang and posturing thrown in. The energy levels when these teen buddies get together can ramp up suddenly, get inexplicably loud for a short period—almost explosive—then peter out again and dip so low the kids appear to retreat behind their phone screens for a while to reboot, becoming temporarily tomb-like and silent, before the shrieks and the laughter escalate and they flare into life, noise and energy all over again. To be around them even for a short period is akin to putting one’s finger into an electric socket, recharging every cell in the body and rendering one’s hair into an instant afro. It’s vitalizing and frenetic at the same time.  

The upshot overall was the day was easy, no drama. As their humble servant, I got to witness snippets of their group dynamic, the teen slang, the weird sounds they make when they’re together, which was fun.

I remember the heady freedom of being 16. You’re old enough to do things but young enough to be silly and not care who is watching.

There was one of son’s friends singing that very Michael Jackson, high-pitched, “Hee hee!” so frequently I nearly asked him to stop (although thankfully, I didn’t). One boy hugged his phone and speaker the entire day, constantly scrolling the music selection – he was clearly in charge of the music selection. There was the occasional daring use of a swear word, but not loud enough for me to discern. I turned a blind eye, regardless. As head provider of refreshments, I stayed in my quarters – the perfect excuse to get some writing done – and let the teens have the house for the day. Some freedom was all they wanted. They often burst outside to play Frisbee, badminton, shoot hoops and jump on the trampoline for hours in the afternoon, which rather impressed me.

I think your child’s friends say a lot about who they are and how they’re doing, and I liked the son’s friends a lot. That made me happy.

At sixteen, I was a fool. At the same age, my son is smarter, more mature, and more emotionally intelligent than I am. Maybe there’s hope for the future, yet.

Talk to you later.

Keep creating!

Yvette Carol

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There’s nothing wrong with teenagers that reasoning with them won’t aggravate. ~ Anonymous

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*Tips for parents on Stanford Children’s Health, Understanding the Teen Brain

I’ve finished reading my eleventh novel for 2021, Amelia Dee and the Peacock Lamp, by Odo Hirsch. Whenever I pass a thrift store or a charity shop, I’m compelled to go inside and check out the books. As a writer, I need to read within my genre, which is middle grade fiction. Therefore, I always peruse the children’s section and fantasy sections for new-to-me gems. Amelia Dee and the Peacock Lamp was a recent thrift-store acquisition with an intriguing cover.

I had never heard of the author before. But how can you resist a title like that? Amelia Dee and the Peacock Lamp knocks it out of the ballpark because the reader immediately asks, ‘what is the peacock lamp? Why is it important? What does it do?’ The goal for every author is to get the reader to ask questions and not fully answer them till the end of the story. The all-important title must get them asking questions at the front cover. Mission accomplished on both scores with this book.

An excellent title is everything.

What is the peacock lamp? It’s a rare bronze lamp which hangs outside the bedroom door of Amelia Dee, where she lives in the greenhouse on Marburg Street. Burdened with rather hopeless parents, an eccentric artist mother and father inventor, Amelia’s friend, Mr. Vishwanath provides the stability and the sanity in her young life. Mr. Vishwanath practises yoga downstairs and teaches the formidable Princess Parvin Kha-Douri and… spoiler alert, that’s pretty much it.

I was not sure what to make of this story because while it’s wonderfully written and a nice ride; it had a lot of promise that went under utilized. It’s like taking a ride at a theme park only to travel at walking pace and never leave the ground. The lamp has such allure and promise, the ancient yoga teacher, his equally ancient pupil are fascinating, and you keep reading, keep keeping the faith expecting things to go somewhere. I think this is one of those stories about which they say, it is “not plot-driven.”

Cough. Cough. Not a lot happened.

And being the big kid I am, although I had reached ‘the end’ I was still waiting for something to happen.

Amelia Dee and the Peacock Lamp is not bad though. It’s a quiet story, reminiscent of Antonio S. and Hazel Green, also by the author.

The wise mentor figure portrayed by Mr. Vishwanath provides our protagonist, Amelia Dee, (good name) with considered wisdom, calmness and inner questioning. I think it’s admirable to make such values as expressing yourself, letting go, the fair treatment of others and finding your voice the core of a book. Some people have made the comparison to Jonathan Livingston Seagull for children. Some people have said it’s what the parents who read literary fiction give their kids.

You could ask, are kids really up for reading a very adult kind of story? Do kids read this sort of philosophical fiction? Obviously, the answer is yes. Odo Hirsch was doing something right as he released Amelia Dee and the Peacock Lamp in 2007 and won HONOUR BOOK: CBCA Book of the Year, Younger Readers, in 2008. This is a dear book and I’m glad kids are reading this sort of wholesome fiction.

When I “Googled” the author, as you do these days, I discovered that Odo Hirsch is a popular kids’ author. He was born and grew up in Melbourne, Australia, where he studied medicine and worked as a doctor. Now based in London, Odo continues to write children’s books and they have translated his works into several languages, for the Netherlands, Korea, Germany, and Italy. For more information, please see http://www.answers.com/topic/odo-hirsch 

How refreshing there is a market for such low-key fiction. Reading Amelia Dee and the Peacock Lamp is like taking a holiday in the country to recharge the batteries after the rush and bustle of life in the big city. It’s fiction about those quieter moments that occur between the active times, when there is time to slow down and ponder the deeper things in life.

“When you know you are right, that is the time you can be sure you are wrong,” said Mr. Vishwanath.

Would my boys want to read it? No, but, spoiled by modern technology, what would they know? This book is an experience of softening, like a meditation.

My rating: Two and a half stars.

Talk to you later.

Keep creating!

Yvette Carol

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“It is what it is,” said Mr. Vishwanath. “Everything in life is like this.”

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I’ve finished reading my tenth novel for 2021, Code Name Bananas, by David Walliams. This book is one of the most recent offerings from the English comedian turned children’s writer. Published in 2020, and given to my son as a present, we started reading Code Name Bananas in lockdown this year and it provided us with some welcome comic relief. The book is full of action, laughter and secret plots, enough to keep us entertained.

This was my first time reading one of Walliams’ books. His fame precedes him. I knew he was the biggest selling children’s author to have started since the year 2000; he has books in over fifty-five languages and has sold over forty million copies worldwide.

To say I was curious would be an understatement. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about.

In Code Name Bananas it is 1940, Britain is at war with Germany. As bombs rain down on the city, orphaned eleven-year-old Eric forms an extraordinary friendship with a remarkable gorilla: Gertrude. Eric spends his days at the place that makes him most happy: London Zoo. But during the blitz, the zoo is no longer safe, and Eric must go on an adventure to rescue Gertrude. Together with his Uncle Sid, a keeper at the zoo, the three go on the run. After a harrowing series of near captures and hair-raising escapes, the trio end up hiding out at the seaside, where they uncover a dastardly plot… fall into the clutches of the bad guys… and have to foil the ultimate villains.

The sumptuous packaging of this book reeks of money spent. With a satiny cover and gilt lettering that catches the eye, it’s a beautiful piece of literary art. Tony Ross is fantastic! The combination of Tony Ross’ fabulous illustrations and David Walliams’ wonderful story work well together. On the front cover there is a gold badge in one corner, marketing the story as a “WHIZZ-BANG EPIC ADVENTURE.” What is a “whizz-bang epic adventure,” you may ask? Apparently it’s a story so crazy and unbelievable nothing is off limits. I was a bit startled how far Walliams will go. But is that not a sign of greatness? It was Neil Gaiman who said, ‘The fundamental rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like.’

With those parameters, Walliams may take over the world with insane outings like Code Name Bananas. RatburgerDemon Dentist and Awful Auntie have all won the National Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year. The Ice Monster won ‘Children’s Fiction Book of the Year for 2018’ at the British Book Awards and some of his stories, like Grandpa’s Great EscapeMr StinkGangsta Granny and The Boy in the Dress are all available on DVD.

Yup, world domination is definitely on the cards.

Born in Wimbledon England in 1971, David Edward Williams OBE, known professionally as David Walliams, is a comedian, writer, actor and television personality. He is best known for his double act with Matt Lucas on the comedy sketch series, Rock Profile, Little Britain, and Come Fly With Me. Walliams has been a judge on the television talent show competition Britain’s Got Talent on ITV, since 2012. Now he has added best-selling author to his list of accomplishments.

You often hear Walliams being compared to Roald Dahl and I can see why. Walliams has the same blithe irreverence but with a slightly darker edge, and they’re both risk-takers. Walliams is a fun writer, however, the critics of Code Name Bananas have called it “phoned in” and “rushed out.” I enjoyed some parts of the story. Mostly it was too farcical for my taste. I got annoyed at the constant sound effects. They were unnecessary. Though novel at first, it quickly became overdone. If someone is eating, we don’t need to be told ‘MUNCH!’ I almost wondered if the sound effects were padding as they took up a lot of real estate.

On the plus side, I commend the historical aspect, especially for young readers. Code Name Bananas contains useful information about the Second World War, Adolf Hitler, German U boats, the Blitz, the Dunkirk evacuation, the London zoo, Winston Churchill and Buckingham Palace. I’m a big fan of historical fiction. Is it not the ultimate way to grasp information, to hear it in a story? That said Code Name Bananas will not make my list for favourite books of the year.

My rating: Three stars, just.

Talk to you later.

Keep creating!

Yvette Carol

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“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”–Jack Kerouac.

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It’s time for another group posting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Time to release our fears to the world or offer encouragement to those who are feeling neurotic. If you’d like to join us, click on the tab above and sign up. We post the first Wednesday of every month. Every month, the organisers announce a question that members can answer in their IWSG Day post. Remember, the question is optional!!! Let’s rock the neurotic writing world! Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG.

June 2 question – For how long do you shelve your first draft, before reading it and re-drafting? Is this dependent on your writing experience and the number of stories/books under your belt?

You always hear the seasoned authors say, ideally give yourself a break from a story when you’ve finished it, and then again, when you’ve completed editing it. They say you should put the piece away and not look at it for a while; that you get too close to the work and stop seeing what needs to be done. It sounds wise. Taking a breather gives the author fresh eyes and you can access the coveted third-person perspective on your work. You can read it as the reader.

The problem is things get sticky for me somewhere in the middle. As in, I get too attached to my stories. Once I have finished a story, I’m usually compelled to tinker with it, picking the pieces apart, and putting them back together again. It’s the “mad scientist” part of being an author which is so much fun. You have all the parts you need for a wonderful story but they’re in the wrong order, and your job is to put all the words in exactly the right sequence to create the perfect sense of tone and place. It’s like trying to solve a jigsaw of words. Once you’ve got one on the go, it’s hard to stay away. Just one more piece, one more look, one more read, one more tweak, and the picture will form before your eyes.

I loved it when Neil Gaiman said his primary directive with his fiction was, “How do I not make it dull?” This is a pithy sentence and a damn good way of describing writing fiction. It’s what every writer strives to do, but hey, if you don’t get it right in the rough draft, then the edits are where you hammer and bang that sucker into shape. In fact, some people think the editing is the best part.

Although I’d heard the wisdom of shelving work, whenever I finished a story in the past, as I said, I could never let the prose rest. I love editing! The temptation is usually too strong to resist diving in immediately and then editing endlessly until the story feels good enough. Once happy, I’d move onto the next project. At the start of last year, there was an enforced break from the work just by happenstance. When I went back to editing The Chronicles, it was with such new eyes on the material that I realized an enforced break is actually essential, and would probably save time and money in the long run.

With this in mind, I am doing things differently this time. I plan on shelving my work-in-progress for a minimum six months’ rest and putting that lesson learned into practice. I am underway writing a new children’s series of shorter books and recently completed the genesis draft of book one (of seven). Rather than going back to chapter one to edit, I moved straight on to writing the second book. The plan is to write the entire series this way, by which stage it will be more like twelve months from now when I finish the roughs for all seven books, and then I can start the editing from the beginning by reading book one.

Seeing the first story afresh will hopefully make the editing easier and swifter. So far, it feels very freeing, which has got to be a good thing, right? This works really well from the point of view of writing a series. If you write the entire set first, then when you go back to edit book one, you will have a tighter grasp on the story arc and will edit each story keeping that greater story-line and theme in mind.

With writing I think you’re constantly seeking what works best for you and if you’re smart, you’re always looking for ways to improve. I have learned through experience that shelving the story draft for six months before reading and redrafting is ideal. This time round, I don’t want to even look at the first story again until I’m done with the last one. That’s the current goal. Wish me luck!

What about you, what do you do?

Keep Writing!

Yvette Carol

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The more I practice, the less I suck. ~ Joe Walsh

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The weekend before last, I went to see Neil Gaiman at the Auckland Writer’s Festival. With the restrictions imposed worldwide because of the pandemic, the organizers intended the festival would focus on those authors resident in New Zealand. It was a great opportunity to highlight the national talent pool, and the organizers also drew from the international authors already available in the country. Neil Gaiman had been here since lockdown was first imposed in 2020, being with his wife Amanda Palmer, who had been touring here as a writer at the time. The festival organizers had tried to get Neil Gaiman along to the Auckland Writer’s Festival many times in the past and failed. Lucky us.

Neil Gaiman and his interviewer Nic Lowe wandered on stage, no introduction apart from the lights being raised. They sat in worn-looking black leather armchairs while Nic conducted the live interview. Neil Gaiman was normal. It was great. And he was also the typical author, long-haired, a tad shambolic, wearing an exhausted jacket, the pockets hanging heavy with what one imagined were several books, maybe even cigars. He looked thoughtful, yet at ease with everything. It was easy to imagine him writing at home wearing pyjamas and a robe all day long.

The interview was fine. My feedback to Nic Lowe would be this: he could try speaking a little less, allowing us to hear a little more from the star.

How many books had Neil Gaiman written in his illustrious career? “A fan had stacked them up at one point, and the pile reached over 7 feet.” Wow. His output has been prodigious, including the comic book series The Sandman and novels Stardust, American Gods, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book. They have made his stories into movies and TV series, Good OmensAmerican GodsCoraline, and more. And Neil has plainly loved every minute.

Did he expect to be where he is today in terms of career? Neil said he never expected to be famous. When he started out, he worked in niche areas where no one in those days ever got famous. ‘You didn’t get famous in comic books, fantasy, or children’s writing—I thought I’d be out here with the weird kids. Then it spread out and now we’re all the weird kids.’ The audience laughed. In fact, we laughed a lot. The humour surprised me—I didn’t expect him to be so funny. Neil spoke with intelligence and dry wit, poking fun at himself and everything. When asked what he would have done if he hadn’t become an author, he replied, “I would have been a freelance religion designer.” That got the biggest laugh.

And the theme Neil put across in the hour-long session, was, “Young writers don’t have to feel guilty for not inventing the whole thing. It’s okay that you got it from somewhere and passed it on. I want young writers to know it is okay, and that’s how storytelling works. Know that nothing comes magically from nowhere.”

He said that writers who think their prose all comes from within them were ‘not being honest.’ He likened it to there being a giant pot of stew bubbling. And we all take bits out and ‘along the way we get to add a potato or two to the stew pot or a bit of gristle.’ Cue another belly laugh.

Personally, I don’t think it’s always dishonesty by the authors. In a lot of cases, you write what comes to you and you do not realize that you are pulling archetypes and story tropes from a treasure trove of shared ancestral memories.

Having a talented author like Neil Gaiman telling authors there is no need to reinvent the wheel, that we can dip into the community stew pot and borrow the pieces we need then we give back our piece for passing on to others, was liberating and exciting. I hadn’t ever heard anyone say that before. It was warm, generous and inclusive during these more divided times. The fact I came home excited to write means it was time well spent. 

While I made myself a hot cup of tea and a slice of buttered toast at home, Neil Gaiman remained at the event. In fact, he stayed there for five hours, some people said it was seven, signing autographs for the queue of avid fans who snaked outside of the building into the square. Honestly, I do not have any ambition to be famous—I’m too lazy! Would I want to be Neil Gaiman, stuck at his signing table well past dinner time? NO.

Being unknown has its perks. Like dinner and stuff.

Talk to you later.

Keep creating!

Yvette Carol

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What we need in a crisis are friends. ~ Neil Gaiman

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