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Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Test your bee knowledge against medieval beekeepers

TRUE, FALSE or WHO KNOWS!? 

Medieval advice to beekeepers and my response as a modern beekeeper. Please do agree or disagree in a comment!


The extracts are from Geoponika: Agricultural Pursuits a collection of books compiled in 10th Century Byzantium

1. Let the intervals between all the trees be filled with roses, and lilies, and violets, and the crocus, which are very pleasant to the sight and to the smell; and they are very useful, and profitable, and they are of advantage to the bees. 

TRUE An easy one! Planting flowers does attract bees although there are specific links between types of flower and type of pollinator so modern advice is to plant wildflowers. Honeybees love dandelions, clover and, of course, bee borage. If you look at the labels on types of honey, you'll see honeybees' favourite forage foods!


2. Now, as bees produced from an ox come to life on the one-and-twentieth day, so are swarms produced in the same number of days.

FALSE The medieval notion that bees were born from worms in ox or calf corpses was reported as fact by such luminaries as Augustine (5thC CE) Isidore of Seville (7thC CE). FAKE news, people! I bet confusion between maggots and bee larvae led to the story. However, worker bees DO take 21 days to develop from egg to hatching, so this does show good beekeeping knowledge! (24 days for a drone (male bee) and 16 days for a queen).


3. The kings indeed are found in the upper parts of the combs: and it is proper to leave one in every hive, and to destroy the rest; for the bees being divided between them, raise a sedition, and they desist from their work.

FALSE There is no bee king. The medieval assumption was that the beehive was a mirror of the most common human feudal system with a male leader. We now know this is a (female) queen bee and that, in a healthy hive, she is the only egg-layer. Modern thought is that she is no leader - the bees' system of decision-making is complex and democratic. BUT beekeepers will tell you that the queen sets the tone for the hive. If you replace a queen, a hive can turn from being aggressive to being friendly. There is still much we don't know!

HALF TRUE The queen cells for a replacement queen are usually half-way up the comb whereas queen cells for swarm queens hang from the bottom of frames. Bees will indeed be 'distracted' during a change of queens and the battles between rivals so some beekeepers do eliminate all the queen cells bar one. This is risky as if the sole queen dies (e.g. during her mating flight) there are no alternatives.

The best indeed of the kings are those of a yellow colour, of a size larger than that of a bee by the half; the second are those that are variegated, rather of a dark colour, of double size.

I HAVE NO IDEA but it's interesting that in the 10thC different types of honeybee queen and their virtues were observed and discussed. Just by choosing big yellow queens in preference to stripey dark ones, humans were breeding honeybees selectively long before theories of evolution were formulated. There is still huge debate over which strains of honeybees are best. My last purchase included a Frere Adam queen, trademarked for the famous beekeeper monk who worked at Buckfast Abbey from 2019 and who created this cross-breed of Italian bees with African bees.




This animal alone seeks a leader, that takes care of the whole swarm; it therefore always honours the king, and it accompanies him with alacrity, wherever he takes his station, and it supports him when he is fatigued, and it carries and protects him when he cannot fly.

TRUE The bee colony does congregate around the queen and 'pay her respect' with a special fluttering gesture of wings. A bee swarm will cluster around the queen. Bees do carry and protect their queen if she is weakened. I saw this on my beekeeping course when a queen reacted badly to being marked. The beemaster put a coloured spot on the queen through the mesh in the tube he'd placed her in but when he released her., she lay quite still on the landing board. A group of bees rushed out, expressed anxiety and carried her into the hive. The story ended well and she recovered, thanks to her courtiers. 

Modern thinking does not suggest that the queen takes care of the swarm but her existence and behaviour, plus her scent, sets the tone for the hive. A queenless hive is depressed, suffers disease and decline. The workers stop gathering pollen, become apathetic. 

4. If it be necessary for a purchaser, or for some other reason, that they (the hives) should be moved, let the person tie the hives, in the night, carefully in leather (skins), and let him take them away before day ; for in this private manner he will neither disturb the combs, nor harass the bees.

TRUE Night-time is best for moving bees and I will never forget collecting a hive full of bees from a Provençal hillside in the darkness, my husband and I wearing white suits (as many of our friends think appropriate). We used belts strapped around the hive and foam in the entrance to stop angry bees escaping.


5. You will cure them of dimness of sight with the smoke of the leaves of origanum (origano).  

FALSE Bee eye-sight is amazing. They have two sets of eyes and see a range of ultra-violets that flowers use to attract their pollinators. Through bee eyes, a flower has a scented target on it shouting 'I'm here!' I am prepared to state that a blast of origano smoke will not improve a bee's eyesight but I must confess I have no evidence to back that up. I DO wonder how a medieval beekeeper figured out that the bees' eyesight was dim (note the plural in the instruction - it seems ALL the bees are going short-sighted). I can think of many possible misinterpretations, for example

- a bee uses its waggle-dance to follow its internal GPS to the exact spot where home entrance is - or should be. If you transfer bees from a hive with a low entrance to one with a high entrance, they will at first head for the place the old entrance was.

So you give a blast of oregano smoke and hey presto, within a few days the bees' eyesight must have improved because they're using the correct entrance (as they do anyway after a few days to get used to it).

6. You will also destroy creatures that lie in wait for them and they are wasps, the titmouse (tit family), the bee-eater, swallows, crocodiles, and lizards; and drive away and destroy all things that are pernicious to the bee.

TRUE All these creatures will eat bees.


This artist seems to have added an extra pair of legs but I love the way the bees look like flowers.
7. But it consummately hates the slothful; and they therefore take the slothful and kill them.

FALSE Scientists have tracked individual bees and found that some foraging worker bees are very 'lazy', do little foraging and fall asleep in flowers often :) but no chastisement has been observed. However, drones (male bees) have become synonymous with 'lazy creatures' in human vocabulary prior to drone machines. It is true that drones are expelled from the hive (killed) in autumn so that could be interpreted as hating and killing slothful bees.

Are drones 'slothful'? The biological function of a drone is to fertilise a queen (any queen) during her maiden flight. If one succeeds, he dies. Those who don't succeed are the boys of summer, waiting for queens or in the hive so no, they don't do housework, child care, feeding, gathering or honey-making or defence (they have no stings). If necessary, they do help cool the hive by vibrating their wings. Our local nougat museum has a human-size beehive mock-up and the model drones are playing cards and drinking beer so I think the public image is obvious :)

BUT without drones, the colony dies. One problem with that parasite we beekeepers hate, the varroa mite, is that it develops on the drone larvae. The resulting weakness in the colony makes it clear how vital drones are.

Note the traditional enmity between bears and bees

8. Its mechanical skill indeed seems to make a very near approach to a rational understanding, for it makes hexagonal cells.

TRUE and the mathematics of nature is a wonder.

9. Proper harmony is also appreciated by this animal; for which reason, bee-masters bring them together by means of cymbals, or by clapping heir hands with just adaptation.

I HAVE NO IDEA but my bees do not show any signs of obedience. I am happy that they don't attack me when I sing or hum to them and we'll leave it there.

10. They indeed become unmanageable at the approach of human creatures, and they fall upon them, and they are more severe on such as smell of wine, and of perfume; and they fall upon women, especially upon such as are of an amorous complexion.

I love this portrayal of bees, showing them as bird-like. Medieval thinking considered bees to be small birds, not insects. I think the artist was influenced by this belief!


SOMETIMES TRUE Bees are sometimes very aggressive and sometimes very easy to work with. Beekeepers will give you many reasons for this: storm coming, high winds, rain, dark colours, woollen clothes. Scent is very important to honeybees and they will kill their queen or each other if the smell is wrong. They do react badly to some perfumes and the venom in their stings gives off the scent of bananas, rousing other bees to attack. That's why the bees attack Mielitta in 'Queen of the Warrior Bees; she's wearing the banana scent delivered anonymously as her 18th year-cycle gift.

As to whether they fall upon women... FALSE! There have been too many women beekeepers for that to be true, including the Irish Patron Saint of Bees, Saint Gobnait.

I've suffered one attack from my bees and maybe it was because of my amorous complexion but I think it more like to have been because: they were in a bad mood with a storm in the air; I banged the hive trying to get in a frame that didn't fit properly; and I was wearing a snood over my hair that must have smelled wrong (That's the only way I can explain the attack focusing completely on my head and hair, not my face at all.) 


11. The bee is the most sagacious and the most skilful of all animals, and it approaches man in point of understanding; and its work is truly divine, and of the greatest utility to the human race

YOU DECIDE! The more we know about bees, the more we realise that the hive mind is a super-organism of great complexity and they are now considered essential to the human race not just useful.

If bees interest you, then you'll enjoy shapeshifting into one, entering a beehive and getting a bee's eye-view of the world through my eco-fantasy novel.


Buy the book
5* 'captivating and intriguing'
5* 'I loved the bees and the parts about the hive - as a bee keeper in training I appreciate the author’s factual bee knowledge and the imaginative way this was translated into fantasy - just wonderful.'
5* 'I was a little dubious going in to the book about the whole bee element. I had yet to read a book where this kind of story line works. But Jean Gill again does it with such ease that I not only believed it, I enjoyed it! The descriptions and the writing style were so potent I could almost believe I was in the book right alongside Mielitta. This is a book that I would highly recommend. I will now be going straight out to try anything else by this author!!'

53 goodreads reviews - average 4.17* out of 5 - see them all


Geoponika: Agricultural Pursuits. Compiled in 10th Century Byzantium
Translated from the Greek by Owen T. (Thomas) 1749-1812

PHOTOS
1. Douce 88 fol 111v B
2. Bibliothèque Municipale de Reims, ms. 993, Folio 151v
3. The Luttrell Psalter
4. Medieval Bees Hortus Noster
5.  Barthélémy L'Anglais, op.cit, 1445-1450, Artificiosae Apes, France, Le Mans XVe s. BNF, FR 136, fol. 16
6. Illuminated Manuscript BNF
7. Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 128v
More medieval bee photos can be found on the American Garden History Blog

Friday, June 7, 2019

Amazing Bee-haviour


You would not bee-lieve some of this bee-haviour but it's true!

To become a registered beekeeper here in Provence, I took a practical course during 2014 and since then I've looked after my hives, EndeavourDiligence and Resolution (named by my husband).
Nothing tastes as good as honey produced by your own bees from your own 'terroir' (a French word that is more emotional than 'soil' or 'land'). It's not easy these days to keep honeybees alive but that makes beekeeping even more important, even on my small scale.

I never thought I'd be brave enough to become a beekeeper but here I am, fascinated by the habits of creatures that have been farmed by humans since prehistory, for almost 9,000 years according to archaeological evidence. And yet there is still so much we don't know. Which is good for a novelist!
When I realised that my heroine shape-shifted into a bee, I knew I was going to enjoy the research. Here are some amazing bee-facts. Not all of them found their way into Queen of the Warrior Bees but Mielitta's experiences as a bee draw on my own experience too. I shall reveal some of my own experiences in the next blog and I hope you enjoy finding out about bees as much as I have.

  • All worker bees are female. They map out their territory and communicate this by dances, which give exact directions to e.g. food or home, by distance and compass points.
  • The queen is female and on her mating flight she is impregnated by approx 10-20 male bees (drones) with the thousands of sperm needed to lay eggs all her life (6 years if she's lucky). After mating, she doesn't fly again unless she takes a third of the colony and swarms, leaving the old hive to a new queen (one of her daughters).
  • A queenless hive is doomed but the queen does not make decisions, other than those concerning egg-laying. When choosing a new home, scout bees are sent to investigate options and they dance their findings to the whole swarm.  They are more or less enthusiastic according to the quality of the new home's potential. Gradually, one dance is taken up by all the bees and that is the chosen home - democracy at work! Research shows that the chosen home is nearly always the best of those considered - better still, successful democracy at work!      
    •                 
  • Drones successful in mating leave part of their body in the queen and die.
  • In my region, honeybees prepare for winter by throwing out all the drones. They are left outside to die and in the spring, the queen lays eggs which will become the new season's drones.
  • Bees can't see red and they can see ultra-violet so flowers look like they have targets and landing-paths, in a purplish world.
  • When worker bees want to raise a new queen, they feed royal jelly to a worker baby so she grows up as a queen. 
  • A newly-hatched queen will try to kill any other queens in her hive and will sting unhatched rivals to death in their cells. Many beekeepers believe that the murder victims 'sing', aware of death approaching. There are other theories about the song of the unborn queens but nobody doubts the song itself, a high, piping noise.

Extract from The Queen of The Warrior Bees

Chapter 1




Why was the Forest forbidden? The very word was unmentionable. Yet everybody knew it was out there. Otherwise, how could children scare each other with whispered stories of what might be in the Forest? Gigantic sticky-buds, striped man-eaters, slithery poison? Their imaginations ran wild in a tamed world. But as each child reached Maturity and passed – or failed – the ritual test, the word Forest disappeared from the new adult’s mind, like a leaf dropping in autumn.
     Mielitta had tried to ask adults why the Forest was forbidden but the word tied her tongue in tangled roots and instead she found herself asking the way to the schoolroom, or some other question so ludicrous that she was mocked for her stupidity. She sensed magecraft twisting her words but she could not force a different path from the one required of good citizens.
     Now she was the only child who'd seen eighteen year-cycles and still been told she was not ready for testing. Her old playmates moved around the same halls as she did, girls in silken robes, boys in leatherette jerkins and long trews, while she still wore a tabard over a child’s short britches and stuffed her hair into the coarse netting of a servant’s ugly snood.
     Flowers, thought Mielitta, as three girls in gowns like satin petals rustled past her. Grace, Felicity and Espoir had turned into a golden daffodil, a blue pansy and a violet campanula respectively. Mielitta knew these flowers from the books in the library, which she was tasked with cleaning each week. She remembered when the golden daffodil used to play leapfrog against the stable wall and when the violet campanula had linked pinkie fingers with her, swearing friendship forever. But even then, her finding had set her apart. All the other children had been born in the Citadel, not discovered as a baby by the Mage-Smith. She would always be a foundling, a freak.
     ‘The stones be with you, Lady Grace, Lady Felicity, Lady Espoir,’ murmured Mielitta, lowering her eyes. Barely nodding slender necks, expressions stonier than the walls they passed, the ladies swished past in silence, the better to ignore such a freak.
     Had they forgotten her when they reached maturity? Or did they prefer to forget their broken promises, made by childish pinkie fingers?
     As the chirruping gossip started up again behind her, Mielitta was warned of a potentially worse encounter by the brown scent of peat, a metallic clank and rumbling voices. She shrank into the shadows of an alcove, held her breath. Whichever route she took from her bed to the kitchen, there was always the risk of meeting Jannlou and his cronies.
I hope you enjoyed this blog, creating a buzz for my new novel. You can find out more and continue reading the first two chapters of Queen of the Warrior Bees here.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

A Greater World :Clare Flynn

Clare's author page on amazon
Since I first met historical novelist Clare Flynn at a conference in Oxford in 2016 and felt an instant cameraderie, her books have become bestsellers. Her fans can't wait for their next voyage in the early 20th century in the company of women who suffer and survive and I have great news for them! But what about the woman behind the books? Clare's life has been as amazing as any of her books and each year I discover more of her secret life. One constant is Clare's love of travel and awareness that she is part of a greater world so this story of love, loss and a voyage into the unknown seems an appropriate focus for the interview!

Welcome to my blog, Clare!



Tell me a bit about yourself - where do you live and what do you do when you’re not writing?
Thanks for inviting me, Jean. Home is Eastbourne on the beautiful Sussex coast, surrounded by the South Downs and with views of the grey-green chalky sea from my window. I moved here three years ago after twenty years in London, but lived here in my teens so I knew what I was I was letting myself in for. I love it!
I spent my pre-writing career firstly in Marketing where I worked for big global companies like Proctor & Gamble, then latterly working for myself as a strategy consultant. My work took me all over the world with a wide range of fabulous clients from brewers to broadcasters.
Ah, The Chalky Sea is another title I recognise and now I know the inspiration!

I know you lived in Paris for some time. Where else have you lived and what drew you there? Do you think any of these places influenced you and your writing?
I lived in Paris on the Boulevard St Germain in the late 80s for two years. It sounds romantic but not when you have to drive round for hours trying to find a parking spot after getting home late from work. It was my first experience of living abroad and it wasn’t a happy one – pity as I’d lap it up now– especially my gorgeous little apartment in the heart of the Latin Quarter.

I had a couple of years in Brussels and three in Milan. I adore Italy and speak Italian. The Alien Corn has some flashbacks to the war there. More recently my latest book, which will be published by Canelo in June 2019, has an Italian character and I very much enjoyed writing him.

My other exotic temporary home was Sydney where I worked for six months in 2006/7. I’d been to Australia a few times before and had already started work on my first novel, A Greater World, set in the Blue Mountains.

The Blue Mountains
What made you choose the different settings in your books (including Canada and India)?
Location has a huge influence on my writing. It’s often the trigger point for a story. My second novel, Kurinji Flowers, is set in South India in a fictional hill town, based on Munnar. Unable to sleep in my hotel room one night on holiday there, I lay thinking about who else might have stayed in that room back in the 1930s. By the time dawn was breaking I had mapped out the background to the book and some of the key characters. I found the whole area magical – the endless rolling tea gardens, like a huge piece of corduroy velvet across the landscape, the bright vivid colours of the statues and temples, the flowers, the wildlife, the birdsong, and the visible colonial heritage. My first visit there was to paint so I had to make my character, Ginny, a painter too – albeit a more successful one than I could ever be!
I love your descriptions of place. You have a painter's eye!

What drew you to the early 20th century as a period and how do you do your research?
I read an interview with William Boyd the other day in which he said that he didn’t see the twentieth century as history because his grandmother had lived in the nineteenth century and his great uncle fought in the first war, so it doesn’t feel so far away or alien. He said, “I feel that’s my natural range – say three generations back from my own life and time – it’s not strange.” That exactly reflects my own feelings. I can’t see me writing books set in Tudor England or eighteenth century France.

I do a variety of things as research. Ideally, I visit the location – but my recent trilogy, The Canadians, is set in eastern Canada and I couldn’t get there. Instead I used Google Earth, YouTube, books, websites, maps, films, almanacs, online weather statistics and – best of all – my own private Facebook group consisting of three retired Canadian librarians who answered all my questions, no matter how obscure, and went above and beyond the call of duty to help me.
We are so lucky these days to be able to connect through social media with experts - and, like you, I've found them so generous in response.

You write about strong women who suffer and survive, sometimes hindered by the men in their lives. How do you hope readers will react to your novels?
I hope they will see my characters as living within their own period, not ours. I get very frustrated when someone describes a character as being insufficiently empowered when, in the context of the era she lived in, she was pushing the boundaries as far as they would go. We can’t expect the world of the early twentieth century to match our own. Most married women were not even permitted to work outside the home. My character, Elizabeth, in A Greater World, has never worked in the sense we would – she took in violin pupils when her family fell on hard times and later in the book gets involved in understanding the economics of her husband’s failing coalmine. I had one reviewer very snidely remark that a mere violin teacher couldn’t possibly have done that – which is incredibly patronising. Elizabeth never actually takes over the running of the mine but asks enough questions to figure out what its future might be. So, I suppose I’m saying I’d like readers not to assume women in the past had all the same attitudes and possibilities open to them – while at the same time not patronising women because their lives were more confined than ours may be.
That's a very balanced response to the ongoing debate re women's roles in the past and one that resonates with me as writer of medieval fiction too. 

Who is your ideal reader?
Someone who appreciates a good story, with multi-faceted characters and a liking for travel to interesting places – even if it’s vicarious.

If you could wave a magic wand and change something about your career what would it be?
That I’d started it sooner. But that said, I have no real regrets. I am very happy with what I’ve achieved so far, and I remain excited about the future. I’m also grateful that my professional life gave me the financial footing that helped me have the courage to go full time as a writer.

Congratulations on your incredible performance in Nanowrimo!  https://nanowrimo.org/ In 2018, you completed a draft novel in a month for the third year running. How do you manage this in November but not the rest of the year? And what tips do you have for others in tackling Nanowrimo?
Actually, it was the fourth year! Four of my books were partly written in NanoWriMo. I’m a highly competitive individual as my siblings will testify (but then so are they!) and the pressure of hitting that goal – even though I’m only competing against myself – is a huge motivator. And having done it once it’s easier to do it again. I’m quite a fast writer anyway and I’m lucky that my first drafts are already fairly polished before I get into the rounds of editing. It wasn’t always like this – I think it has come over years of practice. Maybe not always in writing fiction but I have long had the need to express myself in words as a cornerstone of the way I made my living.

My only tips for NaNoWriMo are very simple ones. Firstly, get off to as fast a start as possible so you have some slack to cover any underperforming days. Nothing’s worse than racing to catch up if you’re behind – that’s very demoralising. Secondly, do some planning beforehand so you have a clear idea of where you are going even if, like me, you write by the seat of your pants. I think I’d struggle if I sat down on Day One and had to start from a blank page with no idea of characters, location or inciting incident.

Tell me about your working day. Do you work to a routine? Endless cups of coffee or tea? How does this change during Nanowrimo?
No routine! I try to write every day but I don’t beat myself up if I miss a few days. Yes, gallons of tea and a more limited amount of coffee, then wine at six o’clock! I always break for lunch and rarely spend the entire day writing – there’s so much else to do – not least marketing. In Nanowrimo it’s much the same as long as I hit the target for that day.

What has been the hardest thing for you to overcome in becoming a published author? What or who has helped you most in the process?
I wasted a lot of time before deciding to self-publish. I had an agent and lost months waiting for her to sell the book, which she didn’t. She wasn’t enamoured of my second book so I decided I’d nothing to lose by giving Self-Publishing a go. And by then I had some self-belief. What I never expected to happen was that it would open a whole new world of friendship and support. Nor did I expect to be so successful – especially as I write Historical with a romantic element (not straight romance) and was warned it was hard to crack. I think I took well to Self-Publishing as I was used to running my own business and hence having control. I see it as more entrepreneurial than being trad published. Although now I am enjoying having a foot in both camps.

My fellow authors have helped me the most. I have been amazed at the friendship, generosity and massive support of other writers such as you, Jean.
Right back at you! I feel the same as you re Self-Publishing (and time wasted with traditional publishers) and the support of fellow-writers is generous - and practical! - beyond belief. 

If you could pick one character in one of your books, to spend some time with, who would it be and why?
Hector from Kurinji Flowers would be great fun. The drinks would flow, the conversation would be challenging and entertaining. Just as long as we don’t end up fancying the same men!
Haha! Always a friendship spoiler :)

Tell me about your latest book and why we should all buy it?
My first book, A Greater World is now also my next book! I signed a contract with Canelo for them to relaunch it and for me to write a follow up. I’ve just finished the follow up (yay!). A Greater World is available NOW! The follow up, The Storms Between Us, comes out in June 2019. And why should you read it? I have no idea – unless you like losing out on your beauty sleep! One reader described it as Wuthering Heights meets Australia meets Titanic! Another said, “There is so much going on in this story - everything from rape, death, murder, marriage, divorce, drug taking and every human emotion from loss to joy to reconciliation.”

What’s next for Clare Flynn?
By the time you’re reading this I will be away on a four-month cruise around the world calling at numerous exotic destinations from French Polynesia to Japan. I’m not putting myself under any pressure to write while I’m away as it’s a holiday – but I know while we are at sea, I will probably end up at some point hiding away in my cabin or under a sunshade, bashing away at my laptop! I’ll be back in May in time for the publication of The Storms Between Them.

Happy Launch Day, Clare, for your book and your cruise ship!

You can connect with Clare via
her website
her publisher's website
her blog
twitter
instagram
facebook
goodreads
youtube

While Clare is on her cruise, discovering a greater world, why not check out her books?


A Greater World

She crossed the world to marry a stranger.
   When Elizabeth Morton's father asks her to travel to the other side of the world to marry a man she's never met, she is stunned. It's 1920 and a woman has rights. But her choices are removed when she is raped by her brother-in-law and thrown out of her own home by her sister.
   When Michael Winterbourne wakes with a hangover after his engagement celebrations, he is about to be the cause of a terrible tragedy that will destroy his family, turn his life upside down and catapult him into leaving England.
   Elizabeth, born into a prosperous family, and Michael, a miner, come from different worlds. They would never have met but the SS Historic, bound for Sydney, is a ship with only one class.
Falling in love should have been the end to all their troubles. But fate and the mysterious Jack Kidd make sure it's only the beginning.


Photo credits: Clare Flynn and Canelo 

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

12 Mustread Books for Christmas

12 authors, 12 HIGHLY recommended books for all tastes
- sharp, sweet, cosy, exciting or downright dangerous!
Sing along! 
(lyrics at the bottom and you KNOW the tune)

Show how you feel by giving somebody the perfect book! 
Even if that somebody is YOU!
Treat yourself this Christmas!




For the first book at Christmas, my true love gave to me
a crib scene calamity!

Murder in the Manger by Debbie Young

Read more details and buy the book at amazon

For the second book at Christmas, my true love gave to me
2 haunted lives


The Chase by Lorna Fergusson

Read more details and buy the book at amazon

For the third book at Christmas, my true love gave to me
3 French dogs


Nici's Christmas Tale by Jean Gill

Read more details and buy the book at amazon.com

For the fourth book at Christmas, my true love gave to me
4 stalking birds


Into The Silent Sea by Claire Stibbe

Read more details and buy the book at amazon

For the fifth book at Christmas, my true love gave to me
5 wild flings


The Frozen River by Clare Flynn

Read more details and buy the book at amazon

For the sixth book at Christmas, my true love gave to me
6 family strangers


Bitter Like Orange Peel by Jessica Bell

Read more details and buy the book at all bookstores

For the seventh book at Christmas, my true love gave to me
7 savage women


Snow Angel by JJ Marsh

Read more details and buy the book at amazon

For the eighth book at Christmas, my true love gave to me
8 Saturnalia


Roma Nova Extra by Alison Morton

Read more details and buy the book at amazon
kobo     B & N    ibooks

For the ninth book at Christmas, my true love gave to me
9 hearts romancing


The Christmas Heart by Helena Halme

Read more details and buy the book at all bookstores

For the tenth book at Christmas, my true love gave to me
10 loves for weeping


The Swooping Magpie by Liza Perrat

Read more details and buy the book at all book stores

For the eleventh book at Christmas, my true love gave to me
11 pirates fighting


The Chosen Man by J G Harlond

Read more details and buy the book at amazon.com

For the twelfth book at Christmas, my true love gave to me
12 fine art  photos


I Stopped Time by Jane Davis

Read more details and buy the book at all bookstores

Sing along!
The Twelve Books For Christmas - Song

For the twelfth book at Christmas, my true love gave to me
12 fine art  photos
11 pirates fighting
10 loves for weeping
9 hearts romancing
8 Saturnalia
7 savage women
6 family strangers
5 wild flings
4 stalking birds
3 French dogs
2 haunted lives
and
a crib scene calamity!


Monday, May 21, 2018

Seeing Every Tree - Anita Kovacevic


Today's blog guest is Anita Kovacevic, a remarkable author whose tireless work on behalf of other authors makes her an unsung hero -so let's do some singing. 

Tell me a bit about yourself - where do you live and what do you do when you’re not writing?
My family and I live in Croatia, where we are all from. I teach English in a private school for foreign languages to groups of various ages; this is a full-time job. Writing sneaks in whenever possible, usually on breaks and holidays, but when a story is particularly active in my head, it will worm its way even into my dreams at night. Writing makes time for itself, but, for now, it tries to understand my main priority – family. 




Can you give me a brief picture of your personal journey as a writer?
Another author friend recently celebrated his anniversary and, as I congratulated him on his success, I checked my own publishing dates. It all still seems so fresh, especially knowing how much I have yet to learn about the craft, but it was only at that moment, when I checked the date, that I realized my books have been in the publishing world for over three years now. There are four of my children’s books out there and, in the world of adult fiction, there’s a novella, two novels, two poetry collections, and finally my stories and poems in six anthologies. If I am doing my math well, that sums up to fifteen titles available online to my own name. It still seems totally surreal at times. 

There are two wonderful charity projects which came even before my own books and sort of started the whole business of books for me – an educational story book published traditionally a long time ago, Teaching Children from the Heart (currently unavailable) and the international anti-bullying anthology Inner Giant (available on Amazon). I was invited to both by Mr. Letras, an author and teacher, as a member of an online teachers group. These two collections are, in a way, why I dared publish at all. They are linked to my work in education and I am very proud of participating in them. 

Most of my books are self-published, because I too have had my share of encounters with vanity publishers, which are way too costly for all of my resources, financially, time-wise and emotionally.
When I think back to my childhood, I was always writing something, and then it continued throughout my education, as well as my teaching. I often write lesson materials, stories, riddles and limericks for my learners and theatre plays which they perform. This is actually how all of my children’s books started. 

As for my current position as a writer, I would say I am still exploring my possibilities and learning as much as I can. Teaching is my primary occupation and it takes up a lot of my time, especially now that the school year is ending, but it also provides a lot of inspiration. 

I have not distilled my writing into one single genre, nor do I plan to. There are still too many stories in different genres which I feel should see the light of the publishing world. They are waiting in my laptop and notebooks (yes, old-fashioned hand-writing has its advantages) for their time to come and for me to give them proper attention.

Let’s talk about The Forest of Trees, a book which left a huge impression on me because of the questions it raises and because it is so unusual!

You know that the title put me off reading the book and that it was only after starting the book and reading your explanation, that I thought about it differently. Why do you like a title that repeats the obvious?
First of all, thank you very much for reading the book. It means a lot to me, because I admire your work tremendously. 

Yes, The Forest of Trees is very unusual and difficult to sum up. Trust me – the blurb was the most difficult thing to write. I suppose when you’ve spent seven years writing something, it is only right that it should be difficult to sum up.

But let’s start from the title. I had tried changing it many times during the writing and revision process. It would not be changed. Whatever I tried to do, I’d go back to it. Anything else caused havoc in my mind and a severe stomachache. This book wanted to be called The Forest of Trees from the very moment it clicked in my head, and it feels right to me. The marketability of the title is something I am not yet worried about in my writing career. The obviousness of the message, seeing or not being able to see a forest for the trees, doesn’t bother me at all, knowing that nothing else functioned for me. To be honest, nowadays the obvious needs to be stressed – you might be amazed how many people I’ve talked to who know of this saying, and think it refers to weeds in a garden or forest, without any idea of its metaphorical strength. (Sometimes I wonder if people really don’t see or simply choose not to.) I admire the people who are able to see the big picture still respecting each individual tree, and you know, of course, that I am not only talking about plant life here. I have been privileged to know and work with some of such people. The novel abounds in characters, and their stories are so different, and yet all connected, even when we don’t want them to be. Kind of like life.

The Forest of Trees deals with a family who move out of a big city, drained from illnesses, unemployment and their son being bullied, and they set off in search of a better life in a small town. Their lives change tremendously, as the children start a new school, the mother starts working and the father is temporarily not the bread-winner of the family. Opportunities abound, and unusual new friendships are formed, but, naturally, nothing is ever perfect. Small towns have their own secrets, some wonderful, some less. It’s how we deal with them that matters, on our own but also together.

What makes the story different and special are The Forest and all the characters. The Forest is an infamous wood right next to their new residence, with sort of an urban legend behind it, which turns out to be partly true. In a way, the nature and the magical parts of the story are a reflection of what happens in human reality – nothing is ever totally good or bad, and communication and empathy are the keys to handling things and connecting all the trees in the forest. And again, I am not only talking about plant life here. Speck and Tallulah, the link between the magical and human world, are both tiny, which is how much magic humans allow into this world.

I never expected everyone to like the title, cover or the story. I am a writer and teacher, which automatically makes me crazy, but I am not so crazy as to think any book could please everyone. Being at peace with this may be the result of my joining several truly positive author communities, where other authors helped me put things into perspective. It may also be the result of having children and working with them – they teach you very early on that ego is a ridiculous thing and you can never please everybody. The trick is to live with yourself as you are, or else you are living a lie.

I felt that the fantasy creatures of the forest highlighted the same problems experienced by the human characters: bullying, peer pressure, violence, and losing touch with nature (in all its senses). Did you write the fantasy thread with this in mind?
Absolutely, they do highlight them. Thank you for interpreting it in this way. I did not write them with this in mind though. They had me write them. From the very beginning of the story, they were part of it. They grew with the characters and developed the relationships naturally. I am pleased they revealed themselves in true form too, not all of them as good or bad, just like humans. I have always believed we are just parts of the intricate tapestry of the universe, and that there is far more to this world, call it magic or nature or whatever you want, than we allow ourselves to see. 

As my characters, the fantasy ones and the ‘real’ ones, connected and formed their relationships, it made me feel more complete, more connected, happier. There are several scenes in the book which made me cry happy tears. The initial scene of the boy, Jeremy, whistling in the middle of the forest the very first day they arrive from the city, waking up the slumbering trees and his own soul… this one was so lovely to write, but grew more and more powerful every time I reread it during revisions. Now that I’ve had some time to cool my head from the story, it still evokes strong emotions within me. And that’s just chapter one. 

There are some hard-hitting scenes, showing abusive family relationships and how these affect the wider community, in school, or in the neighbourhood. Were these hard to write?
Horribly difficult to write. I tried not to write some. I avoided them.

Old Jackson, the malicious ‘pig’ king, was a special torment for me. The scene where he bullies his youngest grandson and then suffers a just punishment (which should bring some gratification, but doesn’t make you feel good), haunted me as a nightmare for 2 weeks. I would wake up in cold sweat with him whispering in my ear. It is the writer’s horror – the scene repeats itself, word for word, with even more detail every single time. Finally, I gave in, got up one night at about 2 a.m. and wrote it down. I slept like a log the rest of that morning. 

A similar thing happened with the French teacher, Gabrielle, waking up in the motel room, beaten and half-conscious, trying to decide if she wants to try to remember or to forget what exactly happened during the night. This one woke me up after I’d dreamt it, and the entire chapter was dreamed almost exactly as it appears in the book.

Philip, the little boy who uses his talent in computer sciences for his unbelievably malicious plans, was a shock. I’d known from the start he’d be worse than Angel, who is merely a physical bully with learned behavior who needed some love. But the extent of Philip’s wickedness gave me that feeling of defeat. Having almost twenty-five years of teaching experience, I have seen children grow into people I’d hoped they wouldn’t, but this happened really rarely. I love children and their potential, which needs only be unlocked, nourished and inspired by positivity. All the children at Tillsworth seemed to be my learners, so seeing one of them perform such devious acts actually hurt. I remember writing out his final scenes in the book constantly thinking ‘You’re not really going to do that, are you, Philip? Please, don’t. You can do so much better, be so much more…’ It didn’t help. He is very savvy on computers, but uses his power for evil, with total disregard for others or any responsibility. What he did in the end started an avalanche of events which crumbled the town to pieces and tested all relationships. Some might say his deed was eventually productive, but I’d always rather have people water the trees than shake them.

These difficult characters and scenes still have that effect on me which you might call 'writer’s PTSP'. Some might know what I mean. I was not just writing those scenes. I was actually there witnessing them and could do nothing about them. It’s a terrible feeling to wake up with the taste of blood in your mouth which is virtual, and yet not.

One layer of the story follows a teacher and her family to a new job and environment. How far did this story draw on your own life, as a teacher, and as a mother?
Well, I am happy to report none of the abuse scenes come from my own life, which is probably why they were so difficult for me to witness and then write. Somehow, putting them on paper makes them real, as if I am admitting these situations exist. They do, but I wish they didn’t. 

Whatever we may think, that we are not guided by our own life when we write, that we are not divulging our own thoughts and details in our writing… I believe it is impossible to separate the two completely. There are some scenes related to lessons which probably stem from my own experiences, even some methods Emma uses in class. Emma’s feelings of inadequacy as a mother during her days at home with her firstborn are something I can completely relate to. There are some tiny details in the Stone family life which sneaked into the story with love and honesty, such as Emma not being much of a cook, Dot’s dislike of wearing proper skirts, Jeremy’s art, which must have been inspired by some situations from my own life. Some characters were inspired by the people I know, but never entirely, just in some mannerisms, clothing style, etc.

Fantasy often presents Good versus Evil in grand battles and in this book you show that battle in both fantasy-style action and in metaphorical human struggles. I loved the section offering youngsters a way to deal with bullying. But you don’t offer easy solutions. One youngster is portrayed as being beyond redemption. I was reminded of Kevin, in ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin,’ and of real teenage murderers. Do you think containment is sometimes all that’s possible?
You are talking about Philip, but also some other children. Bullying is often copied, learned behavior. There is a difference between kids who bully others physically and those who abuse them mentally. Philip’s is the worst kind, I think. He operates from the shadows. I’d hate to see what he grows up to be. 

Interesting you should mention containment. I believe it depends on timing. Forgive my bluntness, but it’s like a serious illness – if discovered early, things can be done about it. Philip’s mother Gloria is not a bad person; she herself has obviously been taught that her beauty is her only value, and as it fades, she gets more scared. She knows no better. She never even sees what he is growing into. I’d always felt that at one point she realized his intelligence had surpassed hers and she simply escaped into herself. She may have felt he was not taking the path of positivity, but being lost herself, she was no guide. I have seen this happen – people who are unable to follow their children’s talents or mental development, who are either too weak to ask for help or even too ashamed to ask for help. 

This is why I cannot stress communication enough. Solutions to problems are never easy, because the problems are not easy.



I believe for Philip it was too late to do anything. Regrettably, there are situations like that. I remember seeing this in some children. It is a frightening feeling in the pit of your stomach as you gaze into that child’s eyes and you realize they do know the difference between right and wrong, but it doesn’t interest them – all they care about is what they want. It is one of the scariest feelings in the world, seeing future in that light. You hope you are wrong. And then you meet the source – the parents, and the feeling in your stomach sinks in – irredeemable. Frightful feeling. I am glad it is rare. 

But overall, bullying and abuse in children can be handled and steered in the right direction. All my other children characters are proof. The project they work on at school is one I feel so privileged to have witnesses in my mind. It has nothing to do with bullying, and yet demands all the positive things I believe in education – creativity, team work, individuality, respect, problem solving, collaboration with adults… even things getting literally messy in water colours. It is my firm belief that by focusing on positivity and creativity is the way to go.

As for Jeremy’s method to handle bullying by finding his own inner strength, I’d thought a lot about it. For a moment I was even a bit disappointed that he’d chosen such stereotypes (talking to his own angel and demon), until I realized it was normal – children use images we provide them with, so having his own angel and demon was his brain simplifying things for him to a level he was able to handle. The Ready Room is one of my favourite places in the book, but people need to read the book to see why. And it is not even a physical place.

Who is your ideal reader and what would you like him/her to take away from reading your book?
Oh this may be the most difficult question of all. I don’t know what kind of person it would take to like The Forest of Trees, but perhaps that’s part of the magic of writing. I would certainly recommend it to educators, parents, family people, even young adults with interest in human psyche. Anyone who doesn’t mind a bit of magic now and then. The fantasy creatures certainly helped me handle some of the ghastly people in the book. 

I hope readers feel good after reading the novel and it makes them think about themselves and others. I hope they realize how much respect some people, for instance the Bosworths (the school principal and his wife), deserve – the modest, non-conflicting people who never steal the show but facilitate life to all around them, despite their own personal tragedy. 

Everyone has a story. I hope my readers admit that children, and some adults, need to believe in magic, need their own inner world which makes them better people. Tallulah, Speck and the trees, the fantasy elements I mentioned in this interview, they are the links in the book, with the help of the children, of course. They keep the balance. I love my tree characters. I cried over some, and I’d love to meet them in person. I hope my readers will too.

How do you feed your creative engine? Where do you look, or what do you do, to keep the inspiration flowing?
With everything else still taking precedence in my life, inspiration flows too often to fit my timetable. I never have to look for it – it finds me. The people at the bus stop, a scent, an image, music, somebody’s laughter, doing the dishes, chatting with my husband or my kids… everything has a story. Everyone has a story.

What comes first –location, plot, characters?
An entire scene plays out in my head, or even a dream. With sounds, scents and all. When that happens, I know I’m in for a story. Some stories continue right away, playing out scene by scene on a daily basis, some don’t. Those take their time, simmer down and lurk. When their time comes, they simply continue themselves. If they don’t, they just weren’t meant to be.

Tell me about your writing day. Do you work to a routine? Do you have a dedicated space to write in? Endless cups of coffee or tea?
Oh that would be something – a writing day! Well, that notion certainly gives me something to hope for :) . I had a spot dedicated to writing, but now it’s my daughter’s school desk. Luckily, I am not a slave to a place. All I need is that spark and then I can write on napkins. For instance, a part of The Forest of Trees was written on the back of my old lesson plans. What does happen when I’m in the writing zone is that lack of sleep becomes a routine. I usually eat more and gain less while I write. The perfect diet, huh? And I am generally in a really good mood. Writing makes me a better person to the people around me – must be because I release those demons from my head. 

Who or what has been the greatest help to you as a writer?
As far as my children’s books are concerned, I’d say my own children and my little learners. They don’t know I write books, by the way (my learners, I mean), so when I tell a story they react as kids do – honestly and brutally. If they lose interest, I know I am doing it wrong. Some of my colleagues have offered lots of support and even use my stories in my lessons. Those people are in my dedications.

My friends and family try to be supportive, each in their own way. My husband has learned to understand my insomniac phases and persuaded me to get myself a very small and very silent laptop, so I could write during the night and not wake him up. I also have been blessed with good friends who tell me my mistakes to my face, not behind my back.
I have been privileged to meet some wonderful authors, yourself included, who help with advice, reviews, promoting, even proofreading and editing. Forgive me for not naming them, but I’d hate anyone to feel left out, and then again some people hate feeling tagged. 
Reading helps me a lot. I often remember my English teachers and writing instructors from my university days when I write. They must have done something right, right? 

What has been the hardest thing for you to overcome in becoming an author?
Lots of things really. Realizing you can write whatever you want, but once it is in publishing stages, it becomes a business like everything else. I am not much of a business person, so investments, marketing and strategizing are not my forte. 

The moment you realize it will take a long time and perseverance is a difficult one. However, it is not as frustrating as I imagined it would be. One has to be at peace with the fact that things need time to happen. Of course, if you give up, you are not allowing yourself that time, so have no expectations.

One thing I am still trying to overcome… well, not overcome but balance and come to terms with is life’s reality – responsibilities and priorities. Let’s say it’s a good thing – it means I am still learning, and that keeps me young.

If you could pick one of your own characters to spend some time with, who would it be and why?
Oh I couldn’t. Just one? Can I cheat a bit? I’d love to take a walk through The Forest with my family and see who we bumped into. That would be a treat.

What are you working on now - or next?
Oddly enough, or not, I’ve just finished the first version of a non-fiction manuscript. It’s a book about a method I apply when I teach – something I’ve come up with that works for not only my subject, sort of a strategy of learning and teaching which is pretty simple and most effective. I also have several children’s books and adult short story collections in editing stages, and an unusual psychological thriller in ‘lurking’ stage – it wants to be written but knows it requires lots of research.

Tell me about your latest book and why we should all buy it?
The latest one is The Forest of Trees, which I talked about a lot during this interview, and thank you immensely for this opportunity. Why should you buy it? Because it is really good, ha-ha. Told you I am no marketing expert. I can recommend you tons of books by other authors though, and be spectacularly creative about it. 

I can vouch for that and it's been impossible for me to interview Anita at a time when she's not reviewing and promoting my books! This has made it harder for me to interview her and to review The Forest of Trees but as she would say, 'Finally I gave in to my gut and I slept better.' My respect for her grows every time we exchange views and, as we've both been teachers for a long time, we share the knowledge of how hard it is to be in the front line of a battle that seems to grow ever more dangerous.

Thank you, Anita!

Where can we find you?



Buy The Forest of Trees on amazon
on B & N on Kobo on Apple itunes



My review of The Forest of Trees

What are we doing for and to our kids? This gripping novel makes you wonder!

This is not a children's story although some youngsters would relate to many parts of it. Through a gripping story, the author faces us with some of those big questions behind the news every day, and helps us understand people better. How can we protect our children, sometimes from each other? What drives some adults, and some children to commit horrific crimes? How does our relationship with nature affect our nature, as a human society?

The Forest of Trees
is unusual in the way it links a fantasy storyline that seems almost childish, with a realistic depiction of bullying and abuse, in a small town location. Every detail of school life is convincing, both from teachers' viewpoints and students'. The youngsters and their relationships below the radar of adult intervention are heart-breaking in their potential for both good and evil. I was rooting for Jeremy! I also appreciated the quiet goodness of many of the adults, which I found more moving than any one superhero could have been.

Bad things happen, in the book and in life, and the Ready Room is something we all need. You'll have to read the book to understand what it is and why!

This book annoyed me because it didn't make its mind up which sort of book it was. The title annoyed me until I read the author's explanation for it (which you don't read unless you get past the title). The fairy annoyed me - maybe it was just the word 'fairy' that seemed childish - and yet, the faery folk of legend aren't childish at all. All my criticisms disappeared against the inescapable fact that I keep thinking about this book. It's as important as We Need To Talk About Kevin and Micka in showing us something about youngsters today. We need to talk about Philip.