Sunday, July 31, 2011

Watcher's Web, Chapter 1 -- Patty Jansen

Today Toad welcomes Patty Jansen to the House of Toad, who shares the first chapter of Watcher's Web with us today. Thank you Patty!

Wherever Jessica went, people watched her.

Like those two teenage boys leaning on the fence, akubra hats pulled down to shade their eyes. One of them dangled a cigarette in careless fingers, the other swigged beer from a stubby.

Neither was watching her now, but she hadn't missed their gawking, nor their low voices barely elevated over the noise of bellowing cattle, shouts and truck engines.

Wow! See that really tall one?

Bloody hell, yeah.

How'd you reckon she kisses a guy? On her knees?

They laughed, and when she came closer, faced the yard to watch the cattle as if they had said nothing.

Jessica walked past them to the gate, glaring at their straw-covered backs. Well, I bloody heard you. She was used to it, anyway.

It hadn't been the worst thing people said about her. They hadn't said the words ugly, or creepy, or freak, but she had become used to hearing those words, too.

They went into a little hard spot inside her where she scrunched up the hurt, forgot it, and remembered that she might look like a freak, but when she helped John Braithwaite and his mates from the Rivervale Stud Farm at a cattle show and Angus went into one of his fits, they still needed her to get him into the truck without spooking him. No one else could do that. No one knew how she did it, and no one should ever know. Because no one was crazy enough to get into a pen with a stroppy bull, right?

Well, we'll see about that.

She grasped the top of the gate with both hands, stepped onto the middle bar and swung her foot over. Jumped. Landed in sun-baked mud churned with cloven hoof prints, and cow pats.
At least when Angus looked at her, he didn't hide his dislike. A beady eye rolled, a gust of hay-scented air blew from his nostrils. He stiffened, all fifteen hundred-odd kilograms of Brahman bull-flesh of him. Then lowered his head, horns poised.

Someone yelled, 'Watch it!'

No, he wasn't going to charge. He'd charge at the boys, he'd even charge at his well-heeled owner, but never at her. Call her arrogant, but she knew that, and how she knew it would remain a secret, too, thank you very much.

She stopped a few paces inside the pen and crossed her arms over her chest. Well, bugger that. She had a bloody audience. About twenty people, mostly men, sitting on the fence, with cynical hey-look-at-this-mate expressions plastered on their faces.

Beef cattle farmers, their lackeys and other hangers-on, those clowns who had partied in the pavilion last night, those who owned the bulls that had occupied the pens next to Angus'. All their animals were already in the trucks, ready to be taken home from the Pymberton show. None of them with a 'best of show' ribbon, like Angus, and none with a diva mentality.

It looked like the boys had been trying to get Angus to move for a while. The gate on the opposite side of the pen was open, the ramp in place. Brendan held the door to the truck, ready to slam it. Everything about his expression said, rather you than me. The coward.

'Come on, Angus, in you go.'

Men sniggered, including the two teenage boys. The one with the cigarette flicked ash into the pen and said something about a whip.

Now who was more stupid? Them or the bull? You did not frighten such a prize animal if you could help it. He might bolt and injure himself. An unsightly gash would take him off the show circuit for months. Sheesh!

Jessica reached through the fence into the bucket she had dumped there. Her hand came away black and sticky with molasses. Angus loved it.

She inched closer, holding out her hand Come on, look me in the eye, if you dare.

Angus blew out another snort, as if he knew what was coming. Backed into the fence. Met her eyes.

Jessica exhaled. Her breath seeped from her in tendrils of sparkle-filled mist, which sought out Angus' fur and crept over his grey-mottled back, a bit like glitter-glue, but alive.

Jessica lunged for the rope that dangled from Angus' collar. She couldn't quite reach it, and while Angus backed further away from her, scraping along the fence, he planted his hoof on the end of the rope, squashing it neatly in a fresh pile of dung. Just her luck.

A bit closer.

She pulled the mist tighter around him, so his coat sparkled and glittered with lights. His outline became fuzzy. She didn't know what to call it, and had learned not to talk about it to anyone. It wasn't that she could communicate with him, but she could tell him what to do. Sort of. In a weird way she couldn't explain in words. The mist soaked up emotions, as far as bulls have emotions, and dampened them, and she could override them with her own. If it worked.

Her audience had stopped talking. Anyone who watched always did that, even though they couldn't see the mist and didn't realise it influenced them. That was just as well, because she was making an idiot of herself. Angus was being bloody stubborn, his head still lowered, trampling the rope further into the shit. Something must have spooked him badly. Maybe it was the yapping from the dog pavilion. Well, she and Angus seemed to have something in common--she didn't like lap dogs either.

But he was going to get into that bloody truck, preferably before she missed her flight back to Sydney. All kinds of hell would break loose if she wasn't at the school basketball team meeting that night.

Jessica focused on Angus' beady eye and let out another deep breath. More sparkling vapour flowed. Pinpricks of light soaked into Angus' mottled fur. Angus relaxed, stuck out his head to nuzzle her molasses-covered hand.

But then. . .

The threads solidified and the mist spun into tightly-coiled cords, which wove into a formation like a spider's web.

What the hell . . .?

She froze, staring at the writhing construction. It looked like someone had cast a living net over the bull, made of sparkling mist that yanked and stretched of its own volition, or . . . as if something pulled at the other end. There were shadows in a nebulous space over Angus' back, and male voices, just outside the edge of hearing. The web vibrated and strained.
A tug of war between herself and . . . Who was pulling the other end?

In her panic, she broke loose from the construction. The shadows at the other end of the web faded. The strands dissolved into mist once more.

A wet nose touched her palm and Angus' rasping tongue curled around her wrist. The molasses was clean licked-off, but he probably liked the salt of her sweat, because her arms glistened with it. She hoped no one noticed.

Her legs still trembling, Jessica pulled the rope and inched towards the gate. Angus followed her meekly, up the ramp, into the truck, where one of the boys was ready to tie him up.
The onlookers applauded.

Jessica leaned against the truck, forcing herself to grin at her audience.

'Can anyone give me a lift to the airport?'

* * * *

About the author:

Patty Jansen is a writer of primarily hard science fiction, space opera and daft fantasy. She is a winner in the Writers of the Future contest, and her story This Peaceful State of War has been published in their 27th anthology. Patty has also published stories in the Universe Annex of the Grantville Gazette and Redstone SF, and local anthologies and magazines, such as Dead Red Heart, Tales for Canterbury, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. Patty blogs at, about science, writing and about why elephants aren’t big enough. You can also sample some of Patty’s fiction at Smashwords ( ) or Amazon ( ).
Watcher’s Web is available on:

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Meet Noor Jahangir

Today I welcome an old friend of mine, Noor Jahangir, to share a little about his novel, The Changeling King, which was recently released. Welcome, Noor, and thank you for stopping by.

Give us a little background with regard to The Changeling King. What's the story about?

The story follows the intersecting adventures of six teenagers, spanning both time and space. The book starts with Vasch and his war-band of trolls arriving on Earth through a magical gateway. Vasch’s primary mission is to kill a boy called Adam Phelps, because of who the boy will become one day. The gateway was opened on the Earth side by a demon, but the backwash of the energy unleashed travels along the lay-lines and opens a second gateway about twenty miles away. The second gateway is buried beneath the mud at the bottom of a lake. Nathan Celic, his brother Logan and their girlfriends, Salina Phelps and Katrina Standbridge, are out swimming in the lake and get sucked through. They wake up to find themselves prisoners of an alien race called the Alvor, on a world called Eridani.

Salina’s kid brother, Adam, witnesses the whole event from the lakeshore. Karen Rainbow, the detective investigating the case doesn’t believe Adam’s version of events, but when a series of gruesome killings begin, she knows there is a connection between the kids disappearing and the murders. She takes Adam into protective custody and flees across the moors with Vasch and his warband in pursuit.

The sixth teenager is Sultan, a Mughal prince born several hundred years before Adam and the others. He has been trained in statecraft, martial arts and Sufi mysticism. His father’s small kingdom is caught between the machinations of the East India Company and the Mughal Emperor, Akbar. Sultan witnesses his father’s assassination and flees into the jungle. With the hunters closing in on him, he desperately turns to his mystic skills and accidentally transports himself across the cosmos and through time to Eridani; only to be captured by a troll.

Bringing all these story arcs together is the Trollking, a changeling child born amongst the alvor and abandoned in accordance with their traditions. The child is raised by trolls and quickly rises to dominate them, before betrayal sees him return to his place of birth in chains. The changeling discovers his heritage and escapes the city with the aid of a goblin shaman, only to return years later at the head of a horde of trolls and goblins. Now the changeling has reined over Northern Kryllon for a century. His demon allies have warned him that his death will come at the hands of a human child from Earth. So the Trollking sends his most trusted warrior, Vasch, to eliminate the threat. Tortured to the point of madness, Sultan languishes in the Trollking’s prison. And the only gateway back to Earth is the Trollking’s throne room.

Who are some of your literary influences and what aspects of their writing speak to you?

I think the earliest literary influence, indeed the one that first made me aspire to write was CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe, which obviously comes through in the whole crossover thing. But I doubt anyone can write in the fantasy genre without also being influenced by JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I like to think that I’ve read quiet widely in the fantasy genre and when I wrote the original draft of The Changeling King I was reading David Gemmell, Raymond E Fiest and David Eddings.

David Gemmell’s characterisation, his ability to make men with the quality of legend in them come across as flawed humans is something I wanted to emulate. I hope I’ve succeeded in making my characters think, speak and behave in a manner that real people in similar situations would, rather than a bunch of cardboard cut-outs or caricatures of real people. I also love Neil Gaiman’s and Orson Scott Card’s work. Reading their writing is like eating high quality chocolate truffles. I’ve also enjoyed reading George RR Martin, James Barclay, Brent Weeks , Scott Lynch and a few months ago began the Robert Jordan marathon, The Wheel of Time. Non-fantasy influences include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which continues to influence me and Sidney Sheldon’s sharp sentences and break-neck pacing.

Who is your all-time favourite fantasy character and why does he/she appeal to you?

I’ve got a few favourites, but it’s a throw up between Aragorn from LOTR and Tenaka Khan from David Gemmell’s The King Beyond the Gate. Both of them are lethal with a sword in their hands, but have an inherent nobility and strength of character. Both are also quite tragic figures. The former because he is the heir to a lost legacy and in love with a woman doomed to outlive him, and the latter, because he is caught between two cultures and is forced to choose one over the other. Other favourite characters include Lady Mara of the Acoma from Raymond Feist’s and Janny Wurt’s Empire books, Durzo Blint from Brent Week’s Nightangel trilogy and David Gemmell’s Druss the Legend.

What are some of themes prevalent in The Changeling King?

There are two major themes laced through the whole book. The first is the familiar seen as the other, by viewing our world through Vasch’s eyes, and the other made familiar, through Nathan and the others adjusting to Eridani. The second theme is the longing for home. I wrote the first draft whilst I was at an Islamic boarding school, constantly homesick, and since the age of 11 have never really returned to live at my parent’s home again. I guess that’s why all my characters are homesick too. Vasch wants to go back to Eridani; Sultan wants to go back to Azamabad; Nathan, Logan, Salina and Katrina want to go back to Earth; Adam wants to go back to his mum; and even the Trollking has made his city of birth his capital. There are other themes too, like the absent father and mysticism, that readers will have to figure out for themselves.

Which character in The Changeling King is closest to your heart, and why?

Argh! That’s like asking me which of my kids I love the most! I like most of them, but if I have to choose . . . When I started writing The Changeling King originally, it was Nathan, because he most embodied me at that age. But now, it’s a throw-up between Vasch, because despite being a bit of a monster, he’s a good guy trying to make sense of the world, and Sultan, because he has a sense of duty that forces him to do the right thing, even if he wants to do the opposite.

Essentially, they both have a lot to learn about life and hopefully, over the next few books in the Trollking Saga, they will work it out enough to be happy with who they are.

How did you pull together the ideas for the novel? Was it a gradual realisation for the story or a sudden burst of creative inspiration that *this* was the story you were going to tell?

It started with one idea, with Nathan, Logan, Salina and Katrina playing a game that malfunctions and sends them to Eridani (Tron anyone?). Luckily, several rewrites of the book have created a more unique event to get them to the other world. The rest of the story came through unplanned and unstructured, like a fever that I had to get out of my head by writing my fingers raw. But then a decade of re-imagining and learning my craft has refined and built the story up to what it is today.

Some of the story arcs and characters, e.g. Karen, Sultan and Vasch, were born in the later rewrites. Even the Trollking’s back-story was a late edition. As for whether this was the book I ‘had’ to write, well, my brother’s recently commented that now that I had that gorilla off my back, I could start writing something decent.

Now that The Changeling King is complete and available, do you have anything else in the pipelines? And can you share a little about the story?

I have a few projects running simultaneously, including a non-fantasy YA series and a grown-up fantasy novel. But the most relevant one I suppose is the sequel to The Changeling King, currently titled The Renegade Prince. It’s difficult to say much without ruining the ending of The Changeling King. What I can say is that whilst the original was based predominately on Kryllon, the second book will explore the world of Eridani a lot more. There will be two strong female point-of-view characters and the Earth-side story will also continue. A host of new characters will be joining the cast and the main villain will be the son of the Trollking.

Where can people buy your books or follow your updates?

The Changeling King is available to purchase from the Kindle store and from Smashwords: The book is currently available at a discounted rate through the Smashwords Summer/Winter sale. You can also download two other short ebooks for free; Trial by Fire and The Dvargar of Amundborg. You can ‘Like’ me on my Facebook page, my author’s page on Goodreads, follow me on Twitter @noorjahangir, or follow my blog at and visit my website

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Review: The Caretakers

Title: The Caretakers
Author: Adrian Chamberlin
Publisher: Dark Continents Publishing

Blurb: Hear the screams. Feel the pain. Face the evil.

As a Cambridge College celebrates a midwinter feast, four uninvited strangers uncover a devastating secret. A secret that must never be revealed… for the love of humanity.

Andy Hughes: a man with a dark past and an even darker future. His search for a missing student will lead him to a confrontation with an evil beyond human imagining…

Rob Benson: a van driver who discovers a dead wild boar in the back of his Transit. A boar that just won’t stay dead…

Jennifer Callaby: Andy’s estranged girlfriend, who discovers the shocking truth of The Caretakers — and the sacred task that they perform…

Jason Franklin: a prisoner who holds the key to the fates of them all, and who may well be their only salvation — if he doesn’t destroy them first…

A disturbing thriller that questions the nature of evil and the price to be paid for the continued survival of the human race – a price that, for some, is too great to pay…

The Caretakers… a Master’s Degree in terror.

Review: The Caretakers plunges readers into a visceral world of horror situated in the fictional college of All Souls in Cambridge. Adrian Chamberlin knows his stuff with regard offering a well-realised setting. Those who’ve read his short story, The Bodymen, in Dark Continents’ The Spectrum Collection, will pick up on certain themes involving delivery truck drivers, forklifts and dead beasts. But any more said on that and it will ruin the nasty surprise. The Caretakers offers a Cambridge you’ve never seen before and, thankfully, never will. All Souls College is suitably gloomy, with a dark history hidden behind the clunch stone walls.

Overall, Chamberlin’s prose is tight, highly descriptive and fast-paced. There were times when I felt he could have gone for a tighter third-person point of view, when viewpoint characters withheld key information as a method to build tension, but the fast pace and incipient sense of horror carried the story through. If gore isn’t your thing, watch out for the finger- and eye-violence. Chamberlin delights in a bit of well-aimed splatter, which had me wriggling in horrified delight.

The main characters, Andy and Rob, are fully developed and, although not likeable, at least admirable. Both go through hell, in some cases almost literally, in an attempt to overcome the evil they have inadvertently been tangled in. At times I felt Chamberlin could have cut back a little on the amount of secondary viewpoint characters he employed, but overall he’s handled the large support cast well with a high degree of authenticity in such a way that you can’t help but engage with them.

The Caretakers combines Lovecraftian themes with the Green Man myth in a reversal of female energies being active/destructive and male energies passive/fertile. The cosmic entity Andraste, is suitably frightening, especially with how she demands that her victims “sing” for her in a novel form of torture that will stay with me for a long, long while. Themes of death/rebirth abound, often in rather grisly situations.

As with all the offerings I’ve encountered from Dark Continents Publishing, The Caretakers is a return to horror in the classic sense. If you’re looking for a gritty, bloody and thought-provoking horror offering then this title will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the last page. This is a strong first offering for a novel-length work and it can only get more dark and terrifying from here.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Bloody Parchment horror anthology

We interrupt the usual Toad's Corner schedule with news hot off the virtual press about the SA HorrorFest Bloody Parchment anthology volume one, which was released this past week. This marks the fruits of the first short story competition hosted by the SA HorrorFest in conjunction with its literary component, Bloody Parchment, which began life as a horror reading event each year at the Book Lounge in Cape Town.

While many of the contributors to the anthology are South African, the competition is open to any writer of horror fiction around the world, the winner receiving free edits for his or her novel- or novella-length work. A selection of the top stories will appear in the next anthology, when it is released.

Download your free copy of Bloody Parchment, volume one here.

If you are a writer of short horror fiction (entries open to stories of up to 3 500 words, as well as flash and drabbles), you are welcome to check out our submission guidelines. The closing date is October 31, 2011, so you have ample time to get cracking with those scary tales.

Feel free to mail me at nerinedorman (at) gmail (dot) com if you have any queries.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Daniel Rambin, vampire sidekick

Today I welcome Sonya Clark to Toad's Corner. She's blogging about one of her characters in the ass-kicking urban fantasy novel, Mojo Queen. Welcome Sonya, and thank you for taking some time out to chat with us.

Early on in the writing of Mojo Queen I knew main character Roxie Mathis needed a best friend. In a moment of mad whimsy a thought occurred to me: vampire sidekick. Gasp! you say, and what kind of sacrilege is this?! Who makes a vampire the sidekick instead of the hero?

Someone fed up with all the brooding, romantic, jailbait-obsessed, oh-so-serious vamps filling up paranormal fiction, that’s who.

Thus was born Daniel Rambin. Although he does hit a few of the standard vamp qualifiers – he’s hot, he’s sexy, he’s dead – he’s not quite a typical vampire either.

The sensibility and world I was creating with Mojo Queen didn’t call for vampire politics or any of the usual types of bloodsucking plots, especially since Daniel is a sidekick. He enjoys tagging along with Roxie on her paranormal investigations, and occasionally he likes to blog about the jobs. He is a beverage connoisseur as might be expected but he’s also a foodie, even though he can’t eat. He likes to take Roxie out to eat and he’s inordinately fond of the Food Network.

Almost right away I realized I had an issue that needed to be dealt with: I had to get rid of any possibility of a romantic relationship between Daniel and Roxie. Roxie would get a love interest, sure, but I didn’t want it to be her best friend and I didn’t want to go down the well-trod path of the love triangle. The perfect solution presented itself. Daniel would be Roxie’s ancestor and they would tell people they were cousins.

Since Daniel was the sidekick he had to have some wacky character traits, the best one of all being his love for belting out classic country songs at the top of his off-key voice. Blame that one on too many over-heated montages set to twee emo or Hot Topic goth, with the vampire walking through the night all brooding and, um, brooding. My vision of Daniel included him singing Conway Twitty in a karaoke bar, flashing a smile at Roxie that bared just a hint of fang. Most of all I wanted Daniel to be a fun character, not like a lot of other vampires.

But he is still a vampire. There came a point in Mojo Queen when I knew that needed to be shown and it chilled me to write the scene. Suddenly I began to see Daniel in a new light. I stopped thinking of him as a wacky sidekick, a character I made up just for a laugh. The more I thought about him the more I wondered about that seemingly goofy choice to make him a fan of classic country. I strongly associate country music with family.

Roxie’s “living” family want nothing to do with her so Daniel is all she’s got. Family are supposed to be the people you can trust the most, and Daniel is that to her. But he – like family – is also the one who could hurt her the worst. There’s a lot of cheese in classic country, but when you look below the surface there’s a lot of darkness too. A lot of murder ballads hidden under the beer soaked cheatin’ songs. Without even trying, I had found the perfect music to correspond to Daniel.

That darkness is part of what brings Roxie and Daniel together. They share a deep bond in their love of the night, the ease they both feel in the spirit-filled dark. Daniel doesn’t have to hide his fangs and Roxie doesn’t have to hide the fact that she can see auras and spectral energy. They are open with each other but Daniel still hasn’t told Roxie everything about his past. Sometimes when he grabs hold of my imagination and whispers possibilities to me, I think about Daniel’s history. His life as a man, his transition to vampire, and what led him to seek out any descendents. Daniel may not be the protagonist or the love interest of Mojo Queen but he is deeply important to Roxie. As I’ve explored his character more he’s become deeply important to me, too. He’s one of my favorite characters I’ve created so far.

Oh, one more thing to tell you about Daniel: Roxie calls him “bubba.” But she is the only one allowed to do that. Anybody else tries it and they might get to see his fangs - without a smile.

Mojo Queen is available from Lyrical Press. Learn more about the author at (including free reads featuring Roxie and Daniel.)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Link love: Newgate Jig by DJ Cockburn

Today I'm giving a bit of link love to one of my favourite short story authors, DJ Cockburn, whose Newgate Jig I read a while back. But in general, Lacuna, the online journal of historical fiction, is all-round a great place for quality literature.

Cockburn's Newgate Jig is another installment following the exploits of his daring sword master, Le Méridien, and a very visceral vision of the London of the past. In my mind I've encountered few authors who are able to give their historical fiction such a ring of authenticity. Hats off to Cockburn. In my mind he's one of the best and I know I'm always in for an adventure of sorts when he's at the helm.

So, without further ado, here's the link:

* * * *

Toad is constantly on the look-out for fresh authors to feature on her page. If you write fantasy, science fiction or horror, please drop Toad's PA a mail at and remember to put "Toad's Corner" in the subject line.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Excerpt: Still Life by DC Petterson

Chapter One
A Plea

Date: Wednesday, Sept 28 08:00:00.0000 AM
Subject: MY MURDER!

Dear Detective Conner,

Someone is trying to kill me! I’m scared, and I’m getting desperate. I’m in the philosophy department at the University of Chicago. Someone in the administration says I’m not worth my upkeep. Please, Detective Conner, I beg you to take this seriously. I need your help. Talk to Nohl Dhen, a graduate student in psychology. She can explain everything. There isn’t much time, and I’m very afraid. Please hurry!

- Dylan

Chapter Two
A Hoax?

Maxwell Conner didn’t let himself fidget as he waited for the professor to read the printed email for the third time. The man looked to have maybe twice Max’s twenty-nine years, and probably an extra hundred pounds, though he stood at least a full head shorter than Max’s own muscular six foot three. Still, he had an air of imposing presence, which he used at the moment simply to make Max wait.

At least it gave Max a chance to study him. It was, after all, Max’s job to be observant. Frank Glade gave the impression of being a comfortable man, one who certainly liked his pleasures—which, from the look of it, ran mostly to an excess of his favorite foods. Even so, his pressed suit contrasted with Max’s rumpled one, his Spartan and uncluttered desk indicated a man of some fastidiousness. The professor’s hair showed quite a lot of gray sprinkled among the remaining strands of deep brown.

I’ll age much more respectably, Max promised himself. His thoughts wandered to his own dad, about Glade’s age, whose hair still was a deep red. Max had inherited the hair color; he’d be unlikely to gray like Glade, and his job as a police detective would be sure to help keep him in far better shape. Much more respectably.

The professor finally looked up and harrumphed. Max guessed Glade had decided the words on the page weren’t likely to differ upon the fourth or fifth reading.

Glade tossed the paper onto his desk. “Detective Conner,” he said. “I’m afraid you’re the victim of a practical joke.”

“My lieutenant had the same reaction,” Max acknowledged. “But you understand, we had to check it out. Parents don’t like hearing their kids are being threatened by the college faculty.”
Professor Glade leaned forward, motioned Max to bend close as if about to reveal a secret, and tapped the printed email with his forefinger. “It says ‘the administration,’ not ‘the faculty,’” Glade said. “Probably meant ‘the board.’ Damn bureaucrats are murder on us all.” And he laughed in a mirthless sort of way, a laugh that struck Max as rather uncaring, given the circumstances.

Max raised his eyebrows and did his best to be patient. “I’m afraid I still don’t get the joke.”
“Of course you don’t,” Glade snorted, and it seemed that his odd laugh tried to break out again.

“Of course not!” He stabbed his finger once more at the email hardcopy. “Nohl Dhen is one of my grad students. She’s got a project with a few of her friends from other departments. I just heard their grant money is running out, and won’t be renewed next quarter. They must have gotten wind, and thought they could make some kind of point.” He shook his head, still smiling, and heaved himself out of his chair. He trundled around the desk. “Come with me, Detective. I’ll introduce you to her.”

They walked down the hall and found a classroom on the far end. Glade opened the door, and Max heard a young voice, a woman’s voice. It reminded Max somehow of his childhood—a breath of moonlight on a misty evening in the woods—an image quite out of keeping with the technological jargon the voice recited. “Decision-Yielding Large-scale Autonomous Network,” she said. “DYLAN. My team and I designed and built him—”

“Detective,” Glade interrupted. “This is Nohl Dhen. Miss Dhen, you’ll have to start back at the beginning.”

The young woman looked up at them, and Max’s awareness suddenly held nothing but her eyes. Those eyes drank up the fluorescent light, yet seemed to have a deep glow of their own, black and smoldering coals nestled above Himalayan cheekbones. He’d seen eyes like that before, somewhere, but the memory eluded him, ran from him as he reached for it. Lost for a moment, his breath caught, his throat constricted. He finally blinked and the spell passed.

A youthful face of darkened bronze framed those eyes, a small nose above heart-shaped lips, the whole surrounded by a fall of hair like shimmering silk. She wore an oversized Cubs sweatshirt and a pair of baggy blue jeans. She had to be in her mid twenties, twenty-five Max guessed, maybe a couple years older. Her feet dangled far from the floor, and she swung them back and forth in a way that reminded him of the innocent energy of a child, holding a vibrant enthusiasm.

She couldn’t have been more than five feet tall, on tiptoes.

Max guessed her clearly Asian features put her ancestry in Vietnam, or maybe Cambodia, as her name also suggested. Nohl Dhen. But something else lay hidden in the deep shade of her skin, and her dark, fascinating eyes…

Max had to force himself to look somewhere else. This is a potential suspect in a hoax, he thought, not a prospect for a date. He hoped his stare, if anyone noticed it, would be interpreted as no more than necessary professional interest. He pulled out of the moment, his tunneled awareness opening to his surroundings.

They stood in a classroom that had been given over to Miss Dhen’s project. And she wasn’t the only one in the room. On a chair in front of Nohl sat a blonde woman in her mid-thirties, dressed in a conservative and rather expensive-looking dark tailored suit. Her almost mathematically perfect hairstyle and makeup presented the mask of a professional, or an executive, precise and tasteful without being flashy. Someone who uses her femininity to put people off their guard, Max thought, while not being obvious about it.

The older woman held a small electronic recorder. As Glade spoke, she quickly shut it off and turned to face him.

“Professor,” Nohl said in greeting, and yes, there again was the breath of moonlight Max had heard, “I was just explaining to Miss Aronsen—”

“Lynn Aronsen,” the blonde woman broke in, “of Justin, Blake, and Tortel.” She held out her hand without standing up. Her voice held unusually deep undertones for a woman’s. She spoke crisply and efficiently. “And the two of you are...?”

Glade covered annoyance with his seemingly usual laugh. “Professor Frank Glade. This is Detective Max Conner, of the Chicago Police.” Glade stepped forward, briefly took Lynn’s hand, and then dropped it unceremoniously. “Nohl, is this a lawyer?” he asked.

“I guess,” Nohl began.

“I am,” Lynn clarified.

Max raised his eyebrows. “Does someone here need one?”

“That’s what I was about to discover,” Lynn answered.

Max took the proffered hand she lifted toward him. Her grip, he noted, was strong and firm—no retiring female, this one.

“I was asked to be present as counsel,” Lynn went on, and she looked at Nohl, “but I’m not quite certain by whom.” She turned back toward the others. “Won’t you be seated?” she invited them.

Glade gave his nervous laugh again. He clearly wasn’t used to someone else taking charge. For his part, Max was willing to play along in order to learn the lawyer’s angle. He glanced at his surroundings as he pulled up two more chairs, suddenly aware his earlier fixation on Nohl had distracted him from making needed observations.

Tables surrounded the room, the whiteboards on the walls behind them covered in diagrams and symbols he didn’t understand. The tables supported perhaps a dozen computer monitors and keyboards, with at least as many PCs and laptops sprinkled among them. In one corner stood a large cabinet with glass doors through which Max could see row upon row of electronics, circuit boards, and wiring. Various other devices crowded every surface, items he couldn’t identify, and everything seemed to be connected to everything else by a tangled web of cables.

He noted other, unrelated detritus amid the chaos: the inevitable college-standard pizza boxes and half-full cartons of pop littered the corners, an incongruous department-store mannequin of a boy about ten sat on a table behind him, a chess set and another board game with a myriad of little round pieces occupied a far corner, a deck of playing cards scattered randomly around one monitor. Max smiled to himself. Geeks and their toys, he thought. What else would I expect on a college campus?

“I don’t know what your little stunt was supposed to prove,” Glade said, waving the printout of Max’s email at Nohl.

If he can’t get control of what’s going on, Max thought, at least he’ll intimidate his grad student.

Nohl looked confused for a moment, but her eyes grew more focused and sure. She turned to Max. “You got one, too? An email, I mean. That’s why Ms. Aronsen’s here—”

“I’ll take a look at that,” Lynn said, and snatched the paper from the professor’s hand before anyone could react.

Max made his voice as calm as he could. “College students like pranks,” he said to Nohl, and he eased himself into one of the chairs. “But falsely reporting a crime is against the law. You could be fined, or worse—”

Nohl blinked, and scowled. “I didn’t send those emails to you and Ms. Aronsen,” she rushed. “I don’t even know what’s in them.”

“There’s no crime reported here,” Lynn noted, flicking a painted fingernail against the paper.

Her voice sounded cool and efficient, emotionless and unflinching. “If it had claimed someone had already been harmed, yes, but it doesn’t say that.”

“No,” Max returned, a little taken aback, “but even threatening murder is a crime. This email does imply such a threat has been made.”

Nohl’s eyes widened. But before she could speak, the lawyer did, shaking her head. “Does it imply that? Tell me, do you know who is supposedly being threatened? Is it—well, who?” Lynn’s tone held an intimation of hidden knowledge.

“Whoever this Dylan is,” Max answered, confused. “And it says Miss Dhen here knows about it.”

“I didn’t send the emails,” Nohl repeated, louder. Annoyance crept into her voice, or perhaps a little fear. She reached for the paper, but the lawyer held up her hand, motioning Nohl to wait.

Someone sent them,” Professor Glade countered. “This project was your idea, Miss Dhen. Everyone knows that.”

“Nohl,” Lynn said, and she patted the student on her knee to calm her. “You’d better tell the detective about Dylan. Don’t say anything more, but tell him who—I mean what—” For an instant, a flash of confusion seemed to line the lawyer’s face. “No, I really do mean who—who Dylan is.”

Max leaned back in his chair, folding his arms. The lengths to which the lawyer went to seem cool and efficient and precise meant her struggle with words must have been intentional. Lawyers, Max knew, had to be good actors. “You have my attention, Miss Dhen. Who is Dylan?”

Nohl took a deep breath. She looked directly at Detective Conner. But then her gaze shifted, focusing past him, over his shoulder. “Dylan,” she said, speaking very deliberately, “say hello.”

“Good afternoon, everyone,” said a voice from somewhere behind.

Max twisted around. He knew no one else had joined them. He would have heard footsteps. And he saw no one else when he turned, only that strange little department-store mannequin he’d noted before. It was the size and appearance of a ten-year-old boy, dressed in a young boy’s jeans and a flannel shirt, with a face of impassive and immobile plaster.

Still motionless, the mannequin spoke again, in a youthful voice gushing with excitement. A speaker must have been mounted somewhere within it. “I’m really happy to meet you, Detective Conner!”

* * * *

Buy Still Life here: (including the cool video trailer) and the Amazon page is here:
DC Petterson has been writing since he was six; science fiction, fantasy, songs, poetry, historical and philosophical essays, and the occasional email. He lives near Minneapolis with his wife, a dog, and a lizard. He has two kids, two grandkids, and a late-model Kia. He enjoys video games, expensive cigars, and single-malt scotch. He works as a software consultant (which has nothing to do with his novel, Still Life), plays guitar and piano, and hasn't the first clue how to write a short bio.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Tea with TC Southwell

I've known TC Southwell for years. I've beta-read for her in the past, and we've enjoyed many conversations about the publishing industry. Based in South Africa, TC has amassed a fantastic body of work and I am pleased and honoured to have her on Toad's Corner today.

Tell us a little about the stories you write.

I write pretty much exclusively in the science-fiction and fantasy genres, specifically epic or high fantasy set in worlds of my own making. I have one crossover series, The Cyber Chronicles, which combines fantasy and sci-fi. It starts off more fantasy and then becomes almost totally sci-fi from book four, Cyborg. The Queen’s Blade series is pure high fantasy, although it doesn’t rely much on magic. The Broken World and Demon Lord series are also high fantasy, but with a fair amount of magic, and the Slave Empire series is pure sci-fi. My stories are all intensely character driven, and I love all my heroes and heroines, which is why I enjoy writing about them so much.
Which one of your characters are your all-time favourite and why?

That would have to be Blade, my oh so sarcastic and troubled assassin, who captured my heart long ago with his biting wit and underhand good deeds that no one will ever make him admit to. He’s just so complicated and twisted; a complete sociopath with a secret heart of gold.
What are some of the recurring themes prevalent in your stories?

I think my most obvious recurring theme is the element of romance in my stories, which all have a strong hero and heroine who go through the mill to overcome the odds stacked against them and find happiness together. Another common theme is my heroes are usually troubled individuals with horrific pasts, but that’s what makes them so interesting, I find.
How do you approach novel-writing?

The best way I can describe it is ‘channelling’, which is what my agent called it when I told her how I do it. For me, it’s utterly effortless. I simply write the story that pops into my head, and the only thing that slows me down is how fast I can type. If I try to change something, I hit a block, and I have to go back to the point where I made a conscious decision to stray from the story in my head and follow the original track. When I write, I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen in the next paragraph or even the next sentence sometimes, so for me writing is just as much fun as reading.
You initially released Demon Lord in print in South Africa, this was before the rise in popularity of ereaders and epublishing. How has this shift in emphasis in publishing affected you?

It has given me access to the international market without having to deal with publishers and editors, so my books remain as I wrote them, which is a bonus for me. It means my market is smaller, and I have to do my own marketing, but at the same time I’m able to offer my books at low prices and some for free, since only my e-publisher takes a small cut. I plan to make use of POD (Print on Demand) publishing next, as I have had requests for paperback versions of the books.
Do you have any advice for wannabe authors?

I would recommend they also take the e-publishing route if they have trouble finding an agent or publisher, as this does not preclude them from finding a paperback publisher once they’ve made a name for themselves with e-books, so it can only be beneficial. Other than that, I would advise them to write stories they love, because then other people will love them too. When you’re passionate about something, it shines through.
Who are some of your favourite authors and why?

Stephen Donaldson, C S Lewis and Anne McCaffrey are some of my favourites, although I have read numerous wonderful books whose authors’ names I don’t recall. I think these authors appeal to me because their stories are character driven and have the ability to transport me to a fantasy land for a grand adventure. Of course, I was young when I read CS Lewis’ books – he introduced me to fantasy, and it left a lasting impression.

Do you have any works in progress readers can look forward to?

I will soon be publishing the next six books in The Cyber Chronicles series, which I’m currently editing. These are Book IV, Cyborg, Book V, Overlord, Book VI, Warrior Breed, Book VII, Sabre, Book VIII, Scorpion Lord, and Book IX, Precipice. I want to complete all of them so I can publish them in one go and people can buy the entire series, or the rest of it, if they want. After that I’ll finish writing the seventh book in the Demon Lord series. Then I’ll have to decide which series I want to write another book in next, as they are all on-going – I’m not good at final endings!
Where can people find your books, follow your blog or Twitter feed?

All my books are available on my site with links where people can buy and download the ones that have been published, and also see all the upcoming titles, with their covers, that will be published in the near future. I also have a blog dedicated to the Demon Lord series, and I’m on Facebook, too, . Nothing on Twitter yet, but that’s something I need to look into when I have a bit of time.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Book review: The Left Hand

Title: The Left Hand
Author: Serenity J Banks
Publisher: Dark Continents Publishing, 2011

Blurb: Meet Eddie Kane: ex-cokehead and current, clueless sidekick to the enigmatic Calif Cryste, badass vampire hunter extraordinaire—and unforthcoming warrior of God. In the midst of a two-man crusade to put a kibosh on the vampire populations currently besieging the tribal lands of the Midwest, Eddie can’t help but notice that the string of death and destruction in their wake has begun to draw a certain, uncomfortable amount of attention from the local media. Enter obsessed FBI Special Agent Doug Degulchi, suspended from the agency over his proofless conviction that these two are “the guys,” and Eddie finds himself an unwilling player in an over-arching drama as Calif’s own misguided sort of apostles begin to fall into place. Meanwhile, the vampire hordes race to multiply their ranks in anticipation of a coming battle even Calif cannot (or will not) predict, and Eddie hasn’t even had a chance to face his own demons yet. Whether or not Eddie’s prepared to accept the truth, though, the second-born is here to wage war… on his own, if he has to.

Review: This novel is so much more than just a badass vampire hunter with a clueless sidekick playing Robin to his Batman. Serenity J Banks plunges readers into a dystopian vision of the American Midwest that left me feeling scratchy behind the eyes by the time I’d finished reading.

Eddie starts out as a weak character who chain-smokes his way through the story. Not only does he have an addictive personality, but he has demons from his dysfunctional upbringing he needs to process before he can take on the undead demons he and his partner hunt. While he may seem passive at first, he slowly grows into himself as he makes sense, in his own way, of the horror that surrounds him and Calif. He is very much an unreliable narrator, and therein lies the beauty of following the tale from his perspective.

Calif is the mystery man, the hero with a purpose who shows rather than tells Eddie what their quest is all about. All I can say, without revealing spoilers, is that all will be revealed, and there is a very poignant raison d’etre for Calif. Though his silence is maddening, readers will later come to and see why exactly. All I can say is that the story is so much stronger for Banks having resisted the temptation of making the man a viewpoint character.

Delgulchi, the hapless FBI agent, follows in the wake of the vampire-busting pair, whose very existence spell the end of his career. His obsession with discovering the truth drives him to the brink of madness.

But Banks returns the undead to the realm of horror, which is a refreshing change in perspective after all the glitter we've experienced in the media. There's nothing sexy about the vampires readers encounter in this story. They're mean, hungry and are more apt to rip your throat out than pause to share pleasantries. Her vampires are frightening and overwhelming.

Threaded through this tale is an alternative viewpoint on the Christian mythos that is not mired in the tired Hollywood ideals of light and dark. Our heroes are tattered, tired and face overwhelming odds.. Mankind is doomed, and its savior is not here at the behest of their redemption. From a broader perspective this appears to be a development of the vampire mythos, but I sense it’s far more than that. Eddie, as the narrator, tries to explain but the only terminology he has available, is based on a Western viewpoint. We view this tale through his subjectivity and I gain the idea that a different character would have applied a totally different explanation to the tale.

In closing, I'll say this much. The Left Hand is not an easy read. But it's definitely one of the most thought-provoking stories I've read all year and I recommend it to readers who like substance, grit and despair in their reading matter. Serenity J Banks is a masterful storyteller and I'll be keeping my eye on her from here on in.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Short story: Scarlet Night by Ashley M Christman

Ashley M Christman is an urban fantasy writer whose book, The Witching Hour, is available from Lyrical Press. To contact her, visit her website
Today Toad shares Ashley's short story, Scarlet Night.

* * * *

The decadence of the 1920s and its jazz scene had always appealed to me more than the bleak and dreary Victorian or Edwardian ages. The booze, the jazz bands, the brightly lit nightclubs—oh, how I adored them. And no matter how many times I had seen the dabber men in their pressed tuxedos, I never got enough of them. I devoured them, consumed them and sometimes women, but it was the men I adored most of all. The alcohol that filled their blood and the way their hearts seem to beat faster in their chest, pumping more of their elixir throughout their bodies as they grew aroused; that was what I loved.
Tonight was no different. As I made my way across the room, drinking a very expensive champagne, I was on the prowl. Observing every nuance, every subtle twitch of the lips, the gestures of the hands—I knew what I was looking for. And I found him, standing in a corner near the black lacquered piano with a glass of scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

Even from across the room, I was able to lock on to his scent; the smell of sweat just starting to surface from his pores in the heat of the summer night. As my body slid from the bar stool and slinked through the crowd towards my target, a sense of silent satisfaction washed over me, warming me from the inside. My hand instinctively reached towards him, extending itself, giving him a clear glimpse of crimson painted nails that matched my lipstick. “Do you have a spare?” I asked coolly, with a glint of mischief in my eyes. Everything about this singular moment oozed seduction and sex.
Cole Porters’ “Let’s Misbehave”, began to play as the orchestra leader took his place in front of the gold plated microphone. The parquet flooring of the dance floor was filled with young inebriated couples dancing the Black Bottom to the upbeat melody.

“Spare,” the youth replied with a lithe in his voice, making his statement an obvious question. I pointed to the cigarette hanging from betwixt his fingers. He nodded and stammered, “Oh, terribly sorry. I didn’t realize. I have another, yes.” He reached into the inner pocket of his jacket and produced a gold cigarette case. He flipped the clasp open on it and selected a neatly rolled white cigarette.

Reaching into the decadent sparkling clutch that matched my white dress, I produced a fourteen inch cabriole cigarette holder with a rhinestone tip. The young man placed the cigarette in the end of my cabriole and lit it with a match. I took a long drag of it and then exhaled the smoke, making little o’s.
He watched me as I did this, slowly licking his lips. “I’m Edward,” he said in a distinctly British accent. He sounded well educated and upper crust. It was an accent that one would associate with the royal family. He was obviously either very rich or a blue blood, possibly both.
“Do you have a last name Edward?” I questioned with a smirk.
“Cromwell,” he answered returning my smirk with one of his own. It was in that single look from him, that I knew that he was nowhere near as innocent as he appeared. He was a cad, a delicious cad. “What’s your name?”
“Do you have a last name, Lucy?”
“Just Lucy for now,” my smirk turned into a grin.
He finished the last of his scotch and set the crystal glass on the tray of a passing waiter. I continued to smoke my cigarette, enjoying the atmosphere and the music. “Do you happen to like long moonlit walks just Lucy?” He grinned at his joke and then took the a puff from his cigarette.
I let out a small chuckle and put out my cigarette in a nearby ashtray. Wrapping my arm around his, I let him escort me out of the club and onto the balmy Parisian streets. Every so often a car would pass or a couple speaking French would walk by. “So tell me something about yourself,” he asked as we stopped in front of the Tiffany’s shop window. The display was a series lamps on one side and signature Tiffany diamonds and silver on the other.
“What do you want to know.” I turned to him, my eyes catching his. Both of ours smoldering like embers fresh from the fire.
“How about your last name to begin with?”
“What is the incessant wish to know my full name?” I replied.
He shrugged, “I’d like to know the name of the woman who has bewitched me.”
Of one thing I was absolutely sure, he was charming. He had managed to successfully combine the naivety of youth and the charming subtle seductions of a man with more worldly knowledge into one complete persona. If he were good in bed, I wouldn’t kill him.
“It’s Kincaid,” I answered stealing the name from a tag that I had managed to glimpse on the inside of his jacket. “Miss Kincaid.” I emphasized the fact that I was single.
He smiled once more and then leaned in to kiss my lips. I kissed him back with a fervent passion that was inappropriate for a sidewalk on the Champs-Elysee. Breaking away from the kiss, I whispered, “My flat is not far from here.”
He smiled and nodded as I pulled him further down the boulevard to a large apartment building with a doorman on the outside. I winked at the doorman as he held the door open and led Edward through the empty lavish lobby to the elevator. The poor guy was either about to meet his maker or be given the opportunity to play for a very long time.
There was a flurry of hands and a sense of urgency as we disrobed. Our clothes were flung here and there, pale flesh touching and caressing as we hit the silk sheets of my palatial bed. I climbed atop of him, mounting his pelvis, but not yet allowing him to enter. My skin began to glow in the darkness as my inner demon took hold. He entered me and I took him. The cantankerous sounds of our love-making, my feeding, filled the room and carried themselves out of the open doors to the balcony and the night. Edward hung above me, kissing me gently. “What are you,” he whispered. I grinned and knew that he wouldn’t die.
Not yet at least.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Tea with Pamela Turner

Today Toad welcomes the delightful Pam Turner to her corner, author of Death Sword, an urban fantasy featuring angelic conflict, with a difference.

Where did your interest in angels start?

Hard to say. I’ve had a fascination with angels since childhood but Publish Postmy perceptions then were influenced by the Church. It wasn’t until a friend told me about Gustav Davidson’s A Dictionary of Angels that my interest in them intensified. The book blew away almost every preconceived notion I had about angelic beings, holy or fallen.

Your writing suggests you know the area where Death Sword takes place quite well. Care to elaborate?

I’ve lived in Louisville, the setting for Death Sword, since the early 1990s. The Highlands and Old Louisville are areas I often visit. Old Louisville is famous for its Victorian and Italianate houses as well as St James Court, which is where Xariel lives. The Highlands caters to an eclectic crowd and Bardstown Road is a popular area for window shopping and people watching with its specialty boutiques and galleries as well as coffee houses, restaurants, and pubs.
My goal is to write more stories using Louisville as a back drop. For one, when I’m out taking photos, I can say it’s for research.

Was there a specific "a-ha" moment when you came up with the premise for Death Sword or was it a slow, pot-boiler of an idea?

Wish I could remember. I wrote Death Sword for National Novel Writing Month in 2008. I don’t know as there was a specific “a ha!” moment. At some point I wanted it to be a story about a complicated relationship. But I made several changes after the first NaNo draft. Xariel was originally the antagonist and Samael was a minor character. Eventually I wondered what would happen if Samael became so obsessed over Xariel that it pushed him to kill. I guess it’s a story about obsession and a need for vengeance, real or imagined. Anyway, I tore down the original structure, leaving only the framework, and proceeded to rewrite the story. Characters’ names and motivations changed until the book became what it is now.

Who will enjoy this story, and why?

I hope people who enjoy reading urban fantasy (as well as dark fantasy) and paranormals will like it. Also, since Karla is in her early 20s, it might appeal to college students. Those who are drawn to occult stories about demons and angels also might enjoy it. (Crosses fingers.)

Can your readers expect a follow-up to Death Sword?

I’m currently revising the second book, Serpent Fire, which takes place in Louisville shortly after the events of Death Sword. There are four books planned, each one focusing on an angel of death introduced in Death Sword. The first draft of the third book, tentatively titled The Devil Inside is almost finished.

What are the three books you'll always have on your bookshelves and why?

The Stranger (Albert Camus): Camus had a profound impact on my writing, not only with this book but also his short story The Guest.

A Dictionary of Angels, Including the Fallen Angels (Gustav Davidson): This has become my go-to book for angel research. There’s enough information between the covers to write several angel-centric stories.

Dragons and Fantasy Beasts (Finlay Cowan): This is an artist’s reference book but it’s indispensable for anyone who writes fantasy. Not only does Finlay give background information but also references for further study. Even better, creatures from various mythos are profiled, from the familiar (Nosferatu and Medusa) to the more unknown (Zilant and Alkonost). His companion book, Incredible Characters, is another must-have for my bookshelf.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

Introducing J Damask

Today Toad welcomes an urban fantasy author, J Damask, who offers readers a glimpse into the very different world of Singapore, one that I do not believe we see painted with such magic and beauty, and with an obvious love for the supernatural.

Wolf at the Door is set in Singapore, which is a world away from most urban fantasy novels out there. What do you offer your readers?

A different world/landscape. An unique perspective, that there are also shifter types in places like Southeast Asia, a region itself rich in myths and legends.

Why wolves? And what makes your wolves-who-are-also-people different from those encountered in fiction?

Wolves are my favorite animals. ;)

What makes them different? They are wolves *and* humans. The wolf is inseparable to the human and vice versa. To me, the stereotype of the half-man, half-wolf never really appeals to me. To me, a wolf should be a wolf, four-legged. They are also a people, a race steeped in tradition and culture (in this case, Chinese). They honor the Chinese lunar festivals as much as they honor the hunt and chasing prey.

Tell us more about Jan and some of the conflict she faces.

Jan Xu is the daughter of the leaders of the Xu pack/clan. She is also married with two girls. She faces the dichotomy of being wife, mother, daughter and sister - she struggles and tries to balance all these roles while knowing that she is wolf.

Jan also has a younger sister, Marianne, whom she has a stormy relationship with. This stormy relationship is explored in the novel. She wants the rift to heal, yet Marianne has her own ideas...

Do you have any favourite legends you can share?

have many. *chuckle*

One is the legend/story of Madam White Snake. Madam White Snake is a snake spirit/jin who falls in love with a human scholar. With her maid-in-waiting Green Snake, Lady White Snake wants to live a comfortable married life. Yet, as stories go, things are not smooth. A Buddhist monk is determined to separate White Snake with her human husband, because snake spirits are evil and should be destroyed. He concocts a plan to unmask her for what she is, putting a magical potion in her wine (or tea). As a result, she reverts back to her snake form. Her husband is shocked (of course). A long battle ensues with White Snake imprisoned in the end.

Who are some of your favourite authors and why?

Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Octavia Butler, Frank Herbert - They showed me different worlds where I happily explored. ;) At the same time, I was inspired to write!

I was also inspired by the strong female characters too. [That's why I tend to write strong female characters in my stories... Hehe!]

* * * *

J. Damask is the pen-name of Joyce Chng who writes speculative fiction and has published her fiction in online magazines and small presses like Semaphore Magazine and Crossed Genres. She likes werewolves, steampunk and all things speculative fiction. When she's not writing, Joyce is busy wrangling kids (two girls!), cat-herding and container-gardening. She sometimes wishes she has more time to write. Her website is found at

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A wild ride with Sheryl Nantus’ latest offering

Fans of a Wild West-type setting should sit up and take notice of Sheryl Nantus’ Wild Cards and Iron Horses, which plays out in a frontier town in the American West. With a strong steampunk flavour, the novel tells the story of a dashing gambler, Jon Handleston. He arrives in the upwardly mobile town of Prosperity Ridge, intent on winning a poker tournament so that he can repay an old debt.

But Jon has a problem. An old injury has resulted in his right arm being crippled, and he can only move it with the aid of a clockwork brace of great ingenuity. While this doesn’t aid his card-playing beyond helping him use both hands, the loss of a spring results in the device not working to its full potential; a serious blow to Jon’s confidence.

Sam may just have the answer to Jon’s problem. She’s a maverick for her era: a woman who dresses in men’s clothing and is obsessed with mechanical devices. An engineer extraordinaire, she soon catches Jon’s heart when she offers to help him fix his brace.

But things aren’t all plain sailing. Victor Morton, one of Jon’s bitter rivals, is after the secret of Jon’s brace, which he believes offers the wearer some uncanny advantage at the poker table and he will stop at nothing to ensure the device’s destruction.

Sheryl, as always, delivers a story chock-full of action with memorable characters. I found her steam-powered mechanical horses to be an interesting quirk, and like the fact that she touches on the consequences of industrialisation.

Today Toad also welcomes Sheryl to the Corner for a little Q&A. It's love to have you back here, lady.

Tell me about Jon. How did he come knocking at your door?

I've always loved gamblers in the Old West and thought that I'd bring my own character out to play in the New Old West, as it were. But I wanted him to have a different motivation other than just make money and con sweet women, so I wondered about the circumstances under which an Englishman would find himself in the Western United States.

The Civil War wasn't just between two factions in the United States. It involved many countries who watched and waited to see which side would win with observers on both sides along with many who sought to make money off of the pain and suffering. Unfortunately Jon ends up being pulled along with the family tide when his father sees an opportunity and rushes to exploit it.

Environmental pollution is quite the issue with this story. Care to elaborate?

Well, I put part of the blame for that on Second Life, a virtual world where I visit and play as a clockwork dragon in the steampunk town of New Babbage. We're always talking and joking about the soot and dirt in the air from all the new-fangled inventions and when I started writing Wild Cards I went back and looked over the Industrial Revolution - and it was a dirty, gritty world right from the start. It didn't take much to transplant it to the American Frontier where the fresh air could and would be easily destroyed by the addition and exploitation of the virgin territories.

It's a trade off. Breathing problems for technological advancement. And many are willing to make that trade and/or suffer for what they can get to make their lives better.

Definitely food for thought.

Mechanical horses are a big plot feature with this story. How would these be used? Ridden or to draw carriages?

Well, the idea is to use them to pull stagecoaches but also to provide individual travel - how great would it be to never have to rest your horse or worry about his feed, other than how much coal you shovel into his belly? The only problem is, of course, that you're riding or being pulled by possible bombs, if the pressure ever goes too high and they explode…

You mention an independent nation for Native Americans. How would this have occurred in your setting keeping in mind the actual turn of events in history?

Well, in my version of American History the Native Americans move against the government just after the Civil War, offering a choice - either negotiate for a separate Indian Nation or they'll start up another Civil War for their freedom. Lincoln, seeing a country already exhausted and war-weary, agrees to set apart a huge section of the West for the Indian Nation.

Of course there are and would be internal problems among the Native Americans, but I felt that I couldn't write about the Old West and not mention these First Americans.
Are you planning on returning to your frontier setting with future stories?

I'd like to. I've already thought about exploring outside of Prosperity Ridge and visiting other towns, perhaps even the emerging Indian Nation. But, as with all things, it depends on how sales go and how the muse takes me. Which is a plea to go buy Wild Cards and Iron Horses, of course. I have no shame.

Or visit Sheryl at:

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Some mojo on the side...

Today toad welcomes Sonya Clark to her corner and features a free, downloadable read that supplements Sonya's upcoming urban fantasy release, Mojo Queen. Mimosas at Dusk is available in a variety of formats.

Sonya Clark writes at a desk equipped with High John the Conqueror root and a mojo hand. She has worshipped at the mother church of country music, traveled the back roads of the blues highway, been to the crossroads at midnight, and though she’s never cooked up a mess of polk salad, she has been to Graceland four times. She lives with her husband and Yorkie in Tennessee.

Learn more at


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Tea with Lee Mather

Today Toad welcomes horror author Lee Mather to the corner. Welcome, Lee, and thank you for dropping by.

The Green Man touches on the theme of belief in the supernatural, but also on fears. Care to elaborate?

The story centres on the uncertainty of death and how we use religion, faith and our spiritual beliefs as safety nets. The protagonist in The Green Man is a product of the modern world, where we find it increasingly difficult to place trust and faith in anything not easily explained. It was a natural progression that he would see death, viewed without any support system, as a pretty terrible and hopeless concept. Generally speaking, I think we find comfort in control. We like to have answers to our questions. The fear in death comes from not knowing, from not having control.

Are there any events that sparked off The Green Man?

Not specifically The Green Man – in terms of an origin for the story my Mum once claimed to have seen a "little green man" when I was younger and this used to annoy me as a boy. Her tall tale stuck with me and this is where I got the idea of the clash between two belief systems, and in essence two cultures. I adapted this to be spiritual rather than alien and brought in the premonition and plane crash elements to suit the themes I wanted to address. With regard to writing in general, this is only my second published piece and I guess I got to a point in my life where I wanted to stop thinking about writing something and actually go out and do it instead.

Who are some of your favourite authors, and what is it about their books that keeps you reading?

I do enjoy horror, fantasy, science fiction – but to be honest I’ll read anything with a good heart. As a reader I want to care. As a child, when I first became interested in reading (and writing) I used to love stories with a sense of adventure and heroism – Enid Blyton, Willard Price, that kind of thing. Stories that stick with me these days are usually ones that can operate on a number of levels and make me think.

In terms of modern authors, then Joe Hill is someone I would recommend, in particular his short stories. Twentieth Century Ghosts is a must read, but only a few of the shorts I would class as pure horror so don’t buy it expecting a fright-fest. John Ajvide Lindqvist is also a writer to watch – it’s already had two successful film interpretations but Let The Right One In is a stunning book, particularly juxtaposed against the tween horror culture that is so massive right now. The works of Alan Moore are also well worth a read for the uninitiated out there.

When did you know you had to be a writer?

I remember writing a short called Blue Fire when I was twelve years old for a school project (I drew a lizard man in chainmail for the front cover!). It was a fusion of fantasy and horror thriller – kind of a rubbish fusion of Terry Brooks and Dean Koontz. But I loved piecing it together – and after that my grades in the creative writing bits of English got better and better and I thought that writing was something I could do for a living one day. But my path didn’t take me there straight away. I studied business, went to university, got a job, met a girl, bought a house. But there was an itch – the desire to be a writer never left me, and only recently have I been able to draw enough focus to sit down and actually write. To be honest, what I’ve found is you don’t need much to start a story, the trick I’m still learning is being able to finish one.

How do you approach your writing: do you plot beforehand or write however the story flows?

A bit of both really! I have a concepts file where I’ll jot abstract ideas – and these could range from anything from a full outline, to an idea for a character, or a place, or a scene. I then select one and focus on what I think is particularly interesting about that idea and try to put it in the context of a story. If I don’t have an outline at that point I’ll pull something loose together, with a few points on the qualities the key characters should have as well as any crucial plot points. Sometimes I can have quite a tight focus at this stage and the outline may not differ too much from the end product, but even in the few things I have written to date, I have been flexible enough to let the story or the characters take over. I think you have to be as a writer – the characters need to be as real to you as possible and it makes sense to me that their decisions may take you in a slightly different direction to what you originally planned. The challenge comes from reshaping, from adapting and improving until you come up with something you’re proud of as a writer.

Any useful links?

My website is which contains details about me and has excerpts of my writing.

I also have a blog site http:\\ where I post articles, interviews and the occasional short story.

And if anyone wants to look me up on Facebook then they are more than welcome!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Little Midnight Reading by Jess Harris

The man’s muscles rippled under olive-skin that glistened in the moonlight. Helen’s gaze bonded to his Adonis-worthy physique, covered by only sandals and a short exomis. He extended his hand, and Helen accepted it. He led her through the front doorway toward a narrow boat, which (as can only happen in a dream) was anchored in shallow water just outside her house where her street should have been. Her close-cropped grass was now a beach of pebbles, worn round and smooth by the patient sea.
His eyes drew her toward him, into the water.

Helen faltered when the waves touched her feet. The man tugged gently for a moment, then released her and continued alone. A soundless wind filled the sails and the vessel gave a low groan before slipping away from shore. His continued to face her, bearing a remorseful though not quite pleading expression, as he shrank into the night.

Helen plunged into the icy tide and cried out, “Wait!”

“Wait!” Helen woke from the sound of her own voice, sitting bolt upright, sheets a jumble, cold sweat beading on her face.

She’d had this dream before. She loved, and hated it. Mostly, she resented the way it interrupted her sleep.

Warm milk and a bit of midnight reading usually returned her to a comfortable drowse, so she shuffled groggily toward the kitchen.

As she passed the glass patio doors, where only a few hours before she’d enjoyed a glass of amorgiano and a few chapters of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, she saw an open book on the table outside.

In all these years alone in her house, Helen had never, to the best of her formidable memory, left a book outdoors unattended. Yet there it was amongst pine straw and beech leaves on her otherwise gleaming glass-topped patio table.

Bad enough that this absurd dream roused me in the middle of the night, now I have to worry whether I’m losing my mind.

The microwave clock read twelve-seventeen as she placed a cup of milk inside. Two and a half minutes would warm it nicely.

But first she would have to retrieve her book and clean the patio table – Helen could no more abide messy nature remnants on her furnishings than she could leave a beloved book exposed to the elements, once she was aware of either.

As she made her way toward the patio, she paused to straighten a hardcover book on the end table.

Northanger Abbey.

Helen froze.

If Northanger Abbey was here, then what book was on the patio table?

Her arms prickled with gooseflesh as the more important question, who put it there? occurred to her.

She put her hand over the soft flesh of her throat which was puling with the beat of her heart.
An intruder.

Helen laid one arm protectively across her bosom and wished she was wearing more than a nightshirt.

911, call 911… Helen reached for the telephone, lifted the receiver, then put it back down.
And tell them what, that I’ve left my book outside, and would they please retrieve it for me?

Old Mrs. Bergren next door would have a jolly laugh at that.

No police; Helen was on her own.

She lifted her umbrella from its rack by the door and crept down the hall to the bedroom.
A screeching sound pierced the air and Helen jumped, hitting the wall, then felt foolish when she realized that it was only the timer alarm of the microwave.

Helen understood that her thumping had cost her the element of surprise, yet composed herself and continued, cat-quiet, ears perked for even the slightest sound. She pressed her back against the wall as she approached the threshold to her bedroom, then took a long, slow breath. She threw herself inside, umbrella aloft like a samurai’s kitana.


She probed the air, thrusting the umbrella into her closets and under her bed. Satisfied that her boudoir – the most private sanctum of her very private life – was free of outsiders, she donned a robe and continued her search.

She skulked from room to room, sweat dripping from her brow as she grew increasingly certain that, even though she had not yet found the invader, she was not alone.

Helen came last of all to the place she should have suspected foremost, given the sign that had first alerted her. She entered her study.

It appeared perfectly normal at first glance, but something was out of place. She ran her fingers across the rows of books on the wall-to-wall shelves, starting in reference, working through the popular titles, on to the classics…

There – between The Theban poems and The Odyssey, where The Iliad should have been slumbering – a gap.

Her fear turned to rage as she ran through the house and flung open the patio door.

She scanned the small yard, umbrella before her as both sword and shield. The high privacy fence and sparse shrubbery provided a clear view and little concealment.

The yard was empty.

She cocked her head, hands on her hips.

What an odd intrusion.

She had not so much as looked at Homer in months, so there could be no mistaking it; someone had been in her home. They had removed only one item – a thing of no great monetary value – and did not even take it away, but merely left it on the...

Right beneath her gaze, a page turned in the breathless night.

She blinked, squinted, stared at the empty chair.

“Who are you?”

It was a curious thing that now, after the fierce arousal of the previous minutes, Helen felt remarkably un-fearful. She was more than a little irritated, but not in the least afraid. She felt…anticipation? Dare she say even hopefulness?

“Who are you?” She demanded of the nothingness before her.

A head appeared first, flickering like a trick of moonlight. Then she saw freckled arms emerging from a blue shirt. The man – ordinary, middle-aged, with graying brown hair – solidified somewhat as he turned toward her.

Helen’s heartbeat fell from the gallop of confrontation to the familiar shuffle of disappointment.

“You’re not my dream man.”

The ghost looked up, left eyebrow raised in a quizzical arch. Pages flipped, stopping at a woodcut illustration. A diaphanous finger touched the image of the face that launched a thousand ships.

His head tilted upward with a sardonic grin.

“OK, I’m no Helen of Troy either.”

She became aware that her robe had slipped open in her haste. She pulled it shut and said, “I should change into something more appropriate.”

The ghost shrugged and returned his attention to Homer.

“I suppose this is going to be a purely platonic relationship.”

The ghost nodded without glancing away from the book.

Helen huffed.

She returned to the kitchen, silenced the microwave, and tested her milk. She gave it another thirty seconds, sampled it a second time, and was satisfied.

She retrieved Northanger Abbey from the end table before returning to the patio. As she sat next to the once-again invisible reader, she noticed that the pine straw and leaves were missing from the table.

“Where did the nature mess go?”

The reader in the blue polo shirt glimmered back into translucency, and thrust a thumb over his shoulder, indicating the yard next door.

“Well,” Helen said, “you have some usefulness.”

She sipped her milk and settled in for a little midnight reading.

* * * *

Jess Harris is an internationally published writer who is not quite ready to give up his day job as a US Army officer. He is a member of MinnSpec Writers’ Network, MN8 Novelists’ Retreat, founder of SoFriedSpecFic, and adjunct member (strap-hanger) of SA-based Adamaster Writer’s Guild.

He writes: dark science fiction; urban fantasy alternate history; high fantasy with practically no magic; mysteries where anyone, including the lead detective, might wind up dead; humorous horror; and “literary crime fiction” (whatever that means.) His biggest challenge is often deciding what genre a particular piece falls into.