world turtle day

World Turtle Day is May 23rd

It’s 24 hours of all things chelonian on May 23rd and, being a giant land tortoise, I am uber excited. So excited in fact, that I talked Helen into letting me run a competition to give away not only a signed copy of her book, Thirty Seconds Before Midnight which features me, Herbert, but also a $50 Amazon gift card. How gigantic is that? She did ask that I ask you to help support her favourite charity too – the Galapagos Conservation Trust. Here it is:
a Rafflecopter giveaway

mongol rally, rich in small things, ub cup, mongolia, ulaanbaataar

An Interview with Ellis Shuman – About Rallies and ‘Rich in Small Things’

I was lucky enough to be interviewed by the wonderful Ellis Shuman recently – the author of Valley of the Thracians and The Virtual Kibbutz. He’d stumbled across Rich in Small Things shortly prior its release and was attracted by the poker themes – but I think it was the race that really caught his attention on reading. See what you think when you read his interview – there’s an excerpt below and you can read the full thing here.

Q: Your book centers around a London to Mongolia race called the Ulaanbaatar Cup. Where did you get the inspiration for this idea?

Helen: Well, this is a bit of a long story! In July 2008 I was working on my first novel and developing ideas about my second – predominantly around the ancient Silk Road. I was working on a plot mixing old and modern timelines when, on a corporate sailing regatta, our skipper told me about an adventure he was about to embark on – The Mongol Rally – where he would drive from the UK to Mongolia, taking in some of the countries on the Silk Road. It struck me that this would be a great modern thread to weave into the story.

Fast forward a couple of years to when I was taking a sabbatical from work to write the second novel and was scheduled on a three-week adventure from Uzbekistan, through Kyrgyzstan into China (research for the ancient threads of the story). The trip was cancelled due to a coup. I realized that I didn’t need to research The Mongol Rally anymore – I had the time and wherewithal to participate myself. And during one heart-stopping lunch hour I signed up. Without a teammate or any real plans. One of my oldest and best friends, Victoria, unexpectedly stepped up to the mark – so perfect. We set off from Goodwood to Ulaanbaatar that July. By then, the first half of the book and most of the characters were fully formed and we had the most incredible adventure. I ended up throwing away the idea of including the ancient Silk Road in the book and instead it became Rich in Small Things, a completely different novel from what I had initially envisaged.

Q: When driving an ambulance with another woman, didn’t you fear for your safety as you crossed border after border? Were there no dangerous incidents en route?

Helen: Victoria and I planned our trip extensively (in most respects!). Our choice of vehicle (an ambulance) was made in part because it gave us the security of being able to sleep in it, rather than camping in a flimsy and vulnerable tent. We had the vehicle fitted so that we could lock every door from the inside and we would immobilize it when we went to sleep. Victoria also organized some self-defense classes where we learned that running was the best policy, and also took the advice to wear fake wedding rings and carry whistles.

We also, in the first part of the rally, arranged to be part of a convoy, and thought very carefully about where we stopped and slept every night. One area we didn’t plan much was the route – but we did decide on a very simple route, with a limited amount of border crossings. And actually, the border crossings were probably some of the safest moments given the amount of people and bureaucracy in these areas. We didn’t have any dangerous incidents – after the event, we did feel like we had been very lucky, that we’d been in a sort of bubble, looked after by the angels as we adventured. But it may have been a consequence of our consciousness of the dangers we might face and the precautions that we took.

Q: There is a million pound prize offered to the winners of the Ulaanbaatar Cup. What was the prize offered in The Mongol Rally?

Helen: There are no prizes in The Mongol Rally – it’s entirely a charitable endeavor. Participants pay an entry fee, commit to raising a certain amount for The Adventurists’ chosen charity and then can make additional charitable contributions (such as an ambulance) as they see fit. We took part because we thought it sounded like an amazing adventure – to see parts of the world in a way we’d never considered. Neither of us really knew where Mongolia was when we signed up. What’s funny though, is neither of us ever thought we wouldn’t get to UB – until we were on the journey and things started to go wrong. It’s true the pair of us are eternal optimists and very determined people – but we were never in the rally to prove anything. It just seemed a wonderful opportunity to explore some of the world and meet some like-minded people. There are a lot of rallies out there, and some do offer prizes. Melissa, the main character in Rich in Small Things, wrote a blog post about a few that you can read on my website here.

New Interview, Giveaways and Featured Author of the Month at Simple Taste for Reading

TSBMI’m delighted to say that my favourite book blog, A Simple Taste for Reading, is featuring little old me as their author of the month – what an honour 🙂 There will be a number of giveaways and there is a short interview with me too as well as a review of my debut novel, Thirty Seconds Before Midnight. You can find the blog here, like their Facebook page here and here’s the interview with Sierra:

Tell us a little about yourself:

Helen: I’m British born and bred and reside near the coast in the South of England where the seagulls take their responsibility for my wake up call very seriously. I have penchants for tortoises, flamingos, hats and fizzy wine. I am addicted to Scrabble.

Sierra: When did you first start writing and when did you finish your first book?

Helen: I’ve written for as long as I can remember but it’s not until I passed through the gateway of being thirty years old that I stopped destroying my work through sheer embarrassment. I finished my first book around three years ago and have written two more since and this year I think I’m going to write another two. Let’s see how that goes ;-)

Sierra: Tell us a little bit about your first book, ‘Thirty Seconds Before Midnight’.

Helen:’Thirty Seconds Before Midnight’ is a contemporary retelling of the Greek myth, Orpheus and Eurydice – a story that has haunted me since childhood. It’s quirky and involves sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll, pantheism and evolution and is set in the Sussex countryside. The main narrator is a giant land tortoise called Herbert.

Sierra: How did you choose the genre you write in?

Helen: I’ve been a voracious bibliophile since my mother taught me to read when I was three. I do read genre fiction but I prefer ‘break out books’ that are difficult to classify, that cover new ground, combine and defy genres. I think that’s partly what I set out to do with Thirty Seconds Before Midnight. It’s difficult to classify it – it’s based on a Greek tragedy – but readers report it makes them laugh as much as they cry. And it’s pretty unpredictable. One of the greatest compliments I have received (I think!) is that it’s unique. It’s certainly unconventional.

Sierra: What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write?

Helen: Gosh this is a hard one. I’d written the book to halfway twice before I discovered Herbert. It’s his voice that makes this book tick I think. As a human, he’d be rather pompous and obnoxious, but because he’s a tortoise it’s perhaps more endearing, and a little funny. So I really liked being him. But his best friend Digby has a scene where he reports back on an evening’s activities – that bit’s more like a play and Digby acts out the humans’ drama and that was a lot of fun to write. Part two of the book is epistolary – in letters – and that let a couple of the human characters in, let the readers hear their voices direct. And then there’s the pivotal Hades scene – I wrote that in a 5am – 12pm jet lagged writing binge having been on holiday for a fortnight in Thailand and lying on a sunbed thinking about it for days. Can I say all of it really?!

Sierra: Is anything in your book based on real life experiences or purely all imagination?

Helen: So this question’s a little like when people ask me who I base my characters on… Writing’s a little bit like a jigsaw or a patchwork quilt. Or perhaps a writer’s a bit like a magpie. I’ve never been a rock star, a model, a tortoise or a zoo-keeper… but there are bits of me in Stella and Hannah although they seem quite different, and bits of people I know and imagine. Bestwood is very loosely based on an alternative reality of a country estate close to where I live. It’s a combination I guess, but this book, compared to some of my others, probably is more imagination.

Sierra: Is there any particular author or book that influenced you in any way either growing up or as an adult?

Helen: So many… As I said, I am a massive reader – I run a book club where I live and we’ve read 52 books in four years. I’ve probably read five or ten times that in the same time. My all time writing heroes would be something like: Gerald Durrell, Douglas Adams, Douglas Coupland, John Fowles, Margaret Atwood… really there are too many. I just read ‘The Extinction Club’ by Jeffrey Moore which completely blew my mind.

Sierra: Do you ever experience writers block?

Helen: No. I am a firm believer in sitting at the desk and getting the words down. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I know, through experience, how easy it is to procrastinate – empty the dishwasher, look at Facebook, make a phone call – there are thousands, millions of things to do but write but if you want to be a writer you must write. The muse doesn’t come to you, but it’s nice if they find you working. Someone else famous said that, apologies I can’t remember who. There are a tonne of quotes about inspiration and stuff. Someone at my Pilates class tonight said for a moment what an easy, lovely lifestyle being a writer must be but when they thought about it for a moment they took it back instantly. Writing is hard graft. There are days when the words come easy and some where you pull them out like blood from a stone. The key thing about writing, and this is expounded by writers everywhere, is the rewriting. But getting the first drafts down is essential. Polishing comes next and it’s no less essential. More so perhaps. It is a craft. Imagine making a wooden sculpture.

Sierra: Is there an author that you would really like to meet?

Helen: I had a dream that I met Margaret Atwood the other day! I would love to meet her. I was asking her about the ribbons she apparently wraps around her new manuscripts when she pulls her editorial team together to review a new book!

Sierra: Will you have a new book coming out soon? If so, can you tell us about it?

Helen: Yes I have two – ‘Rich in Small Things’ tells the story of a hedge-funds trader Melissa who loses her job and gets into a whole lot of trouble over poker and ends up driving to Mongolia. ‘Riding a Tiger’ is the story of a super yacht hijacked by Somali pirates.

Sierra: If you could go back and do it all over again, is there any aspect of your first novel or getting it published that you would change?

Helen: Like many writers, I am sure, this has been a long journey for me. Like many writers I tried the traditional publishing route and queried agents, received form rejections by the shed-load and so on. But it was the agents who were encouraging, that requested my manuscript and gave me very positive feedback that gave me the confidence in my writing. The publishing market has been disrupted in an unimaginable way in recent years thanks to technology and that has made things more challenging but also opened up opportunities that were inconceivable five or ten years ago. People can buy a hard cover or paper back copy of my book online and it will be printed for them and on their doorstep in a matter of days. They can buy it instantly on their ereader. It’s an intensely, incredibly chaotic and competitive time but what I really like about it is that the gatekeeper is becoming the readers. Yes, I have to worry (or enjoy) the process of acquiring editorial services, creating covers, formatting layout, managing all of my own sales and marketing effort – but actually I am thriving on this. The writing is the most important part of it all, of course, but, personally, I am enjoying having this much control over the process.

Sierra: Do you have any advise to give to aspiring writers?

Helen: Just write. First and foremost, write, write and write again. If you don’t have the appetite, or know-how to independently publish (I’ve worked in sales and marketing in IT for years so little of the logistics of self or independently publishing bothers me but not everyone wants to do it all) there are plenty of people out there to help you. This is the age of the internet.

Sierra: Is there anything you would like to say to your readers and fans?

Helen: I love talking to people about writing and reading – not just my own, so please do tell me what you think, what you like, what you don’t – please look me up at

Author Interview with Melissa “Missy” Frye

tortTwo interviews in two days – not a bad start! Please see an excerpt from my chat with Missy below, and find the full interview here:


MF: Your website says you write contemporary commercial literary fiction which doesn’t fit into any recognizable genre. Does this create problems in marketing your work? If so, how do you overcome the obstacles?
HJB: I would agree that it is more challenging marketing work that isn’t easily classifiable as a thriller or a romance for example – but these difficulties are offset for me by the pleasure of writing something that isn’t formulaic, of trying to be innovative. Literary fiction is a genre in its own right – perhaps the melting pot of everything that isn’t thriller, romance, YA, sci-fi, fantasy, crime, historical etc and I preface the description with contemporary, as my stories are set in the present time, and commercial because sometimes we think of literary fiction as being quite high-brow and full of words that leave the reader reaching for a dictionary. I try to write with an energy that will engage the reader and keep them moving through the book – I don’t want them to feel bogged down in flowery descriptions, philosophising and obscure vocabulary. So I search for my readers in a number of ways: firstly, there are lot of book-lovers out there who do read voraciously and have an appetite to read something different from what they have read before – who are looking for quirky surprises. Secondly, I look for themes in my books – for instance, Thirty Seconds Before Midnight is a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth which happens to have a giant land tortoise as a key narrator. His name is Herbert and he has a presence on Facebook – and it turns out there are a lot of tortoise lovers and, indeed, tortoises on Facebook. Herbert has a lot of friends and the book has received some great reviews as a consequence. Equally, I market to people who are interested in the Greek myths and fairy tales and the retelling of them. Herbert will also be starting a blog series soon where he interviews other animal characters from other novels for adults. He also blogs on my website you see!

llamaMF: You say your are “particularly fond of llamas and tortoises.” What makes them so special to you? Are there any other bits of trivia you’d like to share about yourself?
HJB: I’m not quite sure where my love of llamas came from – I’d like to have a couple of them in the garden one day. One of my best ever memories was the gift I gave to my father on his 70th birthday – he, my mother, my boyfriend and I took a llama each for a walk one crisp December morning a couple of years ago in Ashdown Forest in Sussex. It was a wonderful, unforgettable experience – so funny, and each of the llamas had a very distinct character – mine was quite lazy – he always wanted to be at the back of the line, my Dad’s would eat ANYTHING it could… I’ve attached a picture of mine taken on the day for your viewing pleasure! Tortoises I’ve loved a long time and treated myself to a pair – Apollo and Artemis – for my birthday a few years ago. They are currently hibernating in a fridge in Dorset with Cosy Tortoises as I’ve been away a lot this winter and was concerned I wouldn’t be able to check up on them properly myself. I miss them but they’ll be back in a month or so. I’ve been to see giant tortoises in the Galapagos and the Seychelles, and have just returned from Africa where I went to see a colony on Prison Island in Zanzibar that were a present from the Seychelles. Sadly they have to live in a fenced up compound because people keep trying to steal them. Tortoises seem so wise, and actually they are surprisingly clever – and also quite fast at times too! They are very curious creatures and will always come to see what I am doing when I am near them. And they love baths! The other bit of trivia would be a total addiction to Scrabble and also Words with Friends on the iPhone. I seem to have about ten games on the go at any one time and get a rush of pleasure when I play a new word for the first time, or one of my favourites like ‘yurt’ or ‘gnu’. My favourite word ever is ‘kerfuffle’ but that’s nearly impossible to play in Scrabble due to the dearth of f’s.

My First Author Interview

playing scrabbleMy first interview as an author was published today on the Worthing Book Network. Here follows an extract and you can read the whole thing here. It was great fun to do and fabulous to talk about my passion for reading and words.

“To answer your first question – like most writers, my desire to write is founded in my love of reading. I am told I was picking up books at the age of one, albeit upside-down, and my mother taught me to read when I was three, partly, I suspect, in order to achieve a quieter life. Since then I have been voracious and eclectic in my reading habits. Incidentally, I now read very well upside-down – it can be useful in restaurants and occasionally on the wrong side of a desk at work.

I find joy in words and there is a sublime deliciousness in discovering a new, spectacular story. I’m reading The Night Circus at the moment and before I was even a third of the way through I wanted to read it again already! It’s a story about worthy adversaries – one of my favourite films is The Thomas Crowne Affair (I prefer the Rene Russo version) and I love this theme. It’s also magical fantastical.

I’ve tinkered about with words for as long as I can remember, but it was attending a creative writing course at West Dean College that really turned the wheels on my authorial ambitions.”

riding a tiger book cover

Half a Dozen Novels About Somali Pirates

1) Crossbones by Nuruddin Farrah

crossbonesA beautifully written novel told by an author in the Somali diaspora often flagged as a potential Nobel Prize for Literature winner, and, according to The New York Times: “the most important African novelist today”, this gripping novel tells the story of Jeebah’s return to Mogadishu after a decade away.

“Mesmerizing… A searing look at individuals caught in the chaos of anarchy.” –The Daily Beast

2) Riding a Tiger by Helen J Beal

Riding a TigerI was one of the stewardesses on the fictional super yacht, Talisman, when she was attacked by Somali pirates while we were on our way back to the mooring in Cyprus from the Seychelles. There was just the crew on board, ten of us, we’d just dropped the owner, Herr Liebe off in Mahe to fly back to Paris for the last leg of his three month honeymoon with his third wife.

In this novel I tell you my story first hand – what happened, how we were treated, how it all ended.

3) Djibouti by Elmore Leonard

djiboutiThis action packed novel features the excellent and feisty documentary film-maker, Dana Barr and some pin-sharp dialogue.

The Independent on Sunday reported that the “pages fly by in a highly entertaining manner’ whilst the Sunday Telegraph said: “As usual, Leonard gives you plenty of bangs for your buck.

Here’s an interview with Elmore about his sixty year career and the writing of this novel.

4) Those in Peril by Wilbur Smith

thoseinperilConsummate action adventure: in this nail-biting tale of adventure, bestselling author Wilbur Smith brings his matchless storytelling to bear on the violent, ruthless world of twenty-first-century piracy.

While cruising on the family yacht in the Indian Ocean, nineteen-year-old Cayla Bannock is attacked and taken hostage by Somalian pirates. Her kidnappers demand a staggering ransom: twenty billion dollars. And Cayla’s not just anyone—she’s the daughter of Hazel Bannock, heiress to the Bannock Oil Corporation, one of the world’s foremost oil producers.

5) Rip Tide by Stella Rimington

riptideInternational conspiracy with twists and turns and a tonne of action. When pirates attack a cargo ship off the Somalian coast and one of them is found to be a British-born Pakistani, alarm bells start ringing at London’s Thames House. MI5 Intelligence Officer Liz Carlyle is brought in to establish how and why a young British Muslim could go missing from his well-to-do family in Birmingham and end up on board a pirate skiff in the Indian Ocean, armed with a Kalashnikov. After an undercover operative connected to the case turns up dead in the shipping office of an NGO in Athens it looks like piracy may be the least of the Service’s problems.

6) Dead Centre by Andy McNab

deadcentreHigh-octane action in the Nick Stone series from the consummate SAS expert. January 2005: Nick Stone is in tsunami hit Banda Aceh on a job to retrieve incriminating evidence of an oil deal. When looters arrive a fight breaks out and a man, Mong, is killed. Nick makes a promise to his dead friend to protect his widow, Tracey.

March 2011: Nick is in Moscow filling his days at a private gun range when he is lifted by heavies and taken to meet an oligarch. The oligarch wants Nick to track down his kidnapped wife and son. It transpires that the oligarch has married Tracey and so Nick is given the opportunity to fulfil his promise to Mong.

View and vote on this list in Listopia and Listmania.

Non-Fiction Books About Somali Piracy

Before I sat down to write Riding a Tiger, my novel about Talisman, a super yacht which is hijacked by Somali pirates on its way back to its mooring in Cyprus from the Seychelles, I read a lot of books about the recent phenomenon that has received so much media attention worldwide. Here’s my non-fiction reading list:

1) Hostage by Paul and Rachel Chandler

hostageThis husband and wife’s harrowing first hand account of what happened after they were hijacked on their private yacht off the coast of Somalia had me gripped from the first page. Paul and Rachel Chandler invest their life savings in Lynn Rival, their yacht, and set off to sail her around the world and enjoy their retirement. Hijacked off the coast of the Seychelles, they are forced to Somalia and then onto land where they spend over a year in miserable conditions as the pirates futilely try to negotiate a ransom for their release. This story made the headlines but it was the love and solidarity between the couple throughout their ordeal that made the story for me.

2) A Captain’s Duty by Richard Phillips

acaptainsdutyA seriously impressive first hand account of fifty-three year old Richard Phillips’ (captain of a US cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama) five day stand-off with Somali pirates and his eventual rescue by a group of Navy SEALs. A heart-stopping, adrenaline-packed tale of adventure and courage and an escalating battle of wills where training meets instinct and character is everything.

On his rescue, President Obama said: “I share the country’s admiration for the bravery of Captain Phillips and his selfless concern for his crew. His courage is a model for all Americans.”

3) Kidnapped by Colin Freeman

kidnappedAfter his bodyguards double-cross him, journalist Colin Freeman finds himself captured by Somali pirates – beginning a nightmare 40 days in the hands of some of the most dangerous men in the world. It is a terrifying experience – the gang’s hideout is attacked by rival pirates, Freeman is threatened with being handed over to Islamists who wish to execute him and he constantly fears death at the hands of his constantly drug-addled captors. But he survives – thinner, greyer and wiser – to tell the tale of an astonishing adventure in a surprisingly funny and fond way. ‘Essential reading for anyone interested in the world’s most broken state, and why it became that way’ – Oliver Poole, London Evening Standard

4) Hunting Pirate Heaven by Kevin Rushby

hunting pirate heavenKevin Rushby’s objective is to locate the descendants of the 16th century pirates who had carved kingdoms for themselves in the remote jungles of north-east Madagascar. Hitching rides on a motley assortment of freighters, dhows, yachts and fishing smacks, he sails up the African coast, then east towards his goal. It is a story full of incident: voyages to islands where forgotten Portugese forts lie covered in jungle, places where some have tried to shoot their way to paradise, and where the ever-present ocean can destroy lives and dreams as quickly as men and women create them. An enthralling guide to a little-visited corner of the world, haunted by the ghosts of its pirate past.

5) Small Boats, Weak States, Dirty Money by Martin N Murphy

small boatsSerious and sober, this is a text used at Naval War College. British scholar Martin Murphy seeks to untangle a difficult set of problems: what sort of threat do piracy and maritime terrorism present to the world and its shipping, what evidence suggests that terrorists and criminals might work together in some fashion, and what can be done about these threats? It is a book so meticulously researched that after more than 400 pages of heavily footnoted material the book places its substantial bibliography in an online .pdf rather than making an already long book even longer. If one has a personal, academic, or professional interest which would require a knowledge of piracy, the vulnerabilities of ocean-borne shipping networks, or maritime insurgency and terrorism around the world, this book is an essential read.

6) Pirates of the 21st Century by Nigel Cawthorne

pirates21Not just about Somalia, this book looks at piracy in the South China Sea, the Caribbean and South America too. It examines how a phenomenon thought to be consigned to history is once again a worldwide problem. It looks at attacks that have taken place in the Malacca Straits and the fate of the Chandlers (see above), and questions how the international community and its peacekeeping forces can try to bring stability and security back to the oceans. Nigel Cawthorne is the author of over a hundred books, from serious political works such as The Iron Cage to lightweight comic romps such as Sex Lives of the Popes. Sex Lives of the Presidents got him on the Joan Rivers Show. He was hauled in front of a Senate Select Committee for The Bamboo Cage.

7) Pirate State by Peter Eichstaedt

piratestateIn 2009, the United States was hit broadside by Somali pirates who attempted to capture the U.S. flag ship Maersk Alabama (see A Captain’s Duty above). Suddenly, the pirates were no longer a distant menace. They had thrust themselves onto the American stage. Are the Somali pirates a legion of desperate fisherman attacking cargo ships and ocean cruisers to reclaim their waters? Or is piracy connected to crime networks and the madness that grips Somalia? What threats do pirates pose to international security? To answer these questions, Peter Eichstaedt crisscrosses East Africa, meeting with pirates both in and out of prisons, talking with them about their lives, tactics, and motives. He discovers that piracy is a symptom of a much deeper problem: Somalia itself.

8) Dangerous Waters by John S Burnett

dangerous watersWhile sailing alone one night in the shipping lanes across one of the busiest waterways in the world, John Burnett was attacked by pirates. Through sheer ingenuity and a little bit of luck, he survived, and his shocking firsthand experience became the inspiration for Dangerous Waters.

Today’s breed of pirates are not the colorful cutthroats painted by the history books. Unlike the romantic images from yesteryear of Captain Hook, Long John Silver, and Blackbeard, modern pirates can be local seamen looking for a quick score, highly trained guerrillas, rogue military units, or former seafarers recruited by sophisticated crime organizations.

9) Deadly Waters by Jay Bahadur

deadly watersWhat are the lives of modern day pirates like outside of the attack skiffs? How do they spend their money? What clothes do they wear and what is their drug of choice? Deadly Waters takes us to the heart of Somalia, where Jay Bahadur, the intrepid 25-year-old author has ventured where most journalists fear to tread. As the ‘go to’ journalist for all major media, and with unparalleled access to all the major players, from government officials to local residents – and of course the pirates themselves – Bahadur sets out to discover who is behind the masked menaces who appear on the news. Exploring the politics and history of the self-governing region of Puntland, Bahadur looks at the challenges facing this troubled mini-state as piracy rises – and examines how the UN and other bodies are attempting to deal with the scourge of every sea-faring nation. Evocative and incisive, Deadly Waters is a highly original analysis of the international pirate crisis.

See and vote on this list in Listopia and Listmania.