Category Archives: Thirty Seconds Before Midnight

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

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


The opening paragraph of my first novel, Thirty Seconds Before Midnight is:

“Digby clattered his little red hook of a beak on my shell the morning that I first saw the dominoes of my life topple. Over one went, tipping into another, knocking it onto the next. Several had gone already, escaping my notice, and though I was unable to see where they led, my instincts told me that at the end of them there was something thrilling: a climax of sorts, fireworks perhaps.”

One of the things I was quick to learn in my writing career was the ease at which one can transition from the act of writing to the act of procrastination. One minute a character’s in a herb garden, the next I’m in a botanical dictionary. Or Facebook. Or emptying the dishwasher. Or researching the exact hoot of a Scops owl. Youtube, though, for me, has to be king of all procrastination platforms and has some AMAZING videos of dominoes toppling. Here are some of my favorites:

My conclusion? There are lot of people out there with vastly more patience than me. And startling ingenuity.

Fairy Tales

10 New Tellings of Classic Myths and Fairy Tales

1) ‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey

This magical novel takes a Russian fairy tale and sets it in 1920’s Alaska. I found it a bit slow and ‘wagons and homesteads’ to begin with but was drawn in and, like everyone else, fell in love with Faina. Wonderfully snowy, this is my book club‘s January read and I am expecting it to be very popular. It also has a very beautiful trailer that you can see here.

2) ‘The Penelopiad’ by Margaret Atwood

My favourite from the Canongate myth series from one of my favourite authors, this one tackles Penelope’s experiences during the Odyssey and deftly handles double standards between the sexes. Atwood also wrote ‘The Robber Bride’, the title of which references the Grimm fairy tale ‘The Robber Bridegroom’. Other titles in the myths series included ‘Weight’ by Jeanette Winterson, ‘Girl Meets Boy’ by Ali Smith and ‘The End of the Gods’ by AS Byatt.

3) ‘Gods Behaving Badly’ by Marie Phillips

I loved this very hilarious book so am super excited to find that it’s being made into a film starring Christopher Walken and Sharon Stone! Here’s an interview with Sharon on set! Bookmarks Magazine say: “Reviewers almost unanimously praise Phillips’s daring, high-concept premise and the wit and cleverness with which she recycles mythic tales and gives them a postmodern twist.”

4) ‘Tender Morsels’ by Margo Lanagan

A dark, dark retelling of the Snow White, Rose Red fairy tale, be warned, this is not a novel for the faint of heart, with rape, bestiality and sodomy as themes and no Disney style ending, it’s a book that lives with the reader for a long time after. Publishers Weekly said: “Writing in thick, clotted prose that holds the reader to a slow pace, Lanagan explores the savage and the gentlest sides of human nature, and how they coexist.”

5) ‘Oh My Gods’ by Phillip Freeman

Oh My Gods is a contemporary retelling of some of the most popular myths by Philip Freeman, a noted classicist. These tales of errant gods, fantastic creatures, and human heroes are brought to life in fresh and modern versions. Powerful Zeus; his perpetually aggrieved wife, Hera; talented Apollo; beautiful Aphrodite; fierce Athena; the dauntless heroes Theseus and Hercules; and the doomed lovers Orpheus and Eurydice still inspire awe, give us courage, and break our hearts.

6) ‘New World Fairy Tales’Cassandra Parkin

I first stumbled across Cassandra when I discovered her acerbic and incredibly hilarious explanation of everything that is wrong with Fifty Shades of Grey. I had an inkling then that I was going to enjoy this, her first published book of prize winning short stories from Salt Publishing. And I did, enormously. These are very, very modern retellings of various fairy tales – beautiful, sexy and compelling.

7) ‘Thirty Seconds Before Midnight’ by me

This is a contemporary retelling of the classic Greek myth Orpheus and Eurydice set in a menagerie in a rundown country estate in Sussex which turns upside down with the arrival of a new family of rock stars set on change. Readers love Herbert – the main narrator of the book who is a giant land tortoise. You can be friends with Herbert on Facebook here. You may also find him blogging on this site quite regularly.

Fairy Tales8) ‘Grimm Tales – For Young and Old’Phillip Pullman

Well the title says it all really! I bought these for my six year old niece for Christmas. Unfortunately I’ve been in the French alps (poor me!) over the festive break so I am yet to have a read of them but am looking forward to it very much. I love Pullman’s writing, in particular the Northern Lights trilogy – me and my cat were likened to Lyra and her daemon by a friend once which made me smile a lot. He is also very good friends with Neil Gaiman from what I understand who deserves a mention here for his masterful ‘Stardust’.

9) ‘The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories’ by Angela Carter

Ian McEwan (and I love his writing) described this as: “Magnificent set pieces of fastidious sensuality”. These are fairy tales retold and interwoven by a master of seductive, luminous storytelling – The Times said: “She can glide from ancient to modern, from darkness to luminosity, from depravity to comedy without any hint of strain and without losing the elusive power of the original tales.”

10) ‘Beauty’ by Robin McKinley

“The best-known and best-loved of Robin McKinley’s books is also one of the best of the fairy-tale retellings — “Beauty,” a more enlightened, fully-drawn version of “Beauty and the Beast.” There’s a depth and a richness to the story and characterizations, as well as a beauty of atmosphere and writing.” E A Solinas – Amazon Hall of Fame reviewer

Do you know of any more to add to the list?

Vote for these books on Listmania and Listopia.


John Updike, author

Exploring the Storyverse

John Updike, authorAs a newly published writer one of the things foremost on my mind is marketing – or how to find the right people to read my books and encourage them to choose mine above than the vast selection available on the virtual and physical shelves. I came across Small Demons a little while ago and was immediately attracted by its zeitgeisty-cool feel and original concept – essentially, in the words of the Huffington Post:

“…an encyclopedia and “Storyverse” that catalogues names, places, songs, products and other categories for thousands of books.”

For example, I can choose a favourite book, like ‘Life of Pi’ and not only does it give me a synopsis and some information about the film adaption, it also tells me what other books it’s mentioned in, along with the pertinent extract, but also the people, places, food and drink and vehicles mentioned within. It’s a little bit Wikipedia as its ultimate aim is for bibliophiles to update and contribute details to grow the Storyverse, but what’s already there is already pretty compelling. For instance, Indhira Ghandi’s mentioned and hovering over her picture I can read the passage where this happens, but clicking on the picture I can then find out what other books she is mentioned in – a total of 85 currently listed.

Picking one, Aravind Adiga’s ‘Last Man in the Tower’ (on my to be read list) I then find out this book mentions Facebook, Honda, The Sunday Times and Coca Cola amongst other things giving me a good sense of what it’s about. I can buy the book from there from various platforms, add it to a storyboard (a literary Pinterest) and share it through social media. I like the concept very much but it’s not as obvious to see how it might help with marketing debut work from an Independent author such as myself since it’s a while until somewhat lesser known works like mine would be featured on here – it doesn’t have the sense of community and interactivity that Goodreads has. Yet.

However, it can help, like Listopia and Listmania do in tracking down books with similarities to mine or ones I like, and from there, perhaps looking on Goodreads or Amazon, I can start tracking down my ‘tribe’ – the people that like the things I do. My first novel, ‘Thirty Seconds Before Midnight’ features a tortoise called Herbert so I searched for “tortoise” – the set of results was small, but did include a novel by Julia Stewart that I love and recently read called ‘The Tower, The Zoo and The Tortoise’. Perhaps other lovers of this book are part of my tribe? Or me theirs?

‘Thirty Seconds Before Midnight’ is also a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth – and using this search term I turned up Jennifer Egan‘s ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ – another great book. Although I think this site needs a lot more content to execute fully on its vision it’s certainly fun to play with and beautiful to look at – something that can’t be said about all of the literary social sites.

And I love this kind of magpie approach to writing – the concept of a book being, yes a story, but also a collection of objects, people, locations, brands – the exploration of common threads and connections and links. Before I published ‘Thirty Seconds Before Midnight’, I, like all good independent authors, hired an editor. And reading through the final version before formatting and committing the work to paper and ether, and having not read it for a good while, I was delighted to discover some of the things I’d put in there, little treasures for the reader to find. It reminded me of a quote from a Paris Review interview with John Updike where he said:

“I think books should have secrets, like people do. I think they should be there as a bonus for the sensitive reader or there as a kind of subliminal quavering. I don’t think that the duty of the twentieth-century fiction writer is to retell old stories only.”

So here are a few treasures from Thirty Seconds Before Midnight:

This is a Bacchantes vase from the legendary French glassware company Lalique. When I was growing up my parents were big into antiques and I saw this occasionally at the many Sunday morning fairs we frequented and this particular Art Deco piece has been an object of long-term lust for me. Perhaps one day. I do wear a Lalique Cabouchon ring every single day – they are much admired, but quite fragile being made of crystal.

I studied English Literature and Language at University, and was surprised to find some of the poetry stayed with me well into the writing of this book. John Milton was one of my ‘specialist subjects’ and this poem – ‘Lycidas’ – has always had some resonance with me. It’s about being young and losing a peer. It’s pastoral like Orpheus and Eurydice and ‘Thirty Seconds Before Midnight’.

Charlotte's web

One of my favourite books as a child for any of you that haven’t read it, you must! No matter what age you are! No matter whether you have children or not! They made it into a film… but we all know what we say about books and films. It’s about a surprising friendship between a girl, a pig and a spider. And it will make you cry.

John Donne Renaissance poet, John Donne – possibly my all time favourite – although snapping at his heels are e.e. cummings and Carol Ann Duffy – it actually took me a while to find this poem after featuring it. It’s pretty rude, like most of his – it’s called The Anagram and it’s about his ugly lover. It has the word “dildo” in it and it stuck in my mind since when I was revising for my finals, my revision partner at the grand old age of twenty-one did not know what a “dildo” was (and me so wise!), yet more than that, I was surprised it had existed so long ago! We invented sex, right?

And so, let’s finish on a song. This is by the wonderful Eva Cassidy and is called Songbird:

‘Thirty Seconds Before Midnight’ is out now.

10 Books for Grown Ups with Animal Narrators

1) Bird Brain by Guy Kennaway
I found this book immensely funny. Banger is almost as daft as my dear Digby and whilst poacher turned gamekeeper might be one of the oldest plots in fiction, Kennaway gives it a good dust down in this modern yarn that’s also a murder mystery with a vast cast of hilarious animal characters. One of my top reads of 2012.

2) Flush by Virginia Woolf
Woolfy I always have thought took herself far too seriously and apparently was embarrassed by the immense popularity of this, her biography of Elizabeth Barratt Browning’s eponymous spaniel. Some say it’s a criticism of the unnaturalness of city life, but I wouldn’t know about that being a country boy, but anyway, it’s a book about a dog.

3) Timbuktu by Paul Auster
Ahh, Mr Auster, one of the Great American Writers, white, middle-class, middle-aged (well, getting on a bit now), this is definitely not one of his ardent fans’ favorites though it should be noted they are particularly susceptible to literary snobbery. I rather enjoyed this witty, sad saga from Mr Bones.

4) The Last Family in England by Matt Haig
“This country’s going to the dogs!” – sounds like Bob after one too ales many down The Ship of an evening but this was another dark and quirky tale of family life from Haig. Although I have to disagree with Prince’s pact: “Remain Loyal to Your Human Masters, Serve and Protect Your Family at Any Cost”. Every tortoise for himself I say.

5) Felidae by Akif Pirrinci
And just before you think it’s all about the canine, here’s a feline! Another anthromorphological murder mystery, this remarkable literary thriller from a German (Turkish born) writer was a best-seller back in its day – and so it should have been with Francis’ unquenchable thirst for knowledge and refusal to accept the banality of death. A cat after my reptilian heart.

6) Firmin by Sam Savage
Where there’s cats there’ll be rats! In this metropolitan adventure of a low-life our hungry protagonist is forced to eat books to survive (I’d go for a nice clump of grass any day) and discovers along with the paltry nourishment he has gained knowledge! Thank goodness for my encyclopaedic shell is all I can say.

7) White Fang by Jack London
This 1906 classic is free on kindle! (Click the cover to the left). This novel set in Canada’s about a wolf that becomes a dog – domesticated fool. It’s a companion novel and a thematic mirror (whatever that means) to London’s best known novel ‘The Call of the Wild’. Some good commentary on the violence of humans though; I liked it for that.

8) The London Pigeon Wars by Patrick Neate
Another funny murder story! We are most amusing us animals, you know. Set in London not by London this one features performance poetry, Trafalgar Square’s only fried-chicken induced battle, hat selling, bank robbery for the middle classes, love (and other social ailments); as well as pigeons – lots of crazed, angry thinking pigeons.

9) The Book of Chameleons by Jose Eduardo Agualusa
Set in contemporary Angola (I haven’t been there, but I’d like to) the charming, witty narrator is a reptile – just like me! Living in his house is a chap called Felix who sells pasts because, as I have often noted, not many humans like theirs and are wishing they could change them. Like the mentalist Dave Palmer who took over Bestwood and tried to dry himself out and exorcise all his demons. Hah! Fat chance of that.

10) Thirty Seconds Before Midnight by Helen J Beal
Which brings me nicely onto my personal favorite also featuring a charming and witty reptile narrator – ME! My name is Herbert and I am a giant land tortoise with a heritage in the Ecuadorian Galapagos archipelago. I tell you mine and Stella’s story in this book, which I was surprised to find myself, bears a great deal of resemblance to the Greek myth Orpheus and Eurydice. Thirty Seconds Before Midnight was published on December 1st 2012.

Further Reading – check out these lists on Listopia on Goodreads:
1) The Cat’s Meow
2) The Dog’s Eye View