Book Recipes: How to Write a Spy Novel

Time for another book recipe! This time I’ll be looking at spy novels. Choose your code names and watch out for explosions!

 

Ingredients:

  • One dashing and debonair spy
  • Laaaaadies
  • An assortment of exotic locations
  • A dastardly villain
  • Gadgets
  • One superior officer, only to be ignored
  • A TRAITOR
  • So many ‘splosions.

 

Method:

  1. Your debonair spy receives his mission from his superior officer. This is the only time this character will ever be listened to.
  2. A plot is afoot! Infodump the details onto the main character. It doesn’t matter what they are – the only thing you really have to bring out is just how evil the villain is.
  3. Pick up your gadgets. Try not to look bored.
  4. Go to your first exotic location! Don’t worry about all the extensive research into place and culture that real spies have to do – just show up in your flash car, it’ll be fine.
  5. Meet your first beautiful woman. She must fall into one of three categories:
    1. Suspicious, but in a way that’s really hot
    2. Innocent, but ultimately doomed
    3. Foreign
  6. Do some spy stuff for a bit. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as you’re sneaking.
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Quick! Hide! (image: giphy.com)
  1. Receive a sinister message from the villain. If you chose the innocent-yet-doomed woman for step five, it’s time to kill her off.
  2. Go to another exotic location! Don’t worry about blowing your cover, we’re only on step eight.
  3. Oh look, it’s another beautiful woman! Let’s see if she’ll survive all twenty steps.
  4. Infiltrate, steal or smash something belonging to the villain. It’s all very exciting.
  5. Blow something up.
  6. It’s time to meet the villain! You can’t kill them because we’re only on step twelve, so have a tense conversation where you never directly address what’s going on instead.
  7. Form an uneasy yet sexy alliance with the highly suspicious hottie. It definitely won’t backfire.
  8. You’ve uncovered a code! Hooray! Celebrate with another explosion.
  9. Fight some baddies for a bit.
  10. Use your code to get into the villain’s secret lair. You’re so close to foiling their evil plans…
  11. …but oh no, you’ve been betrayed! The highly suspicious hottie has double-crossed you, as literally nobody ever thought she would.

  1. While you’re captured, the villain very kindly explains their evil plan, with diagrams. They then leave immediately, because they’ve got to take their fluffy white cat to the vet before they take over the world.
  2. Break free of your restraints, go to another exotic location and foil the evil plan! Fortunately this is very easy, as the villain’s plan is always foilable by cutting the right wire or pushing a big red button.
  3. Hooray! The day has been saved. Retreat to the nearest tropical island with all the surviving and non-traitorous hotties, and then fly back home for tea and medals.

THE END. Serve shaken, not stirred.

 

Tips:

  • There are no unattractive women allowed. Ever.
  • Don’t worry about memorising false names and elaborate cover stories when you’re infiltrating places. Just make it up! It’ll probably be fine.
  • If you include a beautiful foreign woman as one of your gorgeous lady friends, don’t bother actually researching her culture and background to give a better understanding of her character. Just stick a few of her lines in another language and give her an accent.
  • Always walk away from an explosion, never run.
giphy explosion
Otherwise you’ll end up looking like this. (image: giphy.com)
  • Don’t worry about cleaning up after the messes you’ve made, or blowing the cover of any other agents in the field. That’s your superior officer’s job. They’ll yell at you a bit, but it’s all fine.
  • Drive flash cars, fly private jets and pilot speedboats. These are the only acceptable ways for you to travel, apart from running along in the Mission: Impossible pose. Never, ever use public transport.
  • Give yourself a cool name. No-one likes a spy called Gerald.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

“Mr Diamond.”

Leaning on the black marble bar, Jack Diamond turned. One of the General’s men was standing in front of him – a big, tattooed guy with a shaven head and a suit that strained across his biceps. He wore dark glasses, even though they were indoors, and he was sweating in the heat.

The man inclined his head. “My employer would like you to join him. This way, please.”

Diamond picked up his whiskey – Lagavulin, two fingers, with a maraschino cherry on the side – and followed the man through the casino. Past the craps table, past the roulette wheel, past the sheer glass balcony that looked out over palm trees and a long-dormant volcano. They passed through a crowd of suits and evening dresses until the General’s bodyguard led Diamond to a private room. He knocked on the mahogany door and showed him in.

There, at the head of the table, was General Victor Sly, dressed all in white to match his hair. Diamond knew him from the files, of course. The scar pulling down his left eye socket was enough; the glittering black opal that replaced his left eye made him impossible to miss.

He smiled. “Ah, Mr Diamond. So good of you to join us. Sit, please.”

Diamond sat down. Katya was with him, sitting at the General’s right hand as she’d said she would be. She wore the fur hat she’d had in Rome; she’d stuck a brooch in it to match her evening dress. Blonde and beautiful, she gave no sign she recognised him. It was part of the plan, but Diamond still felt a little stung. After all, they’d held hands.

“I do so like to meet my investors,” the General said, “it makes such a difference. I thought we might play a little game and get to know each other.”

Diamond raised his glass. “When in Rome,” he said, and drank. It was a mistake. He’d picked the whiskey because it had been on the top shelf of the bar and he could put it on expenses if he kept the receipt. If he’d known it was going to be this strong, he would have asked the bartender to mix in some lemonade. He tried not to cough in front of Katya.

“Yes,” said the General, “have you been to Rome, Mr Diamond?”

Someone poured him another drink. Diamond fished out the cherry and ate it, wishing he’d had dinner before he came to the casino. “No. Definitely not.”

“Really? How unusual. I was under the impression you had met with some of my investors there.”

Diamond took a gulp of his whiskey and signalled for another cherry, thinking fast. He’d been supposed to meet his contact in Rome to pick up the map of the General’s secret facility, but the man had been murdered before he could make the drop. Diamond had had to blow up the Trevi fountain just to make himself feel better.

“Oh, that Rome,” he said, after another mouthful of whiskey. “I thought you meant Rome, Georgia. Not Italy. Where I haven’t been.”

“I…what?” The General frowned. “Why would I…”

Diamond drained his glass and wondered if there was anywhere he could get some chips. “I haven’t been there,” he said again.

“Right…” said the General. He shook his head and smiled again. “You know my associate, of course,” he said, nodding to Katya.

“No,” said Diamond. “Definitely not.”

Nyet,” said Katya, glaring at him, “Mr Diamond and I have corresponded vith regards to his investments, but ve have never formally met.”

“Ah. Then allow me to introduce my business associate, Yetakerina Mikhailovna Lyegova.”

Katya held out her hand. Diamond kissed it, and felt all giddy. “Charmed.”

She sat back down and wiped the back of her hand on her skirt. Obviously, Diamond thought, she was doing it to maintain her cover. He ordered another drink.

“Well,” said the General, “now that we are all acquainted, let us begin our game.”

He signalled to one of his men, who stepped forwards and began shuffling a pack of cards. He laid down five cards in front of each of them and put the rest in the centre of the table. Diamond took another sip of his whiskey, and giggled at the funny slurping noise. Then he stopped, because Katya was watching.

He looked at his cards, lifting the edges the merest fraction off the table. “Threes?” he asked.

The General smiled enigmatically, and Diamond took a card from the pile.

“Sevens,” the General said. Diamond shook his head, and the General took another card.

“Jacks,” said Diamond. The General raised an eyebrow, and slid a card across the table.

“Secret access codes,” he said.

Diamond froze. Under the table, his hand strayed to his revolver, strapped against his thigh. He was feeling a bit wobbly, and really, reallywished he’d stopped for a kebab.

His finger curled around the trigger.

“No,” Diamond said. “Go Fish.”

 

 

My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

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Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)
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A World of Your Imagination: On Worldbuilding

There’s nothing quite like a good setting. Previously on this blog I’ve talked about characters and clichés, and that hasn’t really left a lot of time to talk about the other elements of a good story. Setting is one of them. It’s easy to forget that the right setting for a novel can transform it, elevating the events of the plot into something really special. Rebecca would be nothing without the vast, chilly halls of Manderley. Dracula would not be nearly so frightening if the Count’s castle was a three-room flat in east Croydon.

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Although those London house prices are pretty terrifying. (image: giphy.com)

Setting is a hugely important part of writing. In fantasy and sci-fi, the term gets all fancy and becomes ‘worldbuilding’, although it’s essentially the same concept. There’s just more of it, because instead of telling the reader where your characters are, you also have to tell the reader why they’re all holding laser swords and why it was a bad idea for them to steal the unicorn’s bouquet on a full moon. Worldbuilding can be one of the most memorable things about fiction. It can take on a life of its own, allowing the setting to be examined and discussed apart from the characters who inhabit it.

The basic elements of setting and worldbuilding are pretty similar. No matter what genre you’re writing in, you still need to know where your characters are standing. Broadly speaking this can cover a lot of different elements – culture, geography, climate and the physical layout of the scene would all come under this umbrella. These elements make a story convincing regardless of its genre. They get included in most stories that aren’t about two characters having conversations in featureless white rooms. Of course, rather than just having big lumps of description sitting around uselessly these can then be used to reflect mood and create atmosphere within the story. As a general rule of thumb this is true of both setting and worldbuilding – the only real difference between the two is that in worldbuilding, the author tends to make more of it up.

So – how do you actually go about creating a rich and compelling setting? Description. While it can get quite frustrating to pause the action and set the scene, it’s impossible to have a complex and detailed setting without settling in for a paragraph of description every now and then. But when it’s done well it doesn’t feel like a pause. In some of the best fantasy settings – like Middle Earth, Discworld and Hogwarts – this scene-setting feels more like an opportunity to explore than something that has to be skimmed over.

Real talk: this is super hard.

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But I don’t wanna… (image: giphy.com)

Obviously writing is pretty tricky to begin with, but worldbuilding is a whole other level. Setting a scene can be difficult, but if it is set in some variation of the real world it’s easier for the reader to make assumptions based on the details of the scene. For example, if a writer describes a group of people all in black heading for a church, the reader is likely to assume that they’re heading to a funeral. It doesn’t always have to be the case – in fact, turning assumptions on their heads is one of the most fun things an author can do – but the assumptions have to be there for that to happen, and details from the setting is what plant such ideas in the readers’ minds. You have none of those connections to rely on if you’re building a fictional world. If writing is like learning a new language, then putting a fictional world together is like making up your own language from scratch.

There’s a couple of forms this tends to take.

 

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image: buzzfeed.com

The Pocket Universe

These are fictional universes that have their bases in the real world in some capacity. This is where you’d find stories that diverged from the real-world timeline – where the Titanic never sank, or where the Germans won the Second World War. This is also where you’d find stories about worlds within the normal world, such as Harry Potter – stories about unusual societies that have been kept secret and are stumbled across by some hapless protagonist.

Pocket universes have a lot of benefits. As they are rooted in the real world, it’s easy for the writer to draw on a lot of common cultural touchpoints, which requires less explaining to the reader. If you don’t want to spend a lot of time making up fictional animals for your characters to eat, or describing the odd clothes they wear, you don’t have to – you can cut straight to the plot. However, they’ve got a lot of drawbacks as well. Rooting your pocket universe in the real world will usually mean that at some point, you’ll have to deal with all the boring parts of reality. This pops up a lot in the Harry Potter universe, when everybody wonders why wizards don’t have formal education for their kids before the age of eleven. In alternate histories pocket universes present another problem – the vast amounts of research a writer has to do to make them convincing. It’s not enough for an author to say that the Germans won the war: readers will want to know how, and when, and who is alive now and who isn’t, and whether the Sixties still got to happen. Don’t write one of these unless you’re prepared to hit the books.

 

A Whole New World

image: denofgeek.com
image: denofgeek.com

This is the other kind of worldbuilding and it’s exactly what it sounds like. These are the fictional universes that have no link to the real world whatsoever. They can be inspired by real-world societies, and often a lot of them are, but they are emphatically not on Planet Earth in any kind of capacity. This is where you’d find a lot of fantasy stories – anything from Game of Thrones to Discworld to the entire works of Tolkien – and some sci-fi stuff as well.

Starting from scratch also has its own particular set of benefits. As an author you have complete creative freedom: anything goes. Terry Pratchett proved this when he created the Discworld – the planet is a giant flat disc, supported by four massive elephants all standing on the back of a cosmic turtle swimming through space. As I said, anything goes. It’s also easier to suspend disbelief. The lack of cultural touchpoints works in your favour here, as the reader isn’t automatically comparing it to things they’re already familiar with. However, these also have drawbacks. Making up a fictional world from scratch is so much work. You have to come up with vast amounts of detail, most of which may never make it into the finished book but you just need to know they’re there. You’ve got to establish your own cultural touchpoints and make these clear to the reader, but you’ve got to do it in a way that doesn’t seem stilted or weird. And you’ve got to make all of this completely watertight, because there is nothing readers (and editors) love more than poking holes in things.

 

So. Which is better? That depends: on your preferences, on the story you’re trying to tell, on the kind of readers you’re writing for. These things would also affect the level of detail you go into when setting the scene. But no matter which one you choose, the most important thing to remember is this: it doesn’t stop at description.

One of my favourite kinds of worldbuilding is when an author can do it through their characters. It’s a lovely way of integrating scene-setting with character development. Characters are products of their worlds, therefore their thoughts, actions and beliefs are a part of worldbuilding. This is particularly important in historical fiction. Choice of language can make or break both the scene-setting and the character’s internal monologue – if an author picks a phrase that sounds too modern, it can completely smash the readers’ suspension of disbelief. In historical fiction this presents its own set of problems as of course, modern and historical thoughts and beliefs are wildly divergent.

One of the easiest ways to illustrate this is the way that historical fiction treats corsets. I was talking about this with my colleague the other day (thanks, Cat) as we’ve both worked on historical fiction before. Corsets in fiction have become more symbolic than anything else. They’re something for the feisty heroine to cast aside before she becomes a pirate or rides off into the sunset. But this wouldn’t work in reality. Corsets were structural underwear and all the rest of a woman’s clothes were designed on the assumption that a corset would be worn. They make you stand and move differently and if you’d worn one all your life, taking it off would feel really strange. Casting the corset aside is a nice piece of authorial shorthand – look at how emancipated our female lead is! – but without it all the seams of her clothes are in the wrong places, everything is scratchy and she’s going to get terrible back pain from having to use underdeveloped muscles all of a sudden.

giphy swoon
Actual footage of post-corset muscle deterioration. (image: giphy.com)

My point is this: clothes are worldbuilding. The way characters think about clothes is worldbuilding. The way they care for their clothes is worldbuilding, and so is what the clothes are made of. Worldbuilding is not just about describing landscape and weather – it’s about clothes, food, slang, morality, social norms, marriage, relationships – I could go on. In short it’s about how characters fit into a setting as a context, and how that context affects them. Take, for example, Terry Pratchett’s description of the dwarves of Ankh-Morpork. Pratchett’s dwarves only acknowledge one gender, and thus most of the dwarves in the Discworld series present as male. When one of them decides she wants to present as female, it causes a massive cultural uproar, going against centuries of dwarf lore and tradition which go on to affect later books in the series. This introduces the reader to a whole new section of Discworld society, the factions within it, the conflict this brings about and how this manifests to other characters. This is very detailed worldbuilding, and it’s all done without a landscape in sight.

Worldbuilding is incredibly hard. It requires a lot of work, careful thought and research, all of which can really get in the way when you just want to jump to the plot. But it also helps make better stories. When the characters and the setting work in tandem, that’s when the setting feels the most vivid and a book really comes alive. It makes for rich and rewarding stories that a reader will remember. Despite all the hard work, I think it’s always worth it.

Book Recipes: How to Write a YA Coming of Age Story

Time for another book recipe! This time I’ll be looking at coming of age stories. Get ready to go back to high school – don’t you really miss puberty?

 

Ingredients:

  • One monologue-prone teenage protagonist
  • Parents who don’t understand
  • A hot teen issue of your choice
  • High school
  • One love interest, two if you’re greedy
  • Peer pressure
  • A faithful best friend, to be ignored at every opportunity
  • A really bland setting
  • The word ‘like’

 

Method

  1. Take your teenage protagonist and clueless parents and slap them all in a house. Make sure it’s really boring, so the reader really gets why the protagonist wants a car or something.
  2. Get out of bed, it’s time for school. No, you can’t have five more – get up, I said!
  3. Time to meet our delightfully quirky high school friends. Choose your clique carefully. Everybody hates cheerleaders, so you’re best avoiding them, but remember no-one likes an unwashed nerd either.
  4. Go to class or something. Whatever. I don’t care.
giphy angst
No-one understands. (image: giphy.com)
  1. Omigod guys, it’s the high school crush! They’re coming this way, everybody be cool, and make sure to talk about how the main character’s got a zit they don’t want noticed in the internal monologue.
  2. Our protagonist gets to hang out with their crush for some reason, yay! But uh-oh, they were supposed to see their best friend at the same time. How do you choose between –
  3. CRUSH CRUSH CRUSH.
  4. The main character has hung out with their crush and it’s all been reasonably fine. The hot teen issue came up though. Hope that’s not going to be a thing later on.
  5. Monologue about stuff. It’s that or homework.
  6. The main character has an opportunity to hang out with their crush! Isn’t this just the best. But uh-oh, what’s that coming up ahead? It looks like…
  7. PEER PRESSURE.
giphy chipmunk
Dun dun DUUUUNNNN (image: giphy.com)
  1. OK, the hot teen issue is becoming a bit of a problem now. Sure are a lot of opinions about this thing. Monologue about them.
  2. Ignore your best friend again, you’ve got a crush to drool over.
  3. You’ve been invited to one of the cool kids’ parties! You know, one of those absolutely mythical parties involving jet-skis and cocaine and that thing belonging to their parents that had better not get smashed.
  4. Argue with the parents about it.
  5. Disobey the parents and go to the party anyway! Your crush is there and it’s all great until –
  6. The hot teen issue happens! But you know, in a really bad way.
  7. The police get called and you’re in trouble now. In fact, you’re grounded until the age of thirty-four.
  8. Mope a bit, but then realise that this hot teen issue stuff is important and you’re allowed to have your own opinion about it. Do something thoughtful to show how mature you are now.
  9. Make up with your best friend. Make out with your crush, or don’t, depending on how much of an idiot they’re being. And look at this – you’re un-grounded, and just in time for prom! Maybe those parents do understand after all.

THE END. Serve sprinkled with ‘like’ so everyone knows you’re definitely a teenager.

 

Tips:

  • Make sure to get the teenage slang just right. It’s important, yo.
giphy kids
Fleek. (image: giphy.com)
  • Choose your teen issue carefully. If you’re going for something like sex or drugs, then keep it toned-down. Funny tingly feelings are fine, but full-blown orgies are off the table.
  • Keep to the acceptable pantheon of curse words. You want a few in there to show you’re edgy, but you drop any f-bombs and you’re grounded, mister.
  • Just because you’re writing a teenage character doesn’t mean you have to compromise on your authorial metaphors. Go ahead and lay out the fanciest literary imagery you can think of – and then add ‘like’, ‘whatever’ or ‘or something’ to the end of the sentence. They’re teenagers, it’s what they do.
  • Make sure your main character spends 40% of the book shrivelling up with embarrassment. It’s comedy!
  • If your main character is a boy, their best friend is always a skinny nerd. If they’re a girl, the best friend is always fat. It’s the rule.
  • Love triangles are optional here. If you do decide to include one, at least one of the people involved must be a Bad Boy™.
  • Always, always write in first person.

 

And here’s one I made earlier…

 

“I dunno, Cass,” says Martha, leaning against the locker next to mine, “I think it’s pretty risky.”

I roll my eyes and grab my Trig folder. Martha Floffmann has been my best friend since forever, but she can be a bit of a square sometimes. But she’s my best friend, so I don’t mind too much.

“It’ll be fine,” I say, as we head to our next class. “Everyone does it eventually. It’s not like it’s a big deal.”

She blushes and pushes her glasses a little higher. “Yeah, but…now?”

“Well, maybe not right this minute, but y’know, soon.”

“Are you really ready for something like that? I know I’m not.”

We stop outside the classroom. “Well I mean, I guess I am. Who’s ever really ready for something like that? But I mean, y’know, if I felt really strongly about it and the right person was, y’know, in the running, then –”

“Hey! It’s Cassidy, isn’t it?”

My whole body goes tingly. My heart literally stops and my entire body starts blushing. I know that voice. When I turn around, he’ll be standing there.

I’m not ready for this. I look terrible – my hair’s a mess, there’s a Nutella stain on my shirt and my dog threw up on my trainers this morning. Maybe he won’t notice the smell. Or the fact that my face is basically one giant zit.

Well, here goes.

I turn around and see him: Trent Calliber. Captain of the football team, tall, with dark blonde hair and green eyes and a face sculpted by literal angels. He looks like a cross between Michelangelo’s David and a swimsuit model and I’m just dead. It actually hurts to look at his face, he’s so pretty.

He smiles and goddammit, I can feel my heart dancing a merengue.

“What are you girls talking about?”

Martha butts in. “Lowering the voting age to –”

“Nothing,” I interrupt, “just, y’know, girl things. For girls. Your hair is…hair today. I mean, it’s nice. For hair. Um.”

This always happens whenever I talk to him. My brain just passes out and my mouth is all welp, here’s freedom, at last. It’s so embarrassing.

Trent’s frowning. Oh God, I’ve done something wrong. It’s simultaneously the best and the worst thing I’ve ever seen and goddammit, why does he have to be so pretty?

“Lowering the voting age?” he asks. “You don’t actually care about that stuff, do you?”

Martha’s opening her mouth but it’s too late – I’m laughing, too loud, and now everyone is staring at me. Oh God, I can see the Nutella stain out of the corner of my eye. I know it’s there.

“No, no, of course not! Voting’s like, for dorks, or whatever. God. Ew. I mean, so last year!”

He smiles. “Great. For a second I thought you were like, a square or something.”

“Me? No way! I’m…triangular?”

He laughs. Oh God. Is it possible to get pregnant from this?

“You’re funny. Hey, listen. I’m throwing a rager Friday night. You should swing by sometime.”

Omigod. Oh my God. Trent Calliber has just asked me out. Trent fudging Calliber. OK Cassidy, play it cool, play it cool. It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for.

“I mean, I guess I could,” I say, tossing my hair. Bonus – now it covers up the Nutella stain! “I mean, if I’m not too busy.”

“Oh, Cass,” says Martha, “Friday’s when we’re going to that –”

“So where is your place?” I say, nudging her out of the way. “And what time should I get there? And do I need to bring anything? Is there a dress code? What about –”

He laughs again. I really am going to have to ask the nurse about this pregnancy thing. “Relax, babe,” he says, and my entire body is going did you hear that he called me babe!, so relaxing is kind of off the menu now. “Just be there.”

“Sure.”

He walks away. Martha frowns up at me, but she’s my best friend, so I don’t mind.

“I thought you said you were coming to my thing. I’ve bought the tickets.”

Trent is still walking away – slowly, thank God. My body is so tingly I literally cannot think about anything else and I’ve lost all motor function in my arms. Guess that’s why I’ve dropped my Trig folder.

“Did you hear?” I whisper, “he called me babe.”

 

 

My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

Alice-In-Wonderland-I-See-What-You-Did-There
Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)

My Top Ten Favourite Female Characters

So most of you already know about my Strong Female Characters series. That’s over and done with now, and it was a lot of fun, but the series had its drawbacks. The ten-question formula was helpful but didn’t cover everything, and often encouraged me to be a bit on the harsh side. I often wound up being quite harsh about characters I really like in the interest of putting out some sensible criticism.

Well, no more of that! These are the ten female characters I just really like. There’s no real criticism going on here, I just think they’re great.

 

  1. Miss Phryne Fisher
Miss-Phryne-Fisher-miss-fishers-murder-mysteries-39429677-375-500
image: fanpop.com

A.k.a. the female James Bond, Phryne Fisher is the lead character in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, an Australian series about a lady detective in the 1920s. It’s a long-running series of books which was made into a TV series a few years ago and she is just great. There is nothing she can’t do – whether that’s burlesque, directing a movie or being a racecar driver for a little bit. In all honesty she’s probably a Mary Sue but I like her so much I just don’t care. It’s really refreshing to see a female character who can turn her hand to anything in the same vein as male super-spies – with the added bonus that she is so clearly having a great time doing it.

 

 

  1. Marion Ravenwood
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image: pinterest.com

I’ll try and be brief as she’s had a proper blog post. Even though she didn’t pass my test I still love Marion. She certainly has her flaws but that’s never stopped me from liking her as a character. She’s crass and full of life, and when things don’t work out for her she keeps trying anyway. Full credit to Karen Allen for her performance – she provides a lot of Marion’s charm and it wouldn’t be the same without her.

 

 

  1. Granny Weatherwax
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image: wikipedia.org

Surely this one shouldn’t come as surprise. Blog post is here for more detail but the crux of the matter is this: I love seeing a crabby old woman save the day on a regular basis. Granny is sharp, spiky and judgemental, but, y’know, in a really good way. She’s the best and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.

 

 

  1. The Other Mother
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image: behindthevoiceactors.com

I never did a post on the Other Mother – I dressed up as her instead. For the uninitiated: she is the villain in Coraline, where she spends most of the novel trying to persuade a little girl to sew buttons over her eyes. I would’ve liked to have done a blog post on her but I quickly realised it just wasn’t possible – we just don’t know anything about her, apart from the fact that she’s an eldritch abomination. But for me the mystery is part of her charm. What is she? Where did she come from? I want Neil Gaiman to tell me, but not in a way that’s too scary or I’ll get nightmares.

 

 

  1. Toph Beifong
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image: avatar.wikia.com

Hands down my favourite Avatar character. I did a blog post on her – do look if you’re interested, as I’ll be keeping this one brief. Toph is loud, rude, boisterous and over-confident and it’s just great. She’s one of the most powerful characters in the series and she knows it, and she’s also consistently hilarious into the bargain.

 

 

  1. Sailor Jupiter
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image: zerochan.net

The best Sailor Scout, hands down. In some ways she’s very traditional: she’s a great cook, cleans and organises her home herself, and wants to get married and open a cake and flower shop when she’s older. But she’s also a badass warrior with electricity powers, a great martial artist and one of the most physically strong characters on the show. She’s a really interesting combination of masculine and feminine traits, which is what I really like about Sailor Moon – being girly doesn’t mean you can’t be strong.

 

 

  1. April Ludgate
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image: popsugar.com

April is one of my favourite characters on Parks and Recreation because she’s just so weird. She’s almost like the missing member of the Addams family – quirky, morbid and immature, which makes her moments of sincerity something really special. I really love how playful she can be while at the same time being really odd. Also, Janet Snakehole and Burt Macklin is the best couple’s costume ever, hands down.

 

 

  1. Bridget Jones
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image: pinterest.com

I’ve done a blog post on our Bridget so I’ll try and keep it brief. Long story short I really identify with her particular brand of cringing embarrassment, especially when flirting. She’s the kind of everywoman I can really get behind, which is to say one that’s based on common experiences rather than common traits. As a young woman working in publishing, I relate to her on a molecular level.

 

  

  1. Baby Jane Hudson
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image: pinterest.com

The creepier female lead in the 1960s classic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? ‘Baby’ Jane Hudson is a former child star caring for her wheelchair-bound sister, who went on to become a much bigger movie star before getting in a car accident. There’s all sorts of interesting stuff going on in the movie about sisterhood, Hollywood and femininity but the crux of it all comes down to Jane. Her decision to try and restart her career – reviving her old Shirley-Temple-style act when she’s in her fifties or sixties – is a fascinating look at what the pressures of fame can do to someone, and what happens when women get boxed into a particular kind of femininity that they can’t shake off.

  

 

  1. Leslie Knope
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image: parksandrecreation.wikia.com

The best politician in America. Again, I did a blog post so I’ll be brief, but I just think Leslie is great. She’s enthusiastic, competitive, wholesome in a way that I don’t find irritating – I just love her.

 

 

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image: marvelcinematicuniverse.wikia.com

BONUS: Shuri

I was originally going to keep this list to ten characters but then I went to see Black Panther. AND IT WAS GREAT. Shuri, Wakanda’s irreverent tech genius, is my favourite character, hands down, but all the female characters in the film are interesting, well-developed and compelling. But Shuri’s the best one. Obviously.

 

 

 

And there you have it! A short list of my favourite female characters – and frankly, it was really difficult to keep it short. There’s just so many to choose from!

Book Recipes: How to Write a Country House Mystery

Time for another book recipe! This time I’ll be looking at the country house murder mystery. Let’s hope we live through all twenty steps.

 

Ingredients:

  • A big old spooky house
  • An assorted group of debonair guests. Choose your own flavours from any of the following:
    • The Ingénue
    • A crusty old man
    • A prim and proper widow
    • A bounder and a cad
    • The Femme Fatale
    • Loveable newlyweds
    • The idle rich
  • A sinister butler
  • Storms
  • So much alcohol
  • Unreliable phone lines/roads/Wi-Fi
  • Dark yet slightly sexy secrets
  • MURRRDERRRR.

 

Method:

  1. All your characters have been invited to a big country house, for plot reasons. They make small talk like they aren’t going to die.
  2. There’s a big storm! Better gather everyone in one room. It’s not important. I’m sure it’ll be fine – oh, all the lights have gone out.
  3. AND THERE’S A MURDER.
  4. Some of your guests try and leave, but they can’t! Those unreliable phone lines are down, or the road is flooded, or maybe someone has just Lemonade-ed over all the cars.

  1. Gather your guests in one big room, along with any servants you might have lying about the place. One of them is a MURDERER.
  2. Decide that the best thing to do is wait until morning in one big group. That way no-one will –
  3. JUST KIDDING GUYS LET’S SPLIT UP!
  4. Pick a character who will survive until at least step 18 and follow them around for a bit. This one is almost certainly not the murderer, but you never know.
  5. Pick your first suspect. You’re going to want to choose someone who is ridiculously suspicious because –
  6. Oh, no, looks like they’re dead. Never mind.
  7. Okay, obviously it wasn’t suspect number one. Who else could it be? Have your main POV character ponder this for a bit while they wander spooky corridors.
  8. Have another big meeting with the remaining characters. Someone is acting suspicious…
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Hmmm… (image: gifimage.net)
  1. Settle on suspect number two. This should be less obvious than suspect number one, but still not something you’d really have to reach for. Someone who your main character has seen sneaking off down a corridor, or having a –
  2. Oh, no, they’re dead too. My bad.
  3. Some more murders happen and everyone is very distressed. First to go is anyone who decides to leave and get help, so your best bet is to keep your main character hidden behind the sofa.
  4. You have found A Clue. Oh boy! This sure takes your mind off all those murders.
  5. We’ve narrowed it down to our third and final suspect. All the clues point to them. There’s no-one else it could be. Gird your loins and get ready to confront the –
  6. Oh, they’re dead as well. Huh. So the real murderer must be…
  7. IT WAS THE BUTLER DID IT ALL ALONG MY GOSH
  8. The butler explains his evil plan for the readers’ convenience and advances on the main character. But just when he’s about to do another murder, we reach the end of our twenty-step guide and he’s arrested.

THE END. Serve with tea and flickering lights.
 

Tips:

  • This one comes with an alternate ending! If you’re feeling especially bleak, just have your butler kill everybody and waltz off into the sunset with all their stuff. Make sure he still explains his plan though, that part’s important.
  • Detectives are optional. Feel free to invite one along, but just be aware that in steps 1 and 2 they’re going to have to earn their keep by deducing where people went on their holidays.
  • Make sure to choose the right kind of dark secrets. They can’t be too dark or you’ll put the guests off their champagne. The best ones are sexy and melodramatic.
  • Always include at least one hysterical woman, and one man who thinks the first murder is an elaborate prank.
  • No-one ever, ever suspects the butler.
giphy spanish inquisition
You all knew I was going to make this joke. (image: giphy.com)
  • Choose your setting carefully. The past is your best bet, because Wi-Fi and working phone lines can really ruin a good murder mystery. Nobody likes a detective who relies on Google.
  • Don’t make your creepy house too creepy or the genres will get muddled. Also, don’t make it gross. Nobody wants to bleed to death on a grubby floor.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

“I expect you’re all wondering why I called you here.”

The guests were in the drawing room, settling into chairs with coffee. The butler, Stabbington, moved discreetly round the room, topping up glasses of port. Alice Sinclair placed a hand over her glass and sat up straight. It was awfully fun to be asked to join the adults.

Her host, Sir Jeffrey Spishous-Mann, had got to his feet. The room fell silent. Apart from the howling wind the house was quiet. Crumbleigh Place was on top of a mountain, swathed in snow, and was only accessible after a three-day journey through a dark and creeping forest. Alice thought it was jolly exciting. The house reminded her of a Gothic novel, or one of those perfectly thrilling horror pictures she and the girls had snuck out to see at Bletherleys. If Bunty could have seen her now, she would have thought her terribly sophisticated.

Stabbington took a discreet step forward and murmured in his master’s ear. Sir Jeffrey frowned. “What? Now?”

“I’m afraid it cannot wait, sir.”

“Very good.” He turned back to his guests. “Do serve yourselves, gentlemen, ladies. Stabbington will be in the kitchen sharpening his knives. Where was I?”

An old man who’d been introduced to Alice as Major Edmund Blakely-Smythe spluttered in his chair. “Eh? What?”

His aged sister leaned over and patted his knee. “Sir Jeffrey was just about to tell us something, Edmund.”

“What? Speak up! Get him to speak up, Agnes.”

Sir Jeffrey cleared his throat again. “As I was saying. I expect you’re all wondering why I’ve called you here…”

There was a sudden bang. Alice flinched. Her neighbour – a tall young man wearing an ascot and a predatory expression – laid a hand on her arm.

“No need to be afraid,” he murmured, offering her his hand, “I shall protect you. Jonty Framlingham-Piggott, at your service.”

Alice shook it, blushing. She wished she was wearing lipstick. “Alice Sinclair. Absolutely super to meet you.”

He took a drag on his cigarette. “Isn’t it just. Cigarette, Miss Sinclair?”

“Oh, I –”

Stabbington came back into the room, smoothing his hair back into place and brushing snow off his shoulders. “I do apologise, sir. The cleaning gun went off.”

Major Blakeley-Smythe squinted at him. “Eh? What’d the butler chap say?”

“He says the cleaning gun went off, Edmund,” Agnes yelled into his ear.

“Damn shame,” the Major said. “Happened in India once. Chap never did get it back. Last saw the damn thing swimming in the Ganges.”

Sir Jeffrey took a deep breath. “Anyway. Now that you’re all here, I shall reveal to you…”

Jonty leaned forward and whispered in Alice’s ear. “Frightfully dull, isn’t it? Let’s slip away for a moment. I’ve picked up a few things on my travels I’d be delighted to show you.”

Alice blushed. Matron hadn’t said anything about this. “Souvenirs, do you mean?”

He flicked the ash off his cigarette and smirked. “Of course, dear girl.”

Sir Jeffrey was counting to ten. “As I was saying…”

Stabbington bustled over to the drinks cabinet. He knelt down, fussing with a little packet of powder, and saw Alice looking. “I beg your pardon, Miss.”

“Is that…rat poison?”

Stabbington shoved the powder into his pocket. “Yes. For the rats.”

“In the drinks cabinet?”

“…Yes.”

“Oh. Well, I suppose they can be very clever little fellows.”

Stabbington straightened up, and Alice saw a flash of brass by every one of his knuckles. He had an awful lot of rings, for a butler. “Very clever indeed, Miss. Do excuse me.”

He left the room. Sir Jeffrey set down his glass. “As I was saying…”

“Eh? What?”

“He’s about to tell us something, Edmund…”

Sir Jeffrey stood on his chair and yelled “I’m very rich and I’m about to die!”

There was a long silence. Snow whirled against the glass; wind howled down the chimney. The guests all stared at their host, who climbed down from his chair.

“Good,” he said. “Now that I have your attention –”

All the lights went out. Then, there was a scream.

 

 

My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

Alice-In-Wonderland-I-See-What-You-Did-There
Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)

Reading Roundup!

I spend a lot of time talking about fiction on this blog but it’s just occurred to me that I don’t actually say much about what I’m reading.

Time to fix that!

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That’ll do it. (image: giphy.com)

A quick note about my reading habits before we jump in. As some of you may know I work in publishing, so I end up having to read a lot of books and submissions as a part of my job. Sometimes this feels like work, and sometimes it doesn’t. I read during my commute (public transport FTW), evenings and weekends, but I also listen to audiobooks a lot too, so I’m often following the thread of a story while I’m cleaning, cooking or writing up my Russian notes. I’ll read most kinds of fiction but for non-fiction, I tend to stick to popular history.

Basically, I eat books.

So here’s a short list of some books that have really stuck with me over the past few months. There’s no real timeframe because I’m a dangerous maverick. Here’s what I’ve been eating recently:

 

The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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image: waterstones.com

Set in Medieval Russia, The Bear and the Nightingale tells the story of Vasya, a young girl who can see the creatures of Russian folklore. A couple of strange figures watch over her as she grows up, and while she gets into a few scrapes this is by and large fine until a priest shows up. With a sinister being in the forest starting to wake up, and with the priest telling the villagers not to believe in superstition, the tension ratchets up until it all comes crashing together.

Holy Hell, do I love this book.

The scene-setting is fantastic. There’s so many little details that bring the setting to life, from the food the characters eat to the names they call each other. It’s a retelling of a traditional Russian fairy tale which pulls off a very difficult balancing act: keeping the elements of a fairy tale while giving its characters distinct personality. Also, it has some really interesting stuff to say about gender roles and the clash between traditional beliefs and organised religion, and I am 100% here for all of them. I’ve also read the sequel, but as that only came out at the end of last month I’m trying not to spoil it, even though I’m holding in a lot of feelings and a really excellent joke.

 

The Good People by Hannah Kent

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image: panmacmillan.com

This one is set in pre-Famine Ireland, and it tells the story of three women in a remote Irish village who is suspected of being a changeling. There’s Nora, the child’s recently-widowed grandmother, who can’t come to terms with her husband’s recent death or her grandson’s behaviour. There’s Mary, a young maidservant very far from home. And there’s Nance, a wise woman who lives at the edge of the woods, who the villagers believe can cure illness and perform magic.

Now I haven’t finished this one yet, but I absolutely love it. Again, the scene-setting is great – Kent does an excellent job of modifying her characters’ speech patterns to make it clear that they’re speaking Irish, not English. Apparently it’s also based on a true story, but I haven’t looked this up yet because I’m trying to avoid two hundred-year-old spoilers. It’s brilliantly creepy and very well-written – just what you want on a cold winter’s night.

 

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

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image: goodreads.com

If We Were Villains kicks off when a former theatre kid – Oliver Marks – is released from prison, after serving time for a murder he might or might not have committed. We then flash back to Oliver’s time at an elite university, where we meet his theatre kid friends, including the one who’s eventually going to get murdered. Tensions rise and there’s a mysterious incident that leaves one of Oliver’s friends dead. Only one question remains – was it murder?

I’m not sure if this one is technically cheating because this is something I had to read for work BUT I LOVE IT YOU GUYS. It’s just great. I love the way the author incorporates plays into the text and the characterisation is excellent. I didn’t go to a fancy theatre school but I’m pretty sure that I’ve met every single one of Oliver’s theatre crew. I’ve read this book three times now and it won’t be long before the fourth.

 

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

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image: amazon.com

This is another one I had to read for work but damn is it good. Set in a fictional analogue of Weimar-era Germany, the plot follows three people – Cyril, a spy, Ari, a nightclub singer/smuggler and Cordelia, a stripper – as they try to navigate their way through life amidst the rise of what are basically Nazis. The rising tide of fascism threatens to engulf them all (particularly Ari and Cyril, who are in a gay relationship) and each character is forced to make a difficult choice – co-operation or sabotage.

This one took a while to get going. For the first half to two-thirds I was enjoying it, but not raving about it to all my friends. Then the last one hundred pages happened and I was swept away on a tide of feelings because I JUST WANT THEM TO BE HAPPY DAMMIT and now I’m counting off the days until the sequel is released. Also, it was really refreshing to read a novel where homosexual and polyamorous relationships are just an ordinary feature of life, rather than A Thing That Must Be Explained To The Reader.

 

The Power by Naomi Alderman

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image: goodreads.com

What can I say about The Power that hasn’t already been said? Not much. It’s great. Since this book has been everywhere for most of last year I won’t go into detail on the plot, but for those of you that haven’t read it it’s set in a world where women suddenly develop the power to electrocute people.

This is a really excellent book. I could not put it down and there were some moments where I meant that literally. There was more than one moment where I was reading on a platform and ended up missing a train. It’s very well-written, has all kinds of interesting stuff to say about gender and all the characters have distinct voices. A couple of plot points really stuck with me. I read one scene and went to bed, thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’, woke up at 3am thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’, and was still thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’ the next morning. It was incredible.

 

And there you have it! A short list of stuff I’ve read recently that has stayed with me for one reason or another. Ta-dah. Feel free to discuss in the comments (and leave suggestions if you want, I always like recommendations) but please do tag up your spoilers. I’m only halfway through The Good People.

Book Recipes: How to Write a Billionaire Romance

Time for another book recipe! This week I’ll be looking at the ever-popular ‘romance with a billionaire’ genre. Grab your credit card and get ready to smoulder.

 

Ingredients:

  • One ridiculously sexy billionaire
  • One transparently obvious stand-in for the reader
  • Diamonds
  • A team of highly-trained professionals the billionaire can order around
  • A token rival
  • Skyscrapers
  • Fancy parties
  • Enough money to last forever.

 

Method:

  1. Introduce your transparent stand-in. She’s just your everyday girl who enjoys normal human activities, like breathing and having no opinions of her own.
  2. She has to go to a fancy party, because the plot says so! Make sure the reader knows how much she hates getting dressed up by describing her outfit in loving detail.
  3. Feast your eyes on the most jaw-droppingly hot man you have ever, EVER seen.
  4. And he’s also rich. So rich.
  5. They meet! Even though the protagonist has all the personality of a wet flannel he’s totally into her.
  6. The rival is there. They don’t do anything, this is just so we remember their name for later on.
  7. She goes home, utterly convinced she’ll never see him again. For they live in different worlds, and how could she ever hope to –
  8. PSYCH! Look who it is!
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He’s been here THE WHOLE TIME. (image: giphy,com)
  1. The sexy billionaire is here to take our formless amoeba of a protagonist on a date. It’s the best date in the history of all dates, ever.
  2. Agonise about whether the sexy billionaire likes the protagonist or not. Sure, he’s taken her out on several diamond-encrusted dates and bought her the planet Jupiter, but how does he really feeeeeeeeeellll?
  3. The sexy billionaire just buys her stuff.
  4. The rival shows up, oh no! Now the protagonist feels all insecure.
  5. But wait, here comes sexy billionaire to turn all her problems into gold. Yay!
  6. Makeover scene!

 

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…this seems accurate. (image: giphy.com)
  1. There’s a big fancy party coming up. It’s super important, for business reasons. But it’s also on the same day as protagonist’s other thing. Make sure the two romantic leads never discuss this like adults.
  2. Sexy billionaire and protagonist have a third-act argument, because we need enough tension to spin out the ending until step twenty.
  3. And then the rival appears…with the sexy billionaire!
  4. Protagonist goes to her other thing by herself, mopily, and is sure she’ll die alone.
  5. BUT LOOK WHO IT IS! Sexy billionaire turns up at the last minute to fix everything. He explains the stuff with the rival and it’s never a sex thing.
  6. And they all lived happily ever after.

 

THE END. Serve on a bed of jewels.

 

Tips:

  • The less time you spend developing your protagonist the better. Don’t waste time on showcasing her personality and get straight to the shirtless billionaire parts.
  • If your sexy billionaire wants to do something nice for the protagonist, he can’t do it himself. Always remember that he is far too busy and important to actually make anything – he can just send an assistant to buy something better instead.
  • The rival is always, always blonde.
  • Don’t worry about the logistics of how your romantic leads meet. It doesn’t have to make sense, as long as it’s hot.
  • If your characters have sex, remember these two rules:
    • The heroine is always a virgin, so we don’t have to witness any adult conversations about past relationships
    • The sexy billionaire is always the absolute best at sex in the entire world
  • Give your protagonist a relatable flaw, like clumsiness, to distract from the fact that she is essentially a damp slice of bread.
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The CUTEST slice of bread. (image: youtube.com)
  • Make sure your protagonist complains about her newfound wealth all the time, so everyone knows she’s not a gold-digger.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

Even though I’m sitting in the ballroom of the Gold Hotel, I still can’t believe I agreed to do this. I should’ve told my boss no. But the features editor got sick at the last minute and here I am, plain old Bianca Slate, trying to act like a real reporter and cover the annual Billionaires’ Ball.

Nobody’s fooled. It doesn’t matter that I’m all dressed up in a sparkling silver floor-length ballgown with a slit up the side that’s held up by a diamond necklace, and my chestnut-brown hair is pulled into an elaborate updo with a few elegant curls tumbling around my face. I just don’t fit in here. All the other guests are tanned and sparkly, and know how to use a bouillabaisse whisk. It doesn’t matter that some of them are chinless from centuries of inbreeding. They belong.

The sooner I can leave, the better. I don’t like fancy parties. I don’t even like getting dressed up. Letting the professional make-up artist create a personalised look for me that perfectly complemented my features and outfit took oceans of patience I didn’t know I had. And I made a fool of myself. I cringe just thinking about the conversation we had:

“What’s that?” I’d said, pointing to a weird thing on the make-up artist’s table. It sort of looked like a fuzzy stick of broccoli.

She stared at me. “It’s a brush.”

God, how stupid! How could anyone not know that? She probably told everyone, and now they’re all laughing.

I get up to leave and trip over my sparkly dress. My glass of champagne spills all over a blonde woman but before I hit the floor, someone catches me.

“Careful,” he says.

It is, without a doubt, the sexiest way someone has told me to be careful in my whole life. I look up, into the face of the most attractive man I have ever seen. Obsidian hair, jade-green eyes, perfectly chiselled cheekbones and designer stubble. I’m blushing just looking at him.

And then he smiles at me and suddenly I’ve forgotten how to speak.

“Are you OK? That was quite a fall,” he says, sexily.

“Hnngh.”

He grins, scoops me up in his arms and there’s this strange tingling feeling everywhere. Everywhere. I really wish I’d paid attention in Sex Ed. “You know, I really ought to thank you for throwing champagne on Gloria. I didn’t think I’d ever get away from her.”

“Mmmschft.”

“I didn’t catch your name, by the way,” he murmurs, putting me down on a red velvet chaise longue. “I’m Jack Roman.”

Jack Roman. Jack Roman, the billionaire, who owns all the world’s shipping companies, the patents for drones, smartphones and zips, and South America. Jack Roman who I’ve been sent here to interview. I try and unstick my jaw.

“Bincngka Sljumpt.”

“Bincngka? How…unusual.”

I clear my throat, face burning. “Um, sorry, no. It’s Bianca. Um. Sorry.”

He grins at me. Later on, I’m going to have to look up if it’s possible to get pregnant just from eye contact. “Well, Bianca,” he says, handing me a gold-plated business card, “if you’d like to continue this conversation somewhere more private just let me know.”

I drop the business card, nodding frantically. He hands it back with a flourish, kisses my hand, and walks away. My face is still very red.

I bet he thinks I’m a total idiot. He probably hates me.

 

 

My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

Alice-In-Wonderland-I-See-What-You-Did-There
Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)