Helen Harper

Pickpockets

Sometimes fiction collides with reality – and not in a good way. A new series I’ve been working on involves a main character who’s a thief. She generally goes for big ticket items but she’s also a mean pickpocket, although she targets a very specific group of people for her own reasons. I spent a fair bit of time researching how pickpockets operate. It’s disturbing how easy they can find it to steal.

 

This was terribly apparent a few days ago when I went out with some friends to a pub quiz. Admittedly, we were in a tourist area called Changkat Bukit Bintang. It’s rife with touts but there’s also a great atmosphere and lots going on, not to mention to some staggeringly good bars and restaurants. We were sitting outside on some high chairs. My friend had her bag looped around the back and she was sitting against. After an hour or two had passed (and I’d done the best I could to convince everyone that rhinoceros horns are made out of hair for the animal round) she got up to go to the bathroom and realised her bag had gone. It’s not the first time it’s happened to either her or any of the rest of us but it’s still heartbreaking when you think about the loss of her phone, her husband’s phone, all her bank and credit cards, ID card, driver’s license…

 

The bar had CCTV and although it was poor quality, we were able to watch the moment it happened. One man walked past and stopped to ‘use his phone’. Needless to say, none of us noticed him. He tried to take the bag, failed and tried again. As soon as he’d grabbed it, another guy sauntered past in the opposite direction and it was passed over. So even if we had spotted the lift, we’d have run after the first man – and he was carrying nothing. These were professionals who knew what they were doing. It sounds strange but the fact that I’ve been enjoying writing about someone who also does this kind of thing for a living – and who’s the heroine – made me feel extraordinarily guilty. It’s not that I’ve not been a victim of such incidents either. The worst was on holiday in New Zealand when the window of our hatchback hire car was smashed open and our suitcases were stolen (along with my passport, I might add – not the greatest way to spend your Christmas).

 

Unbelievably, the Eiffel Tower was closed in May of this year when staff walked off to protest the rise in pickpocketing (Clever Travel Companion). And while it might seem as if Kuala Lumpur is filled with bagsnatchers and pickpockets, it doesn’t even get a look in on the list of the top ten worst cities. Barcelona, if you’re interested, tops the list and almost all of the less than illustrious named cities are in Europe. Apparently, pickpockets hang out near signs that tell the unwary to ‘Beware Of Pickpockets’ because as soon as someone sees that sign, they immediately pat their pocket to check their valuables are still there – and the pickpocket then knows exactly where to aim for.

 

There’s lots of advice about how to avoid pickpockets. Use moneybelts, be aware in crowded situations, keep your bag hooked around something and so on. It’s all too easy to forget or to think that you’ve already done enough though. It’s also made me slightly less enamoured of my own fictional thief. Perhaps in book two I’ll have to make sure that she’ll develop a stronger conscience…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by matiasjajaja

Helen Harper

A rose by any other name?

  • July 19, 2015
  • Blog
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There’s a lot of power in names. As a teacher, at the start of each new school year, I was fortunate enough to learn the names of my students quickly. It’s by the far the easiest and quickest way to build a relationship and to show respect. Knowing the students’ names is vital for any sort of classroom management. There were always a couple of classes where I’d get some students’ names forever mixed up – typically they were already friends and sat together and giggled together. It wasn’t that I didn’t know their names. It was that I’d have a brain fart and use the wrong one, much like the students who’d call me mum. For anyone who’s not a teacher, that’s more common than you’d think!

 

The trouble for me was that as soon that year was over and those students graduated or moved onto to a different teacher, I forgot their names almost as quickly as I’d learnt them. I didn’t forget the students but my brain could only hold so much. I’ve lost count of the times old students have come back to say hello and, while I could remind them of the fabulous story or poem or essay they once wrote, I’d often not remember their actual name. This was painfully apparent last week when a former student appeared at the school where I volunteer. My brain went into meltdown and I blurted out the wrong name. There was considerable ensuing embarrassment.

 

Equally, it’s unfortunate that some names on a class list of unknown students flag immediate warnings. Fear the Chantelles, the Britneys, the Jodies, the Kyles, the Connors and the Jacks. It’s not fair – I know. I’m sorry if this comes across as too Katie Hopkins.  It’s difficult to avoid though. Check out this article if you’re interested.

 

Still, I often find myself in a similar quandary as a reader. Sometimes, I will give up on a book a few chapters in but I dislike the name of the protagonist so much that I can’t face reading any more. I had those tables turned on me a couple of weeks ago when a beta reader returned a book with a comment that some of the names didn’t fit the characters. I could see her point and I changed a few of them. The trouble is that the book’s set in Scotland and the series will be called Highland Magic. So I changed Finn to Aifric and Al to Ruaridh. Now I’m thinking I’ll probably have to change them again because most readers outside of the Highlands will simply be puzzled (any advice here would be welcome! Feel free to leave a comment!).

 

I’d love to be able to be as clever as Charles Dickens or JK Rowling when it comes to naming characters. The main character of the afore-mentioned Highland Magic series is a thief called Integrity. But that’s nothing compared to the wonders of Dolores Umbridge or Ebenezer Scrooge. And consider how beautifully Anna Karenina trips off your tongue. The name itself is pure poetry. Or how about Boo Radley? I was disappointed he was absent from Lee’s Go Set A Watchman. But that’s as much because I love his name as his character.

 

Huckleberry Finn, anyone?

Photo by NatalieMaynor

Helen Harper

There’s more to vampire history than Dracula

There’s a part of me that is convinced all those mythological creatures have to be real.  Otherwise, how could they exist in so many different cultures? Of course, I also enjoy conspiracy theories so I’m not the greatest judge.  Just saying.

Ancient Babylonians told tales of Lilitu, a female demon who drank the blood of babies.  Lilitu gave rise to Lilith, a similar creature in Hebrew tales.  Indeed, there are several similar characters found in Ancient Greek folklore – interestingly, all of them women.  The idea of undead beings even appears in Homer’s Odyssey – although if you wished to communicate with those ones, you first had to drink blood yourself.  Lucky old Odysseus.  Personally, I particularly like the ancient Indian stories of vetala – creatures who would inhabit corpses and reanimate them.  At least until they decided to sod off and find a better vessel anyway.

Perhaps the vamps took a bit of a break after those times and hid themselves away.  Although stories of revenants (ghosts which could also reanimate corpses or were simply visible to the naked eye) abounded for centuries, it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that vampires really came into their own.  Europe, in particular Transylvania (naturally), went bloodsucker crazy.

There are a few very specific examples – such as that of Petar Blagojevich who died in 1725, reportedly returning the day after to have a wee chat with his son.  Then his son dropped dead, along with several other villagers in the days following.  Suspecting the worst, Petar’s body was exhumed.  There were no normal signs of decomposition and his corpse was eventually burned.  Of course, it would only take one contagious disease to cause those deaths and people did from time to time fall into the rather unfortunate situation of being mistakenly buried alive (hence the saying ‘saved by the bell’ – many Victorians were buried with their fingers attached to a string leading above ground to a bell which they could ring on the rare occasion they woke to find themselves in a coffin and wearing their Sunday best).  However, this fairly recent news report of a corpse found with a stake through its heart is somewhat seared in my memory.

It was also around that time when sex began to play a large role.  Female Romany vampires would return to their families and lead normal lives – but they’d eventually exhaust their husbands with their sexual demands.  Croatian vampires arise as a result of incest.  In fact, vampiric legends and sexual proclivity seem to go hand in hand.  It’s good to know that some things don’t change.

Vampire stories aren’t confined to Europe.  The Aztecs had slightly similar tales, as do various African tribes.  Particularly disgusting is the Madagascan ramanga who drinks blood and eats  toenail clippings.  Here in Malaysia, there’s the Penanggalan – a beautiful woman who can detach her head so she can fly it around in search of victims to sink her fangs into.  Now there’s a neat trick.

Bram Stoker may have defined the modern vampire as we know it today but he certainly didn’t invent it.  Charles Darwin wasn’t kidding around with evolution – bloodsuckers are always changing.  Sparkly, sexy, scary – what will we come up with next?

Helen Harper

Ciao

It’s a strange time of year in expat land.  With the school year at an end, lots of families are relocating – some back home to Europe or Australia or wherever and some on to new jobs in new countries.  You get very used to people coming and going and there are lots of new holiday destinations to visit as old friends end up all over the world.  It doesn’t stop it from feeling very bittersweet, however.

I’ve personally been living abroad for ten years now.  It’s easy to remember as an anniversary, even for someone as useless at dates as I am, because on July 6th 2005 I travelled to London to collect my first work visa for Tokyo.  I vividly remember standing on the tube platform waiting for a train and the announcer telling us all that London had won the Olympics.  The response was remarkably muted.  Maybe all of us commuters were simply focused on other matters.  Of course, the next day those trains were being blown up.

There is something remarkable, however, about living in a different country.  You gain a completely different perspective on so many things, not to mention experiencing so much.  It’s not like the perspective you have while on holiday.  When you live somewhere, it’s just … different.  Prior to moving abroad, I lived in an entirely homogeneous corner of the UK.  Now I’m in a true melting pot.  I worry about the simplified portrait often painted in the Western media of the Muslim faith and how quickly people who’ve never experienced anything beyond the terrible news headlines swallow it as the sole representation of a billion people.  I can’t help comparing the pupils I taught in the UK to the international school students I taught for nine years in Tokyo and KL, to the refugee children I voluntarily teach now – and their frankly incomparable lifestyles.  I marvel at the way I can walk down the street here and be surrounded by people from every creed, color and religion.  In Malaysia, just about every religion is given credence, meaning there are a gazillion public holidays (I’m not complaining!).

Of course, not every experience is deep or thought-provoking.  I was almost giddy with excitement at coming across a multi-pack of Monster Munch last week in the supermarket.  In Tokyo, beans on toast was considered about the most wonderful meal and a serious cause for celebration.  You can take the girl out of Scotland but…

In any case, it is the people who really make the experience worthwhile.  I’m truly sad every year to see friends leave but I know we’ll keep in touch and that they’ll have fabulous new experiences in their new lives.  Bon voyage, sayonara, auf wiedhersen, farewell.  I’ll be in touch xxx

Photo by puddy_uk

Helen Harper

Hot Summer Releases in Urban Fantasy (with maybe some Sci Fi and Fantasy too!)

Any time of year is good for reading.  Seriously.  But there’s little better than lying on a hammock with a cool drink in hand, soft sand and the lapping of distant waves.  Wherever you happen to be spending your summer, hopefully some of these new releases will make it even better!

July 7th

Elizabeth Hunter is releasing the third book in her Elementals series.

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On the waves of the North Atlantic, a poison spreads, sapping the life from humans and striking madness into immortals.

Patrick Murphy, the immortal leader of Dublin, has been trying to stem the tide of Elixir washing into his territory, but nothing seems to stop the vampire drug. While others in the immortal world work to cure the creeping insanity that Elixir threatens, Murphy has been invited to London to join a summit of leaders hoping to discover who is shipping the drug. If Murphy and his allies can cut off the supply, they might be able to halt the spread long enough for a treatment to be found for the humans and vampires infected.

Anne O’Dea, Murphy’s former lover, retreated from public life over one hundred years ago to help immortals in need… and to heal her own broken heart. Though powerful connections keep her insulated from the violence of vampire politics, even Anne is starting to feel the effects of Elixir on her isolated world. The human blood supply has been tainted, and with Anne’s unique needs, even those closest to her might be in danger. Not just from infection, but Anne’s escalating bloodlust.

When Anne and Murphy are both called to London, they’re forced to confront a connection as immortal as they are. As they search for a traitor among allies, they must also come to terms with their past. Behind the safe facade of politics, old hungers still burn, even as an ancient power threatens the fate of the Elemental World.

July 7th

Who doesn’t love a good dragon book?  UF author Yasmine Galenorn has a new series starting!

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I’m Shimmer, a blue dragon shifter. Thanks to a mistake, I was exiled from the Dragon Reaches and sentenced to work for Alex Radcliffe, a vampire who owns the Fly by Night Magical Investigations Agency. Now, not only do I have to adapt to Earthside culture, but every time I turn around, somebody’s trying to kill us. And worse, Alex is as gorgeous as he is exasperating. But you know what they say: All’s fair in love and bounty hunting…

When an old friend of Alex contacts him about a haunting at the High Tide Bed & Breakfast in Port Townsend, Washington, we think we’re on a simple ghost hunt. But our investigation quickly transforms into a deadly fight as we uncover an eighty-year-old murder, a cursed house, and a dark force trapping the spirits within. To stop impending disaster we must break the curse and lay the angry spirits to rest.

July 16th

A sci fi tease – but if it’s anything like Ready Player One, Ernest Cline’s Armada will be well worth it.

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Zack Lightman has spent his life dreaming. Dreaming that the real world could be a little more like the countless science-fiction books, movies, and videogames he’s spent his life consuming. Dreaming that one day, some fantastic, world-altering event will shatter the monotony of his humdrum existence and whisk him off on some grand space-faring adventure.

But hey, there’s nothing wrong with a little escapism, right? After all, Zack tells himself, he knows the difference between fantasy and reality. He knows that here in the real world, aimless teenage gamers with anger issues don’t get chosen to save the universe.

And then he sees the flying saucer.

Even stranger, the alien ship he’s staring at is straight out of the videogame he plays every night, a hugely popular online flight simulator called Armada—in which gamers just happen to be protecting the earth from alien invaders.

No, Zack hasn’t lost his mind. As impossible as it seems, what he’s seeing is all too real. And his skills—as well as those of millions of gamers across the world—are going to be needed to save the earth from what’s about to befall it.

It’s Zack’s chance, at last, to play the hero. But even through the terror and exhilaration, he can’t help thinking back to all those science-fiction stories he grew up with, and wondering: Doesn’t something about this scenario seem a little…familiar?

July 28th

If you like your UF with some history thrown in, then this might be the one you’re waiting for!

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A thrilling new Victorian-era urban fantasy for fans of Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, the Showtime series Penny Dreadful, and the Sherlock Holmes movies featuring Robert Downey, Jr.
 
The Crown and Key Society face their most terrifying villain yet: Gaios, a deranged demigod with the power to destroy Britain.

To avenge a centuries-old betrayal, Gaios is hell-bent on summoning the elemental forces of the earth to level London and bury Britain. The Crown and Key Society, a secret league consisting of a magician, an alchemist, and a monster-hunter, is the realm’s only hope—and to stop Gaios, they must gather their full strength and come together as a team, or the world will fall apart.

But Simon Archer, the Crown and Key’s leader and the last living magician-scribe, has lost his powers. As Gaios searches for the Stone of Scone, which will give him destructive dominion over the land, monster-hunter Malcolm MacFarlane, alchemist extraordinaire Kate Anstruther, gadget geek Penny Carter, and Charlotte the werewolf scramble to reconnect Simon to his magic before the world as they know it is left forever in ruins.

July 30th

The fourth book in Hailey Edwards imaginative Black Dog series will be out.

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While Thierry is away, the Morrigan will play. Snatching the crown from her daughter-in-law’s head wasn’t the motherly thing to do, but Thierry doesn’t mind trading the throne in Faerie for the ratty couch in her Texas apartment. The old crow is welcome to it. But ruling one world is not enough. The Morrigan wants an all-access pass to the mortal realm too.

An attack on the marshal’s office leaves Thierry shaken…and Shaw missing. Now the fight brewing since Thierry took up the Black Dog’s mantle has landed on her doorstep, and the only way to save the man she loves is to defend the title she never wanted.

August 4th

Kate and Curran in their eighth outing – enough said really!

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In the latest Kate Daniels novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Ilona Andrews, magic is coming and going in waves in post-Shift Atlanta—and each crest leaves danger in its wake…

After breaking from life with the Pack, mercenary Kate Daniels and her mate—former Beast Lord Curran Lennart—are adjusting to a very different pace. While they’re thrilled to escape all the infighting, Kate and Curran know that separating from the Pack completely is a process that will take time.

But when they learn that their friend Eduardo has gone missing, Kate and Curran shift their focus to investigate his disappearance. Eduardo was a fellow member of the Mercenary Guild, so Kate knows the best place to start looking is his most recent jobs. As Kate and Curran dig further into the merc’s business, they discover that the Guild has gone to hell and that Eduardo’s assignments are connected in the most sinister way…

An ancient enemy has arisen, and Kate and Curran are the only ones who can stop it—before it takes their city apart piece by piece.

 

August 6th

The  new Alex Verus novel will be released!

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REBEL NO MORE

Alex Verus is a mage who can see the future, but even he didn’t see this day coming. He’s agreed to join the Keepers, the magical police force, to protect his friends from his old master, the Dark Mage Richard Drakh.

Going legit was always going to be difficult for an outcast like Alex, and there are some Keepers who aren’t keen to see an ex-Dark mage succeed. Especially when Dark mages are making a play for a seat on the council, for the first time in history.

Alex finally has the law on his side — but trapped between Light and Dark politics, investigating a seedy underworld with ties to the highest of powers, will a badge be enough to save him?

August 18th

The sixth book in Dannika Dark’s wonderful PNR Seven series, Two Minutes.

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After years of living abroad, Maizy returns home to the only family she’s ever known—a pack of wolves. When she confronts her childhood watchdog to see where they stand, his resentment leaves her uncertain about where she really belongs.

Behind Denver’s charming smile is a tragic past—one that’s made his wolf savage and unpredictable. Only Maizy has been able to tame that darkness, and when they’re reunited after many years apart, he no longer sees a child he once protected. She’s captivating and intelligent—a woman with the world at her fingertips and two suitors offering more than he ever could.

Torn between two worlds, Maizy must choose how her fairy tale ends. Tragedy, murder, passion, and imprisonment all collide with a heart-stopping twist.

Destiny will find you.

 

August 19th

Okay, this is another slight cheat because it’s sci fi but it still looks great fun!

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Half Man. Half Machine. All Hers.
Rage, the Humanoid Alliance’s most primitive cyborg, has two goals—kill all of the humans on his battle station and escape to the Homeland. The warrior has seen the darkness in others and in himself. He believes that’s all he’s been programmed to experience.
Until he meets Joan.
Joan, the battle station’s first female engineer, has one goal—survive long enough to help the big sexy cyborg plotting to kill her. Rage might not trust her but he wants her. She sees the passion in his eyes, the caring in his battle-worn hands, the gruff emotion in his voice.
When Joan survives the unthinkable, Rage’s priorities are tested. Is there enough room in this cyborg’s heart for both love and revenge?

 

September 1st

The fourth book in Sarah Maas’ acclaimed Throne of Glass series is out!

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Everyone Celaena Sardothien loves has been taken from her. Now she returns to the empire – to confront the shadows of her past … The fourth breathtaking instalment in the New York Times bestselling Throne of Glass series.

Bloodthirsty for revenge on the two men responsible for destroying her life, and desperate to find out if the prince and his captain are safe, Celaena returns to Rifthold, the seat of so much evil. She has accepted her identity as Aelin Galathynius, Queen of Terrasen. But before she can reclaim her throne, there are dark truths to learn and debts to be paid. Aelin must stay hidden beneath her assassin’s hood and draw on her mortal strength as Celaena to prevent the King of Adarlan from tearing her world apart. Only then can she fight for her people.

Readers will be held rapt as Celaena’s story builds to an agonising crescendo, packed with heart-pounding action and swoon-worthy romance.

Helen Harper

Pipe Dreams

A rarely advertised fact about myself is that a long, long time ago, I used to play the bagpipes.

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Those of you who aren’t Scottish might imagine that this is a rite of passage for a Scot. Actually, even my fellow students at school thought it was really weird. There were 1200 pupils at my high school and there was only ever one other who played the pipes as well (and she was far, far more skilled than I ever was).

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While a foolish drunken boast next to a piper in a Scottish themed pub a few years ago in KL has proven that I’m no longer even vaguely capable of blowing out a tune, the mechanics of playing the bagpipes aren’t as hard as people often suppose. You don’t need a lot of puff because once the bag is blown up (and you do that part before you start playing), it’s all about control – not how much air you have in your lungs. Deftly managing to play a complicated tune and not sound like a strangled cat is harder. I could learn the notes and hammer them out but the control part was never my forte.

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Certainly as a teenager, it was an interesting life. We’d spend all winder practising and preparing for the summer season. There were many long dark evenings spent in school halls. It was ten months of practice (with the odd Hogmany, Remembrance Day and local festival appearances thrown in) for two months of dedicated competing. Every weekend we travelled by rickety bus to another competition –sometimes north on a Saturday and then south on a Sunday. I saw far more of Scotland as a piper than I ever have before or since. We’d play one tune for the judges and then spend the rest of the day at whichever Highland Games we happened to be attending for the results. I quickly discovered that it was damn easy to get served alcohol when you were dressed as a piper. I’m not sure it would hold up these days but I’m convinced that back then, people saw the uniform – the hat, the blazer, the kilt, the handy sporran, the damned itchy socks and the shiny skean dhu (dagger) – and didn’t look at how old I was. It wasn’t healthy. Or a good idea. But it was fun.

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There was the other local band from the town next door who were our bitter rivals. There was the crazy in-fighting within our own band and the politics between the Drum Major and the Pipe Major. There was rampant sexism against the older women who played which (I hope) was nothing more than the times themselves. Despite it all, I remain intensely proud of those years. I like to imagine myself moving back to Scotland one day and taking the pipes back up again. Realistically, it’ll never happen. I was never very good. I do hope that one day, however, I’ll be able to use all those stories and knowledge and come up with a novel about a pipe band. There’s really nothing quite like being part of a pipe band.

 

Note – all the memes here are from a wonderful FB page called the Moray Neep that I happened upon a few days ago and which inspired this post.

Photo by conner395

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