Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Five Lessons from a Rock Band

My favourite South African rock band, The Parlotones, are on tour again and, happily for me, will be playing in Karlsruhe in the spring. I went to their Stuttgart show and it was fabulous. In South Africa, The Parlotones usually play in football stadiums to crowds of 40,000, but because they are a little less well-known in Europe and the USA they tend to play in clubs where the audiences seldom veer over 300. This means fans like me can get up close and personal with the band.

It dawned on me from observing them closely that there are five  things The Parlotones do incredibly well that writers can learn from. 

1. They have great sound. They write and play big anthemic sing-along tunes. It’s bounce on the balls of your feet and punch the air music, rather than flick on your cigarette lighter and sway music. Best of all, their live sound is identical to their recorded sound. If you’ve learnt to love certain songs by listening to a CD over and over again, it’s gratifying when you splash out the money to hear that band live, that they sound good.

Lesson for writers: Know your craft and use it to the very, very best of your ability.

2. They write great lyrics. You wouldn’t identify the Parlotones as South African on first listen as they have a big rocky sound similar to Radiohead and Coldplay. They don’t use any South African slang or any other South African languages (of which we have many) in their lyrics. However, when you have time to listen, you find that their preoccupations are deeply South African: a bleeding city, people escaping from reality through ‘happy pills’ and partying, a  ‘messiah from the Transkei, born to inspire’, living on ‘the brighter side of hell’. It’s not obvious, but it’s there.

Lesson for writers: be authentic. Write about your preoccupations and your passions.

3. They give a great show. The Parlotones crossed my radar for the first time when they played the concert at Soccer City that opened the 2010 World Cup. They only played one song – the utterly fabulous Push Me to the Floor – but they were gripping. Lead singer Kahn Morbee’s glam-rock styling, combined with his powerful, melancholy voice, and the band’s big, stadium-filling sound makes for an entrancing show. Live, they are ten times better.

Lesson for writers: Don’t be mediocre. Be fabulous. Be extreme. Push your creativity to its limits.

4. They turn up later, wearing smiles. After the show, the band members clustered around their merchandise stand, posing for photographs with fans, signing autographs and chatting. They were relaxed and friendly, if a bit sweaty. This wasn’t just a once-off for Stuttgart: Germany’s Top Husband had seen them in Seattle a few weeks before where they did just the same.

Lesson for writers: Be professional. Reward your audience by turning up in person and not being a creep.

5. Doing the other stuff. The Parlotones are on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and YouTube. They have  released a red wine called ‘Giant Mistake’ and a white wine called ‘Push Me to the Floor’. They have embraced the work of publicity. Their Wikipedia page quotes Kahn as saying, ‘We’ve always had the attitude to just do anything, because everything counts. We’ve done it all; from having kids throwing water bombs at us, to waxing each other’s legs on national television and eating tripe in Soweto. And it really does all count; soon the whole country knows who you are. (Well not ‘soon’, rather ‘eventually.’)’.

Lesson for writers: Maximise your brand. Do the social networking. Embrace your tribe. Be open to opportunities.

Here are our heroes giving Johannesburg a dose of  ‘Should We Fight Back?’, a song inspired by the struggle against apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom:


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The De Lacy Inheritance, Book Review and Author Interview

After a brief blast of sunshine this weekend, German weather has returned to form: cold, wet, Novemberish. With the last few autumn leaves lashing the windows, this is perfect snuggle under the covers and read weather, and luckily I have a piles of lovely books to do just that.

One book I have just finished is Elizabeth Ashworth’s debut novel The De Lacy Inheritance. Set in 1192, the year Richard the Lionheart was captured in Austria, its central character is Richard FitzEustace, an aristocractic soldier who has returned to Lancashire from the Crusades with a damning disease – leprosy. His family cast him out, but at the same time, place him under obligation to seek out their relation, Sir Robert de Lacy, rumoured to be near his deathbed, and press the family’s claim to his estate.

Roger, his headstrong bully of a younger brother, is now head of the family and is determined to marry off their sister Joanna to a wealthy and unattractive old landowner. Joanna takes matters into her own hands and follows Richard on his quest, where, to complicate things, she falls in love with Geoffrey whose father, the arrogant Dean of Wallei, is the other claimant to the De Lacy Inheritance.

Richard is a fascinating character, who, despite his leprosy and the fact that he has been cast aside by society, still manages to secure his family’s future without wanting the rewards for himself. It is quite odd to read a book where the main male protagonist is a hermit and outcast, but Ashworth makes him appealing by recalling his lost love in the Holy Land and showing his deep warmth towards his younger sister. At the end he is offered a chance to rehabilitate himself, to claim his land and his birth-right, but he chooses a spiritual path. He is an unlikely hero, but all the more admirable in contrast to the venial Roger and Dean of Wallei.

The De Lacy Inheritance is a delicious, complex web which Elizabeth Ashworth deftly weaves for our reading pleasure. As a historian with a special focus on Lancashire, her writing is lit from within by the acuteness of her historical detail and her love for the county and its history makes the novel all the more vivid. This is definitely one for the Christmas list.

Elizabeth kindly agreed to answer some questions about The De Lacy Inheritance and her writing process. Many thanks, Elizabeth!

Charlotte: The De Lacy Inheritance is your fourth book, but your first novel. After writing three history books, how different did you find the novel-writing process?

Elizabeth: I think the important word that’s missing there is first ‘published’ novel.  It isn’t the first one I’ve written.  When I was a child I used to churn them out relentlessly, and a few years ago I wrote a modern day novel but never pursued publication because it was too personal in content.  I’ve always been a story-teller, though my fiction work has been mostly short stories.  I used to think that a novel would be much harder than a short story, but surprisingly I found it easier.  I find that I can swap from non-fiction to fiction fairly easily because my non-fiction work does tend to have a narrative style and the historical fiction does include facts – so the books overlap rather than being distinctly different.

C: Part of The De Lacy Inheritance is based on fact. How did that come about and how did you weave fact and fiction together?

E: It began when I was writing Tales of Old Lancashire.  I discovered a legend about a Holy Hermit who lived in a cave under the castle at Clitheroe and the legend says that he was a member of the de Lacy family who was a leper.  I was fascinated by the idea and went off to dig deeper into the factual history.  After writing a short account for the book I kept thinking about this man who was a leper and who could have inherited a fortune except for his disease.  I felt compelled to tell his story.  So, using the facts as a backbone, I began to add detail which was fictional.  I found that I liked having a ready-made story to build on although it was also a challenge because I had to write within those facts rather than letting my imagination take over completely.

 C: Although TDLI is set in 1192, I thought it had a modern sensibility, espoused by the main female character Johanna FitzEustace. Could you talk about how Johanna’s feistiness and refusal to kow-tow to family pressure is essential to the novel?

E: I don’t think Johanna was the only girl in 1192 to refuse to give in to family pressure.  In medieval literature there are girls just like her.  One named Christina, for example, who was determined to become a nun and refused to marry no matter how much her parents tried to persuade her.  I don’t think Johanna was typical, but I hope that she is believable and although she is ‘modern’ in some ways I tried to keep her contemporary to the times in which she lived.  How essential she is to the storyline is an interesting question because for me this was always Richard’s story and Johanna wasn’t in the original version.  It was only when I realised that the novel was far too short, and that I probably needed a female character and some romance if I was to interest a publisher, that I threaded her story around Richard’s.  It’s reassuring that the join doesn’t show and that she is seen to play an important part in the eventual outcome.

C: Your central male character, Richard FitzEustace, is a leper who is condemned to live alone for the rest of his life. He is, however, a very appealing character. How did you manage to strike that balance?

E: I don’t think of Richard as a leper.  To me, he is the handsome and attractive man that people saw before he contracted the disease.  As a leper he is viewed differently because of his outward appearance, but that does not change who he is – only how he is perceived and how people treat him.

 C: You are now writing your fourth novel. Can you tell us anything about it? What is the status of novels two and three?

E:  I’m currently wrestling with a novel about a later member of the family, Alice de Lacy.  The factual history that surrounds it is very complex with barons and earls changing allegiances more often than their underlinen – and it’s proving challenging to explain the necessary facts without becoming boring.  It’s very much a work in progress at the moment and I’m enjoying stretching myself but some days I cross out more than I add to it.

Novels two and three are currently with my publisher and I’m hoping to share some news about one or both of them quite soon.  One is based on another Lancashire story about Sir William and Lady Mabel de Haigh.  The other centres around a little known fact about Richard III and identifies a possible identity for the mother of his two illegitimate children.  Perhaps I should have people vote on which one they want next, though I hope that both will make it into print eventually!

 C: What is your writing process? Do you have any particular routines or methods that help you write?

E: I’m not sure I have a writing process.  I have scenes that run in my mind like a film and when I’ve imagined them for a while I try to write them down, though what I write often has no resemblance to what I was thinking.  It’s rather like going into a trance and it all comes tumbling out.  I try to sit down to write whenever I can find the time.  It can be hard to begin, but it’s even harder to finish and if I can’t write I become very frustrated.

 C: As a much-published author, do you have any tips for apprentice novelists? Any pitfalls that we might avoid in our writing, or in our approach to agents and publishers?

E: Persevere: lots of people give up after a few rejections.

Write: the more you write the better you will become.

Read: you can learn a lot from seeing how other people do it.

Be lucky: try to be in the right place at the right time.  It helps.

Make your own luck:  seek the opportunities that will ensure you are in the right place at the right time.   

C: You have been writing since you were 11, when you had your first article published in Diana magazine. What are the aspects of storytelling that particularly appeal to you?

E: I enjoy making a connection with readers.  I want them to come and share my fictional world and enjoy themselves there.  I want them to meet my characters and get to know them, and I like to send them away with something new to think about.

 C: Are you a keen reader? Do you have any favourite authors? What is the best book you’ve read this year? 

E: Do you want to see my groaning bookshelves?  Yes, I love to read.  I read fiction and non-fiction.  I’ll try anything and I like to challenge myself by reading books that wouldn’t always be my natural choice.  Best book this year?  It’s hard to pick one, so I’m going to pick two that complement each other:  Agincourt by Juliet Barker (non-fiction) and Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell (the fiction version).

C: When you are not reading and writing, what do you do?

E: If I’m not either reading or writing I’m often in a state of frustration wanting to do either one or the other.  The only things that distract me are old castles and bookshops – though I do quite like eating as well.


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The Tapestry of Love, Review and Author Interview

Two posts ago, I noted my summer wish list. Ask and ye shall receive, friends. Germany’s Top Husband came home with a copy of The Slap and Rosy Thornton pinged me and offered me a review copy of The Tapestry of Love (TTOL), an offer which I did not refuse. A couple of days later, a lovely hardcover arrived in the post from England and I read it immediately.

Here’s my review:

Rosy’s fourth book is a slight departure for her as it is set in France rather than her native England. It tells the story of Catherine Parkstone, who decamps to the Cevennes valley to start a new life. She buys a house called Les Fenils, one side of which is carved out of the grey cevenol granite of the local mountains and she retreats there, to nature, silence, a few friendly neighbours and her great passion in life: needlework.

While TTOL celebrates the joy of the French countryside, it’s not just a bucolic paean. A few things arrive to disrupt Catherine’s peace: scary admin letters from the French authorities, her sister Bryony, on sabbatical from her hectic City job, and a handsome and mysterious neighbour, Patrick Castagnol. When Bryony strikes up a relationship with Patrick, Catherine’s heart is a little stabbed, but she focuses instead on growing her sewing business by day and needle-pointing exquisite tapestries by night. Then, when her mother dies, Catherine returns to England for the funeral and to sort out her belongings. She is faced with a choice: does she stay in England where her two children are or does she return to Les Fenils, the community she has built there – and Patrick?

TTOL is a delicious read. I fell into its pages as into a cool stream on a hot day. Thornton’s sense of place is impeccable, as are her descriptions of the art of needlepoint and the journey of a woman going inside herself to find the strengths that lie there. It is lilting and lovely, and just the thing to read when one has escape in mind.

After I read the book, Rosy Thornton kindly agreed to answer some questions about it and about writing in general. Here’s the interview:

Charlotte: The main protagonist of The Tapestry of Love, Catherine Parkstone, leaves England to start a new life in France. What do you think is the attraction of starting over and what qualities does Catherine have that especially enable her to tackle her new life?

Rosy: I think the attraction of escaping to a new life is probably there in all of us – certainly in me. There are those days when life just seems so complicated: when the web of demands and obligations – work and family, financial and practical – seems almost overwhelming. But actually acting on the urge is a different matter. I am far too risk-averse, I think. I like the safety of the familiar. Plus, Catherine starts her new life on her own. I don’t think I would ever have the courage to do that; I’m too fond of talking and not fond enough of my own company.

C: TToL includes some beautiful descriptions of nature and the passing of the seasons in the Cevennes valley. You clearly have spent some time there. What drew you to the area and inspired you to write about it?

R: To confess the truth, I only ever spent a fortnight’s family holiday in the area, and in high summer. But we did speak to local people while we were there, about the life, and about the rain in autumn, the winter winds. The rest I’ve pieced together from books and from the internet. But it is true that the place made a huge impact on me. My holiday was twenty years ago, but it still retains a very special place in my heart.

C: Catherine is a talented seamstress, but as the novel progresses it becomes evident that she is an artist. How did you research the art of tapestry-making and have you ever been tempted to try it? (I speak as someone who once needle-pointed a cushion cover and loved the contemplative nature of working with needle and thread, but wasn’t patient enough to continue.)

R: Again, I’m afraid I’m no needlewoman – I can barely sew on a button. Nor did I engage in in-depth research. But my mother designs and stitches tapestries (simple ones – nothing on the scale of Catherine’s work). Check out the amazing work some people produce.

C: I have read all your novels and you write about your characters with such affection. When each book is finished, do you find it difficult to say farewell to those characters and would you ever be tempted to bring any back to life in a new novel?

R: It is difficult, sometimes, when I finish a book and have to try to begin the next one, with half my mind – and heart – still caught up in the previous characters and their world. I think it was especially true of TTOL. The house I had built for Catherine to live in, up her secluded French mountain, was my secret bolthole as well. For the nine months or so I was working on the book, I could escape there at the keyboard any time I liked. I really missed that when I finished writing it.

As for sequels, or revisiting the same characters … I don’t think I’d ever want to do that, no. I think each book, when it’s completed to the author’s satisfaction, leaves it inhabitants in the place and time which feels right. Even books which have a slightly open-textured ending (like TTOL) and leave the reader wondering about things … well, those are things I want still to be wondering about, too – not things I want tied down and resolved.

C: Your novels are often about tightly-knit communities (a Cambridge college in Hearts and Minds, a tiny Cevennes hamlet in TTOL, a women’s shelter in More Than Love Letters, a call centre in Crossed Wires). What is it about small communities that lends itself to fiction?

R: I suppose that small communities – closed worlds – lend themselves well to the world of a novel. It limits the scope of what the author has to imagine, allowing that world to be conveyed in depth and detail, and I enjoy doing that. Plus the interactions tend to be intense, where the community is close-knit; everything is amplified, somehow. The political back-stabbing of the dons in Hearts and Minds is a good example, if not necessarily a positive one! But in TTOL the community element is entirely positive. I wanted to explore the process by which people come to belong in a place – how we forge connections and put down roots.

C: You have a busy day job as a Cambridge law lecturer and you are a parent of two. How do you combine that with your writing? Do you ever long to write fulltime?

R: By getting up ridiculously early! I do all my writing (of fiction, that is) before the rest of the family are up: typically from 5.30 to 7am daily. After that, my job and family have my attention for the rest of the day – but the early mornings are my ‘me’ time, my escape to the invented world of my stories.

C: Having ‘met’ you on Litopia, I know that you are especially encouraging to aspiring novelists like myself. Do you have any mentors who have helped you on the path to becoming a novelist?

R: I have also been helped hugely by other authors, published and unpublished, whom I’ve ‘met’ on the internet: on Litopia (though I only discovered it after I was published), but also on WriteWords and in the fanfiction community. And I have a pair of real life friends who have given me great advice: a biographer married to a crime fiction writer. But I’d say my main mentor is my agent, the wonderful Robert Dudley, who turned my first novel from a complete shambles into something publishable, and whose editorial help with every book, and general support, encouragement and hand-holding, is utterly invaluable.

C: People often say to me that one of the ways to train as a novelist is to read, read, read. Who are your favourite authors and what are you reading at the moment?

My favourite authors tend to be women, either classic (Jane Austen, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell), ‘period’ (Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor, Penelope Fitzgerald) or contemporary (Barbara Trapido, Kate Atkinson, Barbara Kingsolver, Hilary Mantel, Pat Barker, Salley Vickers, Jane Smiley, E Annie Proulx, Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler, AS Byatt, Anita Desai, Rose Tremain, Ali Smith …) All people who write the kind of books I can only dream of! But I think that’s how we improve as writers. I’m not a big believer in reading only, or even mainly, in one’s own genre. I also like crime fiction – the golden age stuff (Dorothy L Sayers, especially) and now PD James and Donna Leon.

Reading now? Rose Tremain’s Trespass – curiously, also set in ‘my’ Cevennes.


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Muse – Litopia’s New E-zine

Readers and writers alert! Or as my borrowed countryfolk would say, Achtung! Litopia – the very lovely, friendly, creative writers’ colony where I hang out – has just published the first edition of its online literary magazine Muse. It’s sharp, it’s sexy and you want to read it.

Here’s a link to the pdf. Here’s another link, if that doesn’t work.

Meanwhile, I’ll be back soon with an actual post. With content. That is, words written in order, by me, with a point to them. And that’s a promise!


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Weighing and Balancing

I’m busy trying to select a high school for my ten-year-old and believe me, that is not a typo. German kids start secondary school at the ripe old age of ten. Not only that, they are streamed at ten according to their academic results into the three different types of high school: Gymnasium for those who’ll go on to university, Realschule and Hauptschule for those who won’t. So a Maths test L did last week will help to decide whether she goes to university or not.

Unable to do anything about the bizarre system, I am breaking the mould by not sending my kid to the nearest school as a matter of course. We are looking at a range of schools, state and private, in the Heidelberg area. For me, it’s a huge decision: she’s my first child and the first person in our whole family to be heading for high school in the German system. The decision we make has to be a good one: she’ll be there for eight long years, and it should be a school that suits our other two. We want a school that has a good mix of Germans and foreigners, and where there is emphasis on languages. Nothing too homogenous.

The first of our six school visits took place last night. We went to the local high school – a vast place with more than 1000 pupils that educates kids from the Burg and all the surrounding villages. It’s the monopoly gymnasium. There are no other options nearby. We were impressed by what they had to offer, but I fear it’s going to be too homogenous for us. Plus it keeps us in the Burg for ever.

Tomorrow’s visit is to a private school. Private schools have a weird  reputation in Germany – they are seen as places where rich people send their thick or difficult children in order to drag them through Abitur. They are also considered elitist and someone said to me in all seriousness, ‘Are you sure you want your child to have an elitist school on their CV?’

So we are weighing and balancing, taking some things we see and hear to heart, ignoring other things.

I’m in the same process with my novel. Right now, I’m weighing the plot, what works and what doesn’t and throwing out the latter. I have a whole file called ‘extra stuff’ full of back-story that I’ve chucked out. Now and again, I find a use for a sentence or two and I thread them back in.

The next iteration will be on the language level. One of the readers from my writers’ forum pointed out that my characters nod and shrug a lot. She’s right, of course. I’ll be working through it line by line, strengthening the verbs, improving the body language, working on stimulus and response. The plot might be colourful and vibrant, but the language needs to be too.

So that’s where I am, dear readers, weighing and balancing. Trying to make good decisions that will stand my family and my novel in good stead. Trusting my instincts. Moving forward.


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Women Writing

I finished the second draft of my novel on Monday night. This was a complete rewrite of the first draft, and took six months to complete. (The first draft took 15 months.) When I finished, I felt scattered, unsure, anxious. I was prepared to dive in and start a third draft in the voice of yet another character – the feeling of being scattered also pertains to the novel, where I can’t seem to commit to a protagonist. It’s the same story, over and over again, with different narrators.

I went to my new writers’ hangout, Litopia, where I received some sage advice: put the manuscript in a drawer and take a rest from it. Look at it again in six or eight weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, carry around a notebook and note down any novel-related epiphanies. Write other things. Just don’t look at the manuscript.

After a day’s grief (this is my baby; we’ve been together for 21 months), I decided to follow the advice. My emotional reaction to the words of wisdom was indication enough that I absolutely needed to pause, reflect and gain some distance from the words in which I’ve been entangled for nearly two years. I am in no place right now to edit; I’m too tied up to be objective, and I strongly feel it is too early to bring in my readers.

One of the books I read this year was A Room of One’s Own, which made me think about my own writing process, about interruption and about having to live life as well as write about it. Then I read Rachel Cusk’s superb article on women writers in today’s Guardian. Here she talks about the woman writer:

What compromises women – babies, domesticity, mediocrity – compromises writing even more. She is on the right side of that compromise – just. Her own life is one of freedom and entitlement, though her mother’s was probably not. Yet she herself is not a man. She is a woman: it is history that has brought about this difference between herself and her mother. She can look around her and see that while women’s lives have altered in some respects, in others they have remained much the same. She can look at her own body: if a woman’s body signifies anything, it is that repetition is more powerful than change. But change is more wondrous, more enjoyable. It is pleasanter to write the book of change than the book of repetition. In the book of change one is free to consider absolutely anything, except that which is eternal and unvarying. “Women’s writing” might be another name for the book of repetition.

Cusk talks about how both Woolf’s book and de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex shaped the discourse of 20th century women’s writing, a discourse that is about property. She says, “A woman needs a room of her own to be able to write; thus her silence has been the silence of dispossession.”

How funny then, that as I put down the manuscript, I immediately began writing a story about a group of women who get themselves a room. Some like the version of themselves they find there, some learn something and take it back to their real lives, others are inspired to recreate themselves and still others run in terror back to their own lives, hating their new reflection. What happens to us when we are graced with space and time? Why is it so scary? Why is it so much easier to be in the flow of everyday life and not think too hard? Not challenge ourselves?

My family have made sacrifices over the last 21 months for me to get my novel written – my children have had a mother constantly at the laptop, they’ve probably watched too much TV (though they have done some stunning independent crafting too – my son turns out to be a dab hand at basteln), I’ve earned less in the last two years than I have previously, and I’ve been grumpy and distracted. On the other hand, they have a mother who has a passionate interest, and all three of them have written their own books this year, not necessarily completed, but the thought counts.

My writing life will continue to be a juggle, probably forever. But what I love is that as I’ve gained confidence, I’ve taken more time for myself, moved from writing sneakily or when people are sleeping, to openly spending large chunks of time writing. I’ve made the space in my life for my writing. I have given myself that gift, terrifying though it seemed at first to even suggest I deserved it.

Since I stopped writing my manuscript, I’ve written one short story, revived two old ones and started a fourth. Twenty-one months of writing means I have momentum, ideas and energy. I’m getting the novel-related epiphanies, as well as amazing support from online and real life friends. And my family are there, being sweet to me and greeting me with smiles when I deign to arise from the cellar.

I have given myself a room, I have allowed myself the time. All I have to do is keep writing.


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Dani Noir

One of the joys of blogging is being able to connect with writers all over the world, right here from The Dorf, Germany. One writer whom I “met” early in my blogging days was New Yorker Nova Ren Suma, who blogs at Distraction No. 99. Nova has inspired me and many others with her dedication to writing. She is a writer with every core of her being; she lives and breathes it. (Occasionally, she breaks from writing to eat cake, which is another reason to love her.)

Having ghosted a series of tween and YA novels, Nova decided to try her hand at writing for younger readers. It was clearly the right decision: her debut Dani Noir was published by Simon and Schuster’s Aladdin imprint in October this year. Within a month, it was on Amazon’s list of Top 10 Books for 2009: Middle Readers.

I’ve read Dani Noir and I loved it. It’s witty, pacey and delightful. If you are looking for a present for a girl this Christmas in the nine to 14-year-old range, Dani Noir might be just the thing. Be warned though: you might have to start renting Rita Hayworth movies!

Here’s a link to the Dani Noir site, and to my recent interview with Nova, published today on Buzzine.