Cover Reveal for Lucy Knott

Thrilled to be able to share this beautiful cover with you today. Lucy Knott’s Love Lessons in Starcross Valley is out early February and just look! Stunning!

Book cover: Two women seated on a bench and looking away with an easel off to the side which holds a painting of the landscape they're looking at - an autumnal scene of a park.

About the book

With the recent breakdown of both her ten-year relationship and her parents’ marriage, thirty-five-year-old Marnie Barnes no longer believes in love. To give her life the shake-up it so clearly needs, she books a ticket to Canada.

Thousands of miles away from her home and her twin sister, she struggles to have the life-changing experience she dreamt of – until she meets Nova, a dinosaur-loving space nerd with a penchant for living in the moment. After a wonderful day together in Vancouver, they part ways. Though gutted, Marnie thinks it’s proof that she’s not meant to find love and tries to move on with her life.

But a few months later, back in England, she bumps into someone achingly familiar. As Marnie navigates her new feelings, takes chances and makes the first move for the first time in her life, can she regain her faith in love – and find it for herself?

Preorder here

Amazon US | Amazon AU | Amazon UK | Amazon CA

Kobo | Nook | Booktopia | Waterstones

About Lucy

Lucy Knott lives in Manchester England, just around the corner from her childhood home and less than five minutes from her twin sister Kelly and brother in law Chris. She loves spending time with her family in addition to writing, reading and cooking Italian food. When not buried in a book, scribbling in a notebook or having dance parties for one to Harry Styles, she works as a teaching assistant where the majority of her days are spent talking about dinosaurs and making Godzilla out of just about everything, from Blu Tac to cardboard boxes, and she loves every minute.

If she could up and move to the stunning Amalfi Coast, San Francisco or live in a cabin surrounded by fairy lights, she would, but for now she’s quite content writing about those magical places. Lucy loves to write uplifting stories that she hopes will put a smile on your face, fill your heart with joy, encourage you to embrace the awesomeness that you are and believe that any dream is possible.

Follow Lucy here

(as 1/2 of The Blossom Twins with sister Kelly Sharpe)

Twitter | Instagram | Facebook | Website

Congratulations again Lucy – so looking forward to reading this!

Catching up with Author Jeanna Louise Skinner

It’s publication day for Jeanna Louise Skinner’s fantastic book, The Book Boyfriend, and I it a pleasure and honour to welcome her to Off the Beaten Track to celebrate.

I first ‘met’ Jeanna online when I was living in the UK while on sabbatical in 2018. She was the founder of UKRomChat, a Twitter chat for lovers and writers of romance, and I was fangirling from the sidelines. I loved the pacy Twitter chat, meeting new friends in Romancelandia and learning about the UK publishing scene. Not long after, early in 2019, Jeanna entrusted me with an early read of this fantastic book. I was captivated immediately. It is highly original with terrific plot twists and turns, a thoughtful theme of mental health and wellbeing – tackling the topic head on – and a magical thread that I loved. It also transcends several sub-genres of Romance, has a heroine you will fall in love with and want to champion and, yes, an utterly swoonworthy hero.

I completely fell in love with this book (and no doubt you will too). And look at this cover! Rawr!

Cover of The Book Boyfriend
A very beautiful curvy woman with long reddish brown hair in a clinch with a dark-haired knight in black leather armour. Background is the bookshelves of a bookstore and there is magical 'dust' in the air.

Before we learn more about the book, let’s chat to Jeanna.

Tell us what inspired you to write The Book Boyfriend?

The initial inspiration for The Book Boyfriend hit me like a lightning bolt during a conversation with a friend. We were talking about our favourite romance heroes and how they had never let us down. I can still hear her lamenting the fact that they couldn’t just come to life! From there, the idea of a perfectly imperfect hero magically stepping out of the pages of a romance novel just grew. It was around the time The Tudors was popular, and as both my friend and I were (and still are) obsessed with Henry Cavill and his character on the show – the roguish Charles Brandon – he immediately became my blueprint for my hero, Lord Jonathan Dalgliesh. Writing him was an absolute delight! Finding my way to my heroine, Emmy, took much longer. I was determined to do her justice and ensure I that I get all the emotion and nuance that comes with her specific mental health conditions – schizophrenia and anxiety disorder – and her past traumas absolutely right, with the necessary sensitivity and care.   

When did you start writing seriously?

I’m not sure I ever have, to be honest. I have multiple health conditions and I’m ADHD, so writing for me is both a blessing and a curse. My writer’s brain is constantly on the go, seeking new ideas and facts, but I find focusing a struggle. I can go months without writing a single word, and then other times stories drip from my fingers like spilt ink. I still can’t quite believe I actually wrote a whole book or that people are going to read it!

What do you love most about being an author?

Gosh, that’s a tough question. On one hand I feel extraordinarily privileged to know people are going to read – and hopefully fall in love with – my words. That’s a wonderful feeling. But a part of me is slightly envious and more than a little terrified too. There’s something quite narcissistic in it, I feel. Like, what gives me the right to tell these stories and expect people to listen to them? Why am I so desperate to bare my soul like this? I think most creatives can relate, but there’s something about writing especially which feels naked. As for the envy, there’s a part of me that’s insanely jealous that my readers get to experience the thoughts in my head fresh and brand-spanking new for the first time. I’m fascinated and petrified by thoughts of what their reactions might be, and whether they’re the feelings I’d hope to invoke while writing a specific scene. Like I say, utterly narcissistic.

I love that take on writing – I haven’t quite thought of it that way before. So, what are you working on now?

I’m currently taking an extended hiatus from writing for personal reasons and to focus on the release of The Book Boyfriend. I have SO many more stories on my TBW (To Be Written) list though, including a follow up to TBB that will possibly be a sequel or maybe even a prequel. I will write again one day. I’m just not sure when that day will be.

What do you hope readers will take away from The Book Boyfriend?

SO much! I’ve spoken about this at length on my social media channels. It’s so important to me that readers can relate or at least respond well to Emmy. As far as I’m aware, she’s the first main character in a romance novel who has schizophrenia. I’m passionate about mental health awareness and bringing diverse stories to life and I really hope that readers fall in love with her as much as I have. It might be called The Book Boyfriend but this is very much Emmy’s story. I wrote her to show that people like her can and do lead relatively normal lives and that they deserve to get a HEA too.

My other biggest wish is that romance writers and readers enjoy all my references and nods to our wonderful genre. This is my love letter to Romancelandia and I’m just delighted to be a tiny part of it.

Oh, and I’m also hopeful that The Book Boyfriend will put Exeter on the Romancelandia map!

More about the book

“Let us find solace in the quiet…”

Emmeline always dreamed of being an author, finding comfort in words and between the pages of her beloved romance novels, but a mental health diagnosis leaves her blocked and unable to write. Then she inherits a crumbling, second-hand bookshop from a mysterious old friend and Emmy discovers that magic is real. Maybe her fantasies about the heroes in her favourite historical romances aren’t so far-fetched after all?

Lord Jonathan Dalgliesh is the handsome stranger-wielding a sword as dangerous as his Tudor past-who appears in Emmy’s bookshop asking for help. Together they must race against time itself to lift the curse imprisoning him inside an ancient book. But when growing threats to Emmy’s safety are proved real and not another symptom of her illness, she must learn to trust her own voice again. Can she find the words to save Jonathan and her shop before tragedy strikes on the fateful final page?

Romance-addict Emmy may be, but this damsel is about to kick distress into the Ever After.

Where you can get it

Amazon UK | Amazon AU | Amazon US | Amazon CA

Foyles | Book Depository | Barnes & Noble | Google Play | Waterstones

SIGNED print copies

More about Jeanna

Author Jeanna Louise Skinner - a woman in her late 30s or early 40s with large blue eyes, full cheeks and smiling. She has long reddish purple hair and is wearing a T-shirt with a Vampuur - a cat vampire.

Jeanna Louise Skinner writes romance with a sprinkling of magic. Her debut novel THE BOOK BOYFRIEND is out in 2021 and she is working on a prequel. She has CRPS, a rare neurological disorder, ADHD and Anxiety Disorder, and is passionate about mental health and disability rights. In 2020, she co-founded the RNA DISCO Chapter, for members with disabilities and chronic health conditions. She’s also the co-creator of @UKRomChat, a Romance-centric live Twitter chat, which was nominated for the RNA Media Star Award in 2019 and 2020. She lives in Exeter, Devon with her husband, their two children and a cat who sounds like a goat.

Follow Jeanna

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Brilliant to have you on the blog today Jeanna – and huge congratulations on the publication of your wonderful book. I hope you have a fabulouus celebration.

Recap of The Bachelorette with Guest Blogger Anastasia Blabbergasted

What an absolute delight it is to welcome Anastasia Blabbergasted to Off the Beaten Track today. Those of you who have read The Dating Game will be familiar with Anastasia and for everyone else, Anastasia is well-known across the UK for writing witty recaps of reality TV shows for the online magazine, Feed Your Mind.

Welcome, Anastasia, and over to you!

Cast of The Bachelorette - 8 women and 8 men vying for Brooke, who is a 26-year old Indigenous woman centre of group, wearing a black gown.
Image from 10Play

Well, thank you, Sandy, and what an absolute treat to be invited back Down Under for another season of ‘love amongst the film crew’ – only instead of The Stag, this time I’ll be recapping The Bachelorette! Now for those who aren’t familiar, The Bachelorette riffs on the tried and tested format of The Stag, swapping out Pin Rituals for Rose Ceremonies, the Manor for a Mansion and Soirées for Cocktail Parties, but you get the gist. It’s a ‘reality’ show where one unlucky person seeks love amongst desperate, hopeless, attention-seeking hopeful contestants.

And this season’s Bachelorette (Bachina?) is attracted to both men and women, so we have eight of each – how fabulous!

Aside: With eight women in the Mansion who are attracted to women, will we see love amongst the contestants? I’m no mathematician but one Bachelorette divided by 16 contestants equals 15 disappointments (or a lot of blood and gore but this is a TV show, not a slasher movie). Or does it? Perhaps we will see some pairings amongst the cast offs. Isn’t that how Jamie-Lee ended up on this season – but let’s come back to that later.

We commence the season with our host, Osher (rhymes with Posher – and really, what is posher than an enormous velvet bowtie? No really … did he borrow it from his grandfather? I mean, I’m into retro fashion too, but I draw the line at wearing my nana’s bloomers), speaking ominously to camera as though he’s delivering a report on climate change. Oh dear. Perhaps he left all his enthusiasm in the Masked Singer studio. Come on Osher, buck up, it can’t be that bad. Surely, they are paying you a mint to wander about the Mansion casting forlorn looks and speaking in hushed tones.

We are so relieved when bubbly Bachina Brooke shows up that we immediately forgive that horrendous ‘Alexis Carrington called – she wants her gown back’ dress. No seriously, she’s 26 for crying out loud. Iris Apfel’s outfits are more youthful than this debacle. And please don’t get me started on the gloves! Does Halloween come early in Australia?

(Aside for Gen Y and Z readers: Alexis Carrington is a character from Dynasty, a night-time soap from the 80s, and she is an icon of 80s fashion for middle aged women of means. Go ahead and Google her. I’ll wait.)

Moving on!

The set is rather lovely with all those trellises covered in faux blooms – someone on the crew must be handy with a glue gun – and outdoor illumination that would make West End lighting designer proud. And aren’t the producers getting their money’s worth out of that drone! There are so many fly-over shots, I’m getting vertigo. Must be a b-i-t-c-h for the sound editors though.

A serious moment to acknowledge the beautiful Welcome to Country, with this recapper reaching for the tissues faster than you can say, ‘This show is sponsored by Kleenex.’ Truly extraordinary.

And now it’s time for our contestants to walk the red carpet. Aside: those ‘insider’ shots from the limousines are hysterical. Did they script those or are our contestants just well versed in awkward patter while holding aloft a bizarre prop and trying not to come across as desperate, bitchy or a bit of a muppet? I wonder.

A few standouts on the red carpet:

Bombshell Holly – honestly, I adore anyone who can slow dance like that and it looks like I’m not the only one. Brooke nearly called a halt to the whole proceedings. ‘Stop the show, I wanna get off … with Holly!’ Well done to the producers for trotting her out first!

Speaking of trotting … Emily shows up with a horse! Albeit a teeny one, but oh how I wish we’d seen the inside of her limo ride. How do you get a (teeny) horse into a limousine? More to the point, how do you get it out!

Carissa brings another tear to my eye – though I’m not sure if it’s her earnestness or concerns about how close we are to shifting from a PG to an R rating. Just one itty bitty sneeze and (literally) all will be revealed. Thank god those aren’t real flowers! Let’s just hope she’s not allergic to horses!

Darvid rolls up on a mower. I’m fairly certain the grass is as faux as the flowers, lovey, but you do you. And then they have tea! Zzzzzz. Oh, sorry – dozed off for a moment there. I’d love to know why the producers have turned the meet and greet into a parade of mini dates. Just imagine how many times those limousines are having to lap that circular driveway. No wonder Jess is tetchy. One bump in the road driveway and she’ll sprinkle that black velvet with icing sugar.

Aside: I wondered why anyone would bring a plate of brownies to the red carpet, but with Brooke sitting down to tea and building furniture while the others drive round in circles waiting for their turn, it was actually a spark of genius for Jess to bring a snack.

I’ve lost count by the time we get to the last man, but I think 7 out of 8 are carpenters. Very handy for when those trellises start to buckle under the weight of dried glue and silk flowers.

And I don’t often choose favourites – all right, I do – but I absolutely adore Konrad and here are the reasons why:

  • He’s ridiculously handsome in that boy-band-of-the-90s meets male model way
  • His million-watt smile could light up the Mansion should there be a power outage
  • No other man in the history of the world has ever made high visibility wear look so good (honestly, you could pop a fluorescent orange vest on Chris Hemsworth and even he wouldn’t be as gorgeous as Konrad)
  • He’s a perfect gentleman when Jess (in a totally cowish move) usurps his plan for the inaugural sitting on the love seat
  • He ridiculously handsome (have I already mentioned that?)

Beau – This poor chap is hilarious but, unfortunately, not on purpose. The only way he could be more narcissistic is if he showed up with a cardboard cut-out of himself as a gift to Brooke. It’s too bad he didn’t, as it would have had far more depth than he has. Fairly certain he won’t be around for long, which is a shame. Every season needs a buffoon – so entertaining.

The final standout on the red carpet would have to be Jamie-Lee – former contestant on The Bachelor, former Brooke bestie (though only distanced, not estranged) and former (potential) crush. No guessing who the plant is this season – plant as in ‘deliberately cast to ruffle feathers’ rather than foliage, though there is an awful lot of that, as I’ve mentioned.

And I’m (not) sorry, but her note to Brooke sounded like she was reading out bumper stickers while driving along the motor way. But you just be true to yourself and have faith in the universe, Jamie-Lee. You deserve every happiness – natch.

And then onto the Cocktail Party, which reminds me of Christmas lunch with the family – the menfolk huddled around the fire while the woman do all the work. There’s so much collective terror in their eyes, they look like fourteen-year-olds at a school dance. Meanwhile, the women are as bolshie as and line up to sweep Brooke off her feet faster than any of the men think to say, ‘Sorry to interrupt, but …’

The tete-a-tetes unfold in a series of handholding and relocating, each new pairing off to explore a different part of the garden as though we’re having a guided tour of the Chelsea Flower Show. The men eventually grow some … er … courage and some time around 3:00am (my best guestimate), the assembled hopefuls set down their (hideous) red and green champagne flutes (seriously, where did the producers get those? The £2 Shop’s post-Christmas sale?), and head to the Rose Ceremony.

Ah, yes, the Rose Ceremony – just when you thought there couldn’t possibly be a faux flower left in all of Australia, this set will set you straight. It looks like a showroom at a funeral home.

Our contestants assemble in rows, as though readying for their class photograph, while Darvid of the ride-on mower holds aloft the ‘First Impression’ rose and tries to not to look smug. One by one, the producers whisper names in Brooke’s earpiece and with only a few hours to get to know the rest of the cast, she does a stellar job of remembering which one goes with which person. Finally, there is one man standing and we say goodbye to Johann – though, not a total loss as we still have six carpenters left.

So! At this early stage, who are the frontrunners for ‘Bride’ or ‘Groom’? I do think Jamie-Lee is one to watch, though she may have peaked too early by snatching that kiss at the Cocktail Party and she’s already showing signs of ‘jealous girlfriend’ with all those side-eyes at the others. Darvid is also an early front runner, but a sneak-peak at Episode 2 reveals an almost unforgiveable wardrobe choice – a 70s style turtleneck – ghastly.

So, I’d have to say Holly. She seems as smitten as Brooke and no doubt, she’s already choregraphing the bridal waltz when the cameras aren’t rolling.

Publication Day for Abigail Yardimci

Huge congratulations to Abi Yardimci on the publication for Everything is Yours, the final book in the Life is Yours trilogy, a stunning and evocative series about life, love and finding your heart. And look at this stunning cover!

Cover of Everything is Yours, A woman sitting contemplating on the road of life, and a large lotus flower in the background.

About the book

New Year’s Eve is in full swing. Jess and Lindy have met by chance and already they’re sharing a bottle of wine in a cosy Turkish restaurant. Lindy is hooked on a story Jess is telling, but midnight is coming and happy endings aren’t always guaranteed . . .

After Jess returns from the trip of a lifetime high on hope, ambition and new love, she’s ready to take on the world. She shuts down her business, cuts ties with her ex and announces to everyone the old her is gone.

But a violent encounter rocks her world and her past comes crashing back to haunt her. With a childhood demon to forgive, a long-distance relationship to navigate and that final layer of self-love to uncover, can Jess dig deep and put the final pieces in place before midnight comes knocking?

My thoughts on the book

This is a beautifully written love story – but it’s not just about love, it’s about finding your way, your heart. Abigail has a turn of phrase that made my heart sing – it’s unique and evocative and this is a fabulous finale to the series.

And catch these fab reviews on Goodreads.

Where you can get it

Amazon UK | Amazon AU | Amazon US | Amazon CA

About Abigail

Abigail Yardimci was born in Consett, Co. Durham in the UK. She has worked as a video rental person, a catalogue product-picker, a deli-sandwich-maker and an amazing barmaid. She eventually trained as an arts education consultant working across the North East of England, she sold her abstract paintings internationally and more recently trained to teach mindfulness meditation to young people and families. 

​Abigail now works as an author and is in the middle of unleashing the Life Is Yours trilogy on the world. The books are published by Soft Rebel Publishing and the first book, Life Is Yours and the second, Destiny Is Yours are available to buy on Amazon.

The Life Is Yours trilogy follows the adventure of one woman who goes from ‘heartbreak to heart awake’ in the space of a year. It’s a story of love, loss and the beauty of circling back to yourself.

Follow Abigail

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Congratulations again Abi – a brilliant cover for a brilliant book!

Catching up (again) with Author Karen King

Today marks publication day for the The Best Christmas Ever, by the lovely Karen King and to mark this special occasion, we are welcoming her back to Off the Beaten Track! Congratulations, Karen – I am loving this cover!

Cover of The Best Christmas Ever by Karen King. Four stalls at a Christmas market across the background under a starry sky and a Christmas tree and white dog in the foreground.

Tell us what inspired you to write The Best Christmas Ever?

I think with Covid restrictions Christmas last year was difficult for most of us and we’re all looking forward to getting together for Christmas this year, to spending time with family and friends. I know I am. And this gave me the idea of writing a story about a young woman, Lexi Forde, going down to Devon to spend Christmas with her family. Her brother and his family are coming over from Canada too and it’s the first time the whole family has been together for a few years. The Fordes do Christmas in a big way and are all looking forward to being able to take part in their family traditions again. Despite discovering that her boyfriend is cheating on her just before Christmas, Lexi is determined to have ‘the best Christmas ever’ – as I think a lot of people will be this year. That’s why it’s so important for Lexi – and Granny Mabe – that the traditional Christmas Eve carol service around the tree on the green goes ahead. Christmas can be a lonely time for older folk, or people who live alone though, and a difficult time for people who work in the emergency services so I wanted to incorporate that into the story too. Lexi and her family love Christmas and her fight to save the tree draws the whole village in. I hope it draws readers in too, and that they enjoy the story.

What’s your most recent read that you’d like to recommend?

I’ve just finished reading an ARC copy of My Daughter’s Mistake by Kate Hewitt. An incredible story told from both mothers’ POV when the teenage daughter of one of them is involved in a car accident where the six year old daughter of the other mother is seriously injured. It’s a thought-provoking authentic read.

What has been your author highlight over the past year?

I write psychological thrillers as well as romances and have recently signed a contract with Bookouture, my other publishers, for two more thrillers. I’m over the moon as my debut psychological thriller, The Stranger in my Bed, was published less than a year ago, and my second one, The Perfect Stepmother, was out in June. I can’t wait to start writing my third and fourth.

What are you working on now?

My third romance novel for Headline, The Spanish Wedding Disaster. When their best friend Kate’s partner Steve tells Sophie and Maddie that he’s planning a secret wedding to Kate when they are both on holiday in Spain in three months’ time, Sophie thinks it’s the most romantic thing ever but Maddie is horrified. So is Steve’s brother Josh, pointing out that Steve hasn’t even proposed to Kate yet. Steve refuses to listen to their objections and persuades them to help him with the wedding plans. But things don’t go according to plan and Sophie wonders if Maddie and Josh are right and it will end up a total disaster. Will Kate say ‘Yes’ or turn Steve down?

What do you hope readers will take away from The Best Christmas Ever?

I hope they find it a heart-warming, feel-good read that takes them away from the ups and downs of life for a while. We all need a bit of cheering up right now. And I hope that all my readers have ‘the best Christmas ever’ this year.

About the book

A heart-warming Christmas romance, perfect for fans of Sarah Morgan, Mandy Baggot and Milly Johnson.

Lexi Forde adores Christmas. She’s especially looking forward to it this year as it’s the first Christmas with her boyfriend Ben and her older brother is visiting from Canada with his family. So they’re having a family Christmas at her parents’ house in Devon.

But then Lexi sees Ben kissing someone else and discovers he’s been having an affair. Devastated, she travels to Devon alone. She’s determined not to let her break up with Ben spoil her family Christmas. But when she arrives, Lexi discovers the council won’t allow the Christmas tree on The Green to be decorated this year; it’s too dangerous and has to come down. Lexi is desperate to save their favourite family tradition and make this Christmas extra special.

Can she save the tree and mend her broken heart in time for Christmas?

Where you can get it

Print and ebook: Amazon UK | Amazon AU | Amazon US

ebook: Kobo | Google Play | Nook | Apple Books

About Karen

Smiling woman with shoulder length red hair, blue eyes and wearing a floral top

Karen King is a multi-published author of both adult and children’s books. She has had ten romantic novels published, two psychological thrillers, 120 children’s books, two young adult novels, and several short stories for women’s magazines. Her romantic novel The Cornish Hotel by the Sea became an international bestseller, reaching the top one hundred in the Kindle charts in both the UK and Australia. Karen is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, the Society of Authors and the Society of Women Writers and Journalists. Karen now lives in Spain where she loves to spend her non-writing time exploring the quaint local towns with her husband, Dave, when she isn’t sunbathing or swimming in the pool, that is.

Follow Karen

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Thank you for joining us today Karen and congrats again on The Best Christmas Ever!

To my love

Fifteen years ago, I took myself off to Greece.

I’d been single for several years, dating occasionally but nothing serious as, after two back-to-back relationships with cheaters, I was convinced that all men should f*ck off and die. My status as a late-30s singleton was a concern to many of my family members and well-meaning friends and the topic of far too many conversations. In fact, when I booked the trip, I lost count of the number of time I heard ‘Oh, you might meet someone’.

But I didn’t want to meet someone. At 37, I had met enough someones to know that relationships were not for me. I would lose sight of myself, pretending to be someone I wasn’t just to keep them going.

So imagine my surprise when I said goodbye to two of my oldest and dearest friends, Greek-Australian siblings I’d just spent the week with in Athens and Santorini, and boarded a rickety bus to ride dusty roads to the small port on the southern tip of Santorini – Vlychada – and when I stepped off that bus, I met someone.

‘Are you on the sailing trip,’ said the tall, cute American I’d been watching on the bus.

‘Yep.’

‘Oh, thank god I’m in the right place.’ I smiled at him. ‘Sorry, I’m Ben.’ He held out his hand for me to shake it.

‘Sandy.’ He had a firm handshake and a friendly smile.

‘Should we go find our boat?’ he asked.

‘Sounds good.’

We found the right boat, met the people we’d be sailing with for the next 10 days and embarked on a remarkable friendship. I say ‘remarkable’ because despite have a 10-year age difference, living on different continents and having a vastly different upbringings, professions, and life experiences, I’d met someone who saw the world through similar eyes to mine.

And he was super cute too. See?

Me and Ben, Mykonos 2006

Our friendship turned romantic and by the end of the trip, I knew I wanted him in my life. But how would that work? I lived in Sydney and he lived in St Paul.

Well, we did make it work. We met up to travel together for more than 2 years – Hawaii, New Zealand, a road trip up the West Coast of the US – and then in 2008, we made the (exciting and terrifying) decision to move together to Seattle. There was a ‘hard-to-get’ visa to come by (mine), a job to leave (mine), a job to transfer (Ben’s), and an apartment to find and set up (both of us). There was also a MASSIVE LEAP OF FAITH for Ben to move across the country and me across the world to move in with someone we’d only spent (collectively) 3 months with, face to face.

Cut to 2021.

We’ve lived together in 4 apartments in 2 cities (not counting our 2018 sabbatical, which takes that tally to double digits).

We’ve added dozens more trips to our repertoire (longer international trips, interstate trips to see family and friends and to explore, and shorter local trips to ‘get away’). We’ve taken a year-long sabbatical, living and working in WA, Bali, Seattle, Minnesota, the UK, Edinburgh, and Portugal, and visiting LA, Chicago, Ireland, Wales and Amsterdam.

We’ve tasted wine in regions around the world – Australia, New Zealand, California, the Pacific Northwest, Italy, and Portugal – with many more on our wine tasting bucket list. We’ve been sailing, boating, white water rafting, sky diving, ziplining, abseiling, hiking, water skiing, glacier climbing, snowshoeing, skiing, and paddle-boarding. Ben learnt to surf in Hawaii, but I stayed (safe) on the beach.

We’ve loved 2 kitties – Lucy (sadly, she died in 2015) and Rocky (he found his forever home in 2017)- and are about to bring home a 3rd (disclaimer: no pet’s names have been used in passwords😉). We’ve had several career changes each, and I’ve published 5 books and am about to finish writing my 8th. I’ve gone from being a brunette to a (dark) blonde (really a silver vixen, but not quite ready to embrace that yet) and Ben has gone from a curly-haired cutie to a smooth-headed hottie.

We’ve made lifelong friends together.

We’ve changed, we’ve grown, we’ve evolved and we’ve stayed ourselves.

And the past 2 years, we have spent every day and every night together. And through a pandemic, he is still my person, my someone. There is no other person I could have gotten through this with, babe.

Thank you for your good humour, your sometimes lame, but more often clever jokes, for hugs and laughs and dancing in the living room. Thank you for cleaning our windows so we can at least enjoy the view. Thank you for keeping track of seventy million streaming services and finding fun and interesting things for us to watch. Thank you for letting me teach you backgammon and for the games of gin rummy, even though you almost always beat me. Thank you for reading books about philosophy and thinking and how the mind works, broadening my knowledge and perception both by example and in our fascinating conversations. Thank you for enjoying my cooking, even when I’m phoning it in. Thank you for making the bed each morning, taking out the rubbish, and vacuuming to keep our home a sanctuary. Thank you for walks around the city and listening and understanding when it all gets too much. Thank you for celebrating every minor milestone of my publishing career – and thank you for keeping us well stocked in bubbles for those celebrations.

Thank you for being you. Thank you for being my someone. Happy 15th(!) anniversary.

Writing The Dating Game

Cover of The Dating Game by Sandy Barker - man and a woman sitting in side by side sun loungers sipping cocktails

Today marks Day 201 of lockdown in Melbourne since March 31 2020 – and that is full-on lockdown with only 5 reasons to leave home, no visitors or gatherings, not going more than 5km from home, and masks on everywhere including outside. Is it any wonder that the book I started in August – just as we commenced a 112-day lockdown – has the cast of a reality television show stuck in the same house with each other for months?

It’s odd, I know, but it only just occurred to me last week – The Dating Game is both my lockdown book and my book about a ‘lockdown’. Though, that is not how or why it came about.

Last year, just as the Australian season of The Bachelor was about to commence, some colleagues asked around – who would be up for a sweepstakes? We’d all put some money in the kitty, be randomly assigned a bachelorette, and the last woman standing at the end of the season would win one of us the kitty. It was a fun way to liven up an otherwise (often) dull working-from-home existence. And after the season premier aired, I was inspired to write a witty recap. I posted it to our Teams chat the next day, got lots of LOLs and, as I am a sucker for positive reinforcement, I continued throughout the season.

I mentioned my recaps to an author friend, then sent her one and she said, ‘You should write that as a book.’

‘A season of The Bachelor as a book?’

‘No, write the story about the woman who writes the recaps. Then send her on the show undercover.’

I percolated on this (brilliant) idea then pitched it to my agent, (the fabulous) Lina Langlee, sending her one of the recaps. She said, ‘Write me chapter one. Show me who she is, this woman.’ I did, sending it back a couple of days later. She loved it. ‘Write the synopsis.’ I did. She loved that and we pitched it to my publisher, One More Chapter. Hannah Todd was my editor at the time and she leapt at it – she loved the tone, style, and premise, she loved Abby, my heroine, and we got the green light. Abby Jones a.k.a. Anastasia Blabbergasted would be strong-armed into going on The Stag as a contestant. (Thank you, Andie, you were right.)

The Dating Game is a little different from my other books. It’s still ‘destination fiction’ with a heroine from London and most of the book set in Sydney, but it isn’t really about travel the way that my other books have been.

It’s about love and relationships – about what you want and need in a relationship, and how that can differ from what you think you want. It’s also about what’s real and what’s not when you go on a reality television show seeking love. That was a really fun theme to explore and a lot of characters get to have that conversation – with themselves and with each other.

Another differentiator between this book and my previous books is the romantic tropes I got to play with – several, actually: slow burn, forbidden love, friends to lovers … I had a lot of fun exploring Abby’s relationship with her love interest, especially as it starts as a meeting of the minds (with a little lust thrown in). And even though this book doesn’t have as much heat as the Holiday Romance series, I think readers will love how Abby keeps her love interest on his toes – and deservedly so! She’s plucky and, sometimes, he’s a bit of a twit!

The book also includes recaps of The Stag written by Abby as ‘Anastasia’ and – oh my god – those were a blast to write. Anastasia loves word play and literary devices, she’s hilarious and just a little bit mean and, as I wrote her, she sounded a lot like Patsy from Ab Fab in my head.

There’s also an undercurrent throughout the book of being trapped by circumstance – of having no way out of the situation so having to make the most of it and, just maybe, discovering something about one’s self along the way. (This really resonated with me.)

One thing The Dating Game does share with my other books, is that female friendship is a strong theme. I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the supporting characters and how friendships form, even under the unlikely circumstances of being in competition with each other. I’ve already had quite a few early reviews mention Kaz, one of the Aussie Does, and she could actually be fun to write as a heroine. Hmmm …

We also had some great early reader feedback about wanting an epilogue and on reflection, I wanted one too, so I wrote one! (Tip: If you downloaded the book from NetGalley before it was added, you can download it again to read the epilogue).

So, The Dating Game will forever be my ‘lockdown’ book, a little snapshot of what it was like to write while confined to home, and how ‘making the most of it’ resulted in my funniest book to date. I really hope you enjoy it – it’s light and fun and funny – and that it is as much an escape for you to read as it was for me to write.

For more info, click here.

Publication Day for Fiona Leitch

Huge congratulations to Fiona Leitch on publication of her fabulous new romcom Falling in Louvre. This is a romantic comedy with a lot of heart and a twist! It’s also a crime caper – essentially, a fun, romantic and thoughtful story by the Queen of Mashups! I know you will love it.

Cover of Falling in Louvre by Fiona Leitch
Skyline of Paris with the Eiffel Tower in the background and a couple kissing in silhouette on a balcony in the foreground. Also in the foreground inside of someone's apartment is the Mona Lisa.

About the book

Bertrand is King of the Pigeons…

Unofficially. From his perch atop a gargoyle on Notre Dame cathedral, he surveys his kingdom. He sees Sylvie Cloutier, art lover and ex-antiques dealer, making dinner for her bullying husband Henri, trapped in their loveless marriage like a bird in a gilded cage. He sees security guard, hopeless romantic and bookworm Philippe Moreau cycling through the streets of Paris in his crumpled uniform, late (again) for his night shift at the museum.

When Sylvie begs her husband to let her go to work, he gets her a job as an evening cleaner at the Louvre. He thinks such a menial position will dispel any ideas about independence she might have, but his plan backfires when she falls in love with kind, gentle Philippe. They decide to run away together, but there’s a major problem: neither of them has any money.

One stormy night in the Louvre, the answer to their prayers falls into their lap… But is it really the solution, or just another, even bigger problem?

What follows is a romantic, wistful but madcap adventure through (and under) the city of lights, involving a stolen painting, an art heist in reverse, and Eric Cantona. Will love find a way?

Check out the book trailer

Where you can get it

Amazon UK | Amazon US | Amazon AU

About Fiona

Fiona Leitch is a writer with a chequered past. She’s written for football and motoring magazines, DJ’ed at illegal raves and is a stalwart of the low budget TV commercial, even appearing as the Australasian face of a cleaning product called ‘Sod Off’. After living in London and Cornwall she’s finally settled in sunny New Zealand, where she enjoys scaring her cats by trying out dialogue on them. She spends her days dreaming of retiring to a crumbling Venetian palazzo, walking on the windswept beaches of West Auckland, and writing funny, flawed but awesome female characters.

Her debut novel ‘Dead in Venice’ was published by Audible in 2018 as one of their Crime Grant finalists. Fiona also writes screenplays and was a finalist in the Athena Film Festival Writers Lab, co-run by Meryl Streep’s IRIS company.

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Congrats again, Fiona, and I hope you have a spectacular celebration!

Surprise Reunion with His Cinderella by Rachael Stewart

Super excited to celebrate the publication of Rachael Stewart’s latest book with Mills & Boon and Harlequin Romance, Surprise Reunion with His Cinderella.

I had a chance to be an early reader and this is a fantastic book – so, so romantic. I just loved it.

And look at these gorgeous covers – UK up top, and US and Australia below.

Cover of Surprise Reunion with His Cinderella by Rachael Stewart. Red-headed woman in a sun hat and wearing sunglasses laying on the beach and tipping her head towards the sun
Cover of Surprise Reunion with His Cinderella by Rachael Stewart. Red-headed woman smiling at the top of image fading into a cityscape of a town in the Seychelles.

About the book

Can one week in paradise…heal ten years of heartache?

When the elite M dating agency sends wealthy Freddie Highgrove to the Seychelles for a week-long ‘date’ the last person he’s expecting to be matched with is Jasmine Walker, his first love and ex-fiancée! Ten years ago, his family’s expectations for a high society marriage sent housekeeper’s daughter Jasmine running. Can one week in paradise bring them back together?

Where you can get it

Amazon AU | Amazon UK | Amazon US

Kobo | Nook | iBooks | Google Play

Also available in print

About Rachael

Rachael Stewart adores conjuring up stories for the readers of Harlequin Mills & Boon and Deep Desires Press, with tales varying from the heartwarmingly romantic to the wildly erotic.

She’s been writing since she could put pen to paper as the stacks of scrawled on A4 sheets in her loft will attest to, and the lovingly bound short stories that her father would run off at work and proudly share out with his colleagues. Thinking it was a pipe dream to be published one day, she pursued a sensible career in business but she was really play-acting, achieving the appropriate degree and spending many years in the corporate world where she never truly belonged. Always happiest when she was sat at her laptop in the quiet hours tapping out a story or two. And so here she is, a published author, her full-time pleasure, a dream come true.

A Welsh lass at heart, she now lives in Yorkshire with her husband and three children, and if she’s not glued to her laptop, she’s wrapped up in them or enjoying the great outdoors seeking out inspiration.

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Congratulations Rachael and all the best with the book!

Catching up with Author Helena ‘Nell’ Dixon

A very warm welcome to the wonderful author (and woman) Helena ‘Nell’ Dixon who writes, among other things, the Miss Underhay cosy mystery series, which I absolutely love. She’s here to talk about her next book Trouble in Paradise.

Cover of Trouble in Paradise by Helena Dixon
Man on right with dark hair facing woman on left with red hair. A parrot sits in the 'i' in Paradise. 
Tagline: What happens when opposites attract?'

Hi Sandy. Thank you so much for inviting me.

Great to have you here! Tell us what inspired you to write this book.

The inspiration for writing Trouble in Paradise was my husband. He doesn’t read my books, he isn’t a reader, and although he listens when I’m talking about my plots he isn’t terribly helpful. Usually the conversation will be me telling him about something I’m trying to work out. He will then suggest I put a dog in the book and give me the plot of Lassie come home. I then give him the look and say no, that’s been done. He then used to suggest I put a parrot in the book instead. So, finally the one day I thought you know what? I’m going to do it. Trouble in Paradise (originally released as Animal Instincts) is set in an animal sanctuary with a parrot called Dave, after my husband. The only problem is that this parrot has been kept in a brothel and his choice of language makes him unsuitable for rehoming.

When did you start writing seriously?

I started seriously writing when I was seventeen. I’d belonged to a writers group since I was thirteen but my first attempt at a novel was when I was in sixth form. Needless to say it was pretty awful. I wrote two more books before I was twenty-four which were also pretty terrible, but one was good enough to attract encouraging feedback from an editor. Then I had three children in four years and writing took a back step until I was approaching forty and had a major health issue. That was when I thought it was now or never when it came to taking my writing seriously. The internet had come into being and I started writing and submitting again.

What do you love most about being an author?

The part of being an author I love most is seeing a story come to life on the page. It never fails to amaze me that something that’s lived inside my head can be shared with other people and they get it. I love hearing from a reader when they quote a particular phrase and say it made them smile or they could picture the scene as if it were a film.

What are you working on now?

Trouble in Paradise is a contemporary romance with a hint of mystery. It won the Romantic Novelist Associations Love Story of the Year prize when it was first released. I have several romances written as Nell Dixon. Since then I’ve started writing more crime based stories as Helena Dixon. My latest series is the Miss Underhay mysteries based in 1930’s Devon. These have been hugely popular and I’m working on book 8 in the series at the moment. I also have the start of a potential new series noodling away and another contemporary romance. Plenty to keep me busy!

What do you hope readers will take away from Trouble in Paradise?

I hope readers will enjoy Trouble in Paradise and enjoy the sparks between Clodagh and Jack. The animals paly a big part in the story and the relationship between Clodagh and her step sister Immi is very sweet. It’s a fun story with some surprisingly touching moments.

About the book

Clodagh Martin has enough problems right now.

Her beloved animal sanctuary is facing financial ruin, her celebrity sister has just announced she’s coming for an extended visit, and her foul-mouthed parrot Dave is, well, foul-mouthed.

Combined with a troubling wave of vandalism on her property, Clodagh feels that the whole world is against her. And if that wasn’t enough, a property magnate has been showing a strong interest in her struggling business.

But when Jack Thatcher begins to show not just an interest in the animal sanctuary, but in her as well, there really is trouble in paradise…

Where you can get it

Amazon UK | Amazon US| Amazon AU

Kobo UK | Kobo US | Kobo AU

Also available from other good book retailers.

More about Helena

Helena Dixon a woman with short dark blonde hair and glasses.

Helena Dixon splits her time between the Black Country and Devon. Married to the same man for over thirty five years she has three daughters, a cactus called Spike, and a crazy cockapoo. She is allergic to adhesives, apples, tinsel and housework. Her addictions of choice are coffee and reality TV. She was winner of The Romance Prize in 2007 and Love Story of the Year 2010 as Nell Dixon. She now writes historical 1930’s set cosy crime.

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Great to have you on ‘Off the Beaten Track’ today, Helena. All the best with your latest book!