Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Review of my book "Family and More - Enemies or Friends?"

Karen Cioffi-Ventrice, children's author, freelance writer and administrator for the group "VBT-Writers on the Move", has posted a review of my poetry book Family and More - Enemies or Friends? on the VBT-Writers on the Move blog. The book is a collection of sixteen poems about the people in my life who've had a big influence on me and the lessons I've learnt from them - lessons that will not be just unique to me. To read the review, please click here.

And if you wish to read extracts from the book, please go to
http://www.helenaharper.com/ or http://www.authorsden.com/helenaharper

I hope you enjoy!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Mother

In honour of Mother's Day, I would like to post a poem from my ebook "Family and More - Enemies or Friends?"

The Mother

A child of East Prussian woods and forests,
a German outpost
dwarfed by the Russian giant nearby.
Skiing to school
in winters of iceberg temperatures
minus thirty and below,
swimming in pristine lakes
on steaming summer days,
walking through the cooling shade
of fresh-smelling pines,
the small hand engulfed
so safely,
so securely,
in the father’s,
feeling so proud,
so happy,
so warm,
so loved.

A big sister to three,
a younger to two others,
one of a handful of girls
in a grammar school1 of boys,
diligence driving her again and again
to fall asleep over books,
to gain the reward of good grades
and the praise of teachers inspiring.
Sport, biology, English
no problem at all,
but math and physics
a different story;
sixth form2 classes
with pupils few,
for the oldest boys,
her brother, too,
have gone to fight and die
in honor, they say,
on the Eastern front.
But war or no war,
nothing deflects
from her goal of study.
A levels3 she passes with
countless distinctions,
and so to university
to realize her dream
to become a doctor,
a doctor for children,
to help and heal
to care and share.

Two terms at university,
then books and lectures
she abruptly leaves —
a letter from the father adored,
soldiering in Leningrad,
foretelling the disaster to come.
The family must flee
from the Russian advance,
shedding tears for a father
they’ll see no more.
Hour upon hour
in horse and cart
on the long journey West,
Hamburg their goal,
along tracks barely passable,
thick with refugees,
leaving the happy land of childhood
for the future of uncertainty and fear.

The brother lying wounded
in a hospital southeast of Prague,
so farewell to family
when they reach Berlin.
The long trek shared with
the brother’s young wife,
anxious and afraid,
squeezed like sardines
in the back of an ammunition truck,
no longer stuffed with bullets and shells
but with Russian prisoners’ coats,
destined for German soldiers at the front,
then by train to Prague...
But a city in turmoil
and frenzied revolt they meet —
Czechs rebelling against
wartime oppressors —
so German barracks they seek,
a refuge from fires and shooting,
till a ceasefire agreed,
leaving at midnight
without brother, without hope,
back on foot from whence they came,
in sweltering, stifling heat,
jeered on by locals
offering poisoned water
to the sun-parched German throats,
whilst the brother’s shiny, new officers’ boots,
two sizes too big and
for the bulging rucksacks too large,
rub, rub, rub, rub, rub,
the suffering, silent feet.

The town of Pilsen in sight,
forty-odd miles
from German borders.
Soldiers there,
odd-looking helmets,
the Americans,
how come?
“The war’s over,” she hears.
Relief overwhelmed by
fatigue and pain,
and a doctor called to treat
the young girl for exhaustion
and brutally blistered feet.
Then by hook and by crook
to Hamburg they must,
no trains, no buses, no planes,
but from south to north they must go.
A journey of months it will be,
lorries and feet sharing the load
and pages of an English dictionary,
discarded by a German soldier,
helping to while away
long, tedious hours on the road.
Sleeping fitfully
in airless air-raid towers
and suffocating barns,
rivers and streams,
pumps and wells
washing off the dirt and heat
of miles and miles and miles.
Hamburg they finally reach,
delight at the sight of family reunited,
even the brother thought hopelessly lost
in that hospital near Prague,
their ears made sharp and sensationally keen
by his tale of escape on the last train out,
bodies shuddering with fear,
realizing what a close shave it had been.

Through bombed ruins
she makes her way each day
to British Army HQ,
showing German clerks
how to impress with
expert, efficient administration,
teaching them mind-blowing,
bewildering, English ordnance jargon.
A slice of bread her breakfast and supper,
a soup of water for lunch,
hunger pangs her constant companion.
Then one day no food left —
digging under cover of darkness
for vegetables to feed
starving brothers and sisters,
face wet with streaming tears.
But starvation knows no shame,
no dishonor,
no deceit,
swallowing all
in the aftershock of war.

Yet still she takes pride
in smartness and fashion,
hours spent conjuring up clothes
from this rag and that,
hands weaving magic
with needle and thread.
Catching the eye
of an English colonel
with a well-informed mind
and attractive appearance and manner.
An unhurried courtship
leading to announcement of marriage
and good-byes said to family and friends;
then off to the land
her husband calls home,
to a life of new hope and success.

All so strange this new country,
adapting to customs unknown,
spellings so odd and funny,
shorthand and typing, too,
a secretary valued by bosses
for reliability and punctuality,
efficiency extreme,
but what of the pediatrician,
her longed-for, childhood dream?
Gone up in the smoke
of the burning bombs,
other things to focus on now,
no time for regrets
with two screaming infants in tow.
Decorating an old, worn-out house,
busy from morn till night,
then translations to do till three,
useful money it brings
for a family’s needs, you see.
But translations aren’t enough,
when school fees have to be paid,
so off to work she goes,
to London each day by train,
rising at four for weeks on end
when railways strike,
though the stress would drive
many others around the bend.
Yet even she succumbs at last,
two weeks she’s off,
made ill by the strain,
work has to get by
without her for once,
till she’s fit again.

Application intense
and energy immense,
no problem for this woman
of German descent.
Hard work her friend,
her family and house her rewards
in this life she has made across the sea.
A British citizen of many years,
yet still the voice betrays
an accent ever so slightly,
indefinably different,
and her desire for tidiness precise,
for everything in its place
and cleanliness supreme,
for work to be done just so
and attention to details minute,
still give clues to the land of her birth.
But to return is not her wish,
here she will most certainly stay,
walking, reading,
badminton, gardening
giving clear purpose to her day.
A wild, overgrown bush —
what to do?
Pull it out, of course,
no other choice,
spade, push,
root, pull,
push and pull,
pull and push,
pull and push...
“Ow! Not that leg,
my bad hip.
Forgot again...
Got to shift.”
Toiling with the energy
of someone barely forty,
though her years number now
(would you believe?)
a massive one and eighty.
Planting and cutting,
digging and weeding
regardless of time,
ignoring the cuts, the bruises,
the aches and the pains,
because to do nothing and lie back
would be infinitely worse,
in short —
a villainous crime.

A remarkable woman
who laughs at the conduct expected
of old fogies aged eighty and more;
the pursuit of her passions
infusing energy into her days
and cementing the resolve
to vanquish all problems,
events that serve merely
to engage mind and body,
extracting solutions
of admirable resource and
great ingenuity.
How many of us follow
our passion in life?
How many of us grow old
in grayness and lethargy
because we never
listen to the heart’s joy,
destined to fill our soul with
rainbow-like vitality?

The daughter gives thanks
for this woman of resolute will
who refuses to wallow
in past tragedies, disappointments,
upheavals and strife,
living in the here and now
of the autumn of her life
and living it in a blaze of vibrant color.
May each day in the seasons
of our lives glow likewise
with iridescent rainbows
of passion and joy,
so we can live life to the full
and help and heal
and care and share
like this woman,
exceptional and extraordinary,
whom in another time, another place,
one unthinkingly called an “enemy.”

1Selective high school
2Last two years at high school
3High school leaving exams

Copyright © 2008 Helena Harper

What does Mother's Day mean to you?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Teacher Appreciation Week

This is Teacher Appreciation Week and, if you'd like some ideas about what to do for or give to a teacher, check out http://www.teacher-appreciation.info/Teacher-Appreciation-Week-2009
Some ideas to get you started: lottery scratch cards, cinema/theatre tickets, gift vouchers, book vouchers, books with happiness or thank you quotes, perhaps even my book "It's a Teacher's Life...!", which is an amusing collection of 20 anecdotal poems based on my experiences as a teacher. If you're giving a book, I think it's nice to give something that teachers can dip in and out of quickly, which will make them smile or give them a quick pick-me-up. Feel free to add your own ideas!
And as it is Teacher Appreciation Week, I thought I'd post a poem from my book as a tribute to all teachers everywhere.

The Lessons

9 a.m.,
the first lesson bell rings,
all still in assembly,
again Mr. Smith droning on;
the teachers groan -
bang goes that test...
Well, it's a lesson off the cuff now,
nothing new,
it's happened often enough.

The girls drift in to lessons,
it's ten minutes past,
the teacher hands out sheets
fast, fast, fast,
explains at breakneck speed
what to do;
then the first hand goes up,
'Can I go to the loo?'
Another hand is raised,
'Will we get our homework back today?'
'No, get on with your work, Fay.'
A third hand shows,
'Will we get it back tomorrow?'
'I don't know.'
A fourth hand shoots up,
'Will we get it back by the end of the week?'
Who's that? Susan?
But she's normally so meek...
'When will we get our homework back?'
'When I've had time to mark it –
and that's that!'
The bell goes, everyone packs up.
So much for that lesson -
thanks, Mr. Smith,
thanks a million!

The third lesson,
after break,
hair and uniform now a mess,
the pupils enter the classroom
and the teacher starts to sigh:
'Tie your hair back',
'Do your shoelaces up',
'Pull your socks up',
'Do your cuffs up',
'Do your top button up',
'Roll down your skirt!
Whom are you trying to impress?'
The pupils meander to their seats,
fish out their books.
It's Year 9 Maths, Division 3 -
What joy! the teacher thinks.
Now, let's see...
A simple sum to start,
'What's 3 x 6?'
A hand flies up,
the answer's easy of course -
The teacher tries once more
to explain multiplication:
'What about 4 x 4...?'

Down the corridor Year 7,
wrestling hard with Geography,
'Where's Cornwall?' the teacher asks.
'In Wales', a pupil replies.
The teacher sighs
and tries once more.
'The water separating France from England?'
'The Atlantic,' someone shouts.
'No, it's not, it's the Pacific.'
Wow, what a lesson this is,
it's just terrific!

Some Gallic greetings
waft through the air,
it's Year 8 French
performing role plays with flair -
at least that's what they think
and the teacher doesn't really care!
Yet slowly their enthusiasm
wins him around,
piques his interest -
what's that he's found?
A pupil with a promising accent!
What a coup!
And then the mediocrity starts again:
'Est-ce que je peux aller...to the toilet,
Monsieur Jones?'
'Aux toilettes, Poppy, aux toilettes!'
'Oui, est-ce que je peux aller aux toilettes?'
, Poppy, vite!'
'Et moi...aller...to sick bay, Monsieur? J'ai...headache',
The teacher sighs and tries again,
something always driving him on....
The desire to inspire,
to light the fire
that burns within,
the 'aha' in the expression
when something clicks -
that's the reward
for hours and hours of work
and patience,
a reward of infinite measure,
a priceless, unlimited treasure.

Copyright © 2008 Helena Harper

She Wore Emerald Then - cosmic imagery and homely down-to-earthness

I recently had the opportunity to read a collection of poetry by Magdalena Ball and Carolyn Howard-Johnson called She Wore Emerald Then - Reflections on Mothers and Motherhood.

It is a collection that movingly illustrates many aspects of motherhood and, if you are a poetry lover, there is much that you will find appealing and thought-provoking. In the first half of the book, the poems by Magdalena Ball have a cosmic quality to them and some wonderful imagery. In the poem 'Coil of Life', for example, giving birth is described as the 'Big Bang' and in 'Assault by a Black Hole', the reader is taken on a journey from the sublime to the commonplace and you can't help but smile:

A powerful jet from a black hole
is blasting nearby galaxy 3C321
with outrageous galactic violence
x-rays, gamma rays
particles travelling the speed of light
tearing ozone layers
destroying alien life forms
and breeding new star systems
a million primordial sons
in the lethal pummelling.
Talk about tough love.

In the face of that million year
(a fraction of the system’s lifetime)
I suppose I have no right
to complain
about one smart, sharp smack
sent my way
to facilitate a few manners.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson's poems have, by contrast, a homely down-to-earthness which also appeals. I loved her description of dandelion petals in the poem 'Dandelions in Autumn':

Yellow petals, pollen-soft
like monarchs' wings.

Little lions' manes
like illustrations in childrens'

books, not like roaring
Serengeti cats

or the MGM logo lion, harmless
these. I pick them, bunch them,

hold them under Mama's chin
to see if they light her throat

yellow, and if they do, delight!

In the poem 'Musing Over a New Calendar', the author reflects on the passage of time - how there is still so much she wants to do and see, yet her ageing mother is 'alone, rejecting all but her home'. I felt the author's pain in these lines as I did in the poem 'Mother and Daughter' where she describes her job of 'mothering again', but this time it is not her children who need her help but her own elderly mother:

...I take over seatbelt
duties, step ahead of her then stop,

reluctant for her to know she's slow.
We all forget names, I say as numb

moves from hand to heart
because it is my name she has forgotten.

Yet, despite such painful memories and associations, perhaps the strongest is the 'eternal warmth' of our mother's bed – as Ms. Ball puts it – 'a shared space/ free from the ticking illusion/ of time, motion and change./ Here, where you are always welcome/ nothing matters/ except this peace/ this place/ containing every possible now.'

A wonderful description of what makes mothers so special, don't you think?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Rebekah Redeemed - a wonderfully moving, vividly descriptive story by Dianne Sagan

In this, my second post about multi-talented author, Dianne Sagan, I am going to talk about her latest book Rebekah Redeemed.

The book is about an orphaned girl who becomes a servant in her uncle’s house in Bethany. Traded from relative to relative, Rebekah suffers neglect and abuse. When a Roman soldier assaults her, she flees in fear of her life and hides. Rebekah is discovered and Lazarus becomes her kinsman redeemer. Can Jesus redeem her soul? Can she forgive or break the chains of her past?

An excerpt from Rebekah Redeemed

Benjamin sized up the little girl. A flicker of recognition in the older man’s eyes quickly turned to ice. Stepping closer he reached down to the child and she pulled away. “Look at me, child,” he commanded with a little less animosity in his voice.

Rebekah lifted her chin and looked into her uncle’s brown, lined face. He pushed the shawl off her stringy brown hair, and for a moment the lines in his face softened and his eyes showed compassion.

“You look like your mother,” he mumbled to himself. Then he stood back, cleared his throat and narrowed his eyes once more. “You want me to take her in, is that it?”

“Yes. We have little and cannot take her as our own.”

“What is in it for my wife and me?”

“She is strong and a good worker. She is good with lambs. She can help with cooking and drawing water. I know she looks small, but she is strong and obedient. She could be a useful addition to your household. A daughter is not like having a son, but they can work.” Caleb tried to sell the idea to the shopkeeper.

“Well,” he sized up the child and scratched his bearded chin. “She could help my wife.” He stood in silence, strolled out into the street, and looked up and down at his friends and neighbors. Then, turning on his heel, he walked back to Caleb and said without emotion, “You asked around the village for me? Others know of the child?”

“We asked people so we could find you.”

With one more glance up and down the street, Benjamin saw the rabbi walking toward them. “The Torah does say that we are to care for orphans and widows. She is my dead sister’s child, no matter what else happened between us. I will take her in, but not as a member of my family.”

“Shalom. May you...”

Benjamin reached for the girl. He interrupted Caleb, “I will not pay you for her. Go back where you came from. I take her because it is my duty under the Law of Moses.”

Caleb turned to go. Benjamin pushed Rebekah toward the back of the shop. She looked over her shoulder at her father’s friend for the last time.

“Come. You must meet your mistress. You have taken up enough time. I have a business to run and customers to serve.” He spoke as if he were an important man.

Rebekah stepped through the door into a small courtyard and into a new life. She prayed silently that it would get no worse.

Purchase information for Rebekah Redeemed
ISBN: 978-0-937660-52-2

Now available online at


Contact the author directly through her website:

The reader will learn much from this wonderfully moving, vividly descriptive story of first century life. Enjoy!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Dianne Sagan, author of 'Rebekah Redeemed' and writer of many talents

It's my great pleasure to be host to multi-talented author, Dianne Sagan, this week. Dianne is author of Rebekah Redeemed and is a member of VBT – Writers on the Move.

Dianne Sagan, author, speaker, ghostwriter, and consultant has been a storyteller much of her life. She started writing short stories for her children when they were small. Dianne has spent several years honing her craft as an op-ed columnist in the regional newspaper, Amarillo Globe News, short stories for anthologies and online articles on Suite 101, Writing for Dollars, and others.

Born in the Midwest, she grew up on the plains of West Texas and in her heart of hearts always wanted to write. She says that she loves being married to a writer and an editor because she always has someone to brainstorm with.

Her interests include reading, quilting, gardening, time with her children and grandchildren. She has spent years in volunteer work through Boy and Girl Scouts, her church, and the Sharing Hope Ministry to incarcerated women. She is also involved in writing about women’s issues. She loves speaking to groups about these issues and about writing.

Works in progress include a flash fiction book with five other women writers, Women’s Bible studies, a series of suspense novels, more Christian fiction novellas, and ghostwriting. She is also working on a line of ebooks for students and their families to help them decide on which college to attend, how to understand the financial aid process and the hoops that you have to jump through in order to obtain financial aid, as well as a handbook for a successful first year at college. Her most recently published book is Rebekah Redeemed – a Christian fiction novella.

Dianne is a member of Panhandle Professional Writers and she can be contacted through her website: Dianne Sagan, Writer – http://dgsagan.tripod.com./

She also has a blog at http://www.diannesagan.wordpress.com/ and can be found on Authors Den at http://www.authorsden.com/diannesagan.


Dianne, how do you define your writing?
A quick read that hooks you on the first page (for my novels and novellas).
Informative and practical advice and information (for my nonfiction articles and books).

Why do you write?
I am a compulsive writer. I write because I would explode if I didn’t. My brain is always working on a story or an idea for another book. I would write even if no one read it, but it’s better if people read it.

Can you describe a typical working day for you?
My typical day starts about 9:00am. I spend some quiet time for myself, have some coffee and chat with my husband. I spend the rest of the morning doing email and short projects or research. Then I write until about 3:30 or 4:00pm. Sometimes I go back and write again about 9:00pm until 11:00pm. However, this is flexible according to deadlines and projects. I have an office in my home, but sometimes work at the library or in a local coffee shop for a change of scene. It helps me focus and not get distracted by things around the house. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and write for three or four hours and go back to bed at 6:00am when my husband is getting up. I sleep until about 11:00 and go back to work for the afternoon after a bite to eat.

What is going on with your writing these days?
My current projects include a series of Christian fiction novellas. The series is called Touched by the Savior. Each book is the story of a little known woman who met Jesus during his ministry. The first, which has just been published, is a story of Rebekah, orphaned and used as a slave by her relatives until she is taken in by Lazarus and his sisters. The second tells the story of Peter’s wife. A third tells about the woman at the well after she went home from the well. Others are also planned.

I’ve ghostwritten ten nonfiction books in the last couple of years. Subjects included business success, leadership, health issues, overcoming your past, overcoming your fears, how to tap into your mental strength, and teaching children about finances. My husband and I are also starting a new ghostwriting and editing package called Legacy. This is not your normal memoir or family history/memory book. We work with people who would like to leave behind a message to their family and others about lessons learned in life and the legacy they leave behind. I'm working
with a revision for my novel, Escape, for a publisher who is interested in it and I’m working on stories for several anthologies. I had a story published in the Tainted Mirror anthology in October 2007. The story, Second Chances, is about my son’s head injury and the aftermath.

What writer most inspires you and why?
I don’t think I can say that one writer inspires me. Several inspire me. I took an advanced novel writing class from Jodi Thomas, the romance writer and recipient of five Rita Awards and 2007 inductee to the Romance Writer’s Hall of Fame. She inspires me to keep on writing and submitting. Debbie Macombre inspires me - she started on her kitchen table and now sells her wonderful books everywhere. She writes about friends and relationships in a way that touch you. She encouraged me at a writers conference a few years ago. Deborah LeBlanc, from Louisiana, shows me what it takes to succeed and market yourself and how she gives back to people through her reading program for kids and supplying books for them. We spent time together and she gave me guidance on a plot idea that I was entertaining.

In one sentence – what do you want people to say about your writing in fifty years?
Dianne Sagan wrote timeless books with story lines that held your attention, as well as taught life lessons and gave people hope.


In my next post, I will be talking about Dianne's recently published novella, Rebekah Redeemed. If you would like to ask Dianne a question, please leave a comment and Dianne will reply in the next few days.