#AdjunctLife: The Real-Life Inspirations Behind “Permanent Position”

Hi All!

I am almost, almost ready to launch Permanent Position. Hurray! Doing the audiobook slowed me down considerably, but I’m hoping to have the launch for both the ebook and audiobook versions by the end of the month. Expect heartfelt requests for reviews to come rolling your way soon :).

Permanent Position Audiobook Image

The artwork for the audiobook

Like the other books in the Doctor Rowena Halley SeriesPermanent Position is fiction, but fiction drawn heavily from real-world experiences. The germ for the plot came from a request for help I got, back when I was still adjuncting, from an American man who had married a Belarusian woman and gotten involved in a nasty custody battle with her over their son. She had taken the boy back to Belarus and was refusing to give the father access to him.

I sent him some information about people and organizations who specialized in Belarus, and never heard from him again. But I always wondered what happened, and what the true story was. The man who contacted me represented himself as the victim, but I always had my doubts. He had probably married a mail-order bride, right? At least that’s what it seemed like to me. So that’s the story I went with in Permanent Position.

Many of the side plots, secondary characters, and recurring motifs throughout the book are also taken from life. The $3,200/course that Rowena earns while teaching at UNC-Matthews is the average pay per course for adjuncts in North Carolina. UNC-Matthews is fictional, but many of the experiences Rowena has there are based on my own experiences at various North Carolina institutions. The half-finished campus, the confusing or missing signage and students showing up for the wrong class, the lack of administrative support, and the precarious position of instructors and students waiting to see if a course will fill up enough to be held, are all things I’ve witnessed from both sides of the lectern, and not just in North Carolina.

Similarly, Rowena’s harrowing experiences with applications, interviews, and job offers are loosely based on things that happened to me too. The only thing that’s completely fictional is the presence of a sort-of-good, sort-of-sleazy Provost who may or may not be willing and able to help Rowena out.

The sexual harassment that follows Rowena wherever she goes is taken directly from my own experiences, some of it verbatim, so to speak. The proposition and all the intense “appreciation” Rowena receives while walking around in her “cold-weather burka,” and the construction crew who set up their scaffolding to be able to look directly into the women’s restroom are both taken straight from life, alas. As she says, the more she wears, the more attention she gets.

On a related note, the lecture Fatima gives Rowena about how Islam is a very liberal religion, a very good religion for women, and allows a career as long as you have your husband’s permission, was something an acquaintance once told me, and seemed too good not to share. The same acquaintance kept assuring me that she wasn’t gathering money for al Qaeda as I drove her around town to meet with potential donors to the Muslim charity she was representing. That also seems too good to waste, so I’m sure I’ll work it into a later book in the series. (For the record, this acquaintance was a lovely person and, as far as I know, not affiliated with al Qaeda in any way).

I’ve already written about how Rowena’s ex-fiance Dima is based heavily on real life. The Battle for the Donetsk Airport that he covers in Permanent Position was a real battle, and Givi and Dmytro Yarosh, the people he interviews, are also both real. Dima’s experience of being caught and tortured by Ukrainian forces who believe him to be a Russian spy is based on something similar that may have happened to Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, who, in one of those amusing little ironies, is ardently anti-Russia and pro-Ukraine.

I could keep going, but you get the general drift. Like all fiction, Permanent Position is all about reality, but a reality that’s been carefully curated to create a coherent and satisfying narrative. It’s not a memoir, but I was heavily influenced by the genres of memoir and “documentary novel” as I composed it. And so, like those genres, it’s supposed to be a little slice of real life, one that has been framed in order to create art, but still open-ended, the way reality always is.

And now it’s time for this week’s selection of giveaways!

Crime & Thriller KU

Haven’t read Campus Confidential, book #1 in the series, yet? You can pick up it and many other books in the Crime, Mystery & Thriller KU book promo. All books are free to read on Kindle Unlimited!

Foreign Exchange Cover

And if you haven’t gotten Foreign Exchange, the prequel novella, you can grab it and lots of other books completely FREE in the International Espionage and Spy Thrillers book giveaway!


Edge of Your Seat Thrillers

And finally, check out the Edge of Your Seat Thrillers & Suspense giveaway!

Publish AND Perish: The Academic’s Dilemma. Plus musings on Ukraine, and this week’s selection of giveaways

Hello everyone! I hope everyone is having a wonderful weekend. If you’re in Florida: Stay safe! If you’re in my part of the world, I hope you can enjoy the beautiful weather we’re currently having.

I spent a while wondering what to write about today. Should I talk about the start of the new semester? (For those of you just joining us, I was on medical leave last semester due to a crippling case of late-stage Lyme disease, toxic mold poisoning, and other fun things). I just finished my first week of being back teaching, which has made it clear that, surprise surprise, I am in no way recovered. Sorry everyone who keeps asking in saccharine tones if I’m “All better.” Recovery is going to be very slow, inasmuch as it happens at all.

I am walking better than I was this time last year, so that’s encouraging, but I’ve been having a lot of problems with losing my voice. This is a bit of an issue for a teacher. The good news is that I have finished re-recording (long story) the audiobook for Permanent Position, Book #2 in the Doctor Rowena Halley series, and am almost done editing it. Deciding to do an audiobook version has put a big delay on the release, but soon, soon it will be ready. Maybe even in September! Stay tuned for more updates.

Going back to my quandary of what to write today, I then thought of talking about the recent elections in Ukraine. If you haven’t been following along with that story, Volodymyr/Vladimir Zelensky, an actor who played the president of Ukraine in a popular sitcom was, in fact, elected president of the country in a landslide victory this May. You cannot make this stuff up. His party, “Servant of the People” (named after the tv show) just won a resounding majority in the parliamentary elections, taking control of the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament. Major reforms are promised. Of course, major reforms are always being promised in Ukraine. As with my health, improvement, if it happens at all, has been a slow and painful process. Everyone wants the miracle, the quick path to heaven. Unfortunately, that’s not normally how things work.

But at the moment everyone’s all full of rosy hopes for Ukraine. Will it finally manage to crack down on corruption? Will there be peace in the Donbass?

I’ve been keeping an eye on the situation in Ukraine for a few years now (full disclosure: as I write this I’m live-streaming Казачье Радио/Cossack Radio, a separatist radio station in Luhansk/Lugansk), and have woven a number of elements of the current conflict there into my novels. Dima, my heroine’s ex-fiance, is a journalist covering the war in Eastern Ukraine. In Permanent Position (click to get your free ARC if you haven’t already) I place him in the 2014/2015 battle for the Donetsk Airport, while in the follow-up novella Summer Session (click to get your free ARC if you haven’t already) he observes one of the many battles around Avdiivka/Avdeyevka during 2015 (names are in both Ukrainian and Russian, if you’re wondering about the doubling).

This is part of my general strategy in the series of hewing as close to real life as possible. My heroine Rowena and her friends aren’t real people, but their experiences are closely based on reality.

A major part of that reality is Rowena’s precarious financial situation, along with the tremendous pressure academics are under to publish. Like a lot of contingent faculty members, Rowena hopes that publishing a few articles, or better yet, a book, will help vault her into the ranks of the financially secure. This means that she is in no position to publish intellectually meaningful scholarship, since intellectually meaningful scholarship tends to have a hard time getting through peer review, something she meditates on in Book 1 of the series, Campus Confidential (click to get it on Amazon, where it’s free on KU).

Rowena’s financial and professional struggles are taken from real life, including the amounts she’s paid for teaching; the $3,200/course she’s paid in Permanent Position is the average rate per course for adjuncts in North Carolina. All her jokes about taking up bagging groceries, stripping, or streetwalking are taken from contingent academics’ real-life attempts to fund their teaching hobby with real work.

On the other hand, publishing and getting a “good” job is no guarantee of wealth and riches, as shown in Kathryn Rudy’s breakdown of what it costs her to publish her research, and why she, a full professor at a reasonably elite Western institution of higher education, is broke. In brief: she has to pay for all the travel costs, all the licensing of images and so on, and foot the bill for the actual publishing. As she points out, this isn’t “vanity” publishing. These are respectable academic presses that put out peer-reviewed scholarly works. If you want to get tenure and keep tenure, or even a halfway decent temporary position, you will probably need to publish a book, maybe several books, in this way. So even if you jump off the adjunct treadmill that Rowena finds herself in, you might not find yourself living the comfortable upper-class lifestyle of the senior academics in Lucky Jim.

The two things–post-Soviet politics and publishing–came together for me this week, when I was invited by an academic press to submit a proposal for my scholarly monograph about Chechen war literature. This entailed a fair amount of agonizing and hand-wringing on my part. Did I want to put in all that time, money, and effort, especially when my health is still so poor, into publishing a book that probably won’t make any money or even get read very much (scholarly works tend to sell a few dozen or hundred copies at best)?

On the other hand, I feel a moral obligation to spread the word about the topic of Chechnya and Chechen war literature, especially after the authors I profile have so graciously granted me interviews and expressed a strong desire to share their stories with the West. One of the reasons I include so much about Chechnya and Ukraine in the Doctor Rowena Halley series is because it’s the topic of my “day job” scholarly research. Not only am I interested in it, but I want other people to be interested in it as well.

And then there’s the fact that going through the process of attempting to publish a scholarly monograph with an academic press will no doubt provide much fodder for my fiction! When you look at it from that angle, it’s a win-win.

So if I do through with this other publishing endeavor, I’ll be sure to keep you posted, and let you know how it will inform my next novel! Expect hearty laughs–I hope.

Meanwhile, here’s this week’s selection of giveaways:

Back to School Special

Celebrate the start of the school year with the Back to School Special Giveaway! All the books are school-themed.

Summer Shorts

Enjoy the last few days of summer and pick up some mystery short stories in the Summer Shorts Giveaway!

Damsels who cause distress

Check out these butt-kicking heroines in the Damsels Who Cause Distress Giveaway on StoryOrigin!


Grab a free ARC of “Permanent Position”!

Hi Everyone!

Well, first of all, I have to thank everyone who participated by downloading, reading, reviewing, and everything else you did for the launch of Campus Confidential. It hit #21 in the overall Kindle Free Store, which is incredibly exciting!

Campus Confidential 21

Campus Confidential’s success is particularly gratifying given that Facebook banned my ad account over it. Apparently they think I’m a Russian troll. Other Russian friends have been having similar problems. Which, since we’re all oppositionists, just goes to show how much Facebook knows…

Second of all, I’m thrilled to announce that very early ARCs are available of Permanent Position, the next book in the series. The plot thickens with Rowena’s relationships with both Dima and Alex, and her brother John comes home and causes trouble. Plus a student wants her help getting his son back from Minsk–or maybe he just wants to stalk Rowena. And then there’s the job search. As usual, there’s a fair amount of real life mixed in with the fiction, including good times with high-stakes interviews. And what’s up with Fevronia the cat’s bad attitude?

Permanent Position Front Cover

You can grab a free Advance Review Copy of Permanent Position here.

I probably better stop here, since I’m in a state of near-collapse after walking 2 (TWO!) whole blocks this morning! For the first time in nearly three years! Take that, late-stage Lyme disease and toxic mold poisoning! But then I had to crawl up the stairs on my hands and knees when I got home. Hopefully I won’t crash too badly, but you never know. Good thing I’m stocked up on reading material.

Speaking of reading material, here’s this week’s selection of giveaways:

Mystery Shorts Banner

Dip into some mystery & suspense with this giveaway for short reads.

Mysteries & Thrillers in Exotic Locales

Last chance to check out the Mysteries & Thrillers in Exotic Locales Giveaway!

It’s Here! The Eagle Has (Almost) Landed!

Hi Everyone!

Great Jack Higgins reference, right? I went through a period in early adolescence of being *very* into Jack Higgins, whose work, while hardly a shining example of immortal prose, introduced me to high-action international thrillers. Thus begins a tale…

Anyway, *my* particular eagle is Campus Confidential. Most of you are reading this because you got an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) of it. So it’s now time for me to beg for reviews. The release date isn’t until May 17, but the book is already up on Amazon just for the purpose of gathering a few reader reviews prior to its official launch. The Amazon.com link is here and the Amazon.co.uk link is here, if you feel moved to drop a couple of lines about the book. Just scroll down to where it says “Review this product,” click on the link, and say what you think. It doesn’t have to be long at all: a sentence or two is fine. And obviously I hope you liked the book, but what we’re looking for here is your honest opinion.

Why, you might be asking yourself, should you bother to leave a review? What’s in it for you?

Well, to be honest, not a super-huge amount. Amazon officially prohibits me from offering any kind of payment or prize other than a free copy of the book to reviewers, so that’s what you got: a free copy of the book. Believe me, I wish I *could* shower all you wonderful people with candy and champagne and cold hard cash, but the ‘Zon has spoken, and the ‘Zon must be obeyed. Blessed be the name of the ‘Zon.

BUT, but, but, but, if you DO leave a review, your karma will get a big boost. As you might recall from my post on “Karma Chameleon” a few weeks ago, Campus Confidential as ultimately all about karma. So by leaving a review, you will be participating in the story in some way, or something like that.

And why would leaving a review give you so much good karma? Well, because reviews are how books get marketed and sold. Not only are reviews a kind of internet-age form of word-of-mouth and social proof, but the promo sites that we authors rely on look at reviews to decide whether or not to accept our books for their newsletters. So we’re constantly going around, cap in hand, trying to scrounge up every spare review we can get.

All this means that I would greatly appreciate any and all reviews that you, my beloved readers, care to provide. And since I’m am a relatively unknown debut author (under this pen name, anyway), you can bet that I will remember with fondness each and every reviewer who takes the time to help me out at this crucial stage in my journey.

Okay, enough. I’m starting to get a little verklempt, so I’ll stop now before I break down entirely. Links to the book’s Amazon page, and to this week’s selection of giveaways, are below.

Campus Confidential on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, and Amazon.au


International Action Thrillers.png

Check out the International Action Thrillers Giveaway for some Jack Higgins-esque action and adventure!

May-Day's Murder and Mystery Tour

Up the thrills & chills content with the May-Day’s Murder and Mystery Tour!

Mysteries & Thrillers in Exotic Locales

Get away from it all with the Mysteries & Thrillers in Exotic Locales Giveaway!

“Brilliantly-written and highly entertaining”: What the reviewers are saying about “Campus Confidential” (Plus back story and giveaways)

Hi All! It’s only a month away from the official release date of “Campus Confidential,” and the excitement is starting to build! At least I’m very excited about it. And it looks like other people are starting to get excited too.

As well as giving out Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) to regular readers (e.g., you guys), I’ve also been sending it out for professional reviews–you know, the kind of thing you see in the “Editorial Review” section on a book’s Amazon page. The reviews have started coming in and they’ve been quite positive! So to whet your appetite if you haven’t read the book yet, I thought I’d share them with you today.

campus confidential front cover with baskerville

And if you don’t have the book yet, you can get a free ARC in the Thrillers & Mystery Giveaway going on now.

Here’s the review from The Prairies Book Review:

Brilliantly-written and highly entertaining, a must read…

Campus Confidential introduces the gutsy Doctor Rowena Halley, a new PhD professor who gets a temporary teaching job at poverty wages in New Jersey. While the job doesn’t help her with her quickly dwindling finances, it puts her in the path of some very dangerous people. Stark writes with the self-assurance of a veteran author: her writing is witty with a healthy dose of dark humor, her characterization shines, and the dialogues are unusually clever. The narration flows effortlessly, and readers will find it hard to put the book down once they start reading it. With her easy-flowing narrative and the intelligent prose laced with a tinge of wry humor, Stark proves herself as a superb storyteller. A series to watch for.

And here’s the review from Readers’ Favorite:

Campus Confidential is a suspenseful work of dramatic fiction penned by author Sid Stark. Pairing wry humor with gritty realism and small-stuff drama, our heroine is Rowena Halley, recent recipient of a Ph.D. and a keen teacher of Russian. She accepts a terrible job with the knowledge that any kind of job is difficult to get. In connecting with her new students in New Jersey, life goes from bad to worse pretty swiftly. As if her family dramas weren’t causing trouble enough, Rowena’s own life may actually be in danger, insignificant as it is. The very idealism that helps her get out of bed in the morning could be the cause, and small stakes might be about to turn high in this rollicking college drama.

This was an unusual book in all senses, but it really worked and entertained well as it progressed. Dr. Rowena Halley is an idealistic woman living in a far from perfect world, and that in itself makes her a relatable heroine for readers far and wide who have aspirations beyond the actual reality of living in today’s world. Author Sid Stark plays on these ideals like a master at the keys, painting every moment with wry humor as Rowena’s life goes from low to new low. I found the actual suspense elements to be a tad far-fetched, but it kept the humor going and the farcical nature of the novel is sure to please audiences. Overall, I’d recommend Campus Confidential to readers seeking a quirky new twist on everyday drama.


I’m particularly glad that both reviewers picked up on the humor, which is a key feature of the story, even though it deals with “dark” or “serious” themes. One of the things I’ve been going for from the moment I first came up with the idea of the series is a kind of chiaroscuro style, where genuine difficulty and tragedy is juxtaposed with farce. Part of the inspiration was a set of events at my campus last year, in which students died in separate tragic incidents and it was basically hushed up, while the university made a huge fuss, including having counselors from the Wellness Center on standby in case students felt threatened or upset, about an anonymous blog post that criticized it for perpetrating systemic inequality.

To be clear, systemic inequality *is* a big problem there, but that was not the issue: it was the inflammatory nature of the blog post’s speech and the concern that it might make students feel bad. The hushing up of murder (yes, there was a horrifying murder on my campus last year, along with various other student deaths) and the over-the-top response to a slightly inflammatory blog post exemplified a certain strain of ridiculousness in modern academic culture for me. My long-held desire to write a tell-all book about higher education from a faculty member’s perspective crystallized, and soon “Campus Confidential” came pouring out…

I’ll probably write more about that in the future, but in the meantime, I’ll leave you with this week’s selection of giveaways:

Thrillers, Mystery & Suspense

The Thrillers, Mystery & Suspense Giveaway is running this week only. Over 100 free novels, short stories, and previews

Cold War, Hot Books Banner

The Cold War, Hot Books Giveaway has sixteen super-hot spy and suspense stories about the former USSR!

April Fools' Banner

Speaking of humor, check out the April Fools’ Humor Giveaway!

Page Turning Mystery:Thriller

The Page Turning Mystery/Thriller Giveaway has dozens of free full-length books, all free!

Karma Not-So-Chameleon: The Moral Arc Underpinning “Campus Confidential” (And New Giveaways!)

Hi All! It’s a lovely spring day and I’m feeling a tiny bit better (for those who don’t know, I have a serious long-term illness) than I have been, so it seems like a great time to play some cheery music. Namely, this insidious earworm:


You can thank me later for filling your head with this song all day

Fun fact: I moved to Russia in the early 90s, where I got to experience Western decadence such as MTV for the first time! Yes! Clearly I will have to share that little story at some point. “Karma Chameleon” was one of the songs that MTV Europe’s 80s hour played on heavy rotation. I’ve had a fondness for it ever since.

Anyway, enough with the musical interludes. Since I, like my heroine Rowena, am a professor with a doctorate in literature, it should come as no surprise that my books are full of structure, themes, motifs, wordplay, allusions, and everything else you might think of in the way of literary flourishes. So today I thought I’d show you, my special readers, a little of the chassis and undercarriage of “Campus Confidential.”

campus confidential front cover with baskerville

Only a little over a month till the release date!

For those of you who haven’t read it yet, “Campus Confidential” is about a newly-minted PhD and contingent faculty member who gets caught up in both the usual sorts of bad things faculty deal with–bullying, poverty, self-doubt, lack of job security–and some special bad stuff involving crime and violence. Although crime and violence are certainly plenty prevalent on college campuses. A large percentage of Rowena’s experiences are taken more or less directly from real life.

That being said, while a lot of the details of “Campus Confidential” are based on some pretty gritty realities, the overall structure of the story is that of a fairy tale. Rowena is the fairy tale heroine taken away from her home and thrown into a bad situation. Like many fairy tale heroines, her heroism is not in her strength of arms but in her strength of moral character. Repeatedly throughout the story she encounters people who are in some way her social inferiors, who show no immediate ability to help her on her quest, and who may be actively annoying–e.g., rude students, street harassers, difficult bosses, and so on. Every time, she wrestles with how to treat these people, and every time she decides to give in to her better nature and treat them with kindness and understanding.

Rowena thus moves through the narrative generating more and more good karma (here’s that video again, in case you missed it the first time around): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JmcA9LIIXWw

In the final denouement, her good karma comes back to save her, just as it does a fairy tale heroine. “Campus Confidential” is a heroic narrative, albeit of a particular sort. It’s a modern-day fairy tale, in which the heroine is living in the “real world” and embedded in real-life current events, and yet also has a toehold in a magical, spiritual realm where dreams sometimes come true and karma is very, definitely, real.

And now, as promised, brand-new giveaways for April!

Cold War, Hot Books Banner

Come join the collective, comrades! Sixteen super-hot spy, suspense, and sexy romance books, all connected to the former USSR! Check it out here.

April Fools' Banner

Laugh it up with the April Fools’ Giveaway!

First in Series Banner

And it’s the last week for the First in Series Giveaway! 115 free series starters!


Tall, Dark, and Dangerous: Meet My Main Character’s Dark Double (Plus This Week’s Selection of Book Giveaways)

Hello everyone! It’s been a little while since I’ve posted an update, what with one thing and another. Actually, I was waiting for a good selection of book giveaways to start 🙂 Read down to the bottom to find out what’s going on in that department this week.

Meanwhile, I thought I’d introduce everyone to an important figure in my Dr. Rowena Halley series: Rowena’s older brother John. John gets a walk-on role in the first book in the series, Campus Confidential, but plays a leading role in the second book, Permanent Position, which is currently in progress.

campus confidential front cover with baskerville

You can pick up a *free* Advance Review Copy of Campus Confidential in the First in Series Giveaway going on now!

So what’s this about the tall, dark, and handsome–I mean dangerous–thing? Read on and find out!

John Ivanhoe Elladan Halley

alec baldwin

If it makes you happy, feel free to imagine him as looking sort of like Alec Baldwin

Born 1977. Started at The Citadel 1995. Graduated and commissioned as an officer in the Marine Corps 1999. Deployed to Iraq 2003 with 2nd Marine Division; participated in Battle of Nasiriyah March 2003. Deployed to Camp Fallujah 2005 and 2007. Deployed to Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province; supposed to pull out in October 2014 (when Campus Confidential is set) but got delayed; only goes on leave in spring 2015 (when Permanent Position is set).

John was originally named Ivanhoe Elladan Halley; like Rowena his first name is from Ivanhoe and his middle name is from The Lord of the Rings (Elladan was Arwen’s older brother). He officially took the first name “John” as an adult, but kept Ivanhoe Elladan as his middle names, although he doesn’t share them his friends and colleagues very often! He chose the name “John” because it’s common and unremarkable. It’s also the first name of Dick Francis’s Sid Halley, whose full name is John Sidney Halley, so along with my own pen name, that’s another nod in that direction.

John is in some ways Rowena’s “dark side.” Like her, he grew up in an alternative community, but he rebelled as hard as he could when he was a teenager, enrolling in The Citadel and then becoming a career Marine. However, as they both come to realize over the course of the series, they have a  lot in common: both are idealists committed to institutions that may or may not be serving their best interests.

A major part of my current “day job” research is on contemporary military prose. One of the fundamental questions that interests me is the effect of war on civilian life. So in order to explore this question and also put some of my research to use, I made a number of the people in Rowena’s life veterans or active-duty service members. Rowena’s civilian status and commitment to pacifism is thus seen against a backdrop of the Forever War and the War on Terror, which is constantly making itself known, along with other major world events.

I made John a Marine mainly because I didn’t know very many Marines, since I didn’t want to be caught in the trap of trying to create a portrait from life without actually turning a real person into one of my fictional characters. But this meant I’ve struggled to come up with realistic details for him, since a major point of the series is its ties to real life and the “real world” of current events. Two good books about Marines that I drew on for details and character motivation are Matt Young’s Eat the Apple and Phil Klay’s Redeployment. I’ve deliberately left a lot of John’s career vague, since I didn’t want to get too caught up in research for things that are only very tangentially related to the story. Of course, if you want to suggest possible career paths for him, feel free 🙂

Like Rowena, John is “Black Irish,” with dark hair and light eyes. But while Rowena is slender and willowy, John is stockier and more muscular, with a buzz cut that reveals that he’s beginning to go gray. Rowena never says whether he is conventionally attractive, but he is subject to near-constant female attention and admiration. Whether this is due to his good looks and charm or his uniform is up for debate, however.

william baldwin

You could also imagine him as looking like William Baldwin, if you prefer

While Rowena is associated with motifs of the Sacred Prostitute, John is the Profane Prostitute, overtly promiscuous and always caught up in ill-advised sexual affairs, normally with married women.

His ambivalent feelings about his status as a sex object is something I borrowed from Phil Klay’s Redeployment. As John says to Rowena in Permanent Position:

“Sometimes I feel like I could have them fuck my uniform, and we’d both be happier. They don’t give a shit about me at all. I’m just a fantasy and a suit of pretty clothes to them.”

“Welcome to being an attractive woman,” I said before I could stop myself.

He laughed. “I walked right into that one, didn’t I? It’s not as much fun as I thought it would be.”

“So stop.”

“I don’t know about that, but I’ll give it a try. I guess. And I guess you’re going to tell me that now I know what it’s like to be you, right? I’m getting in touch with my feminine side, or some shit like that?”

“Mary Wollstonecraft would be so proud of you,” I said.

“Who the fuck is that?”

“An 18th-century feminist scholar who said that both women and soldiers were defined by their clothes.”


I found Klay’s description of the experience of being a male sex object very interesting, but thus far male veterans whom I’ve asked about whether they felt sexually objectified have responded mainly with a squeamish lack of understanding. Rowena, however, has the opportunity to contemplate these issues and interrogate her brother about them, even if it makes him uncomfortable.

While John is a secondary character who only appears occasionally in the series, he’s an important foil for Rowena, acting as her Dark Double, as well as coming through for her when times are hard.

So there you have it! Rowena is, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, surrounded by good-looking men, something I feel ambivalent about. But I guess we might as well enjoy it. Meanwhile, check out this week’s selection of book giveaways:

St. Patrick's Day Giveaway

Speaking of Black Irish…are you feeling lucky? The St. Patrick’s Day Giveaway has tons of books in multiple genres!

New Thrillers

Check out the exciting selection in the New Thrillers of 2019 Giveaway!

First in Series Banner

Get started on a new series in the First in Series Giveaway!

Meet My Romantic Rival! Plus this week’s selection of book giveaways

Greetings from Mt. Ararat!

Or at least so it feels as I sit in my perch above my flooded backyard. We’ve been having a deluge of near-Biblical proportions here. It may not have rained for a full forty days and forty nights, but it’s getting close.

Anyway, my upstairs office is still dry–for now. So it seems like a good time to introduce another of my recurring characters to you. This time it will be my *other* leading man! Yes, I have a love triangle going in my Dr. Rowena Halley series. Last time I told you all about Dima, Rowena’s ex-fiance. This time I want to introduce you to Alex, the American who may be sneaking in there while Dima’s back is turned and stealing her heart.

Keep reading for the dirt on Alex, plus a selection of ebook giveaways.

Alexander James Miller

Born 1977. Graduated from UPenn with dual degree in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and Computer Programming and commissioned in the Navy in 2000 as a Cryptologic Warfare Officer. Kept on active duty longer than usual because of the war and deployed to Iraq in 2004 and 2005. Enrolled in the joint PhD program in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard in 2006 and graduated 2012.

Alex was originally inspired by someone I used to ride the bus with in grad school. I never actually spoke to him, but we sat together almost every day. He was a short, rather dweeby-looking guy with dark golden hair and facial stubble that was all almost the same length. He carried a bag that had patches from various Naval deployments on it. I was always curious about his story, so in Alex I decided to create my own, probably more exciting and romantic, version of it.

'Christopher Robin' European Premiere - VIP Arrivals
LONDON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 05: Ewan McGregor attends the European Premiere of ‘Christopher Robin’ at BFI Southbank on August 5, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Dave J Hogan/Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)
Alex looks only very vaguely like Ewan McGregor in my mind. But that’s the only actor I could think of who looked much like him at all. So we’ll go with that 🙂

When Alex morphed into a more important character and a romantic lead, I had to make him taller, better-looking, and more intense and less dweeby in my mind, but he’s still slender and wiry, and with dark golden hair in a fairly even stubble all over his head and face.

Ewan McGregor 3

Deliberately trying to go for some less polished pictures to convey Alex’s general nature of scruffiness

Alex comes from a privileged upper-middle-class intellectual background. His father was a dean at Temple University, and it was always assumed that Alex would go into academia as well. Like Rowena’s brother John, Alex rebelled against his family’s expectations by running away and joining the military, something that in retrospect he feels very ambivalent about. In Permanent Position, the second book in the series (forthcoming), he describes how he felt after coming home from Iraq (based very loosely on a true story, FYI):

I was really fucked up after I got back from Iraq. Angry at everyone, especially myself. I’m lucky anyone who knew me back then will still speak with me.

That must have been difficult, I texted cautiously. Alex never talked much about his service, other than to say that knowing about it tended to make people jump to unwarranted conclusions about him, and take him as something that he wasn’t.

Mostly my own fault. Of course, the whole thing was mostly my own fault. But when I got back and got out of the service, I wanted to burn my uniform, did I tell you that?

No. You must have had a very difficult time.

S’okay. Other people had much worse times. Especially the Iraqi people we were “liberating.”

It was a difficult thing for everyone.

It was what it was. And when I got back and got out, I took my uniform out to my parents’ backyard and started a fire in our firepit. Because of course we’re the kind of folks who have a poncy outdoor firepit in our backyard. So no pity! So I started up a fire, and my dad came out and saw I had my uniform all laid out next to it, and he was like, “What the hell are you doing, son?” So I told him I was going to burn my fucking uniform, and what I couldn’t burn, I was going to smash with a hammer.

A recurring theme with Alex is people’s expectations vs. reality: he is very aware of the stereotypes about Navy servicemembers and compares himself unfavorably to Chris Kyle, Maverick from Top Gun, and the Richard Gere character in An Officer and a Gentleman. He, on the other hand, claims to have sat out his war writing reports in a broom closet, although judging by his intensely emotional response to his uniform, there may be more to it than that. Stay tuned for more updates!

Like John, Alex also acts as Rowena’s Dark Double sometimes. He is the one who voices a lot of the most vicious critiques of academia and academic culture, saying the things that Rowena can’t bring herself to say. Nonetheless, he finds himself sucked more and more into academic success, partly through his privilege and connections.


So there you have it! If you don’t already have a copy of Campus Confidential, the first book in the Dr. Rowena Halley series and the one in which Alex is introduced, you can pick up a free ARC in any of the giveaways listed below. Here’s the cover so that you can recognize it 🙂

campus confidential front cover with baskerville

A Hard Dame is Good to Find Header

The Hard Dame is Good to Find Giveaway is running for a few more days! Dozens of mystery, thriller, and suspense stories, all with female protagonists.

Thrillers, Mystery & Suspense

The Thrillers, Mystery & Suspense Giveaway has a wide variety of thriller and suspense books, free for a limited time!

Best Thrillers

The Best Thrillers Giveaway has thrillers of all subgenres.

campus confidential front cover with baskerville

The Thrillers, Chillers, and Serial Killers Giveaway has thrillers of all subgenres, including mystery, paranormal, and horror.

Meet My Main Character, Rowena Halley

Hi All! Today I thought I’d introduce everyone to the main character of my new academic suspense series. But first, if you haven’t already picked up a free Advance Review Copy of Campus Confidential, the first book in the series, you can get get it and dozens of other free thriller and suspense books in the Mystery and Suspense Giveaway, which will be running until January 31.

thrillers, mystery, and suspense

I’ll be doing character sketches of all my recurring characters in the series, and today I’m starting with Rowena Halley, PhD, the main viewpoint character. So without further ado, here you go:

Rowena Arwen Halley

Born 1980. Grew up largely in Georgia, where she spent much of her childhood in a commune loosely modeled off The Farm in Tennessee. Her parents met while serving together in the Peace Corps and are unrepentant hippies, although they did go mainstream enough to get advanced degrees; Rowena’s mother is a medical doctor and her father is a social worker. Both of them work in a non-profit addiction clinic in Atlanta at the opening of the series, although they later go off to do a stint with Doctors Without Borders.

Rowena is “Black Irish,” meaning she has dark hair and light eyes. In Campus Confidential she mentions a couple of times that people thinks she looks vaguely like Elizabeth Taylor, only taller and with a yoga body. In my mind she looks a bit like the actress Tara Breathnach:

tara breathnach 1

Rowena’s dark hair and light eyes, combined with her exotic-to-Russian-ears name of Halley (“Khalli”), frequently cause her Russian-speaking acquaintances to assume that she is Pashtun. This causes a number of amusing interchanges.

tara breathnach 2

Rowena’s first name is from Ivanhoe and her middle name is from The Lord of the Rings, in keeping with her parents’ 1970s hippie ethos. Her last name is my nod to Dick Francis’s recurring character Sid Halley, which is also the inspiration for my own pen name.

Rowena graduated from the University of Georgia in 2002 with a BA in Russian. She then spent 2002-2008 working for a human rights NGO in Moscow, where she acted as an election observer and gathered the stories of refugees and victims of political repression, particularly those affected by the Second Chechen War. During this time she met and became engaged to opposition journalist Dmitry Vladimirovich Kuznetsov, AKA Dima.

In 2008 Rowena, with the encouragement of Dima’s mother Galina Ivanovna, enrolled in a PhD program in Russian literature at Indiana University. The plan was for her to have steady long-term employment that would ideally allow Dima and Galina Ivanovna to join her in the US. Instead, the engagement was called off by Dima in January 2014.

Rowena defended her dissertation and graduated in Spring 2014. The first book in the series, Campus Confidential, begins in Fall 2014.

Rowena’s dissertation was on the Silver Age (early 20th century) poet Marina Tsvetaeva.


Marina Tsvetaeav

Since I seriously considered writing my own dissertation on Tsvetaeva, this gave me a nice opportunity to engage in a little more Tsvetaeva research. It also provides a connection between Rowena and Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya


Anna Politkovskaya

(assassinated October 2006), who wrote her thesis on Tsvetaeva; opposition journalists are a major theme in the series and Politkovskaya gets name-dropped from time to time.

Tsvetaeva’s “Magdalene” cycle plays a significant role in the series (translations to come, I hope). Rowena’s association with it is one of the things that mark her as a Sacred Prostitute. The theme of prostitution comes up repeatedly in the books, with Rowena contemplating it as a career and comparing what she does now to prostitution. Rowena is associated both with Mary Magdalene and with other Sacred Prostitutes in Russian literature, notably Dostoevsky’s Sonya Marmemaledova from Crime and Punishment and Liza from Notes from Underground. Dostoevsky’s The Idiot is also a recurring theme, so there may be a hint of the wronged Nastasya Filippovna from that book as well.

Fun fact: Rowena’s repeated thoughts of taking up stripping and prostitution are based on my own real-life experiences! Several of my childhood friends became strippers, and, like Rowena, I have a long-running semi-joke with some of my colleagues about taking up stripping as being more lucrative and dignified than academia.

So now you’ve met Rowena! And once again, that link to the giveaway is here.

thrillers, mystery, and suspense