Serendipity – and storytelling

Serendipity. Sometimes it’s all you could possibly ask for. This week I’ve had three unexpectedly inspiring experiences. Firstly, one of my fellow Crooked Cats came to the island on Monday – we visited beaches and art galleries, ate icecream on the waterfront, and spent the day talking about our writing. It’s wonderful to be in the company of another writer. That evening a parcel arrived – a paperback copy of Lauren Sapala’s book ‘The INFJ Writer’, which is full of useful exercises and helpful advice. I learned that my messy, bitsy, disorganised method of writing (which is neither pantsing nor planning, but more like patchwork) has a name. It’s called the mosaic technique. How nice is that? (Despite my best attempts at cheating, I always code out to INFJ. It’s a nuisance, but there we are.)

And then another friend gave me a wonderful thing. It’s a booklet and pack of forty ‘storytelling’ cards. I was messing around with them today, shuffling and dealing out a handful of cards, then using them to make up stories. It was just a bit of fun, until suddenly a story started to tell itself. ‘The Blanket of Stars’ is the first piece of extended writing I’ve done in over three months, and here it is. Small, and whole and perfect. And all thanks to Jennifer, Lauren and Carol. Here’s to serendipity – and to friends!

The Blanket of Stars

Once there was a king: the usual kind, strong and rich and wilful, dispensing judgement from his great carved throne and overseeing the running of his kingdom. He was not a happy man, for he was troubled with poor sleep, and nightmares. Not so many nightmares, at that, for it was not often that he slept long enough for dreams to come.

He sat on his throne, which come to think of it was rather hard and not very comfortable, and stared down at his servants and companions in the great hall. His brow was deeply furrowed, his shoulders high and tense, and he tapped one boot on the flagstones of the floor as he sat there. His chamberlain came forward, rather reluctantly, bowed and enquired after the king’s health.

The king glared at him. “I’m tired of having no sleep,” he grumbled. “I’m sick of these poor quality dreams. Fetch the Keeper of Dreams.”

The servants reported that no-one had seen the old man for a very long time, and they weren’t even sure if he was still alive.

“Of course he’s alive,” roared the king. “If he’d died someone would have told me.” This sounded quite logical, and anyway everyone was too afraid of the king to argue with him.

“Search high and low,” said the king, “from the deepest, darkest dungeon to the highest, most windswept tower and find the Keeper of Dreams. I want to sleep.”

So the king’s servants spread out through the castle. They searched from the deepest, darkest dungeon to the highest, most windswept tower, and at last they found the Keeper of Dreams where he’d been all along: in his own bed, fast asleep, with a dreaming smile upon his face.

The old man came before the king, sitting on his high throne, and he bowed. “Your Majesty is looking well,” he said.

“Never mind that,” said the king. “This is no time for platitudes. Anyway, I don’t believe I am looking well, because I haven’t slept for weeks. I need to sleep, Keeper. I want some pleasant dreams. Open your box of tricks. Make it happen.”

The Keeper of Dreams eyed the king for a moment, noting his frowning brow, the unsatisfied twist of his lips, and the distinctly red tinge of his eyes. “Your Majesty,” he said, “the solution to your ills is the Star Blanket. If we can get you settled into bed with the Star Blanket tucked around you, you’d soon find yourself snoozing peacefully, awash with pleasant dreams.”

“Oh,” said the king wistfully. “That does sound good.” He mused for a moment, then his shoulders, which had relaxed, drew up again either side of his ears and he shouted, “Well, what are you waiting for? Get out there and find me the Star Blanket.”

So the Keeper of Dreams packed a small bag of his most essential possessions and set off into the world. He took with him a tiny casket, containing his favourite and most beloved dreams. As he walked through the streets of the city, he observed the daily lives of the king’s people, and spoke with many as he passed by. But none had heard of the Star Blanket, or knew of its whereabouts. One old, old woman gazed at him, her face creased with thousands of wrinkles, and spoke.

“You might as well ask the beasts of the fields as the people of this city,” she said. “For they are too busy and too worldly to pay any attention to something as old and well-worn as the Star Blanket.”

“That’s good advice, ma’am,” the Keeper of Dreams said, for he was nothing if not polite, and he remembered his own old mother, dead this many a long year, and treated the old lady with courtesy on behalf of his mother’s memory. He set off out of the city gates, on his way to ask the beasts if they had seen the Star Blanket, since the people of the city had been no help to him.

The old woman watched him go, her eyes bright and far-seeing in her old, old face. She smiled, and the wrinkles doubled, as she noted that the kind and charming man was not much younger than herself. “Good luck to you, my fine fellow,” she said. “I have a feeling I’ll be seeing you again.” She closed her eyes and her head nodded upon her breast, as she fell into the quick, easy sleep of the very old.

The Keeper of Dreams got no help from the beasts of the field: cows, sheep and llamas have no use for the artefacts of dreaming. They simply lay down with the coming of darkness and the Star Blanket fell over them quite naturally so that they slept till morning, and dreamed the dreams of contented animals. Perhaps he would have more luck in the dark forest. He stumbled his way into the deepest, darkest part of the forest, tripping over tree roots and extricating himself from bramble patches, until at last he found himself faced by a fearsome looking beast, half-human and half some wild creature of the wilderness.

“Halt,” cried the beast. “I’m hungry and you’ll do for my dinner. Stand still and let me kill you.”

The Keeper of Dreams replied that he would sooner not be eaten, if possible, as he was on an urgent errand for the king. He delved into his small bag and pulled out a heel of bread. The beast seized the bread and ate it in a few bites, washing it down with water from a nearby streamlet.

“Why should I care about the king?” he said. “Once I lived in that great city of his; I was a respected member of society. But I began to have bad dreams, and then I couldn’t sleep, and at last I was so maddened by lack of it that my neighbours turned me out into the woods to die. It’s a bad season – too early in the year for fruit and grains. I’ve eaten nothing but meat for weeks. There’s not much meat on your bones, old man, but I’ll have what there is regardless. It will keep me going until tomorrow.”

He lurched towards the old man, but stumbled to a halt as the Keeper of Dreams drew out his tiny box and opened it. A warm, golden light filled the clearing.

“Oh.” The beast leaned forwards and gazed into the box. “Oh, I see.” He sank to his haunches and bowed his head, closing his eyes and falling into sleep. A little golden dust settled on his head and shoulders as he began to snore. The Keeper of Dreams patted the sleeping beast’s shoulder companionably, tucked his box back into his bag, and walked away.

On the other side of the dark forest the Keeper of Dreams spotted a young lad, watching over a flock of sheep. The sheep grazed peacefully on the green grass, a rainbow flickered into being as a shower passed across the ground, and then the sun shone again as the shepherd lad pulled a pipe out of his pocket and began to play. The old man smiled, and he felt a little of his burden lift at the joyful sound. Surely a boy so contented must know the secret of peaceful sleep and quiet dreams.

“Lad,” he cried as he started forwards. “Please help me. I am on an urgent errand for the king, who is troubled in his sleep and suffers unquiet dreams. I am seeking the Star Blanket. Please tell me you know where it is.”

“I’m not sure I can help you,” said the boy. “Each day I bring my flock in from the pasture and put them into the barn. My sister brings me food, and then I curl up with the sheep to sleep in the warm straw. Sometimes a star looks in the high window of the barn, and even though the wolf howls I know that I am safe. But I remember that when I was very young my mother would sing me to sleep, and I always had good dreams. Maybe she can help you.” And he gave the Keeper of Dreams a little bread and cheese from his satchel (for he was a good boy, and his mother had taught him to be kind to strangers) and directed him towards the mountain path that would lead him to the village in the valley below.

The Keeper opened his small box and offered it to the boy, who reached inside and pulled out an amber honey chew. This he ate with every evidence of enjoyment. The Keeper made his way across the meadow, wondering what sweet dream the young shepherd would receive when he lay down in the barn that evening.

By this time the Keeper of Dreams was very tired, and he wondered if he would ever manage to find the Star Blanket for the king, or if perhaps he was fated to walk until his legs dropped off, or his poor old heart gave out. But at last he reached the outskirts of the village, and saw a wee white cottage with a carving of leaves and flowers over the lintel. In the doorway of the house stood a woman – a very ordinary looking woman, in a peasant’s black dress and grey shawl, but her face was kind and her eyes a warm brown as she gazed at him.

“Sir, you look tired,” she said. “Will you sit awhile and take a sup of ale with me?”

The Keeper of Dreams was very pleased to take the weight off, so he dropped onto the bench beside the door and sighed as he stretched out his aching legs and sore feet. The woman brought two tankards of ale, cool and frothy, and sat beside him, sipping her drink and gazing out across the yard where a couple of chickens were hopefully pecking the ground.

“Mother, I thank you. This was just what I needed.” The Keeper of Dreams raised his tankard to the woman, who nodded but didn’t reply. For a long moment they sat there in the warm sunshine, enjoying the moment of rest, however brief. Then the Keeper of Dreams stirred and turned towards her.

“It seems to me that I met your son, up in the high pastures,” he said. “I told him I was looking for the Star Blanket, and he said that he couldn’t help me, but he remembered that when he was very young you would sing him to sleep and he had pleasant dreams. I wonder if you would mind coming with me to the city to sing to the king. He is troubled in his sleep and has unquiet dreams.”

The woman gazed at him wonderingly. “They are very ordinary songs,” she said, “and I have only a very ordinary voice. Of course, he is my son and I love him. That makes a difference.” She thought for a moment, then stood. “Wait here,” she said, and disappeared back into her cottage.

The Keeper of Dreams was content to wait. It was pleasant sitting in the sun after a mug of ale and a day of hard exercise. He may even have dropped off for a moment, but came fully alert when the woman emerged from her house, holding an old, scruffy, many-times-patched blanket. It was the faded pink of the washed out evening sky, and every square of its patchwork bore a cloth star. Some of the stars were bright and colourful, but others were faded or torn, and a few hung loose where the stitching had come undone.

The woman bundled the blanket into a bag and pulled it onto her shoulder, along with a pouch of cheese and apples. “Come on, then,” she said. “I can’t be away long, because the sheep will soon be shorn and then I need to get busy with my spinning. But my housework can wait a day or two, if the king’s in need of a sleep.”

On their first night of travelling the Keeper offered her his little box. She peeped inside, her face warmed by the golden light, but she shook her head and he closed it again. “An early start, plenty of hard work and a job well done – those will bring me rest at night. No need for any golden toy to charm my sleep.”

The two of them trudged through the great gate of the castle a couple of days later. They’d eaten all the cheese and apples along the way, and the Keeper had traded a dream for a loaf of sour bread on the second day, but they were both footsore and hungry, and very glad to have arrived. The castle kitchen was bustling with preparations for the king’s dinner, but the second cook sat them down at a table in the corner and served them soup and bread, and a fruit compote for dessert, for the ordinary people of the castle ate the same good food as the king, only that theirs was not served on silver platters or accompanied by the best Rhenish wine.

After the meal the Keeper of Dreams spoke quietly to the cook, and she allowed the woman to use her kitchen, although she insisted first on a thorough wash and a change of clothing. Luckily one of the housemaids was a similar shape to the woman, and loaned her a grey dress and white apron, and a white scarf to cover her hair. The woman set to work in the kitchen, and before long doors were opening and servants peering in to discover the source of the appetising aromas that were issuing from the oven.

At last the Keeper of Dreams brought the woman before the king. He sat as before on his high, hard throne, with a frown of bitterness on his face and his tired head on his hand. The doors opened and the Keeper strode into the hall, bringing with him a wholesome smell of cinnamon and nutmeg and cloves. The king sat up and breathed deeply. “What is this?” he demanded.

The woman curtseyed, and placed her items on a nearby table. She poured him a simple pottery mug of cinnamon milk posset, and offered a plateful of spiced cakes, still hot from the oven. The king took the drink, not without a slight curl of the lip at the plainness of its container, but after one sip he drained the mug and turned his attention to the cakes. He ate three. The Keeper took advantage of the king’s distraction to help himself to a cake. They were really very good.

The woman sat on the step below the throne and stretched out her legs in front of her, pulling down the housemaid’s skirts which were, truth to tell, slightly short and displayed a pair of nicely turned ankles and two neat, stockinged feet. The king gazed at the shapely ankles and munched absently on another cake. She leaned her head against the side of the throne and began to hum.

There was nothing much to the song – a low, swaying melody, a word or two and some fal-la-lals. Nothing much to listen to. Nothing to excite, or interest, or…

The king’s eyelids drooped and he let go of the pottery mug. The Keeper swooped forward and caught it before it could shatter on the flagstones. The king’s head fell forward and he began to snore. The woman stood and regarded him for a moment. The Keeper of Dreams began to speak, but she put her finger to her lips.

She turned and beckoned to the chamberlain, who was peering in through the double doors of the great hall. The chamberlain pushed the doors open and in came the king’s huge, wheeled, four-poster bed, so heavy that it took twenty footmen to manoeuvre it. They rolled it into the centre of the hall, and then the Keeper ushered the servants and retainers away.

The woman went to the throne and gently nudged the king.

“Whassam?” he muttered, his eyelids flickering. She put one hand under his elbow and encouraged him to stand. With the woman on one side, and the old man on the other, the king climbed down from the throne and lay down on the clean white sheets of the bed. The woman pulled up the eiderdown as the king turned on his side and mumbled sleepily.

Opening the bag she still carried over one shoulder, the woman pulled out the Star Blanket and draped it over the king. One hand came up and pawed at the blanket, but she took it and laid it down by his side, and tucked the blanket around him. She stroked his cheek gently and the frown cleared from his face. After a moment his breathing deepened again, and she gestured to the Keeper to precede her into the corridor.

“That was a kind thing you did,” said the Keeper. “Being as how that’s no magical object in there, but only an ordinary ratty old blanket of the kind that any peasant woman might make for her babies. Still, there was surely magic in the song, anyway.”

The woman smiled and touched the Keeper’s cheek. He leaned into the touch, feeling again the long distant warmth of his mother’s hand. “Every boy needs his mother from time to time,” she said. “And every mother knows the secret of the Blanket of Stars.”

She spoke to the chamberlain, who was hovering outside the doors to the great hall, clearly wanting to go in to his master. “I will return in the spring when my first grandchild is born. I’ll want the Star Blanket back then, and he won’t need it anymore.” She shouldered her empty bag and walked out of the castle, without a backward glance.

The Keeper stood watching after her for a few minutes. Behind him the chamberlain slipped quietly into the hall. The Keeper’s forehead bore its own frowning mark as he thought, rather slowly since he was tired after his journey. Then his face cleared and his eyes widened. Nodding to himself he walked out of the castle and down into the town.

As he crossed the marketplace the old woman was there, sitting on her doorstep, taking in the late afternoon sun. She looked at him without speaking as he sat on the doorstep beside her, and turned to look into her face. Her back was bowed and her face old, but her expression was as young as springtime and her eyes were bright. The Keeper took one of her gnarled, arthritic hands in his and rubbed it gently.

“When I was young, and new in my job, and I thought that I was soon to hold all the secrets of the dreaming world in my hands, I had a dream.” He paused and looked at her, and she smiled at him. The wrinkles on her face doubled, but her eyes were clear and shining and fixed on his face.

“I dreamed that I walked far, far from my home, until I came to a valley between two peaks. There the grass was green and the streams fresh and clear. The trees bore blossom, green leaf and fruit all together, and in among the fruit bushes deer grazed in the company of wolves, rabbits scampered between the paws of a lion, and an eagle screamed overhead but did not disturb the hens which searched for worms amongst the strawberries.”

The woman gazed at him serenely. Her smile deepened, and the wrinkles tripled, but she made no sound. She patted his hand comfortingly, and he continued.

“In this valley was a small white house with smoke coming from the chimney. And on the threshhold stood an enchantress, young in years and strong in the use of her power. She led me into her garden and fed me on the sweetest fruits. And as the sun dipped behind the mountains, I realised that her eyes were the precise colour of the sky at the moment when all the light has gone, but the first star has not yet begun to shine.”

He stopped, and for the first time looked uncertain. He looked again into the old, wise face and was drawn into two deep pools of smoky blue. He began to tremble.

She smiled, the smile of a woman who is taking pity on a man when she knows he has floundered into deep water. Despite the wrinkles, the Keeper suddenly saw a woman who, in her own mind, was as young and powerful as ever she had been. She stood and pulled him to his feet.

“Some dreams are not meant to be shared,” she said, “and others wait a lifetime within us.” She pulled his head down and brushed her lips over his. “But now you have found my garden, and you will find that the fruits are still sweet.”

***

Cards used:

The King

The Keeper of Dreams

The Enchantress

The Wild Beast

The Youngest Son

The Mother

The Star Blanket

Advertisements

Olga Swan: French Notes from a Broad

Good morning, Olga. Welcome to The Knitted Curiosity Cabinet.

olga swan paradis

Tell us about your new book. What genre does it belong to? What inspired you to write it? Is it based on history, or current events – or is it a wild flight of fancy?

My new release ‘Pensioners in Paradis: French Notes From A Broad’ (authl.it/86j) is one of Crooked Cat’s True Cats Non-Fiction Range. It is pretty much autobiographical, charting our hysterical journey from being self-deprecating, depressive Brummies, steeped in life’s troubles, and whisking us across the Channel. Readers will laugh with us as we encounter hilarious situations en France – from troublesome workmen, the infamous bureaucracy, and even sex à la française! You can take notes on this transition from English doom and gloom to la belle vie française, and follow the exploits of this oh-so-recognisable English couple. What could possibly go wrong?

Come to the launch party on its full release day of 29th August 2017 by clicking on facebook.com/events/158998377995657  and join in the fun. There’ll be signed book prizes, music, comedy videos and special guest author appearances: all talking about hilarious cultural differences between the English and other countries.

Who is your favourite character? What particularly inspired you to write his or her story? Is your character warm and winning, or prickly and difficult? How does their personality affect the way you choose to write about them?

 Well it has to be Him Indoors with his own particular brand of humour. Whether it’s selling hammers at knock-down prices, directing customers who are looking to get felt in the market or dealing with French workmen, it’s all written in his own inimitable style. You just have to laugh with him.

What about location? Why did you choose this setting? Do you know the area well? Or is it somewhere you can visit only in imagination? How can you readers best imagine the landscape in which your books are set?

 It starts in familiar Midlands’ territory, moving to S.W. France, where we lived for 12 years. The book contrasts the urban English working world with the idyllic setting of our first French house on the banks of the river Aveyron, with details of such French delights as colourful market days, local games of pétanque, le bien manger at tasty restaurants etc. 

What’s coming up next? Are you working on a new novel? What else have you written?

olga swan 3rd degree

To date four of my books have been published by Crooked Cat. All have Birmingham characters. 3rd Degree Murder (authl.it/4ia)  is a novel based on my 30 years’ work at the University of Birmingham;  Lamplight (authl.it/4q0) is book 1 in the David Klein war reporter series, covering 1912 – 1938; Vichyssoise (authl.it/52l) is book 2, featuring the Vichy government during WW2, based on original French research. I am also writing a series for children, under my own name of Gillian Green – 3 are published with 4 yet to come (www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B013IBD4PU)

olga swan lamplight vichy

Every Sunday I write a blog on current events, political, cultural or geographical, which draws a regular audience from around the world. Have you read it yet? Olgaswan.blogspot.com.

 Many thanks Yvonne for allowing me space on your popular blog. It is much appreciated. Must dash – I’m currently reading your novel Walking on Wild Air and don’t want to miss the next bit.

Nevil Shute: a Study in Impeccable Writing

RequiemForAWren

I read a lot of Nevil Shute as a youngster – growing up in New Zealand, it was natural that his books should be in the library. I enjoyed them; he writes a good yarn, with plenty of action and interesting storylines, and his characters are strong and memorable, particularly the women. But it’s decades since I last read him, and the one I’m reading now I have never read before.

Requiem for a Wren is an exemplar of Shute’s work, and in particular his skill in purveying vast amounts of background through a few terse sentences. He’s a master at providing information without the reader being at all conscious that he’s doing so.

In the first paragraph of Requiem nothing much is happening. The narrator is an airline passenger, and the plane is beginning to descend. But look at how much information he packs into the first two sentences.

There was a layer of cumulus, about seven-tenths, with tops at about five thousand feet as we came to Essenden airport; we broke out of it at two thousand and we were on the circuit downwind, with the aerodrome on our starboard wing. I sat with my eyes glued to the window looking out at Melbourne, because this was my home town and I had been away five years.

I don’t mean the obvious – cloud cover and all – but rather the great deal of information which is implied. We now know that our narrator is Australian, and that he is an airman (very likely a pilot, given the breadth and complexity of his observations). As the book was published in 1955, the ‘five years’ remark gives us a pretty big clue that he was away at war, so now we know what kind of airman he is.

[The stewardess} smiled and said quietly ‘Would you like any help down the gangway, sir?’

I shook my head. ‘I’ll wait till the others are off. I’m all right if I take my time’

So… an injury or disability bad enough for him to potentially need help, but she is circumspect and he determined to be independent. That makes me think straight away about wartime injuries – and it turns out that’s exactly right. He goes on to meet the foreman from his parents’ sheep station, and discovers that there has been a death at the farm, but even then he’s more interested in the changes in the landscape since the war.

It’s only on page 12 that we begin get a sense of his injury, and this too is in typical laconic style.

Horses were still used by the boundary riders, but … my father drove all over the property in a Land Rover instead of riding on a horse as he always had when I was young. That suited me, for artificial feet are something of a handicap upon a horse. There was a great deal for me to learn about the property before I could unload some of the work from my parents, and I was keen to make a start.

Shute’s style is one I favour, with long passages of narrative interspersed with briefer dialogue and conversation. It’s somewhat out of fashion these days, when we are all being told ‘do, don’t tell’ and ‘don’t infodump’, although in Shute’s case it’s more like info-infusion, and his laid-back style suits the subject. Our protagonist is reluctant to display his disability, or any of the other ways in which war has changed him, and it becomes increasingly clear that this same reticence applies to the other characters in the novel, including the dead girl, whose story rapidly takes centre stage. So much is conveyed in these sparse, careful sentences that by the time he reaches the revelation at the bottom of page 53, it comes with a sense of inevitability. It could only have been this way.

I’m not going to tell you the story. Not all of you will want to read the book, but you can read the first few pages online. Have a look, and see whether you have anything to learn from this master of understated prose.

Why read Jane Austen?

{2017 celebrates the life of Jane Austen, and her death 200 years ago, on 18th July 1817}

I suppose most of us were made to read one or another of Jane Austen’s small output of novels while we were at school, and many didn’t enjoy the experience. Something about the combination of old-fashioned language and compulsory reading can be off-putting. Still, haven’t we all watched the TV or film adaptations, and enjoyed her portrayals of the high life in Eighteenth Century England? But it’s all a far cry from the modern world, where’s there’s surely no place for essays in etiquette, or comedies of manners.

Au contraire. For in Jane Austen, we have someone who may have danced at balls, guested at fine mansions, and observed the behaviours of high society, but she didn’t belong to the upper echelons. Jane was a vicarage child; her parents were would-be gentry without the means to achieve gentility. Due in part to her brother’s Edward’s adoption by genuinely wealthy people, Jane frequently visited and stayed in the smart and expensive households of the era, but she never belonged there. She was always the observer. And as she was clever, and witty, and enjoyed writing about her experiences, we are graced today with some of the best observations on human behaviour ever recorded.

You don’t have to plough through Pride and Prejudice, or suffer Sense and Sensibility, to see the truth of this. If you hated the novels – or simply didn’t get on with them – you can get a quick and clear sense of Jane’s wit from reading her letters. Here she is replying to her niece, Fanny Knight, who has forced her boyfriend to read one of Jane’s books, only to discover that he didn’t enjoy it:

Do not oblige him to read any more. Have mercy on him, tell him the truth, and make him an apology. He and I should not in the least agree, of course, in our ideas of novels and heroines. Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked: but there is some very good sense in what he says, and I particularly respect him for wishing to think well of all young ladies; it shows an amiable and a delicate mind. And he deserves better treatment than to be obliged to read any more of my works.

A pithy sentence deals with the poet Byron – she gives the clear impression she doesn’t think much of him.

I have read [Byron’s] The Corsair, mended my petticoat, and have nothing else to do.

On the other hand, if you read between the lines of her apparent complaint about Sir Walter Scott, it’s clear that she likes his writing very much. This is the writing style seen in the novels, where keen observation of humanity’s follies is delivered in a droll and humorous style, with the wit carefully concealed in words that can be read two ways. Does she ever write straight? Or is her view always slightly slant?

Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. — It is not fair. — He has fame and profit enough as a poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths. — I do not like him, and do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it — but fear I must.

She can be just as tart in making non-literary references. To her sister Cassandra (with whom she kept up a long and extensive correspondence):

I give you joy of our new nephew, and hope if he ever comes to be hanged it will not be till we are too old to care about it.

And in another:

Next week [I] shall begin my operations on my hat, on which you know my principal hopes of happiness depend.

This is both amusing and poignant. As Jane’s income was limited, and she wished to continue to move in the wealthier circles frequented by members of her extended family, such a comment is both a joke (we know perfectly well she is too intelligent to take more than a superficial happiness in material goods) and heartfelt – the hat represents her need to present herself well, despite her circumstances, and it therefore stands for her material condition, which well might affect her ability to feel happy.

One of her most famous quotes – now enshrined on the new English £10 note – simply says:

I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! 

(It continues, How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.)

On the surface, and particularly if you haven’t read the book, this is a straightforward comment. Of course Jane Austen feels this way about reading. How lovely. However, she puts these words into the mouth of Caroline Bingley, a woman who most definitely does not enjoy reading, but pretends she does in order to impress her wannabe beau, Mr Darcy. Wicked Jane. We know she believes this – but in the novel it actually means the opposite of what it says. Do you feel manipulated? So you should – that is her intent – and the disjunct between the superficial meaning of the words and the intent of the character who speaks them is deliberate. It has caused much discussion online, as Janeites and literary scholars weight out in favour of, or against, the quote on the bank note.

How nice to see Jane getting lots of free press in this, the bicentenary of her death!

Sources:

Quotes came from the wonderful Pemberly.com, a tremendous resort for Janeites of all stripes.

Some of the information came from Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen at Home – a well-written and very entertaining biography which gives us Jane for our age. Previous biographies have been quite different, and this new take is well worth reading.

 

 

Great Summer Reads II – Paranormal

090717 paranormal summer reading covers

‘Paranormal’ is a genre I love to read, whether it crosses over with romance, horror, or pure adventure. It’s a pretty broad category, and these are all very different books. But the five I didn’t write myself are all among my favourites reads, and I recommend all of them.

Storm Bound is my favourite in Dani Harper’s Grim series – a modern take on fairies, witches, and transformative magic. Her books are exciting, romantic, and often quite funny, and even the most bizarre of her fantastic creatures becomes somehow completely believable. If your heart doesn’t break for spellbound Aidan then it must be made of stone.

Jami Gold’s Mythos series introduces a whole range of stories that spring from the supposition that there is a mythical realm lying adjacent to our own – from this realm all our human mythologies arise. She has written a series of books, each focusing on the interactions between a particular Mythos denizen and the human world. This one, Unintended Guardian, is a piece of short fiction, offered free as an introduction to the Mythos universe. There are four full length novels to read as well. Any of them would make a great summer read.

Walking on Wild Air, my own contribution to the genre, is a ghost story with a difference – a male protagonist who is bound to his island hilltop; Scottish noir with nary a kilt or bagpipe in sight. Dougie MacLean is (perhaps literally) to die for, and his love is definitely worth the wait.

Shani Struthers writes a different kind of ghost story in her Psychic Surveys series – ghostly carryings-on are investigated by a team of psychics, who all have their own problems to contend with. The simple process of  sending souls to the light becomes ever more difficult as Ruby Davis and her team are forced to confront a true evil. The Haunting of Highdown Hall is the first in a critically acclaimed series, and I love them.

Last Days Forever is a story about angels. But like everything Vanessa Knipe writes it’s an original take on a familiar trope – indeed a number of familiar storylines are interwoven here, including a time travel strand. Clever, entertaining, well worth a read.

And lastly, Robin McKinley’s Sunshine has been around for a while now, but it’s still the best book about vampires I’ve ever read. Forget everything you’ve been told. This is the dance of light and dark, and it doesn’t go at all the way you expect. Neil Gaiman called this ‘a perfect work of magical literature’, and who am I to argue with the master?

Whatever you decide to read this summer, I hope you’ll consider one of these six. Or do you have a better suggestion? I’m always on the lookout for quality paranormal reads. Let me know what your favourites are.

Walking on Wild Air myBook.to/WildAir

Unintended Guardian http://smarturl.it/UGKin

Storm Bound https://daniharper.com/storm-bound/

The Haunting of Highdown Hall http://a-fwd.com/asin-com=B00JY83HBI

 

 

Five Scariest Screen Psychos Of All Time

Eli Carros the watcher artwork

While writing my crime thriller The Watcher, and forming the make-up of my lead antagonist, I made a study of various infamous psychopaths.  I did this both from real life psychopaths, and from fictional psychopaths depicted in novels and on screen.  What I was attempting to do was to build up a composite, a unique character who possessed his own, individual motivations, but would feel authentic to readers by carrying on the long tradition of the fictional and cinematic psychopath.

The true psychopath is probably one of the most interesting and yet possibly one of the hardest characters to write, as although he (or she) might be superficially charming, the psychopath has absolutely zero good intention once you get down to the bottom line.  No empathy, zilch, none.

Unlike most villains, who might at least have a redeeming feature or two, a psychopath is defined by their distinct lack of empathy.  It’s hard to find redeeming features in someone who lacks this essential quality.

After all, people can be flawed, they can even do bad things, but someone who can’t identify with people’s pain, who might even enjoy causing harm and seeing others suffer is naturally abhorrent to us.

Quite rightly too, for that lack of empathy, that sadistic streak, is what makes them a psychopath after all, and not just someone’s who’s merely antisocial or has behavioural problems or violent tendencies.

With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at how psychopaths have been portrayed on the big screen.   I selected five screen psychopaths, who I feel have made the most impact on viewers and on movie depictions of psychopathy in general, each selected for their own particular brand of psychosis.

So here it is, my round up of the five all time scariest screen psychos – ever.  Feel free to comment if you agree, or disagree, and mention your fave screen psychopaths in comments, if they haven’t been included.

Max Cady in Cape Fear (Robert De Niro) 1991 Directed by Martin Scorsese

Cape Fear was one of the first films I remember watching that scared the hell out of me, which was mostly due to Robert De Niro’s sinister portrayal of convicted rapist Max Cady.  Cady is a menacing, violent and revengeful psychopath, who’s determined to seek revenge on the lawyer he sees as having betrayed him.

The Scorsese directed film also stars Nick Nolte as Sam Bowden, the aforementioned lawyer, and  introduced me to one of my favourite actresses ever, Juliette Lewis, who went on to star in another psycho flick, with Oliver Stone’s bloodsoaked Natural Born Killers.

Cady is manipulative, a master at getting his own way, but he’s also predatorial, as evidenced by the way he expertly works his way into Nolte’s family, via his grooming of Lewis.  There are many points during this movie where I felt the suspense grab me by the gut and the end scene is particularly tense; the first time I saw it I was, literally, on the edge of my seat.

This film is important in the hisroty of fictional psychopaths because it emphasises a common trait many who possess the psychopathic personality have and that’s being unable to rest until perceived injustices are righted.  In Cady’s mind, that’s his rape conviction, and in the movie, his mission number one is to cause maximum damage for the person he perceives as responsible for that conviction, Nolte’s Bowden.

Annie Wilkes in Misery (Kathy Bates) 1990 Directed by Rob Reiner

A truly chilling depiction of a screen psychopath, the sinister yet chillingly everyday Annie Wilkes, brilliantly portrayed by Kathy Bates in Rob Reiner’s adaptation of the Steven King novel.  Annie’s psychopathy unfolds slowly, which only prolongs the intensity and suspense for the viewer, as we all suspect what’s coming for James Caan’s poor writer Paul Sheldon, but we have to wait to have our worst fears confirmed.

When I watched Misery for the first time, it struck me that a claustrophobic domestic setting such as Annie’s cabin can be just as scary, if not more so, than any scenario involving high octane chase or outright kidnap or abduction.

Often it’s the ordinary things, mundane situations carrying a hint of the sinister, that have the power to elicit more creepiness out of us than any amount of over-the-top outright psychotic displays.  What could be more ordinary than the stereotypical middle-America character of Annie Wilkes, at first glance?   Though of course Annie does go on to unleash the full power of her terrifying psychosis in Reiner’s film, at first it’s this subtle undercurrent of menace that grips us and makes us watch on.

Eli Carros the watcher banner

Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (Christian Bale) Adapted from the Bret Easton Ellis Novel

As well as being a brilliant satire on corporate America’s culture of greed, and more, more, more, American Psycho introduces us to one of the most chilling psychos I have ever seen depicted on screen, or in fiction for that matter.

Bateman exudes danger, and unpredictable menace, and what’s more he inflicts the most brutal carnage without showing one shred of remorse.  The film, adapted from the excellent novel by Bret Easton Ellis, is more than just a slasher fest, but is also a fusion of bitingly acerbic social commentary, horror movie, and sly observation on just what happens when a character with no soul like Bateman is enabled by a society committed to some truly selfish mores.

American Psycho features some bizarre and disturbing scenes that perfectly depict the senseless violence of a psychopathic and damaged mind.  More than that though, I think it goes further, and forces us to take a long hard look in the mirror, at our society, and some of the values we currently embrace.

Norman Bates in Psycho (Anthony Perkins) Directed By Alfred Hitchcock 1960

Norman is the classic movie psycho, the gold standard of terrifying madness depicted on the silver screen.  Influenced by his bullying, sadistic mother, Norman goes on to become a psycho of utterly horrifying proportions, butchering seemingly randomly selected hapless guests who’ve had the misfortune to book a stay at the Bates Motel with merciless frenzy.

Norman though, is unlike our other screen psychopaths.  In fact I would argue he is a psychopath made not born, as we the viewers are shown that while indeed he is under the grip of a psychosis of  biblical proportions, his madness is at least in part someone else’s fault aka his mothers.

Hitchcock, of course, was one of the masters of suspense, and in this movie he peaks, with a chilling portrayal of a disturbed and abused mind.  Norman is important in the pantheon of movie psychosis because twisted and depraved as he might be, because of what he has had to endure, viewers can even find some empathy with him.

Hannibal Lector in Silence Of The Lambs (Anthony Hopkins) Directed by Jonathon Demme (Academy Award Winning)

Ah, Hannibal Lector, the menacingly muzzled psychotic, first introduced to us on the silver screen in Jonathon Demme’s dark psychological cinematic foray, The Silence Of The Lambs.  The movie, starring Jodie Foster as FBI agent with a troubled side Clarice Starling, and Anthony Hopkins as the charming but psychotic Hannibal, dares to probe beneath the typical trappings of the big screen psychopath and lets us glimpse at the even more horrifying psyche beneath.

Silence Of The Lambs is particularly scary because Hopkin’s Hannibal knows no bounds.   In his world, everything can be justified, and morality is all relative, held in thrall to a madman’s slanted perspective.  Everything Hannibal does, he can justify, at least in his own mind, and frequently, extremely eloquently to others.

Lector is such an expert manipulator, and so adept at getting under other’s skin, that even Foster’s tough-as-nails FBI Agent Starling starts to unravel. Even in Lector’s most brutal killings there is a chilling restraint and meticulous execution, unlike Bateman, or Bate’s frenzied violence.

Who’s your favourite big screen psycho and why?  Leave a comment below and tell us why you agree or disagree with the top five cinematic psychos featured in this article.

If you enjoy probing the recesses of a psychopathic mind, you’ll love THE WATCHER, a terrifying journey into the twisted mind of a master predator.  The novel is released on June 21st by Crooked Cat Books, and you can pick up a paperback copy at special discount price ahead of the official release, or pre-order your e-copy
GET YOUR COPY OF THE WATCHER AT PRE-ORDER PRICE HERE!

Eli Carros is published by Crooked Cat

Eli Carros author picCClogosmall2Eli Carros the watcher cover

So… why Treacle?

Treacle  ˈtriːk(ə)l

noun: treacle; plural noun: treacles

  1. a. British: a thick, sticky dark syrup made from partly refined sugar; molasses.

         b. syrup of a golden-yellow colour; golden syrup.

  1.  cloying sentimentality or flattery.

“enough of this treacle—let’s get back to business”

Origin: Middle English (originally denoting an antidote against venom): from Old French triacle, via Latin from Greek thēriakē ‘antidote against venom’, feminine of thēriakos (adjective), from thērion ‘wild beast’. Current senses date from the late 17th century.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

According to various online sources, the word treacle goes back to a borrowing from Old French triacle, a word referring to the sugar-syrup base into which apothecaries would decant whatever nasty-tasting cures they wished their patient to take. The word derives ultimately from a Greek word thēriakē, meaning an antidote against venom, which suggests that its early applications were topical (i.e. slather it on the outside, rather than apply it to the inside).

This dark, viscous product of sugar refining thus gained its name due to its association with apothecaries and their products. All the syrupy by-products of sugar refinement were known as treacle, but later the British firm Lyle perfected the refining process to produce that other, more popular, sugar syrup known as golden syrup. You can still buy treacle – these days it’s often called black treacle (or, in the US, molasses), to distinguish it from its golden cousin.

While sugar can be produced from beets as well as sugar cane, only the latter produces a pleasant tasting treacle.

The 17th century seems to mark the time when treacle made the jump from a medicine to a foodstuff. https://britishfoodhistory.wordpress.com/tag/treacle/ suggests ‘bread tart’ and ‘sweetmeat cake’ as early recipes using treacle, and the earliest recipes for ‘treacle tart’ in the 1870s precede Lyle’s development of golden syrup, even though most modern recipes call for golden syrup rather than black treacle. Gingerbread, which has been around at least since the 1400s, switched to using treacle as an ingredient during the 18th century. But the popularity of ‘Mary Poppins’ suggests that the association of sugar syrup with medicines remains as strong as ever.

I’m rather drawn to the idea that a substance famed for being sickly sweet (as in the famous treacle tart of my story – the favourite dessert of Harry Potter – and the treacle wells mentioned by the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland) ultimately derives its name from medicines which were so bitter that they required a sweet coating. That seems a good metaphor for this story collection.

In Treacle and Other Twisted Tales I take some well-known tales and retell them with a twist, a difference, or a wee flicker of darkness. There are new stories, too, some drawn from imagination and others from experience. There are no entirely happy endings – I don’t really believe in them – but some at least come to satisfactory conclusions. If there’s a moral in the story, it’s that beneath sweetness there is always a small, sharp tang of bitterness, and sometimes the sugar coating is very thin indeed. Life isn’t fair, and nothing ever turns out exactly the way we want it to. These aren’t fairy stories, you know.

As for the second meaning – sentimentality or flattery – isn’t that the business of we fiction writers? I employ my words as the appetising coating to encourage some unpalatable suggestions to go down. Did I sweeten the mixture enough?

And am I genuinely channelling my East End ancestors, or merely mocking Eastenders the soap, when I say to you, “Don’t worry, treacle* – if you don’t like this story, maybe the next one’ll suit you better”?

*Treacle (tart) = sweetheart

mybook.to/treacle

https://www.facebook.com/events/1986209328266203/?active_tab=discussion

https://www.facebook.com/TheCalgaryChessman/

 

Broad Thoughts from a Home

Here I am on Sue Barnard’s blogspot, talking about the writing journey, and my new book, The Ashentilly Letters (third in the Calgary Chessman sequence, published 18/11/16).

https://broad-thoughts-from-a-home.blogspot.co.uk/2016/11/letters-patent-interview-with-yvonne.html

The Ashentilly Letters

feel-nature-tal-cover-spread

The third book in the Calgary Chessman sequence is out next week, and I’m really looking forward to the launch day (Friday 18th November 2016, although you can pre-order it now online). The arc begun in The Calgary Chessman, which saw Cas Longmore and her son both begin new chapters in their lives, moved on through the disturbing events of The Book of Lismore, and now reaches a natural closure as Cas returns to her grandparents’ farm in New Zealand, and Sam begins his independent life at university.

Life is full of surprises, though, and both of them have their troubles to face. Like its predecessors, The Ashentilly Letters tells a complete archaeological story, this time with a Roman theme. Just how far north in Scotland did the legions really get? Here’s a taste of the story, to get you going.

The Ashentilly Letters (UK)

The Ashentilly Letters (US)

The Ashentilly Letters (extract)

There was just one trench still open that morning, and only the desire to complete the job motivated the students to continue working on it, even as their supervisors began the task of closing down the site. Mid-morning, the pair of girls currently scraping the next layer off the trench shouted for help. Niall had been closest, and he and Sam strolled over to see what the students had found: small lumps of rusted metal, several of them clustered together at one end of the trench. The girls. Rachel and Sarah, scrambled out to let Niall take a closer look. He squatted, careful not to disturb the remainder of the trench, and examined the lumps more closely, before standing and turning to Sam.

“Go for Tim, please. We need him straight away.”

Sam went without question, and was soon back with the dig leader.

“What have you found, Niall?” Tim’s voice was calm. The chances of finding anything really exciting at this late stage of the dig were pretty low.

“Hobnails.”

“Really?” Tim knelt at the edge of the trench and thrust his face into its depths.

Niall fished the head torch out of his pocket and turned it on. The narrow beam played over the cluster of finds.

“I agree. Given what we’ve already uncovered this week, they may be Roman. We can’t walk away from this – it could potentially be the evidence we need to pull the site into perspective. Go for it. But we have to do it today: the permit runs out at midnight, and the weather is on the turn. We won’t get another chance.”

Niall climbed out of the trench and gave his orders, pulling together a team of four to begin work under his direct guidance, and later in the day dragging in another four to erect and hold the gazebo as they worked frantically to remove as much of the find as they could before the forecast weather rolled in. There was no delay to wait for the permission of the authorities. The local police sergeant had been on hand all day, fascinated by what the dig had revealed about the pre-history of his territory. A quick phone call was all it took for permission to be given to lift the burial.

For burial it was: no bones remained in the sodden, acidic soil, though stains indicated the probable layout of the skeleton, but throughout the afternoon other artefacts turned up, the last of them proving beyond doubt that their find was Roman. By that time it was Niall and Tim on their knees, with their students crowding round, keeping just far enough back not to collapse the edge of the trench as their tutors worked on into the night.

The gazebo gave up the ghost, ripping down the middle under a single gust of wind, just as Niall raised the final, most precious piece of evidence. Sam felt a burning sense of pride in his friend as the archaeologist wrapped the find in protective plastic and emerged, plastered in mud. One hand cradled it carefully as he gave instructions for filling in and re-turfing, but as he made his way round the end of the trench, the other reached out to wrap round the back of Sam’s head and pull him close for a triumphant kiss. Sam shoved his torch in his pocket and picked up a spade, to join his colleagues in the dirty work of trench filling.

He smiled joyously into the darkness.

Tower of Inspiration

All the Wild Weather: available for pre-order, released 11 August 2016 (see below for links)

ATWW blog pics

Hello, Yvonne, and many thanks for inviting me. I’m going to talk about an inspirational building today.

The Clavell Tower is a remarkable construction – a little piece of Italy perched on a Dorset cliff top. It was built in 1830 as a folly, or perhaps a summerhouse, and it has done its fair share as an inspiration to writers. Thomas Hardy is one big name associated with it, and PD James had it in mind when she wrote The Black Tower in 1975. And now, although I don’t count myself in that august company, it has inspired me, too.

The tower has had a bit of a lively history, having caught fire in the 1930s, and then been slowly threatened with falling into the sea as the cliff eroded around it. But then in 2006, it was bought by the Landmark Trust, a charity well known for rescuing unusual buildings. The tower was dismantled stone by stone and rebuilt 25 metres inland. Along with other walkers on the coast path, I watched its progress with interest. When the work was complete the building reopened as a holiday let, and I went to visit it during an open day. I was delighted with its quaint round rooms and brilliant sea views across to the Isle of Portland. It was crowded with visitors that day, but it was easy to imagine it as it more usually is, silent and remote on its cliff top.

I thought of the Clavell Tower immediately when I needed a setting for my novel All the Wild Weather, and although it is my no means an exact portrait, Island View House has several features in common with the original. The round rooms of the tower became the ‘many-sided room’ of my story, where my hero settles down to write a book in peace and finds himself rudely interrupted by some unexpected arrivals. I moved the tower much farther than the Landmark Trust did – all the way from Kimmeridge Bay down to Weymouth – but I did my best to keep its curious atmosphere intact.

The tower is booked solid through this year and 2017, too, but you can at least read about its alter ego, Island View House, in All the Wild Weather, to be published on 11 August.

Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Kathy-Sharp-111574195915740/

Twitter: @KathySharp19

The Larus Trilogy:

Isle of Larus http://tinyurl.com/olfyskv 

Sea of Clouds  http://amzn.to/1wYCPH0

and All the Wild Weather (to be published 11 August, 2016) http://amzn.to/29QyIqJ

Kathy’s Telling StoriesMonday Blog

Meet the hapless Mr Muggington and friends in Mr Muggington’s Discovery and Other Stories http://tinyurl.com/hec25gr

Previous Older Entries