On the Shoulders of Giants: in memory of Ursula Kroeber Le Guin

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I read my first Le Guin in late childhood, when I was in my first flush of Sci Fi discovery, moving on from fairy tales and fantasy to stuff that had more meat to it. She has been my favourite living author ever since. Until today.

She stands head and shoulders above all others in my personal pantheon, so what is it that I value so much about her? What is so special?

For a start, as a female writer, I owe her an immense debt. Growing up I didn’t consciously gravitate to male writers. I read whatever I could find that looked good to read, and in the arena of science and Sci Fi the writers were virtually all men. But at age 14 or so, back in the mid 70s, I was astonished to discover that some of my favourite writers were in fact female. Women who’d had to disguise their sex under initials or gender-neutral names in order to get published at all. And as for the hubris of daring to write science-based fiction? Andre Norton, C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, L Taylor Hansen, and most of all U K Le Guin: I salute you. You changed the world. According to Wikipedia, six women have been named Grand Master of science fiction by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Andre Norton was named in 1984, and Le Guin, at last, in 2003.

I do know that the sex-bias of early Sci Fi publishing is disputed, and there were plenty of writers who didn’t hide their sex under gender-neutral names, but it was and remains my perception that it was much more difficult for women writers to be taken seriously, particularly if they were writing ‘hard’ Sci Fi.

She’s been a vociferous and challenging voice up until very recent times, outspoken in her advocacy of books and writers and the universe of words. In 2014 she made a passionate speech about the value of writers to society, at the National Book Awards in New York after accepting the 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters .

“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.”

One of my favourite Le Guin novels is Rocannon’s World. It begins with a myth, Semley’s Necklace, which tells the story of the lost treasure of the Angyar, and the young woman who enters a dark cave to retrieve it, only to return home a few days later to be greeted by her baby daughter, now a grown woman. It cleverly takes a well known fairytale trophe, and explains it in terms of relativity. In fact, when I later came to study Einstein’s thought experiments and the Theory of Relativity, Semley’s Necklace was the strand on which I strung the precious (and elusive) beads of my understanding.

In Rocannon’s World the hard science of space travel, and of relativistic effects on aging and communication, rub shoulders with a generous and perceptive assessment of humanity and a convincing portrayal of alienness. Le Guin’s own invention of the ansible (enabling instant communication between star systems, although physical travel could take a generation) has spread throughout all the universes of Sci Fi, and we hardly remember a time when it wasn’t taken for granted.

She made magic wonderful again. I have my favourites (I’ll always be a Tolkienophile) but their worlds are distant from ours. We are shut out. Even those worlds (such as Narnia) which connect with ours are open only to a few. But in Earthsea, and the arch-mage Ged who began his life as a goatherd on the isolated island of Gont, we find a world that is open to all of us. The reason Earthsea’s inhabitants seem so accessible, so human, is that its mores and philosophies are taken from the Tao. I didn’t come to study the Tao until quite late in my life, but when I did it felt like coming home to an old friend, its cadences were so familiar.

Le Guin creates a philosophy of story-telling in one of my personal favourites, The Telling which was first published in 2001. Here the human perspective, the Haining Universe in which so many of her books are set, comes up against a peculiar military dictatorship, the prime focus of which seems to be to bar literacy, to destroy books, and to wipe out learning. In travelling this world, human envoy Sutty gradually begins to understand what motivates the people of Aka, and opens a doorway into her own soul. At heart, all Le Guin’s stories are about the individual’s search for meaning, for stories that help us to make sense of our lives, and The Telling shows that in a particularly wonderful way.

In Always Coming Home, Le Guin changed the rules again. Part memoir, part half-lost history – she calls it an archaeology of the future: an imagined California in which everything has changed, but people find ways of living that are meaningful and rewarding no matter how hard the environment. Gentle, elegiac, deceptively simple – a series of moments like beads on a string; you can read the book from cover to cover, or dip into it, or pick only the poems or only the narrative, as you please.

But here too we recognise the scholarship, the scientific basis for her work. See all that stuff in the news at the moment about the effects of plastic microbeads on the oceans? Le Guin predicted it in 1985.

Perhaps her most famous work, The Left Hand of Darkness, is a more difficult beast. I didn’t enjoy it as a teenager. I needed to live life a bit before I was ready for its politics, its difference. I sometimes feel now that Le Guin overdid the gender-bending aspects of her stories, and the peculiarities of Winter and its non-gendered natives is a particularly strong example. But creating a world in which everyone is of the same sex (or no sex, most of the time) and then dropping a lost and as usual confused earthman into the middle of them, enables her to play mindgames with us and she challenges our expectations. I expect I’ll still be reading this book into old age, and it will always have something new to tell me.

RIP Ursula Le Guin. Rest, of course – you’ve earned it. But don’t expect us to stop arguing about your stories. Long may that continue.


Nevil Shute: a Study in Impeccable Writing


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.

Dressing for (Fantasy Worlds) Success

uprooted pb coverwinged bootsdarker shade pb cover

There are some things everyone would choose. Who wouldn’t want a magic ring? Although maybe not the One Ring; I don’t think any of us have enough darkness to handle that. Of course, if the ring possesses the right properties then it might not matter what you wear. But there are lots of things you can’t do when you’re invisible – so here are my wardrobe choices for those times when you need to look just right, whatever doorway might open.

Newt Scamander’s suitcase, obviously. It beats Mary Poppins’ carpet bag hands down. I’d also like one of those wee bottomless purses; that could be very useful. I probably first encountered this type of magic bag in Andrew Lang’s The Grey Fairy Book, since I worked my way through all the colour fairy books when I was still in primary school, but apparently the object appeared in print as early as 1509AD (fairytalez.com) and it was just as effective when J K Rowling wrote about Hermione’s purple beaded bag almost five hundred years later.

Kell’s coat (A Darker Shade of Magic). Whatever situation presents itself, whatever disguise is required, simply take off the coat and turn it inside out. Sometimes you have to do this several times to get the right coat for the occasion. “Kell wore a very peculiar coat… the first thing he did when he stepped out of one London and into another was take off the coat and turn it inside out once or twice (or even three times) until he found the side he needed.” In my case, one of the sides would be Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak (assuming I didn’t have the Ring) and another would be one of Lothlorien’s elven cloaks. And, of course, one side would need to be The Doctor’s coat, complete with sonic screwdriver. Which doctor? Well, I was going to go for Jodie Whittaker’s new look – I do love a hood – but I’ve realised she’s actually wearing a hoodie under a coat (not a long hooded coat) so I’m going for Peter Capaldi’s elegant scarlet-lined coat.

Vanastalem. I don’t think you can go wrong with the spell Agnieszka is forced to learn in Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. Vanalem – Vanastalem – the simplest form of the word conjures up a straightforward working outfit. The more complex the word, the fancier the clothes, until with a mouthful of syllables you can clothe yourself as befits royalty in full court dress. That’s a lot easier than transporting a wardrobe suitable for all occasions – maybe I won’t need that suitcase after all. “Power shuddered out of me. Crusted pearls and whalebone closed up beneath his hands like armour, and he jerked his hands off me and stepped back as a wall of velvet skirts fell rustling between us.”

Wherhide trousers and vest. Vanalem is all to the good, but for everyday wear I can certainly see the sense in a fabric which is resistant to pretty much everything except threadscore (Anne McCaffrey, Dragonflight etc). They’d look good with the coat, and after all I will be riding a dragon of some kind. Or, at least, something huge and disturbing and not altogether easy to see, which people’s minds will tell them is a dragon for want of a better label to pin on the phenomenon (Sheri S Tepper, Grass).

Footwear. I favour soft, low-heeled boots myself. Comfortable for walking – good for running away (always a better plan than fighting, if possible). A pair of Hermes’ cast-offs would do nicely, for those time when flight is required and one’s dragon is otherwise engaged. I’m sure Percy Jackson could get me a pair. Shoes seem simple, but stand for a lot. I’m not even going to get started on the social, or sexual, symbolism of footwear. But my bottom line is that comfort is more important than looks. I plan to journey – and I don’t intend to get blisters!

If you were running away into a fantasy-world adventure, what’s the one object or item of clothing you couldn’t do without?

And here’s the list of books I’ve just referenced:

J R R Tolkien                       The Lord of the Rings

Seanan McGuire               Every Heart a Doorway

J K Rowling                          Fantastic Beasts (screenplay)

P L Travers                          Mary Poppins

Andrew Lang                      The Grey Fairy Book

J K Rowling                          Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

V E Schwab                         A Darker Shade of Magic

J K Rowling                          Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

BBC Television                   Doctor Who (the 12th and 13th Doctors)

Naomi Novik                      Uprooted

Anne McCaffrey               Dragonflight

Sheri S Tepper                   Grass

Rick Riordan                       Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief









Great Summer Reads 1

historical cc for summer 2017

Do you want to travel this summer? Come on a journey without leaving your armchair. No matter what the weather is like, I can take you on a trip around the world to sunny climes, to sinister places, to past times as you’ve never experienced them before.

Journey across Europe on the hunt for lost treasures in Nancy Jardine’s thriller Topaz Eyes. Or relax in sunny Corsica while brave Rachel traces her family history through a cache of love letters (The House at Zaronza by Vanessa Couchman).

What if the story of Romeo and Juliet didn’t end the way we think it did? Travel to medieval Verona to relive the events of the famous play, in Sue Barnard’s The Ghostly Father.

Cathie Dunn takes us to the twelfth century in Dark Deceit, where England and Normandy are being torn apart by a bloody civil war. Young Alleyne de Bellac must decide which of her would-be protectors she can trust – the other is deceiving her for his own gain. Jennifer Wilson’s Kindred Spirit is a light-hearted look at the dead kings and queens of England – Richard III haunts the Tower of London, and he has plenty to say about modern day visitors to his haunted home.

And in Lamplight Olga Swan takes us on a journey across the world at the beginning of the twentieth century – from impoverished Birmingham to the bright lights of New York, David Klein seeks his vocation as a war photographer, finally finding himself recording the rise of Nazism in pre-war Germany.

And my books? The Calgary Chessman and its sequels are contemporary romances, but each has an archaeological theme. The first introduces the early mediaeval Lewis Chessmen, the second involves a dig at a 6th century monastic site, and the third investigates the march of the Roman Empire into eastern Scotland.

These are just a taste of what Crooked Cat has to offer. Why not join our reader community https://www.facebook.com/groups/crookedcat/? We love to hear comments from our readers – and if you’re fascinated by a particular part of the world or period of history, let us know. There might just be someone out there writing about it.

The Calgary Chessman myBook.to/CalgaryChessman

The Ghostly Father http://authl.it/B00IBZ96JC

Topaz Eyes http://getbook.at/buymehere

The House at Zaronza http://getbook.at/Zaronza

Kindred Spirits: Tower of London http://authl.it/B016TRKU2A

Lamplight authl.it/4q0

Dark Deceit http://mybook.to/Dark_Deceit






Taming the Tango Champion

What is it about the tango?

That’s a rhetorical question, by the way. As any of you who know anything about tango already know, it’s all about sultry chords, throbbing rhythms, latin passion, and highly suggestive movements which are (barely) held in check, the male half of the tango pair being, of course, a perfect gentleman, maintaining an air of manly restraint no matter how much the lady (or so it is implied) wishes he would come in close and possess her, right there on the dance floor.

Oof. Sorry, just needed a moment to catch my breath.

Anyway, you don’t need me to tell you anything. There are any number of great renditions online, both from professional dancers and in films. Here’s one of my favourites, starring one of the screen’s great hotties – Antonio Banderas. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lAKlYTQVKY And if you really want an insight into just how sexy tango can be, I’d recommend the wonderful Al Pacino film ‘Scent of a Woman’. In fact, I might treat myself to it tonight. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kCnB05GrUgc

Cait O’Sullivan’s Taming the Tango Champion https://www.amazon.co.uk/Taming-Tango-Champion-Wicked-Romance-ebook/dp/B06XC4VKRD/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1498398858&sr=8-1&keywords=taming+the+tango+champion is tango-in-words. It comes in hot and steamy and full of passion, and just keeps ramping it up from there. The tango champion himself, Argentinian Matthias, horse trainer (mm, those thighs…) and dance master, is a barely-contained maelstrom of passionate emotions. He strides onto the first page and takes control, and hardly lets go of it long enough for our heroine, Ava, to tell her story.

Will she fall in love all over again with the completely unsuitable man who fathered her child two years ago? Will she admit to him that he is Bella’s father – and how will he react when he finds out? Most importantly of all, will they finally dance together in front of an audience? Although one suspects that if they do standards of public decency will be not only flouted, but will go up in flames and possibly bring the house down with them.

I first read Taming the Tango Champion in April and enjoyed it very much, but I wasn’t sure I really believed that two people were capable of feeling quite as much as Matthias and Ava manage to express over the course of their story. But they’ve stuck with me, their problems feel very real and the solutions just as difficult to find. Today as I read the book again I’m feeling the truth of this quote from Scent of a Woman.

“No mistakes in the tango, darling. Not like life, simple, that’s what makes the tango so great. If you make a mistake, get all tangled up, you just tango on.”

Matthias and Ava are going to have to sort out their differences, both on and off the dance floor, and the journey this book takes us on describes that very enjoyable process. Tango on down to the good old interweb and get yourself a copy. See if you can handle the Tango Champion. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Taming-Tango-Champion-Wicked-Romance-ebook/dp/B06XC4VKRD/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1498398858&sr=8-1&keywords=taming+the+tango+champion

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

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.

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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





Why do we(*1) fall in love with the antihero(*2) (part 1)?

love antihero 1 pics

  1. By ‘we’ I mean me – or, more properly, I. And maybe you.
  2. Here I’m talking about both the ‘bad’ guy (antagonist), and the character who clearly intends to be the hero of the story but due to some issues, such as personality defects or utterly appalling decision-making, causes mayhem and disaster, up to and occasionally including the end of the world (sit down, Arthur Dent; it wasn’t your fault). I’m very happy to entertain discussions (and even arguments) about all and any points raised here. Much as I love words such as protagonist and antagonist (and for that matter deuteragonist, which is a word I only learned yesterday and already find adorable) I’m lumping them all together for the purposes of this article.

I’ll give you an example. In the film Die Hard, we were invited to admire and give our attention to the flawed hero John McClane. I’d seen Bruce Willis in Moonlighting, I knew that twinkle, I was prepared to buy into the first of what turned out to be a very successful movie franchise. But partway through the film something odd happened (and I know I’m not alone – there’s an entire universe of women who’ve told me they felt the same): I found myself falling for the villain (Hans Gruber, played by Alan Rickman). The more he curled that lip and uttered his pithy psychopathic monosyllables, the more he threatened (and the more he became aware that he was losing control of his perfect crime) the more I liked him. There was something indefinably attractive about that character – he commanded a level of attention that I just couldn’t give to poor old McClane, who was forced to go to greater and greater lengths (from bodily harm to shootings to exploding half the building) in order to regain my interest.

Don’t let’s get hung up here on whether I’m talking about sexual attraction, the charisma of an intriguing individual, or the kind of stunned fascination a bird feels for the approaching snake – in Die Hard, they were all pretty much the same thing. Here was a masterful portrayal of a malicious, genuinely amoral character who would stop at nothing to achieve his goal, and who had planned from the beginning to kill, and intended to enjoy it – evil through and through, but, damn, did he look good on it! When the bad guy met his inevitable doom, I regretted it. I’d have reached out a hand to save him. The first time I watched Die Hard I dreamed about Hans Gruber – and, yes, it was one of those dreams. (And before I hear a ‘but…’ – I’ve seen Alan Rickman in films and plays where his character was not attractive. That’s acting.)

Of course, the character of John McClane himself was an antihero, of the type that tries to do everything for the best but pretty much messes up whatever he touches (although since it was an American film it got the obligatory happy ending). Attractive enough in his own right – but he spent the whole film playing catch-up to the villain.

Here’s another one. And for me it’s even more disturbing. I’m loving the brand new Starz/Neil Gaiman series ‘American Gods’, starring Ricky Whittle as one of my favourite book characters,  Shadow Moon. I adore Shadow, and Whittle’s portrayal is spot on. This is definitely a flawed hero – an ex –con with a penchant for making friends by his fist. He doesn’t think he’s a hero – in fact, he’s so reluctant to play the role that it’s beginning to become apparent that he’s being slowly pressed into a mould that’s a very bad fit for him indeed. Who is doing the pressing? None other than (spoiler alert) Woden himself, Mr Wednesday, the one-eyed god whose potency is fed by conflict and war.

Played with a horrible and oily charm by Ian McShane, the once-mighty AllFather of Norse myth is now a seedy down-at-heel rogue on a road trip across America, trying to enlist the aid of other gods – from cultures as broad and diverse as the USA’s population – to come to his aid; for what purpose, we do not yet know. So far he’s scammed a first class flight ticket (and who among us wouldn’t do the same, if we could?), set up a bar fight, made a bit of lightning and robbed a bank (it’s early days yet). He’s also made love (on every level from a raised eyebrow to the full naked-girl-on-bed) to an assortment of women – he’s happy to turn his eye on anything female, and they all seem to respond to him. Creepy, right?

Strangely, not. In fact, I find myself watching intently to see who he’ll draw in next. The Mr Wednesday of American Gods is barely hanging on to godhood – Odin’s divine grace is not on show here. All the power he has lies in Ian McShane’s ability to show us a man who believes he is a god: a small-town sleazy snake-oil salesman. What on earth is attractive about that? But he is. God, he is.

I think that in part it’s about flaws. A man with faults is much easier to love than perfection. In fact, in my experience ‘perfection’ really only loves itself. But there’s more to it than that. I’ve known (in real life) snake-oil salesmen with a sweet line in patter and a charm that’s no more than a few microns deep. Most intelligent women (and it took me longer than most) will see through that kind of fakery. Wednesday, however, clearly believes the line he’s selling. He’s better (divinely better) than the average con artist. Hans Gruber, on the other hand, made no attempt to charm the victims of his heist, or indeed the members of the film audience. And yet, the attraction was there.

So what is going on in my head? That’s a question I’ll come back to, because there’s plenty more thinking to be done before I come to a conclusion. I’m still gathering evidence. There may be a list. Or it might be that I’m heading home to watch Die Hard again.

But I’ll leave you with this thought. If Shadow is the flawed hero, and Wednesday his companion – does that make Wednesday an antihero? Or a villain? Keep watching. You’ll find out.

My Favourite Crooked Cat Books


You probably already know that my Calgary Chessman trilogy is now complete, with the publication of The Ashentilly Letters (myBook.to/Ashentilly). Now that the series is safely launched, I thought it would be more fun to talk about some other great books from one of the best Indie publishers around. You can find all these books and more at http://www.crookedcatbooks.com/

Not only do you get quality story-telling from a Crooked Cat author, they also do their own in-house cover design, and the quality of covers is superb.

Scott Perkins’ Howard Carter Saves the World. Sure, it’s aimed at older children, but I’ve never let that stop me.  Here’s part of my review: Howard is about to save the world (from aliens, natch) but I’m four chapters in and still not sure how he’s going to go about it, given that despite his fiendish cleverness he’s barely capable of surviving in human society. He’s the kind of boy who, upon discovering that he’s never selected for basketball, creates a robot so impressive that his peers are terrified into picking him – whereupon the opposing side picks the robot and Howard ends up being trounced by his own creation. Little does he know it, but Howard has real friends at this new school, as well as the robots he creates (one of which is responsible for a truly terrible pun. No, I’m not going to repeat it. That would only encourage him).

Black-Eyed Boy by Laura Huntley (and its sequel, Green-Eyed Girl). Small town girl meets mysterious stranger, who turns her world upside down. The town is Whitby (home of Dracula), the girl is at the start of what promises to be an amazing journey, and the boy is much more than he seems: eyes as black as Whitby jet, or ravens’ wings. This is a romantic fantasy in which the ordinary world conceals magic – it’s suitable for young adults; a sweet and enjoyable read.

The Highland Lass by Rosemary Gemmell. A perfect example of one of Crooked Cat’s most popular genres: modern romance with historical links, in this case to poet Rabbie Burns and his Highland Mary. The romance is a lovely story in its own right, and the heroine’s search for her own roots tangles nicely with the real history of the famous poet.


Emma Mooney’s A Beautiful Game. A story about dysfunctional families and a vulnerable boy trying to understand the adults who should be there to protect and nurture him. It’s dark, powerful, and difficult to read, and it made me cry. Exemplary writing.

The Ghostly Father by Sue Barnard. Sue’s an accomplished writer, a master of her craft, and this is only one of a number of great books from this author. Think you know the story of Romeo and Juliet? What if things weren’t quite what they seemed, in Shakespeare’s play? Sue plays games with the story, and draws surprises out of dark corners to rewrite everybody’s favourite love story.

The Psychic Survey series by Shani Struthers, beginning with The Haunting of Highdown Hall. Top class paranormal fiction, with a wonderful cast of characters and a series of astonishingly plausible ghostly phenomena. Don’t take my word for it: the first book in the series has had 228 reviews on Amazon, and I gave it 5 stars. I’ve loved everything Shani’s written so far. If you don’t fancy this, then try Jessamine, a more traditional romance, though still with Shani’s trademark twist. Quality writing.

These are just a glimpse of the variety on offer from Crooked Cat. I haven’t mentioned Catriona King’s Craig Crime series, murder mysteries set in Belfast, all expertly crafted; or David W Robinson’s Sanford Third Age Club cosy crime series (if you enjoy them, there are currently fourteen to choose from). There’s historical fiction varying from Nancy Jardine’s Beltane Choice trilogy, set in Roman/Celtic times to Vanessa Couchman’s The House at Zaronza, set on Corsica during World War I, and Jeff Gardiner’s tale of 1960s Nigeria, Igboland. There’s magical realism from Ailsa Abraham, fantasy from Maggie Secara, and historical romance from Cathie Dunn.


Top of my wishlist, upcoming in 2017: Murder mystery The Hanging Murders by Rex Carothers, magical romance Thunder Moon by Joanna Mallory (with the most beautiful cover, completely spell-binding) and World War II historical fiction The May Queen from Helen Irene Young.

Whatever you’re looking for in a story, you’ll find it at Crooked Cat – ebooks at the touch of a button, or paperbacks delivered within a few days via Amazon. And doesn’t a book make the perfect Christmas present, too? Here, to finish with, are my own books, all with Crooked Cat – guaranteed to please and entertain.




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).


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