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

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  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

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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.

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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.

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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.

myBook.to/CalgaryChessman
myBook.to/Lismore
myBook.to/Ashentilly

myBook.to/WildAir

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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

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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

Walking on Wild Air

A haunting story of love lost, and of the healing only time can bring.

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At the summit of a bare hill, on a quiet island in the bleak west of the world, a storm was brewing. Lightning flickered and dark clouds glowered over the hilltop, their rain-heavy bases lit from within by sullen flashes.

A bolt split the sky and the rain sheeted down, half hiding the ground with its jumbled boulders and sparse coating of grasses. For a moment the scene flickered, like a jerky film noir, and then a figure could be seen on the hilltop, curled up in the foetal position, unmoving.

Thunder cracked overhead and the man raised his head, hauling his body wearily after it. He climbed to his feet and pressed them against the ground, as if testing its ability to hold him. On one buttock there was a red mark, where a rock had pressed into his side, but as he stood in the rain the mark bruised and faded, leaving no trace.

He squared his shoulders against the deluge as the clouds roiled overhead. A great shaft of lightning hit the hilltop precisely at his position, limning his figure for an instant in a halo of blue and white. He looked down at his fists, unclenched them and regarded his hands as if seeing them for the first time. He put his head back, staring upward as the rain poured over his face, drew in a deep, shuddering breath, and howled a cry of pure anguish.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Walking-Wild-Air-Yvonne-Marjot-ebook/dp/B01AYBRBBU/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1463930151&sr=8-1&keywords=walking+on+wild+air

https://www.amazon.com/Walking-Wild-Air-Yvonne-Marjot-ebook/dp/B01AYBRBBU?ie=UTF8&keywords=walking%20on%20wild%20air&qid=1463930186&ref_=sr_1_1&sr=8-1

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/610394

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

https://twitter.com/Alayanabeth

 

Palekh Painting

For me, as a child growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, the Palekh painting style was as synonymous with Russia as Cossack dancing and Matryoshka dolls. It’s been a pleasure to come back to it as an adult and understand a little more about it, from an adult’s point of view.

Palekh is a little town about 200 miles east of Moscow, which was famous as long ago as the 17th Century as a centre for the painting of religious ikons. Ikons were a characteristic part of Eastern Orthodox Christianity; and the church at the time was at the heart of the cultural and political life of Mother Russia.

With the October Revolution in 1917, suddenly there was no market for religious iconography, and Palekh’s painters turned to the decorative arts to make their living.

According to http://www.russianlacquerart.com/cnt/Palekh the painter Ivan Golikov saw a black lacquered box in Moscow, and developed a technique for producing lacquered papier-mache which could be decorated in bright, enamel-like colours. This painting style has become synonymous with the town. Artists used the technique on a variety of objects, from flat panels to boxes, brooches and jars, and the Palekh Art School was opened to teach the techniques.

I remember some gorgeous books from my childhood (I bought the one illustrated here recently on the second-hand market, although it’s not one I’ve read before) and the Palekh painters thrived by illustrating well-known stories (The Firebird, The Swan-Geese, Vasilisa the Wise), folk wisdoms, and  revolutionary themes.

The technique, and the town that shares its name, saw a renaissance during the second half of the twentieth century, and there are still workshops producing Palekh paintings to this day.

Of course, I’m primarily a painter with words, and as usual opening up a new box in my mind produced a new story. This one will appear in my upcoming book of stories, Treacle, and Other Twisted Tales, which I hope will come out in the summer, but here it is for your enjoyment. I’d love to hear what you think of it. https://www.facebook.com/TheCalgaryChessman/?ref=bookmarks https://twitter.com/Alayanabeth

Maryika’s Journey

She’d promised herself the trip of a lifetime. While waiting for her visa to be granted she’d brushed up on her schoolgirl Russian, pored over travel brochures and websites, and scoured the internet for information on the museums and historic buildings she wanted to visit. With her itinerary and accommodation booked, all that remained was to board the Aeroflot flight and give in to the pleasure of anticipation.

The only reading she’d brought with her was a battered copy of Russian Folk Tales, a present from her grandmother. Baba had filled her childhood with firebirds and cossacks, matryoshka dolls and waterwitches, the dark, smoky interiors of yurts, and the wide, cold spaces of the Siberian wastes. But Maryika had been more interested in Tolstoy’s Napoleonic shenanigans than the adventures of Beautiful Yelena and she’d forgotten most of it. She’d dozed off with the book on her lap, open to a Palekh style illustration of the Swan Maiden, the plane droning its way across a continent and into a different time. She was looking forward to it so much.

***

Now things were very different. It was getting darker. The sky had completely clouded over and the wind was beginning to pick up. Maryika whimpered to herself. She might have to spend the night outside, and she still didn’t have any idea how she’d managed to get here, wherever ‘here’ was.

She’d got off the train along with all the other travellers, hundreds of them streaming along the platform and out into the intricate series of tunnels that linked Moscow’s Metro stations with the outside world. Being in the Metro was a frankly hallucinatory experience, the screech and roar of the trains and gunmetal scent of the track vying with the gorgeous, over-embellished eighteenth-century-ballroom vibe of the décor. If she looked up at the ceilings, she could fantasize that at any moment her comfortable tee shirt and trousers would metamorphose into a sumptuous silk-and-satin gown, and some minor dvoryane would be bending his lips over her hand and sweeping her into the mazurka. A moment later, another train would come rushing into the station, its hot breath swirling across the platform like the wind under the Firebird’s wings, conjuring a completely different flurry of images.

For a little while, in the Metro, she could pretend that her dream of Imperial Russia was still alive, but the reality was that the much anticipated trip had been a disappointment. Moscow was cold, grey and monumental – admittedly, as advertised – but the expectation that she would be able to dig beneath its intimidating surface and find the colourful, exhilarating Russia of her grandmother’s stories had turned out to be a childish fantasy.

If she hadn’t been convinced by the miserable faces at the airport, the grey sleet blowing across the streets and the taciturn grumpiness of the cab drivers, this morning’s mugging had done it in spades. Her flight home was tomorrow. She only needed to get through one more night, and then she could go to the airport and let modern technology whisk her home, safe and a little more worldly-wise. But the mugger had taken more than her self-confidence; he had taken her wallet, her tickets, her passport – she was lost in the middle of Moscow with nothing but the clothes she stood up in and her inadequate Russian to fall back on.

There was enough cash in her trouser pocket to pay for a cab ride back to the run-down hotel she’d been staying in. There she intended to take refuge in her room (already paid for) and somehow find out how to phone the embassy and ask for their help. But the counter staff at the hotel had changed shift, and the new floor manager didn’t know her. She tried to explain about the mugging, but he wasn’t interested. No ID – no passport – no room. She had the feeling he might respond to a bribe as she stumbled, with increasing desperation, through her stock of Russian phrases, but unfortunately the mugger had the rest of her money. In the end, she backed out of the hotel and wandered the streets, frozen and miserable, until at last the cold forced her into the Metro, where at least she could keep warm for a while.

She looked up. The crowd off the last train had rushed past her, a small island in a sea of commuters, but then the corridor had fallen quiet. The pedestrian tunnel branched ahead, and she had to choose between two exits. One smelled fresher than the other: a whiff of snow and, oddly enough, pine needles. All right, then. She’d go up to street level and try to find a police station. Sooner or later, surely someone would understand what she was saying?

Instead, she’d stumbled out of the tunnel into a forest. And, turning, she found that the tunnel entrance was no longer behind her. She was truly lost, somewhere in the middle of a forest of conifers with lichen-coated trunks and dense, aromatic foliage, and she’d been stumbling across the mossy ground for hours.

There was light ahead, a break in the canopy, and Maryika pushed towards it. The trees thinned and she saw that she was on the edge of a clearing. The late afternoon sun glinted off a field of grass and wild flowers, and there were horses grazing. Beautiful horses; one white, one dark bay, glowing in the sun, one pale chestnut with flaxen mane and tail. Their limbs were slim and elegant, their manes long and flowing, their haunches well-muscled and their conformation perfect. Maryika had never been one of those girls who go through a horsy stage, but she knew pretty when she saw it. The closest horse (Flaxen Mane) lifted its head from grazing and looked at her. Its enormous eyes glowed with intelligence.

Maryika pinched herself. In the midst of the horses, whirling and dancing across the ground, was a house – a hut, really – spinning as if caught in its own miniature whirlwind. It seemed to have legs. The pinching hurt, but the hut was still there. It came nearer, and the branches above her began to move in a wind she couldn’t yet feel. She clung to the trunk of her tree and stared in disbelief. The horse took a step or two closer.

“Are you in need of assistance?”

Maryika felt the last scraps of her sanity shredding away. Her pulse thudded in her ears, as her heart rate rocketed. Her knees shook; only the tree was holding her up. The horse nudged her.

“I said, do you need help? You don’t look very well.”

Ye gods. As hallucinations go, this was a doozie. Maryika gave up. At least the horse didn’t look as though it was going to mug her again.

“I’m cold, tired, and lost, and I haven’t eaten anything all day. Also I’m in a forest in the middle of a Metro station, with a talking horse, looking at a dancing house. I’m not exactly coping here.”

The horse snorted. It sounded surprisingly like a human laugh. “I can help you there,” it said. “I’ll tell you what to say to make the house stop. You have to say it exactly right, though.”

“What?” Maryika’s subconscious mind had decided to take what was in front of her at face value, but her intellect was still struggling to make sense of things.

“I said, repeat these words after me. Say them exactly as I do.” The horse leaned forward and blew into her ear. The sound it made burbled at a very low pitch, just at the edge of Maryika’s hearing, and she could make no sense of it. The horse’s breath whooshed past her face, stirring her hair. It smelled of haybales and buttercups and sunshine.

Maryika stared at it, bemused and silent. The horse shook its head, danced sideways a step, and stood on Maryika’s foot.

“Ow, what the fuck?”

The house abruptly ceased whirling. It turned until its door faced her, then sank down on its legs which, at close quarters, turned out to be rough and scaled. Each ended in a giant, three-toed foot. Maryika glared at the horse.

“I thought I had to repeat what you said, exactly.”

The horse moved its shoulder in what could only be described as a shrug. “Close enough,” it said.

The door creaked open and the horse put its head in. “Good oh,” it said. “Up you go.”

Maryika gingerly approached the hut and put her foot on its bottom step. The wood creaked and the hut vibrated as the chicken-legs shifted a little. Maryika put her hand up to her mouth and backed away. The horse whinnied.

“Oh, all right then.”

Maryika let out an involuntary squeal as the house spoke, in a voice that was a mix of creaking door, shifting roof-tile and a bit of hen’s cackle. It shuffled on the spot, and then the legs bent a little more and the bottom step thumped down squarely on the earth, sending up a puff of dust. The horse edged behind Maryika and nudged her forwards.

A skirl of wind sent snowflakes into her face as the sun vanished into a purple mass of cloud that was rapidly climbing the sky. Maryika took her courage in both hands and climbed into the hut. She had no idea what she was doing, really she didn’t, but that was an iron stove she could see in there, and there was a samovar on it. Fire and coffee spoke a language that went straight to her hind-brain and overrode the screaming whisper of panic that was governing all her higher functions.

The hut was not unoccupied. On a worn rug in front of the stove lay a scrawny cat. It eyed Maryika over its dinner, a piece of greenish fishskin. In the hut’s gloom, Maryika peered at it. The piece of fishskin seemed to have a button attached.

The horse poked its head in through the doorway and made her jump. “That’s a very thin cat,” it remarked, conversationally.

The hut creaked. “That one gets plenty to eat,” it rumbled. “She just never gets any fatter.”

The cat regarded them with baleful yellow eyes, then retrieved its dinner and carried it away into a dark corner. Maryika strained her eyes after it, but either the shadows were darker than they appeared or the corner was deeper than it should be. Either way, the cat had disappeared, and for some odd reason this was reassuring. She stroked the horse’s nose. “Thank you,” she said.

“He didn’t do it for nothing, you know.” She jumped as the house spoke again. It was extremely disconcerting to be inside the thing that was talking to you. Maryika’s Baba had given her a fund of half-remembered Russian folktales from her own childhood, and Maryika recognised the Hut with Fowl’s Legs, though she didn’t remember it talking. Still – this was her hallucination; she could hardly argue with the details. She was only pleased that the hut’s owner did not appear to be in residence.

The house creaked. The horse shuffled its hooves. Maryika looked enquiringly at it. The horse nodded its head, in a reassuringly horsy gesture, then whuffled at her again. “There is something you could do for me,” it said, tentatively.

“Oh, anything you like.” Maryika was beginning to warm up, and as she’d already given up on her sanity there didn’t seem any reason not to be helpful.

“Well, it’s just that…” The horse paused, and gestured with its nose towards a small lidded pot on the edge of the hearth. “See that pot?”

Maryika pulled the pot towards herself and opened the lid. The pot was about half full of poppy seeds. The horse breathed out, and a small cloud of seeds rose into the air. A few of them clung to Maryika’s skin.

“Please scrape up the dust from the floor and put it into the pot.”

The floor shuddered under Maryika’s bottom as the hut let out a grumbling sound. She squeaked in fright, but the hut subsided again. “Are you sure?” it said to the horse.

“Sure as Koschey’s overcoat,” said Flaxen Mane.

The hut grumbled again. “Koschey doesn’t have an overcoat,” it said. “The witch ate it.”

“Do you mean Baba Yaga?” Maryika summoned up a vague childhood memory, but nearly dropped the pot of seeds as the house shuddered. The horse danced backwards from the doorway, but shoved its head back in again as soon as the house calmed down.

“Please don’t say the name,” it said. “She’ll come for her name, and you really don’t want to meet her. Believe me.”

The house groaned. “Don’t even think it,” it muttered. The window shutters opened and banged shut again, letting a cold draught and a flurry of snowflakes into the room.

The horse ignored it. “Please scrape up as much dust as you can. Put it in the pot and stir it in well. Don’t worry. You’re doing the right thing.”

“Why?” Maryika brushed her hand across the floor. Sure enough, there was a layer of dust. It coated her palm and she rubbed it against her trousers.

“One day Vasilisa the Wise is going to come, and when she wins me we will ride like the wind across the great steppe and rescue the prince.” The horse spoke these words with a rhythmic, poetic cadence that gave them great significance. Maryika could almost hear that each word was capitalised. “Ride Like the Wind,” it said again, happily. “The witch will give her three tasks to do. One of them will be to separate poppy seeds from dust. It’s meant to be impossible.”

Maryika tipped the pot, watching the tiny seeds flow from one side to the other. “I can see how it would be,” she said.

“But there’s a problem with his plan.” The hut shifted slightly, and Maryika put out a hand to brace herself against the floor. It let out a henlike squawk, “Boccoc!” and settled down again. “Can’t separate the dust from the seeds without mixing them in the first place.”

The horse bowed its head to her. “And I can’t collect dust without hands,” it pointed out, reasonably. Maryika nodded. It made sense, she supposed.

She swept up the dust with the side of her palm and collected it, a bit at a time. Once she’d started adding it to the pot she got into the swing of the task and scraped dust out of all the corners. When she got to the place where the cat had slunk into the shadows, there was no sign of it. She did pick a greyish mother-of-pearl button out of the dust. She put the button in her pocket.

When she finished, she put the lid back on the pot and set it neatly back in its place. Then she stood up and lifted the samovar, pouring the sweet, strong, black liquid into a cup she took down from a shelf. She sat on the rug in front of the stove, sipping the coffee and slowly warming up, inside and out. The horse nudged her a final time and backed out of the hut, which banged its own door shut, almost catching the horse’s nose. Maryika sank down on the rug, suddenly sleepy, and the last thing she heard as she closed her eyes was the deep, burbly voice of the horse. “Your part in the story is small, Maryushka, but you are more important than you know.”

***

The sun in her eyes woke her. For a moment she felt disoriented, trapped by the seatbelt across her lap, frightened by the strange, white-and-grey plastic world that surrounded her. Then the rushing of wind in her ears resolved itself into the sound of an aircraft’s engines, the glowing heat of the fire transmuted into the ‘Fasten Seatbelts’ sign, and the smell of coffee was the cabin attendant leaning over with an offer to fill her cup.

Maryika took the proffered brew – a thin, watery disappointment after the coffee in the Hut with Fowl’s Legs – along with a poppyseed breakfast roll, and turned to look out of the tiny window of the plane. Beneath her the white-and-grey tops of the clouds rushed past like the rolling backs of running beasts. The sun shot into her eyes again, blinding her, but just as the stewardess reached past her to close the blind Maryika thought she saw, amidst the clouds, a curling, flowing, misty trail of flaxen and gold. It didn’t surprise her at all when she pulled the button from her pocket.

Illustrations: Russian Fairy Tales: Palekh Painting by Alexei Orleansky; Vasilisa the Wise, Palekh lacquered box, seen on http://www.russianlacquerart.com/cnt/Palekh

 

 

How Many Wrongs Make a Mr Right?

I’m here today with Stella Birrell, author of romantic comedy How Many Wrongs Make a Mr Right? Today is the beginning of Stella’s blog hop, leading up to publication day on 15 April. The book is available for pre-order (links below) or you can join the launch party at https://www.facebook.com/events/453998841462572/ next Friday. Tomorrow Stella will be on Emma Rose Millar’s blog https://emmarosemillar.wordpress.com/ where she’ll tell us more.

Hello Stella, welcome. Tell us about your book.

How Many Wrongs make a Mr Right? is what I’m calling a ‘chick-lit-with-grit’ novel. It’s about a twentysomething girl, Melissa, who is searching for The One (even though she doesn’t really believe in soul mates). More neurotic than erotic, the book combines sneak peeks into Melissa’s past and future, with a mildly amoral year in Melissa’s present, set in 2001.

I love reading women’s fiction, so I wanted to write something that was easy to read, with a happy ending. But there is a lot of darkness for a fluffy story about finding a boyfriend. It’s not a straight memoir, but there are aspects of my own history within the book.

lonely feminist

What about location?

It’s written to be realistic, and recognisable, so I felt it was important to write about places that I knew well.

I chose to write about the Lake District: because I used to live there, and Edinburgh: my closest city and also somewhere I lived for a short while. Edinburgh is almost a character itself, I found it such an inspirational place to live and work. The history seeps into you somehow, from the stone.

How did you come to be a writer? .

I’ve always claimed I’m not one of those writers who ‘always wrote,’ but recently I found evidence to the contrary in a box of letters from the loft! As I got older it became more and more clear to me that I should attempt a full length novel.

Combining writing with childcare and a very understanding husband meant I could give up paid work, which gave me the head space to ‘just do it’. The first three years were hard, because you’re writing in a vacuum. The rejections, and there were several, make you question the quality of the writing.

give it time

What’s coming up next?

My second novel is currently with the friend who gave me the best advice after reading How Many Wrongs…

There is a third, but to be honest it’s just a twinkle in my eye and half a page of notes so far!

I do have some short pieces coming up in The Ropes Journal, and The Dangerous Women project, and a spoken word piece I recorded for the podcast Lies, Dreaming.

Who will enjoy your books?

I’ve thought hard about my target audience, and I love connecting with people on Twitter and wondering whether they might enjoy reading How Many Wrongs…

I reckon women with small children, in their late twenties and early thirties, who love their kids, but also love getting out once in a while to the pub, would really connect with my novel.

But anyone who has ever had their heart broken, or felt stuck in a place and time, or kissed a frog (and let’s face it, we’ve all been there, right?) will relate to Melissa’s story.

not looking good

My book is available from the following places

UK Amazon

http://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Many-Wrongs-make-Right-ebook/dp/B01D0EO7G0/

US Amazon

http://www.amazon.com/How-Many-Wrongs-make-Right-ebook/dp/B01D0EO7G0/

Kobo

https://store.kobobooks.com/en-us/ebook/how-many-wrongs-make-a-mr-right

Nook

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/how-many-wrongs-make-a-mr-right-stella-hervey-birrell/1123543910?ean=2940152924312

iBooks

Search ‘How Many Wrongs make a Mr Right?’ in the iTunes Store

How to find me! Please come and say ‘hi’ in one or more of these places

My blog space is https://atinylife140.wordpress.com/

Twitter is @atinylife140

I have a page on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/stellaherveybirrell/?ref=hl

Email me at atinylife140@gmail.com

I can also be found wandering the streets of various East Lothian villages.

 

 

Pica explores a world of ancient magic, when people and nature shared secret powers.

My friend (and editor of my first novel, The Calgary Chessman) Jeff Gardiner has written a new twist on one of my favourite themes – the modern child thrust into an alternative universe. In ‘Pica’ modern technology gives way to magic and mystery, as Luke tries to find his feet in a place that is very far from home.

PICA by Jeff Gardiner

I’ve always been inspired by nature. The times when I most feel alive are when I’m walking in a forest, on a hillside or by a lake.

Our relationship with nature as a human race is an odd one. On the one hand we are animals – part of nature. On the other, we often seem to be at odds with nature. We cut down forests and build concrete jungles; we pollute and urbanise as if we own the place. We seem to have forgotten our place in creation; our relationship with other animals and the wonderful world that is our home. How many young people go for walks and holidays in the countryside these days?

Although world politicians are now slowly moving in the right direction, most environmental experts agree that it’s not enough. We’ve done too much damage in such a short space of time. We are killing our planet. What a strange way to behave.

Pica picks up on this idea.

Luke plays violent computer games and hates the idea of a boring rural walk. One day a magpie taps on his window, and from then on he sees magpies everywhere he goes. A new boy, called Guy, joins his school, who is odd and soon a victim of bullying. However, Luke is drawn to this strange boy, and as he gets to know him everything he understood about his life is turned upside down.

I wanted Pica to challenge people’s perceptions about young people and about our relationship with the natural world. In the past we understood things that have been lost over the years. Luke begins a journey to rediscover that ancient ‘magic’.

I was also keen to make this novel – the first in the Gaia trilogy – a fantasy. Fantasy literature allows us to use our imaginations in our understanding of reality. Luke discovers powers that many of us can only dream about, so there is also a sense of wish-fulfilment alongside the serious environmental message.

The planning and writing of Pica took about a year. The novel went through a number of revisions, with one whole sub-plot completely deleted and rewritten. I sent off the synopsis and first three chapters to a few publishers and agents that accepted unsolicited manuscripts, but received standard rejections (the ones which don’t really indicate if anyone actually read it at all).

This led to further major revisions and rewrites, until Pica was eventually picked up by Accent Press. They have been brilliant, offering excellent editorial advice, and some wonderful opportunities. Accent YA – their young adult imprint – are being rebranded and I was told that Pica would be one of the titles they were planning to launch at The London Book Fair.

So things are very exciting. I even have a cover quote from fantasy author, Michael Moorcock, who read it and wrote, “One of the most charming fantasy novels I’ve read in years. An engrossing and original story, beautifully told. Wonderful!”

Jeff’s website

Accent Press

WHSmith

Barnes & Noble

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon Australia

 

 

The Joy of Ghosts

Ruined_cottages_at_Crackaig_-_geograph.org.uk_-_450359

Ruins at Cracaig, Isle of Mull. Eileen Henderson [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

We all like a good ghost story, don’t we? Apparitions, manifestations, visitations – the presence of the dead can bring a story to life. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol may be on one level a heartwarming if cheesy tale of triumph against adversity, and the value of family and generosity (and it probably wasn’t so cheesy in Dickens’ day – indeed, he’s possibly to blame for putting much of the cheese into Christmas) but let’s face it, it’s the ghosts that get all the action. Having your faults pointed out by a nagging spouse leads to a soap opera, or maybe a domestic violence story, but when you’re accosted by your dead partner (Dickens), or the unseelie spectre of your own guilty conscience (Edgar Allen Poe’s The Telltale Heart), that’s much more gripping.

So, I thought I’d share some of my favourite ghost stories with you.

1. The Jewel of Seven Stars, by Bram Stoker.

Bram Stoker famously wrote Dracula, but he also wrote a number of other novels that can only be described as Gothic. The Jewel of Seven Stars is my favourite. I first read it aged around 13, at a time when I was fascinated by Ancient Egypt, and the book made such an impression that I gave it a cameo in my novel The Book of Lismore. In Stoker’s story a young Victorian doctor is drawn into the affairs of an archaeologist and his beautiful daughter, who may, or may not, be the reincarnation of the female Pharaoh Tera. The book is full of great horror devices, including a severed hand that crawls around killing people, and we know that when man meddles in affairs of the supernatural it’s bound to end badly. And so it does. Watch out for your ending, though. After publication, there was an alternative version released which has a bizarrely unconvincing ‘happy’ ending. Get the original.

2. The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold.

I hated this book. I’m not joking – I hated it, and I never want to read it again. Here, it’s the ghost who tells her own story – not just a flashback narrative, but an insightful telling in which the ghost of a murdered girl watches while the effects of her death wreak enormous damage on her family. There’s a not entirely unhappy ending and a sense of redemption, but the overwhelming impression I was left with was hand-over-the-mouth ghastliness communicated through finely crafted words. That’s some powerful writing. Read it once.

wowa ghost story blog 060216

3. Macchiata in the Damiano books by R A MacAvoy

I’m very fond of the Damiano trilogy. There’s a glimpse of Middle Ages Europe, a flavour of the great events of the day (including war and plague), and a very real sense of magic. Dreamy Damiano’s Dad is a sorcerer, but Damiano longs to be a musician. He’s off to a good start – his lute teacher is the Archangel Raphael – but somehow life keeps getting in the way. Before long, his father is dead, his town overrun with soldiers, and his beloved muse (and her annoyingly protective older brother) have fled, along with the rest of the population. Damiano’s own magic is more a hindrance than a help as he sets out on the refugee’s road along with his talking dog: fat, short-legged Macchiata (Italian for ‘Spot’). I won’t give away the circumstance of Macchiata’s death, in case you want to read the book, but she carries on commenting on her Master’s circumstances from the shelter of Raphael’s robe (no, she won’t tell you what he wears underneath it).

“I bit them both, Master!” she panted, exultant. “I bit both soldiers and old Marco, too! Three in one day.” Suddenly she came to a stop, turned, and threw herself, slobbering, upon her winded master. “Oh Master, I have never been so happy! This war is wonderful.”

4. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce

I read this short story when I was still at school, and it’s another that has stuck with me. It’s the narrative of a Confederate sympathiser, Peyton Farquhar, who is hanged by Union troops during the American Civil War. As the trapdoor opens the rope breaks and Farquhar is free to scramble away. He begins to make his way back home. The narrative is confused and rambling, skipping through time, and it’s considered to be an early example of ‘stream of consciousness’. We learn a lot about Farquhar’s life and the circumstances of his capture, but as the story unfolds it becomes more and more apparent that there’s something wrong with his recollections, and the tale ends with a twist. What makes this a ghost story? You’ll have to read it to find out.

5. Dougie MacLean in Walking on Wild Air

Walking on Wild Air is my first full-length ghost story. It’s early days in my writing career, but so far he’s my favourite character. To all appearances, he’s a man in early middle age, friendly and likeable, nothing out of the ordinary. He roams the hills with his dog, recapitulating the life he once led, as a shepherd, back in the early part of the twentieth century. So far, so ordinary, but Sushila Mackenzie is the only person who can see him.

As the story unfolds we begin to learn what is special about Sushila, and she finds herself falling in love with someone who may not even be human. There is far more to Dougie than meets the eye, and I’ve enjoyed the challenge of providing just enough information to make him interesting without revealing all his secrets. I hope you like him as much as I do.

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