Maryika’s Christmas

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Today’s story for https://www.facebook.com/christmaswithcrookedcats is full of magic and wonder – with a modern twist.

Maryika’s Christmas

Christmas Eve, 2016.

“It’s not fair.” Andre ran from the room, slamming the door as he went. Maryika followed, more slowly. At twenty-two she should be above her brother’s adolescent rages. She agreed with him, though. It wasn’t fair.

Their mother had made it all sound so reasonable. “We have so much. All our needs are met. Christmas is just one more occasion to give each other gifts that we can give at any time of the year. And it’s such a worthy cause.”

It was. That was what made it so hard to object. Their parents’ decision to donate to the charity War Child all the money that they would usually have spent on Christmas gifts was a harsh surprise for their children. But their mother was also right: they had so much, and it wasn’t a terrible idea to give some of what they could spare to help children to go to school, or get the medicines they needed, or keep themselves warm and safe in this winter season.

Christmas was a time for giving. Of course they should give as well as receive. Even Andre had to admit it was selfish to argue otherwise. He hadn’t lost the plot until Mama had told them she had asked all their relatives to donate the money they would have spent on gifts to the charity. This Christmas no-one would be giving any gifts at all.

Which somehow made the generous gift to the charity feel like robbery. Especially to Andre. At sixteen he was still half a child, and the thought of Christmas without mounds of presents under the tree, and cupboards full of treats to raid when he thought Mama wasn’t looking – well, it wasn’t surprising he’d lost his temper.

Maryika wandered into the kitchen, where Baba was making vatrushka, one of Maryika’s favourites. “I thought there weren’t going to be any treats this year,” she said.

Baba glowered. “Simple peasant bread,” she said, folding the delicious doughy mass over and over with her hands, kneading it gently until smooth and ready to rise. Once cooked, the sweet, soft bread rolls would be perfect with stewed fruit and cream, or just as pleasurable to eat by themselves with a cup of coffee. The old lady sniffed. “Nobody told me we were not to eat,” she said, covering the rounded shapes with a muslin cloth. “No point everybody dying of hunger to save some children we don’t even know.”

“Baba!” Maryika was shocked. “There are children who can’t even go to school, or buy medicines if they have conditions like diabetes. Their families have lost everything. We’re just trying to help them as much as we can.”

Baba looked her over, black eyes shining in the heat of the kitchen. She poked Maryika in the arm and made her yelp. “I thought you didn’t like the idea?”

“It’s a good idea. There’s a real need. It’s just… I think Andre’s afraid it won’t feel like Christmas. And so am I, really.”

Baba’s face softened. “It will still feel like Christmas,” she said. “I can promise you that.”

She turned back to the stove. Maryika sat down at the table and watched her grandmother bustle around the kitchen. Upstairs there was a muffled concussion as Andre banged another door.

Baba turned back and pushed a mug across the table towards her. Maryika sipped the hot milk, smelling of nutmeg and cinnamon. It tasted like childhood. She closed her eyes, lulled by the sound of Baba’s voice. “Tonight you will dream a wonderful dream. You will be part of the miracle of Christmas.”

Maryika opened her eyes again to see Baba gazing at her, al the wrinkles of her face deepening as she smiled. “Now go talk some sense into your brother, before he knocks the whole house down in a rage.”

Maxim Lyotov stood at the window, looking out over the landscape but seeing nothing. Sonya was crying again. He couldn’t bear it. He had to bear it.

She had received the news yet again of her failure to conceive. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. The doctors had done their best, but for no particular reason it seemed that she could not bear a child, or he could not engender one. Their bodies produced sperm and egg as required, and the two seemed perfectly happy to merge and produce embryos, but one by one each implanted pregnancy failed.

Worst were the attempts which seemed to be working. Sonya would begin to bloom, trying all the while to deter conversation about the baby, superstitiously behaving as if talking about the pregnancy could be fatal, only for it to end in blood and pain, long before the child began to properly grow. This time had been easier – no sooner begun than ended – but she was still devastated. She was exhausted with the process, and he couldn’t stand to see her distressed any longer.

Today he’d told her that there would be no more attempts. He forbade it. They were not meant to have children, and that was an end to it. Now she was crying over his cruelty. Maxim clenched his fists in his pockets, by long habit concealing his emotions. He’d learned from experience that success came more readily to a man who seemed steady and controlled, free from passion.

He was the last, and now anonymous, prince of a tiny principality once swallowed up by the great Soviet, and now released into the grasp of one of the new countries: shaky, half-imaginary nations invented by Stalin, peopled with incompatible tribes and ethnicities, struggling to find cultural identities of their own. There was no room for princes, or titles, in the new reality.

Old blood still counted for something, though. It had got him into a good English-speaking school. He’d worked hard at the school, where the other pupils knew him as Max Winterson. They’d guessed, some of them, that he was from somewhere to the east of the European continent, but he’d never discussed his roots. ‘High born family fallen on hard times’ was a label that could have been applied to many of the boarders, and it didn’t make him stand out.

Brains and hard work had got him into Oxford, and out again, with a double first: into the diplomatic service and eventually to the post of UN Special Envoy to S___. The post was not without its rewards, including a generous salary which paid for the flat in Vienna with its floor-to-ceiling windows, and for the repair and upkeep of his family’s dacha.

Maxim peered out of the window of the dacha at the forest edge a few metres away. Winter wasn’t the best time to be here, despite the comforts of a roaring fire and a bed heaped with furs, but Sonya had wanted to get away for Christmas. Somewhere they could be alone. He understood it, he supposed. Her emotions were too raw to expose to Vienna’s party season, and the night of the Christ Child’s birth was bound to be difficult for her, with its extra reminder of a baby, both loved and unloved all at once, crying out in a need that Sonya yearned to meet.

The stars were blurring as cloud blew in. At some point tonight there was going to be snow. Maxim turned away from the window and went to comfort his wife.

The night wind was cool off the water and Zander shivered, drawing his thin cardigan around his shoulders. Zoe crouched at his feet, feeding the baby. Hana was a tiny child, hardly strong enough to bear the weight of such a portentous name. Hope. The flower of their happiness, if they could only escape. The foundation stone of their new life, or so he told himself, straightening his spine and squaring his shoulders as befitted the head of a household.

Father had given the last of his money to the traffickers, staying behind to face his own likely death at the hands of the fighters of one side or the other; they were all as bad as each other. Why they were fighting, no-one knew any more. Only that each side believed they had God on their side, and were therefore ultimately unbeatable.

Life everywhere had degenerated into survival, and then incarceration in a prison the size of a city. Getting out of the country, getting to Europe, was the only way to ever escape the violence. The family’s life savings had paid for their freedom.

It had only got them as far as the border, though. There the traffickers dumped them into a locked room in a small house; two dozen or more children, thrown together by their common fear of the men to whom they had been sold. The traffickers said they needed more money. They let the children use a mobile phone, to contact their families. Some must have paid, because those children were removed from the house and not seen again.

Often it was the older girls who were taken, and, once, one of them was brought back. She hid in the corner until the traffickers left, and the younger girls went to her. Zander could not hear the story she whispered to Zoe, and when he asked his sister told him it was not for boys to know. The daily mobile phone calls continued. Zander’s father was trying to raise the money. He asked Zander to tell the traffickers that he would get it; they were to be patient.

The next day the men took Zoe. When they brought her back, Zander could see a terrible thing had happened, but Zoe turned her face to the wall and refused to speak to him. One of the traffickers had formed an attachment to her, and took her out again and again for a few weeks. One day, however, he pushed her back into the room with her face cut and bruised, and he did not come for her again. By summer it was obvious she was with child.

Zander knew he was supposed to reject her. She was unclean. She had lain with those men, those monsters. But it was clear that she had not had a choice. And besides, she was his sister, and he was responsible. At last his father had provided the money – borrowed or begged or stolen, Zander did not know – but it was enough for the next stage of the journey. They waited, on the darkest night of winter, for the boat that was to take them at last to safety and a new home.

Maryika lay snuggled into the warm depths of her bed, sinking slowly into sleep. She sighed, and burrowed deeper, as she closed her eyes.

She opened them on a vista of fields and forest, under a sky sprinkled with stars. Everything was dark except, with true dream-logic, the thing she was looking at. To begin with, it was three horses, grazing at the far edge of the field. It was night, and she couldn’t make them out clearly, but somehow she knew that one was white, one a fiery bay, and one golden as the sun with flaxen mane and tail. As she watched, Flaxen Mane lifted his head and came trotting towards her.

A movement caught her eye, and Maryika glanced to the left, into the face of a boy… a man… no, definitely a boy. He had the kind of ageless face that could belong to a male of twelve, or twenty-two, but surely no older. His eyes were brown, deep as peat bogs, and looking into them Maryika somehow knew that here was the oldest person she had ever met. “I am Nikolai,” he said, nodding to her. “Your grandmother told me you would come.”

Behind him was something that glimmered. Maryika focused on it, and saw that the boy was standing in front of a troika, harness in hand. Flaxen Mane trotted up to Maryika and pressed his nose into her palm, then moved towards the boy and stood before the troika. The boy fastened the harness, and the horse stood quietly until he was finished, whereupon he shook his head and a merry tinkling of bells rang out.

The boy whistled, and the white and bay horses came in their turn to be tied into the harness, either side of Flaxen Mane. The bay shook his red mane and snorted at Maryika, in a not-altogether-friendly fashion. The white stood calmly, its eyes fixed firmly on Flaxen Mane, taking no notice of the harness or the boy. Nikolai removed a scarf from around his neck and held it out to her. He wore another, identical – beautifully woven in patterns of multicoloured snowflakes out of some fine, silky material.

Maryika took it, expecting it to feel cool, but it warmed immediately in her hands. Only when she wrapped its warmth around herself did she realised how cold the wind had become. Its strength was rising, and there was ice in it.

The boy clambered aboard the troika and held out his hand to her. “Please,” he said. “I have a difficult task ahead of me, and I cannot complete it without you.” Maryika climbed up beside him, and he pulled a fur wrap over their knees and flicked the reins. She gripped the seat tightly, not expecting such a burst of speed, as they galloped over the frozen ground and into the air, over the trees, the fields, the tiny, scattered houses, far below, and out over a vast expanse of black water.

Up here the air must have been icy, and fat flakes of snow whipped towards them like a blizzard, but the wind was drawn aside as the three horses shouldered into it, leaving the boy and girl sitting comfortably in a calm, sheltered space. The troika dipped lower, and Maryika began to see movement in the dark waters below. The boy leaned his head towards her.

“There is a boat on the winter sea tonight,” he said. “A poorly made boat, owned by evil men whose only thought is to milk their victims for all that they can give before disposing of them. There are children on the boat; children who believe they are going to a safe haven, who do not know they are going to die.” Nikolai frowned, and for a moment an ageless light shone out of his eyes. “It is in my nature to want to change such things, if I can. Are you with me, Maryushka lisichka?”

Maryika ignored the endearment (he wasn’t the first to comment on the hint of red in her hair, and being called a fox by a stranger of indeterminant age was not something she wanted to draw attention to). But the thought of children, in danger, in the middle of the vast cold sea below them filled her with horrors. “Let’s do it,” she said, before she could change her mind.

She gasped as the troika dropped, hauled in the wake of the three straining bodies before them. In the inky darkness above the water the three horses shone with an inner light, white and red and gold, like a sudden sunrise. Below she could see a little boat, half swamped by the waves. There were already people in the water.

Nikolai snapped the reins and they went lower still, until they hung in the air just above the sinking boat. He leaned out and hauled a man into the troika. Maryika got down on the floor and reached towards a woman who was in the water. Their hands touched, but instead of grasping her, the woman thrust a bundle into Maryika’s hands and fell back, her head going under. The bundle wriggled, and a small child climbed out and disappeared into the back of the troika, which seemed larger than she’d first thought. There were already a half dozen or so people back there, and they were hauling others up to join them.

The woman who had sunk under the water suddenly shot up again, and Maryika grabbed her. She could see that the woman was being pushed aloft by hands and arms made of water. As the woman scrambled past her, Maryika saw that the water was alive with the bodies of women, all dark, all beautiful… all made of the same black water as the sea. Rusalkas. In Baba’s stories, they were figures of sorrow (drowned maidens) or fear (they would drag a traveller beneath the surface of their watery homes and keep him forever). She had never heard of them rescuing drowning people before.

Before her, some of the older and more able-bodied passengers were clambering onto the backs of the horses. Strangely, the horses’ bodies were growing, elongating, like the troika. No matter how many climbed up, there was always room for one more. With a frisson of fear, Maryika recognised another of her childhood nightmares: the water horse, able to carry its prey upon its back deep into the dark tarns and pools of the steppes, there to suck the flesh from their bones. As she thought this, the fire-coloured horse turned and grinned at her, pinpoints of red deep in its eyes.

She screamed, but the white horse glowed suddenly brighter, and Flaxen Mane shouldered the bay and bit its flank. The bay stood still in the air, its skin shivering, but tolerating the people on its back, who looked as frightened as Maryika felt. Those on the back of the white horse seemed to have fallen asleep.

Maryika reached again, to a young man whose white face was turned up to hers. The arms of the watery women were already around him, but instead of lifting, they were pulling him down. He struggled in the water, fear etched on his face. “No,” Maryika shouted, and reached again. Her fingertips touched his – they were warm, and very human.

One of the fluid forms drew up to the troika and hissed, “My sisters have claimed him.” Maryika shook her head and reached again. One shapely arm reached up and caressed her cheek. “This one has done great evil. He is ours now. Let him go.” The troika rose suddenly, and the young man’s form dropped away.

Maryika curled up around her distress as Nikolai snapped the reins and they began to move. She stayed that way as they galloped over the deep waters and up onto the shore. All she could see was that pale, terrified face sinking below the water, drawn ever deeper as the rusalkas put their hands on him, and she wondered what would have happened if only she had reached further, tried harder. They said he was a bad man, but perhaps he might have done some good, someday, if only she’d been able to hold on to him.

They landed as lightly as a feather, on a field adjacent to a great array of tents. The place didn’t smell very nice, but the people seemed glad to be back on solid ground, and stumbled away towards shelter. Nikolai held the reins in one hand and wrapped the other around her, pulled her into a hug. “The rusalkas saved many, tonight,” he said, “but they have the right. They will always take some.”

Maryika gulped and wiped her tears on her sleeve. The horses had returned to normal, trotting delicately across the air, glowing only slightly, and the troika had almost returned to its original size as well. But when she turned and looked she realised that there were still two children, clinging together and staring at her with huge eyes. Three children… she noticed that the girl was clutching a tiny baby, which had begun to wail.

Nikolai guided the troika down to a gravelled driveway beside a large house. There were still one or two lights lit, and there was smoke coming from the chimney. He jumped down and lifted the children onto the porch, leaning forwards to rap loudly on the door, before turning away. He leapt back into the troika and with a jingle of harness bells they were away, sweeping to the treetops as he gave the horses their heads.

“What is it?” Sonya crept down the stairs behind Maxim, who had lifted his old gun down from its stand behind the door. “Who would come at this hour?”

The front door creaked open and her hands went to her mouth. “Oh, the darlings.” She reached out and swept the boy into her arms. He was thin, and trembling with the cold. “Who are you?” she asked.

The boy spoke, and she did not understand a word, but her husband twitched in recognition. He spoke back, musical syllables falling from his lips. Then he turned to her.

“The boy is Zander,” he said. “He speaks Arabic – they are refugees, from across the water. He says their boat sank. There is more, but I don’t understand it.”

“Oh, hurry, get them inside. It’s too cold for a child to be out.”

Zander stumbled into the warmth of the hallway and sank to the floor. Behind him, Zoe flinched as Sonya reached for her, clutching her bundle tightly in her arms. The baby began to cry. It was cold, and hungry, and wet and, unable to decide which was the most distressing, decided to wail in earnest about all its miseries at once. Zoe deigned to allow Sonya to place her dressing gown around her thin shoulders, and walked on her own into the house, where she stood, clutching her daughter and looking around herself in wonder.

Maxim hung up the gun and went to poke the fire. Sonya paused for a moment, looking up at the sky, snowflakes melting on her face as she listened to the very far, very faint sound of harness bells. “Thank you,” she whispered, putting her hand over her mouth to quell her words as she closed the door and went in, but her heart went on saying it, silently. “Thank you.”

There was a flurry of wind in her face, and a soft rush of snowflakes brushed across her cheek like a windblown mane which was, perhaps, the pale gold of dawn that now brightened the sky. A single warm huff of breath redolent of straw and stables warmed her ear, and was gone. Maryika became conscious that she was standing on her own back doorstep, barefoot in the snow. The warm, bright scarf was still around her neck, and she held another in her hands.

The door opened, and Baba stood there, both hands wearing oven mitts, holding a steaming tray. Maryika slipped gratefully into the warmth. It didn’t seem strange that Baba was not at all surprised to see her. She lifted the scarf in her hands. “Look, I have a present for Andre.”

Baba nodded and turned away, to lift the next tray from the oven. She spoke over her shoulder to Maryika. “I told you it would feel like Christmas when it came. Now, put your apron on, babushka. You can crush the walnuts for the korolevsky cake.”

The End

The picture is a palekh-style illustration of a Russian troika (winter carriage drawn by three horses). You can get news about my writing at https://www.facebook.com/TheCalgaryChessman/

or follow me @alayanabeth on Twitter.

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.

Blind Side

Today I’m delighted to host Jennie Ensor’s novel Blind Side, published on 23 July 2016 by Unbound. Jennie has a fine eye for character, and for creating an atmosphere of discomfort or even menace without giving away too much detail. How well do we know the people we love? I’m looking forward to reading this.  Scroll down for an extract from the book.

 https://unbound.com/books/blind-side

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Tell us about your book/series. What genre does it belong to? What is it about? Are you drawn to this genre in particular, or is this something new for you?

Blind Side is my first published novel, a thriller set in London during 2005, the year of the 7/7 suicide bombings. It leans heavily towards the psychological thriller, though it is not typical of this genre.  When pitching the novel to agents and publishers I came up with the description The Book of You (a ‘stalker novel’ by Claire Kendall) meets Gone With The Wind. This may seem an odd combination but it actually gets across a lot of what Blind Side is about. It’s impossible to describe succinctly (well, I have trouble!) – suffice to say there is love, war, sex, politics, jealousy and a whole lot more. One thing the novel looks at is the darker aspects of friendship between the sexes – it may make a few people think twice about being friends with the opposite sex!

The story starts in the run-up to the May general election, with a heated debate on immigration going on. Georgie and Nikolai are at opposite ends of the social status spectrum. She is a marketing professional who wears a suit to work and has a well-off father; he is dreams of becoming a composer but to survive works as a labourer on a construction site. Their relationship is played out against a backdrop of intolerance towards migrants. (There are interesting parallels with Britain in 2005 and the caustic climate of xenophobia in 2016.)

Anyway, going back to your questions… The novel I started first is also a psychological thriller, more of a domestic noir than Blind Side and darker in tone. So I guess I am drawn to fairly dark, edgy stuff. I hate gratuitous descriptions of violence though; I prefer to let the reader imagine the horrible bits!

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

Two of my three main characters in Blind Side are prickly and difficult – Georgie and Nikolai –  the third, Julian, is a dark horse type, intense and introverted. Nikolai, the Russian who Georgie falls for is my favourite character. He is, like Georgie, burdened by past bad experiences, only he has an outgoing, warm side that is very engaging. When Georgie meets him he has been out of the Russian army for several years, but she comes to realise that whatever he did or saw there has scarred him both physically and mentally.

What inspired me to write his story? Difficult to say, though I knew someone a long time ago who left a big impression on me, and who seemed to be in a constant battle to overcome the emotional wounds inflicted on him as a child. Like many writers, artists and others, his creativity seemed to flow from a disturbance in his psyche. As far as the way I write about Nikolai – I heard his voice in my head clearly and I tried to capture the sound of it in my writing.

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

London is somewhere I know well. I was born in the capital, grew up in an outer suburb and have lived in various parts of London for the past decade or so. In the novel I show contrasting parts of London from the affluent parts near Hampstead where Georgie my main narrator lives to bustling, multi-ethnic, much poorer area of Finsbury Park only a couple of miles to the east, where Nikolai lives. Also the novel is firmly grounded in a particular time, a few months before and after the bombing of a bus and underground trains. In the weeks after the 7 July bombings, the atmosphere of the capital totally changed; people were on their guard, wary of each other. This was made worse when a nail bomb (which didn’t detonate) was discovered two weeks after the initial attacks. I’ve done my best to get across what it was like being in London that July, without any explicit descriptions of the bombings or their aftermath.

Tell us something about yourself. Your favourite colour? Favourite animal? Favourite film? Why that colour, that film?

Favourite colour is cornflower blue; I can’t get enough of it. Animal – giraffe. Film – The English Patient – the story, the landscapes, the cinematography, the soundtrack, the acting, Kristin Scott Thomas and Ralph Fiennes… need I go on?

Author web media links:

www.jennieensor.com

https://www.facebook.com/JennieEnsorAuthor

https://twitter.com/Jennie_Ensor

Blind Side: extract

Julian has been quiet since he arrived. His rigid posture, stick-thin back and clump of pale hair suddenly make me think of a scarecrow.

‘What’s the matter, Jules?’

His eyes fix on mine with an uncanny intensity. Instead of his studious-looking black plastic-rimmed specs – ‘Joe 90s’, I call them – he’s wearing his new contacts. They transform the uncertain haze of his irises to a precise blast of metallic blue. The effect is disconcerting.

‘Oh, just things,’ he replies, finishing his glass of wine. He prods a piece of the tandoori chicken from the local Indian as if a slug has crawled onto his plate. ‘I’ve been feeling a bit off lately.’

Come Away With Me, Julian’s favourite album, is playing low in the background. Nora Jones’ sweetly sad rendition of ‘Don’t Know Why’ seeps through my flat, adding to the melancholy mood.

‘What things? Bridges?’

Aside from his shiny black Jaguar XK8 and watching Formula One races, Julian’s thing is bridges. He specialises in bridge design at his civil-engineering firm.

He scowls. ‘I don’t want to go into it now.’

‘If it’s to do with the earrings… I’m sorry if I upset you.’

‘Don’t worry, it’s nothing. They look nice, by the way.’

‘Thanks.’ I pull my hair back and turn my head to show off my ears, each adorned with a disc of lapis lazuli set in a spiral of silver. ‘I do like them. I didn’t mean to be ungrateful. I was a bit taken aback, that’s all. We never give each other anything for Valentine’s Day. We’re not that like that… ’ I wait for him to look up from the table. ‘Are we?’

‘Apparently not.’

Since he gave me the earrings two days ago – he thought I’d appreciate them because I didn’t get any Valentine cards – they’ve sat in their box inside my dressing-table drawer, where I keep things that I’m not sure what to do with: foreign coins, spare buttons and a collection of brooches, scarves and other items my mother has given me over the years. I put them on for the first time fifteen minutes before Julian arrived. Julian has never before given me jewellery; on our birthdays we buy each other silly cards and maybe a cake or a bottle of wine.

‘What do you mean?’ A woolly unease gathers inside me.

‘It’s OK, Jaf. If that’s what you want, I understand.’ He turns his attention back to the table.

Jaf, originally Jaffa, was Julian’s nickname for me at university, when I had a thing for Jaffa Cakes. I got to know him in my final year; we both hung around the same local pubs where certain bands played. At first I saw him as a bit of a geek, obsessed by puzzles and anything with an engine. But it didn’t take long to find the humour beneath his reserve. I got Julian in a way that some people didn’t. Like me, he had issues with his mother. She died unexpectedly, soon after we finished uni, while we were backpacking around India. It struck me as odd that he decided he ‘couldn’t be bothered’ to go to her funeral.

Julian sighs, his shoulders slumping. ‘Hey, why don’t you open another bottle?’

I find the bottle of Haut Medoc that my father gave me. The contents smell like a dusty library but taste pretty good. We chat about the dangers of stilettos; Julian’s sister caught her heel in a drain cover while running for a bus.

‘No one knows what random fluke is going to strike next,’ Julian gazes around the room as if expecting a meteorite to crash through the ceiling. ‘A car accident, an incurable disease –’

‘You’re in a cheery mood.’

Julian pushes himself up from the table. ‘It’s Saturday night ’n’ all. What about a film? I brought a DVD over.’

I take the wine and glasses into the living room and tend to the DVD player. As I sit down on the sofa beside Julian he gestures to the magazine on my coffee table. It has a full-page, near-naked male model on its back cover.

‘That hunk’s been there for a while. Your bit of hot totty, is he?’

‘Well, you know how it is for us single girls,’ I smile. ‘I fantasise about him ringing my doorbell late at night, wearing just Calvin Kleins under his coat. I give him a shot of whisky and he unbuttons the coat, really slowly.’

A small crease appears above Julian’s nose, and rather than laugh as he’d normally do, he says in a low voice, not looking at me, ‘I don’t know why you bother with all these guys. If you don’t want a relationship, why go out with them in the first place?’

‘What guys? There’s been about three in the last six months.’ I scowl at him. ‘I do want a relationship. Just not with anyone.’

‘Not with me, you mean.’ He says it under his breath.

Something has changed between us, a micro shift. I take a slug of wine.

‘You’ve been acting really weird lately,’ I say. ‘Do you want to tell me something?’

He rubs the bridge of his nose, not meeting my eyes. I feel a surge of irritation.

‘Jaf.’ A blotch of red creeps up his neck. ‘You know I’ve always… fancied you.’

Julian has never hidden from me that he finds me attractive. Sometimes he compliments my legs or how I’m dressed. A few months ago in the Hampstead Everyman as we sat in the dark waiting for the film to start, he told me my face had the perfect bone structure. I giggled, nearly choking on my popcorn. Julian is short-sighted and on the scrawny side, whereas the only man I’ve ever been in love with and most of the guys I’ve dated have been strapping fellows. He has a high forehead, straight nose and wavy hair, lighter than mine. Handsome enough in a studious, slightly effeminate way. Like me, he went to a private school. An aristocratic overtone sometimes enters his voice, as if he’s asking the butler to bring him the newspaper.

‘Well, yes, sure,’ I reply. ‘But I didn’t think… ’ I’m up-ended for a moment. ‘We’re pretty close, aren’t we? But we’ve always kept it on one side of the line. That’s what I really like about us. It’s not like we’re in each other’s pockets, we’re not fuck buddies or anything. Are you saying you want to… Well, what are you saying?’

‘Sorry, Georgie, I didn’t mean to confuse you. It’s just… ’ He sighs, running his hand through his hair. ‘I don’t know. Can we talk about it another time?’

Now we’re finally getting to the nub of the matter, I don’t want to let it go. I wonder what’s going on; we can usually talk about anything, pretty much. His dread of losing his hair and his hope to one day become a father. My loathing of being photographed and my secret wish to get a tattoo of a seahorse at the top of my left thigh. His ambition to be his firm’s/the UK’s/the world’s number-one bridge designer. My uncertainties over what I should be doing with my life. The real purpose of bras. The components of dust. And the top ten ways to die – skiing off a mountain (accidentally or on purpose) is the only item we agree on.

Walking on Wild Air

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

wowa publicity pic tablet

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

 

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.

Hearts & Other Dead Things

Out of the ordinary writing, to support an extraordinary cause.hearts-and-other-dead-things-finalSource: Hearts & Other Dead Things

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