A Cunning Plan

Today my guest is Astrid Arditi, whose romantic mystery A Cunning Plan has just been published by Crooked Cat.

Determined to put her family back together, Sloane Harper stalks her ex husband and his annoyingly stunning mistress, Kate. But she’s not the only one. Handsome IRS agent Ethan Cunning is surveying them too, but not for the same reasons. He is attempting to nail Kate’s playboy boss.

Ethan and Sloane decide to help each other, which sends Sloane’s wobbly life spinning out of control. She’ll have to face danger, humiliation, and scariest of all, the dating scene, to lure her daughters’ father home.

Losing control was the best thing to happen to Sloane… until it turned lethal.

Cunning Plan - High Resolution

Hello Astrid, welcome to The Knitted Curiosity Cabinet. Tell us about your book.

A Cunning Plan is the first book in the Sloane Harper series. It’s a romantic mystery. Although my heroine’s everyday life shares similarities to my own – we are both stay at home mums with two young kids – the rest of the story is total fiction and my life is way more predicatble (thankfully!) than Sloane’s.

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?

I’m very fond of Sloane. She’s sweet and loving, funny and totally dedicated to her family and friends. She’s also weak and insecure, although she grows a lot in the book. At the beginning, some readers were shocked at how much of a doormat she is but it’s a truth about her character I couldn’t tone down. It makes you cringe to read it but I actually know many women like her. Fantastic women who have lost their confidence and believe they deserve to be put down. You wouldn’t cheer as much for Sloane if you didn’t know her to be weak, and at least the only way for her to go as the story evolves is up!

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

The story is set in London where I live. Most places actually exist or are loosely based on real locations, which helps make the world of the story believable.

How did you come to be a writer? Tell us a little about your personal journey.

I’m cursed with a wild imagination so I’ve always dabbled with writing but my lack of confidence held me back for a long time. Over the last two or three years though, I’ve completed a couple manuscripts and finally came to accept I was a writer. Sending my novel to agents and publishers, then being signed by Crooked Cat, has finally made it official. I can’t wait to start receiving feedback from total strangers!

How do you choose your characters names? Are names important? Do you feature real historical characters, or are they all completely fictional?

For Sloane, I needed a name that conveyed her social status – AKA a WASP. Hence Sloane Harper. For her male counterpart, Ethan, I chose a last name that gave hindsight on his personality – Cunning. My characters are all fictional so all names are made up. I look through baby names’ lists, keep store of all names that strike my fancy. Names are really important to me. They make the characters real.

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

I’m meant to start book 2 in the Sloane Harper series. Most of the book is already neatly outlined in my mind, I just need to sit down and write now.

Tell us something about the main character in your next book.

Sloane will be back in book 2 obviously, and so will Ethan Cunning. I’ve got a new sexy character ready to make an appearance in book 2, Felix Leconte. Can’t wait to see how he and Sloane will interact. You can expect sparks!

Who will enjoy your books? How do you connect with your readers?

Women age 25 to no limit. There is a universal truth in a character like Sloane, trying to find equilibrium between her family’s demands and her own needs. Hopefully it should speak to all women looking for a light read and a good laugh.

I’d love to connect with my readers. I’m on Twitter, Facebook and I blog at www.astridarditi.com. I’m also planning to set up an Instagram account for Sloane.

Tell us something about yourself. Your favourite colour? Favourite animal? Favourite food? Why does it appeal to you?

I’ve got a massive sweet tooth. I’ve been promising to go on a diet every day since I’m twelve but I’ve never turned down a cake or a piece of chocolate. Life is too short to eat lettuce.

Who are your favourite authors (or favourite books)? Did these authors help to inspire your writing? In what way?

My favourite all time author is Stefan Zweig. I’m especially fond of his short stories. In a totally different register, I’m a big fan of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. More than twenty books down the line and I still laugh till my ribs hurt.

AUTHOR BIO

Astrid Arditi was born from a French father and Swedish mother. She lived in Paris and Rome before moving to London with her husband and daughter back in 2013. After dabbling in journalism, interning at Glamour magazine, and teaching kindergarten, Arditi returned to her first love: writing. She now splits her time between raising her kids (a brand new baby boy just joined the family) and making up stories.

A Cunning Plan is Arditi’s first published work.

LINKS

Amazon UK http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cunning-Plan-Astrid-Arditi-ebook/dp/B01D7H7O42/

Amazon US http://www.amazon.com/Cunning-Plan-Astrid-Arditi-ebook/dp/B01D7H7O42/

IBooks https://itunes.apple.com/fr/book/a-cunning-plan/id1102554468?mt=11

Nook http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/a-cunning-plan-astrid-arditi/1123657004?ean=2940152965568

Kobo https://store.kobobooks.com/en-us/ebook/a-cunning-plan-5

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.

 

 

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.

Green Jewels on a Velvet Throw

Here I am on the lovely Jane Bwye’s blog. It’s launch day for The Book of Lismore, so it seemed a good time to talk about Scottish islands.

Jane Bwye

A warm welcome to another talented Crooked Cat author today.  I enjoyed Yvonne Marjot’s first novel, and look forward to another trip to the Hebridean Islands, which make me think of Mendelssohn. Over to you, Yvonne. YM author pic at Calgary

“The Isle of Mull, of isles the fairest”, goes the old song (An t’Eilean Muileach, an t’eilean àghmhor…). It certainly is, and as the setting of The Calgary Chessman it introduced readers to one of the many beautiful islands that stud Hebridean waters like green jewels on a velvet throw.

The islands of the Inner Hebrides each have their own character. There’s Skye, where in 1746 Bonnie Prince Charlie fled with Flora MacDonald on her bonnie boat ‘like a bird on the wing’. Skye has mountains fiercer than Mull, the Black Cuillins offering a more challenging climbing experience than the gentle slog up Ben More, Mull’s only Munro.

Islay is justifiably famous…

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The Calgary Chessman – your perfect excuse to visit this beautiful island.

TCC cover art front Yvonne Marjot

It’s been a glorious day here on the Isle of Mull (14 May 2015. I specify the date because it has rained pretty much non-stop ever since); the kind of day that reminds you to thank your lucky stars you ended up here, in this beautiful place. Most of you won’t get the chance to visit here, and some of those that do will be forced to endure the kind of chilly, rain-drenched, midge-infested holiday that makes you wish you’d just stayed in the office. But most of our visitors can count, at some point during their week, on at least one of those gorgeous, vista-filled, wall-to-wall-sunshine-coated days that remind you how much you want to leave your job, life and responsibilities, and fly away to a Scottish island to spend the rest of your life enjoying the peace and quiet.

It really is as good as that. Of course, there are other aspects. Sometimes the weather is dire, ferries don’t run, the local supermarket runs out of food, tempers fray, everyone wishes they were somewhere else. In the winter, it can be dreich and dismal week in week out, and you’re hardly out of bed in the pre-dawn gloom than you’re walking home from work and it’s starting to get dark again.

But in the summer, when the days are so long that you have trouble getting to sleep, and on crisp, dry nights of winter when the stars are astonishing and the northern lights hang in the sky like nature’s own neon signs – then you remember why you came here. And why you stay.

Cas Longmore didn’t choose to come to Mull. When her marriage ended and she needed a place to stay, she managed to acquire a small, run-down cottage on the island, where she could take refuge; a place where she could re-examine her life and begin to plan for the future again. She walks, day after day, along the beach at Calgary Bay because it takes her out of herself and keeps her busy. She has no idea this habit will lead her to discover The Calgary Chessman, an object so mysterious and fascinating that it distracts her from loneliness for weeks on end.

The Calgary Chessman itself is, of course, akin to the famous Lewis Chessmen, and belongs to the same period of history. Writing about it gave me the opportunity to indulge my fascination with archaeology and early human history, and I hope you’ll also enjoy this aspect of my story. The period of history between the end of Viking raids and the establishment of a full mediaeval society in Scotland, with its kings, nobles, clan chieftains and chiels, resembling (but not identical to) feudal society south of the border, is fascinating. The Calgary Chessman touches on the Lords of the Isles, the Norse occupancy of parts of the Hebrides, and the tension between mainland Scotland and the islands. A work of fiction can only open a hazy window on history, but they were interesting times. It was fun to write about them.

Sometimes island life combines with a fascination for history to provide unique opportunities. I’ve had the chance to be involved with two archaeological digs on the Isle of Mull, and both have informed the story I tell in the sequel to The Calgary Chessman. The Book of Lismore takes Cas’s story forward another pace, it tells you more about the life of her son, Sam, and the friends and family who are becoming steadily more important in Cas’s new life. There’s a whole new archaeological mystery, this one set during the monastic period, several hundred years before the era of The Calgary Chessman. And, of course, the problems that Cas is trying to escape have followed her, to the place she thought was her refuge, and she’s forced to confront a situation she thought she’d left in the past.

The Calgary Chessman is available from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Calgary-Chessman-Yvonne-Marjot-ebook/dp/B00MLBQ6SG/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1431623568&sr=1-1&keywords=the+calgary+chessman

and http://www.amazon.com/Calgary-Chessman-Yvonne-Marjot-ebook/dp/B00MLBQ6SG/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=8-1&qid=1431623613

The Book of Lismore is released by Crooked Cat on 16 July 2015.

This week, https://crookedcatbooks.wordpress.com/2015/05/11/its-thriller-week-at-crooked-cat-books/ is featuring contemporary fiction.

CC cont fiction pic May 2015

The Calgary Chessman – an archaeological romance

TCC cover art front

THE CALGARY CHESSMAN enters the Top #100 Genre Chart on AmazonUK (26 April 2015)! Time for an excerpt…

I quartered the beach, down to the water’s edge and back to
the machair, gradually becoming calmer as I wandered. I kept
my head low, glancing out to sea occasionally when the waves
came close, not focusing beyond the headland where haze on
the horizon prevented me seeing even the closest islands. The
greenish grey of the sea blended imperceptibly into the sky, and
all the colours of the landscape were subdued. For a moment, I
felt disorientated, as if gravity had inverted and I was walking
upside down on a great curved dome, feeling that at any
moment I might fall into the flat, featureless surface above me. I
shook my head and kept my feet moving.
Slowly some memories seeped into my mind; images of a
small boy flickered across my inner vision, like photos in an old
album. It’s easy to forget what treasures are tucked away in
there, behind the grey divide. Sometimes they feel so immediate
that they shock me right into that other world which was once
so real. It’s so much easier to live in the past than to face what is
in front of me.
My foot scuffed against a tuft of grass and I came back to
myself. I’d walked the beach up and down, and fetched up
against the edge of the machair again. Last night’s high tide and
wind had dislodged a whole chunk of cliff edge, and the lump
had slid down the dune-face, exposing a vertical slope of fresh,
white sand. In it was a dark hollow, a deep space about the size
of my fist. I put my hand in to see if it would fit. My knuckle
grazed something hard. Scratchy. Not like the rounded pebbles

and wave-smoothed pieces of driftwood lying on the beach.
I pulled my hand out quickly and shivered, thinking of
sheep bones. Okay to look at, found scattered on the grass
while out walking. Not so nice to touch, unseen. With a faint
hiss, the little hollow collapsed and something rolled out of the
hole and landed at my feet in a damp clump. I bent down to
dig it out. My fingers closed on a pale ivory-coloured handful, a
little darker than the sand, squat and squarish and about eight
centimetres tall. Not a sheep bone. I pulled out my hanky, spat
on it and rubbed the object. I stared at it.
I was holding something like a gnome sitting on a chair;
rather ugly, but with complex, carved clothing and draperies. It
was surprisingly heavy. The figure was vaguely familiar; even
though at the same time I was sure I hadn’t seen anything like it
in my life. I went to drop it back where I’d found it, but
changed my mind at the last moment and put it in my pocket.
After all, I could easily throw it away later.
A superstitious voice in the back of my head muttered about
omens. I’d come out today looking for something to knock me
out of the self-destructive track of my life. Perhaps this was it?
Or maybe it was more bad luck? Either way, picking up litter
should make me feel good, and at least this was more
interesting than the usual plastic bags and empty bottles.
I glanced back up the beach to where the family had set up
camp. The boy was crying; I could hear his voice, piping like
one of the little birds that run along the shoreline. He was in his
father’s arms, being comforted. The woman was down at the
water’s edge. She had rolled up her trousers to paddle, and the
little girl jumped and splashed, clinging tightly to her mother’s
hand. The woman seemed happier, her stance relaxed. Was that
because she was away from the man? Or were they the happy
family they appeared to be? I wondered if I’d ever learn how to
tell the good relationships from the bad, or whether perhaps all
marriages were as secretly miserable as mine had turned out to
be. Her husband walked over and she greeted him with a kiss
and took the boy from his arms. She might have been smiling. I
gave them the benefit of the doubt.

Aurora in Tatters, an alternative fairy tale

My writing friend Kim Walker https://nutsandcrisps.wordpress.com/2015/04/13/my-lovely-blog-hop/ has tagged me in this blog hop. My current work-in-progress is a novel with fairy tale aspects, so I thought it might be nice to post this short story, also based an a traditional story that we all know.

Aurora in Tatters

(A well-known fairytale in new clothes)

Deep in the long-ago, when days were long and the rivers were full of fish, there lived a reindeer herder, who spent the days running with his herd over the wide tundra. The joy of his life was his wife, Anushka, and their baby daughter, Aurora, named for the flickering curtains of light that hung in the midwinter sky.

In the summer, Anushka rode alongside her husband and shared the work, and the baby was wrapped in richly embroidered garments and lashed to her cradle, which hung from the back of the largest reindeer, so that her earliest memories were of snow and trees and the yellow grass and tiny flowers of the tundra, all swaying and moving in a rhythm of hoofbeats punctuated by the sound of harness bells. But one day, when Aurora was still a young girl, Anushka sickened and died. A reindeer herder cannot manage his herd alone, so Aurora’s father took another wife: a strong woman with half-grown daughters of her own.

The woman was a good worker, and handled the reindeer well, although she preferred not to sully her hands with domestic work. Her daughters were spoilt and idle, and the lazy girls would beat and pinch Aurora until she agreed to do all their chores for them. When Aurora tried to speak up, her stepmother scolded her for her wicked lies. Her father looked at her with sad eyes and said, “Aurora, it’s not like you to complain,” and for his sake she tried not to respond to her sisters’ spite.

Not long after, Aurora’s father also died and she was left alone in the world apart from the stepmother and the wicked stepsisters. Now the work really began. There was mending and weaving to be done, and the dense, colourful woollen embroideries of the Sami, until her fingers bled and ached. There was cooking, and collecting fuel, to keep her sisters warm and fed while they lay before the fire and gossiped about this one, or that one who had caught their fancy. And of course there were always the reindeer. Aurora’s strong, young fingers were ideal for teasing out burrs in manes and coats, for reaching deep into straining bodies to ease the birth of calves, or just as a comfort for youngsters to suck on when they were first weaned.

The mother could not run the herd alone, and the sisters had learned nothing about the beasts, so it was for Aurora to check hooves and antlers, soothe sore joints and groom hides, comfort the weanlings and gut and strip the carcasses of mothers that had not made it through the dangerous hours of birthing.

There was no new clothing for Aurora, no footwear when her feet grew, no rich, decorated holiday coat or fur-lined hood to comfort her days. Her clothing grew grey and ragged with use, and her breath froze on the lining of her hood, so that on winter days the icicles jangled and rattled against her face. The sisters spoke of nothing but the coming summer gathering, when all the herds come together and there is feasting and dancing. This year the son of the most powerful herder would choose his bride at the solstice celebration. There would be a great dance, all day and all night, to find out which of the young women had the strength of body and will to make the best match, and both sisters fancied themselves as the chosen one.

Come the day, Aurora was exhausted. She had been up all night, sewing through the long, long hours of midsummer half-light, and had completed her sisters’ festival coats with moments to spare. They had shown their thanks with a pinch and a kick as they left the tent, swept away by their mother to enjoy the day. Aurora lay on the floor, too tired to move, and closed her eyes – just for a moment. Her eyes shot open again at the sound of a voice. She scrambled to her feet and turned to face the woman who had just pulled open the flap.

Her figure said she was young, but her face was lined and full of experience. She was dressed from head-to-toe in embroidered finery, white on white, and the absence of colour was somehow more beautiful than the colourful work Aurora had spent her best talents on that morning. Her mukluks and hood were made of a sumptuous, buttery-white fur. Her eyes were black, and bright. Aurora had never seen her before.

She held out her hand and Aurora took it, bemused. “I am Anelka,” she said, “and you are my sister-daughter. I have come to bid you join the dance.”

“No, no,” Aurora protested. “I can’t go to the dance. I have nothing to wear.” She pulled her rags around herself and hung her head.

Anelka gestured to a bag that lay at her feet. “I had thought you younger,” she said, “but you are thin enough. I think these will fit.”

Aurora upended the bag and out poured the most gorgeous embroidered garments, made of finest wool and bearing her own family’s sigils and designs – the narwhal, the tundra lily and the great ice bear. The clothing fitted her perfectly. At the end her aunt slid her own feet out of the beautiful ice-bear fur mukluks and passed them over to Aurora, along with the bear fur hood. Aurora’s fingers, tired to the bone, ached as she tried to tie the laces and her hands shook.

Anelka knelt and tied the laces for her. Then she handed Aurora an otterskin bottle. “Drink it,” she said. “It will help.”

Aurora tipped the bottle to her lips. She tasted lichen, herbs and the strong, harsh spirit the reindeer herders brewed, distilled over ice in the bitter winter nights. She drank. The concoction worked like magic – dispelling her fatigue and filling her with confidence. Her cheeks flushed and her eyes brightened. Throwing her arms around her aunt, she hugged her hard, then ran as fast as her legs could carry her to join the dancing.

It took half the night for her to work her way in to the central group. All round her, the older members of the gathering were failing, one by one, and settling down to drink, and talk, and watch the young ones dance on. At around midnight, her elder stepsister gave in, stumbling to the side and sinking to the ground. Groaning, she clutched her ankle and moaned, “if only I had not worked so hard today. I am sure I could have lasted the night.” Her sibling lasted scant moments longer. Her complaint: “I am sure the ungrateful child has made my mukluks with a wrinkle in the sole, and now I have a blister.”

Aurora danced on, blissfully unaware, shaking out her plaits and stamping the ground down under her strong, long, never-tiring legs, shedding her layers of beautiful clothing as the hot summer night wore on. As dawn fluttered across the sky, the half-light broadening into the golden glow of a new day, she raised her head and at last everyone could see her face as she met the eyes of the man for whom they were all in competition. They were the only dancers still standing. He was tall, not a youth but in the first strength of his manhood. His grey eyes warmed as he looked on her, and he held out his hand. “So, it is to be you,” he said as he lifted Aurora’s hand above her head and turned her in a full circle, so that all the people could see her.

Aurora dipped and twirled in this final step of the dance, but as the drums thudded into silence and the singers’ voices fell she stepped away. Her voice rang out clearly over the heads of the gathered crowd, although her words were directed to the man who stood before her.

“I thank you for this dance – I will always remember it. I am sure you would make a wonderful husband, but I am not ready to marry. I am going with my aunt into the deep north to hunt the great ice bears. Perhaps when I come back we can dance the summer dance again, and we will see who has the strength to finish.”

Her partner gave no sign that he was disappointed. His face was grave as he bowed his head to her, although a smile quirked the corner of his lips. “I shall look forward to it,” he said. His hand rested, briefly warm, in the small of her back as he escorted her to Anelka’s side, and he bent and scooped up the pile of her discarded clothing and handed it to her.

His father joined him, and the two reindeer herders, old and young, stood and watched the women walk away. They moved lightly, like wild animals themselves, through the reindeer and the herds closed around them. As they disappeared from sight, the younger man bent to pick up something lying at his feet. He laughed. In his hand he held one, beautiful, ivory-coloured bear-fur mukluk.

TCC cover art front_MG_4463 edited

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A rose by any other name

A snippet of my work-in-progress. It’s running under several titles at the moment, and I just can’t make up my mind which is the right one. Should I be straightforward (Rose Cottage) – referential (The Briar Wood, a painting by Edward Burnes-Jones) – tangential (The Ties that Bind) ? I don’t know yet – it’s fun to leave it hanging.

Dad pulls the car in to the kerb and parks neatly in front of her front gate. ‘My front gate,’ she says to herself. The frenetic excitement of the auction has faded, and now she just feels nervous.
Over the last twenty-four hours her imagination has been working overtime – she’s pictured everything from the perfect cottage, with a lamp glowing in the window, to an enormous hole in the ground with a glimpse of wreckage at the bottom of it. She knows these extremes are ridiculous – it’s just going to be a house with a few issues. She doesn’t mind issues. She knows what she’s letting herself in for, right? After all, it’s what she’s always dreamed of doing. Not many people can say that they’re truly following their dream.
She gets the key out of her purse. She’s slightly disappointed that they won’t need the bolt cutters. The handover yesterday had been fairly straight forward. She’d read some more paperwork, written her signature several times, and handed over the money after a brief visit to the bank. Now her savings account is £12,000 poorer, and at the moment all she has in return for it is a slim receipt from the auction house and the key. It opens a huge padlock, linking two halves of a chain that holds the gates closed. They are proper industrial gates – two sheets of corrugated iron on rusty hinges. She wonders what the original gates were like. It’s a broad gateway, in keeping with the high stone wall with its flint border. Much too impressive for ‘Rose Cottage’. She wonders if she should change the name.
‘Come on, love, stop dreaming. It’s perishing out here. Let’s get in and find out what we’re dealing with, shall we?’
Dad’s the practical one in the family. She’s glad that he’s with her. Mum couldn’t come – she has a hair appointment over in the town, and anyway she says she doesn’t want to see it until it’s finished. She’s not wildly excited that Laura spent her inheritance on property. She thought Laura should get a complete makeover and maybe take an overseas holiday.
‘You’re never going to meet anyone in that office full of girls, unless one of the accountants decides he wants a bit on the side, and you know what I think about that sort of thing. You should put yourself out there, enjoy life while you’re young. It won’t last forever, you know.’
Laura is never sure whether Mum would like to see her safely married with 2.4 kids, or out there partying forever. Mum’s party life came to an abrupt end when she became pregnant at seventeen, although now that Maisie’s left home and Laura is working, she can see the fun-loving side of her Mum finding its way out again. Dad would rather stay at home and potter in the garden (he’ll be exactly the same at eighty as he is at forty-five). Mum’s the outgoing one.
It occurs to Laura as she fumbles to fit the key into the padlock that Mum would have enjoyed the suggested overseas holiday much more than Laura herself. She wonders if she can send Mum away for a few days, and if Mum would accept it. A week on a party island would put the spring back in her step. She tucks the thought away for further consideration.
The padlock snaps open and the chain tumbles to the ground. Dad gathers it up and stows it in the boot of the car. Laura waits for him. Now that it comes down to it, she doesn’t want to take her first step into the unknown by herself. Together they push on the gate. It doesn’t move. At least, it moves a little, and then springs back, as if there is something slightly yielding behind it. They try pulling it. No, that doesn’t work. It’s definitely the kind of gate that opens inward.
Laura puts her shoulder to the corrugated metal and shoves hard. Her feet skid backward on the gravel. She bends her legs slightly and really leans into the gate and, grudgingly, it moves inward a couple of inches and stops. There’s a dark mass blocking the space beyond. Laura pushes one hand into it, and jumps back, swearing. Her arm is marked by several long scratches where thorns have torn her skin. The area inside is a dense mass of brambles.
Dad leans on the gate for her, so that she can get a better look. She’s none the wiser, though. All that can be seen at the moment is ropy stems and giant thorns. There aren’t even any blackberries.
‘Get in car, love,’ says Dad. ‘We’ll go home and get t’ladder.’
In times of stress, Dad always reverts to his Yorkshire roots. Laura hugs him – he’s the best Dad in the world. In no time at all they’re back with ladder, pruning saw and two sets of secateurs and gardening gloves. She’s changed into some old clothes – there’s no point in looking like Office Girl today. There’s serious work to do.
Dad holds the ladder as she climbs to the top of the wall. As she goes, she notices that fat tendrils of bramble vine are already spilling over the top; she helps herself to a couple of blackberries that have ripened in the sun. She could have guessed there would be a bramble problem, if she’d paid more attention. At the top, she leans forward to peer into the space beyond. All she can see are brambles. Everywhere. It’s as if the whole space is filled with them. Towards the middle, the brambles rise into a sort of dome. A huge dome. If there’s a house in there, it’s massive – and completely covered in brambles. She can’t tell whether to laugh or cry.
She’s still in shock when she gets to the bottom of the ladder. She grabs it, and offers Dad the chance to climb up and take his fill. ‘Bloody Norah.’
The ladder starts shaking, and she realises that he’s laughing. He takes a minute to calm down, before making his way back to level ground. He has tears in his eyes, he’s laughed so hard, and for a moment Laura is furious. This is the end of her dream. Instead of Rose Cottage, there’s just this monumental mound of thorns and stuff. And now Nanna’s money is gone. She’ll never have another chance. Dad gathers her into his arms as she bursts into tears, and pats her lovingly as she cries into his shoulder.
‘There now, pet. It’s not so bad. Your old Dad knows how to deal with a few bramble bushes. We’ll be through them in no time.’