So… why Treacle?

Treacle  ˈtriːk(ə)l

noun: treacle; plural noun: treacles

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

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

  1.  cloying sentimentality or flattery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Treacle (tart) = sweetheart

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Tower of Inspiration

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

ATWW blog pics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter: @KathySharp19

The Larus Trilogy:

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

Sea of Clouds  http://amzn.to/1wYCPH0

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

Kathy’s Telling StoriesMonday Blog

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

Stormy Down

Chalk_Stone,_South_Downs_Way_-_Simon Carey wikimedia commons

Photo: chalk boulder on the South Downs Way, by Simon Carey from Wikimedia Commons.

Some years ago I wrote a short story inspired by my memories of walking the South Downs Way. I’m thinking of including it in an upcoming short story collection, but I’m no longer sure it’s good enough.

Let me know what you think.

Stormy Down

Simon’s breath hissed between his teeth as he climbed the steep, chalky path to the downland meadow. His calf muscles ached and clenched as he trudged his way upwards. Today’s leg had already been a long one, and he had to make a fair way further before night fall if he was to reach the end of the South Downs Way in time to meet Max and Tamsin. If he missed the car he’d be stuck with a long, complicated and needlessly expensive train journey, so he looked down at his feet and plodded on.

Pushing down on his knees at each climbing step, Simon forced himself up the last few feet of the climb and straightened up onto level ground. For a moment his vision faded into redness, and he could hear his heart thudding in his ears, its slightly irregular beat quickening with every indrawn breath, then settling back with the breath out.

He licked his dry lips, trying to stir a little saliva to moisten his mouth, which tasted of very stale chewing gum. Unclipping a bottle from his belt, he took a warm plastic-flavoured mouthful and swilled it round his mouth. Swallowing a second mouthful, he put the bottle away and looked around.

As heart rate steadied and vision cleared, he saw a broad upland field of thin chalky soil, sparsely covered with a sward closely-cropped grass. Stony outcroppings were scattered across the field, gleaming whitely in alternating patches of sunshine and shade as the wind swept clouds across the landscape. The grass was longer nearest the boulders, and seed heads nodded in the wind. There was no sign of any living thing, although trimmed grass suggested sheep and a yellowing bone by his feet supported this supposition.

The air was heavy with the threat of rain, and faint rumbles of thunder muttered constantly in the distance. His untidy hair, damp with sweat, clung to his face and he pushed it away with one hand, smoothing it back behind his ears.

The view trembled slightly as the heat of summer escaped the earth. Roiling black clouds moved steadily in from the east, and the sun gleamed through the shimmering air, bathing everything before him in a strange, brassy radiance. An uncanny feeling crept over Simon and he startled, feeling for a moment as if someone was standing right behind him. He turned, but there was no-one there.

He shivered and, shouldering his pack more squarely, moved slowly forwards, crossing the field diagonally. Chalk pebbles crumbled underfoot and the crunchy sound of his footsteps seemed loud in his ears although their echo was swallowed instantly in the heavy, deadened air. A shimmer of lightning illuminated the cloudbank ahead, and a loud roll of thunder indicated the storm’s approach.

Simon swallowed with difficulty, his tongue dry in his mouth. His skin prickled, and on his forearms all the hairs stood on end. Again, Simon felt he was being watched, and a light breeze signed across his skin, soft as a caress. He shivered again, more violently, and instantly a patch of goose bumps appeared on his left arm. He rubbed the spot, which felt hot and itchy, though his hands and legs were cold and shaking.

Eyeing the sky watchfully he continued to move forwards, feeling with every step a rise in tension. The meadow fell into semi-darkness as the fitful sunlight faded under the storm’s shadow. He felt his energy being sapped with every step, and his footsteps steadily slowed until he came to a halt. Head hanging, he let the pack slip from his back and fall to the ground. It had become very hard to breather, and Simon panted as he lifted his head and pressed a hand to his chest.

Suddenly, a great bolt of lightning smote the edge of the field. As its awesome power whited-out his eyesight, Simon could see imprinted on his vision a pattern of chalk fragments thrown up from the boulder that had been hit. A blast of almost palpable sound swept across the field and struck him where he stood.  He fell to his knees and grovelled as the deafening concussion swept over him. Strike after strike hit the field in quick succession, shaking the ground like an earthquake, and Simon curled up on the bony soil, wrapping his arms around his ears and tightly closing his eyes. He sobbed.

Simon lay at the centre of the great storm, shuddering as successive lightning charges earthed around him, deafened by the continual subsonic book of shock waves passing over him. His fear climaxed and passed over into a fatalistic calm: a steady and forthright acceptance. As his mind cleared, so silence fell upon the chalky field. Simon dared to open his eyes, defying the brilliance that played upon his clenched eyelids. His eyes widened. He stared.

All about him, lightning coruscated, sending multiple bolts from cloud to earth, earth to sky, as if in slow motion. The earth no longer heaved in protest, but tossed gently, cradling him with a rhythmic rocking motion.

Above his head, silver lights coalesced to form a shimmering vapour. It roiled and stirred, sending forth a glowing pseudopod to touch his face. Startled, he flinched and the light withdrew, returning to slide down his cheek and neck. Cool and silken, like water in a skin of light, it touched him and he shook.

Unable to move his heavy limbs, Simon lay and watched. Silently, a face materialised n the silver mist. Great lion’s eyes, lit with a topaz glow, fringed with a mane of light, stared at him solemnly. A shining face, ageless and innocent, looked down upon him. She smiled, and Simon felt his heart stop.

Colder and colder he was becoming, leaving the dense, earthly flesh behind. Gradually, he raised himself to meet her, and his body began to settle back and cool into darkness. She frowned. For a moment Simon felt uneasy, and strove to reach her. The silken mouth opened, and he felt her cool breath wash over him. An immense weight struck him in the chest, and its astonishing power swept him into oblivion.

Simon lay quietly, blinking slightly as the water ran into his eyes. He focused slowly on a streamlet of bubbling water, frothing over the white path into the mists. He could hear it chuckling below his resting place, at the edge of the field, where the ground fell away. A droplet of rain glimmering on a seedhead of rye captured his attention and he gazed at it solemnly.

As he came back to himself, he realised he was completely sodden and water from his hair was dripping into his eyes. Simon rolled slightly onto his side and raised his left hand to smooth the hair off his face. He winced at the initial movement, then gasped as pain gripped him. He felt as though giants had danced on his chest. Every muscle ached and tightened, as if he had run a marathon in his sleep.

Groaning, he rolled over and eased himself onto hands and knees. As he hung there a moment, marshalling his strength, he noticed his pack on the ground beside him. The straps were intact, but the waistbelt had been burned away and a great scorchmark marred the side pocket. Like Simon, it was now soaked and smelt odd.

Simon struggled to his feet, breathing carefully, and shouldered his pack. Wincing, he slowly straightened and looked out across the vale. Mist filled every valley, but above the clouds were clearing and a pale sun shone.

Far off to the north-west the dark clouds retreated, making their way to some other hilltop. A brief flicker of lightning teased at the edge of vision, and a strange expression passed over Simon’s face.

Carefully, he stepped onto the downward path, now a chalky rivulet, and began his descent. As he did so a thin rumble of thunder reached his ears and a breath of wind, soft as silk, caressed his face once before passing on, to set the grasses dancing.

©YMarjot

 

Best Female Sci Fi Authors

top ten female sci fi.jpg

Last week I reposted (on Facebook) this interesting article about female Sci Fi authors (http://www.whizzpast.com/historys-10-greatest-sci-fi-novels-written-women/), and it roused a lot of interest, so today I’m going a step further: here are my top-ten female Sci Fi authors, and my top picks from their books.

Ursula Le Guin – anything from the Hainish universe, my favourites are The Telling and The Left Hand of Darkness. The latter is Sci Fi second, and brilliantly observed political commentary first. Great writing by a very clever woman. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Telling-GOLLANCZ-S-F-Ursula-LeGuin-ebook/dp/B0049MPKGE/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601355&sr=8-2&keywords=the+telling

C J Cherryh. She has a monumental oeuvre, many of which I’ve read, but my favourites are the Faded Sun books, about the last remnants of the enigmatic mri, warriors born and bred, and the man who finds himself forced, by isolation, to become part of their inward-looking tradition-bound culture. It’s an intimate story of three exiles thrown together, that takes places against a backdrop as big as the universe, and it’s awesome – and offers a perceptive take on Stockholm Syndrome. Foreigner is damn good as well, and I love the Exile’s Gate series, with Morgaine and her Gate Destroying sword. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Faded-Sun-Trilogy-C-J-Cherryh/dp/0886778697/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601386&sr=8-1&keywords=the+faded+sun

Vonda McIntyre. Famous for writing quite a bit of the original Star Trek (and for giving Hikaru Sulu his first name). Her best novels are Superluminal (about the kind of mind that is needed to encompass FTL/cross-dimensional travel) and Dreamsnake (about a healer and snake handler in a ruined earth, post apocalyptic events and alien visitations. The ecology of the dreamsnakes and the disconnect between primitive living conditions and surviving technology are both very interesting). http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dreamsnake-Vonda-McIntyre/dp/0857054260/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601491&sr=8-1&keywords=dreamsnake

Mary Gentle – the linked pair of novels Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light. Not only are they great world-building, with their own convincing ecology, but the sequel ends with a bang, and a sense of utter hopelessness. Very brave to avoid the happy ending in favour of the right one. When I retire, I want to live in Tathcaer, crown of the Southland. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Golden-Witchbreed-Mary-Gentle-ebook/dp/B00D8CY6PM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601536&sr=8-1&keywords=golden+witchbreed

Sheri S Tepper: Grass and its sequels. Grass is a brilliant book; the ecology of the planet Grass is dazzlingly realised, and genuinely scary. She always has an amazing range of characters; even the horrible ones’ behaviour is understandable (though perhaps not forgiveable). http://www.amazon.co.uk/Grass-S-F-MASTERWORKS-Sheri-Tepper/dp/1857987985/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601611&sr=8-1&keywords=grass+tepper

Robin Hobb: The Liveship Traders trilogy. You might define her novels as Fantasy, and the line is definitely blurred here, but I think there’s a strong scientific basis to the liveships and the Rain Wild River, even if it arises out of fantastic origins. She also wrote (as Megan Lindholm) the wonderful Windsingers series. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mad-Ship-Liveship-Traders-Book/dp/0008117462/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601626&sr=8-1&keywords=the+liveship+traders

Zenna Henderson: her The People series. Lovely, gentle, elegiac portrayal of aliens on earth and the possibility of telepathic powers. They work because she’s a fine observer of people, alien or otherwise. http://www.amazon.co.uk/People-Collection-Zenna-Henderson/dp/055213659X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601657&sr=8-1&keywords=zenna+henderson+the+people

Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern. The books have dated badly, especially the early ones – I tried to persuade my sons to read them and they couldn’t get past the writing style. But Pern is a completely believable ecology, and I still love the dragons. Dragon Quest is my favourite. I love many of her non-dragon stories too: Restoree, the Killashandra books, The Ship that Sang. The woman has so much talent it’s just unfair. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dragonquest-Dragon-Books-Anne-McCaffrey/dp/0552116351/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601761&sr=8-1&keywords=dragon+quest+mccaffrey

Andre Norton’s Witchworld – I didn’t come to it until adulthood, and I’ve never fully embraced it, but she has a knack for taking you into places in your mind that are just a little bit uncomfortable and thus completely memorable. As a teenager I adored Moon of Three Rings and Exiles of the Stars which feature, amongst other things, mind transference, sorcery and galactic smuggling rings. Cracking! http://www.amazon.co.uk/Moon-Three-Rings-Andre-Norton/dp/B000UH4UNG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601741&sr=8-1&keywords=moon+of+three+rings

Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence. Another one that blends fantasy and myth with hard and soft science. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dark-Rising-Modern-Classic/dp/1849412707/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601762&sr=8-1&keywords=the+dark+is+rising

Special Mention: my Facebook post produced several other good suggestions, the most notable of which was a heart-felt plea on behalf of the writer who is top of my Mythical World Building list – Patricia McKillip. Like my correspondent, I view McKillip’s Riddlemaster trilogy to be amongst the best of its kind ever written. It will always be on my shelves, and Morgon of Hed, Raederle and the inimitable Tristan have a special place in my heart. However, I view it as true fantasy, not Sci Fi (whereas some of the undeniably fantasy-based stories above have a firm Sci Fi foundation). So – not in this top ten, but definitely worth reading. Plus – riddles! Who doesn’t like to read a riddle book? http://www.amazon.co.uk/Riddle-Master-Hed-Patricia-McKillip-ebook/dp/B0124179II/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459602015&sr=8-1&keywords=the+riddlemaster

I hope you enjoy my selection. Join my on facebook if you want to offer your own alternatives. https://www.facebook.com/TheCalgaryChessman/

 

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

 

 

Unintended Guardian

mythos legacy

“The Mythos Legacy, where real myths find real love.” Unintended Guardian is a short (too short) but very tasty introduction to the upcoming Mythos Legacy novels. It may be brief, but it gives a very clear flavour of what you can look forward to. I can already tell that the Mythos books are going to contain humour, fun, a gentle eroticism, and that they will reference a whole world of mythological creatures.

What if myths are real? What if there is another world alongside our own, inhabited by creatures we know only from story and legend? What if they are looking for love – an all too human characteristic? And what if one woman chooses to write a series of books about them – and that woman is Jami Gold, whose writing is clever, clear and sublimely entertaining. It’s got to be good, hasn’t it?

The Guardian here is Griff Cyrus, described by Jami’s protagonist as “a Viking of a man, all long tawny hair and broad shoulders.” In the Mythos world he is a gryphon ( part lion, part eagle) and he cannot bear the touch of sunlight – the sun is forbidden to him until he can undo his great error of three hundred years ago, when he lost the treasure he was supposed to be guarding. Solving his problem, and freeing him to walk in the light of day, require the assistance of his human neighbour, Kala, and the way in which she goes about it is very entertaining. No more shall be said on this point…

The first full-length Mythos novel is the upcoming Treasured Claim – a dragon story with a difference. It promises much.

Jami Gold is no stranger to those of us who are practicing the writer’s craft. She has a very good website, full of useful tips and information, and I’ve featured her in my blog before. I find her writers’ worksheets particularly useful. http://jamigold.com/

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.’

Ursula Le Guin

On Nov. 19 2014, at the annual National Book Awards gala, Neil Gaiman presented the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Ursula K. Le Guin.

Lots of media commentators have been talking about this, and I don’t want to repeat what others are saying, but because Ursula K Le Guin is my favourite author of all time, because she is at the top of my bucket list of people whose feet I’d like to kiss before I die, I’m going to talk about why I love her so much. I’m going to tell you about my three favourite U K Le Guin novels.

Now, in doing this I’m going to leave out the entire Earthsea oeuvre. This is because I began to read these books in childhood, and although I adore them, and Tenar’s story in The Tombs of Atuan is my favourite Earthsea book, I can’t really count it in the big list, because I’m completely unable to be objective about them. If you have children aged around the 11-12 mark or a little older and they are interested in fantasy, you can’t give them a better world view than that of Sparrowhawk and his milieu. If you want them to know about balance, and taking responsibility for the world they live in, and give them the magic of everyday things as well as the true magic of wizards – these are the books you need.

Number 3 in my list is Always Coming Home. I purchased this brand new on release with no idea what it was actually about. I became so enamoured of it that I bought it for a number of my friends, and donated a copy to a local library, just so I could spread the word. It’s not quite like anything else I can think of. Le Guin herself called it ‘An archaeology of the future,’ and that’s as good a description as any. The world of Always Coming Home is no utopia, although it has been described as such. It’s set in a future time in which the environmental wealth of the planet has been almost exhausted, and people make compromises with their surroundings that we civilized moderns would never accept. There’s a thread of story running through, the way a thin trickle of a river will run through a dry valley, meandering through the dust. And surrounding it are a wealth of stories, poems, songs, glimpses, analyses – all the bits and pieces of a literate society, gathered together, for us, the archaeologists, to pore over and ponder. I read it again and again, and always get something new from it.

Number 2 in my all-time list is The Left Hand of Darkness, I came to this book late. In my teens I could never finish it – it was just too hard, too dry. I was interested in the gender identities of the Gethenians, or rather the non-gender identities – in adolescence I was beginning to see that human life is defined by issues of gender and sexuality, even in arenas where one would expect it to be irrelevant, and so the gendering issue in The Left Hand of Darkness made me think. But I couldn’t handle the politics. I came back to it in my late 30s, with a bit more life behind me, and loved it. It is a book about politics, and it’s a book that makes its reader work hard. One of my top 10 books of all time. Well worth reading.

Number 1: The Telling. This is a deceptively simple book. Set in the Hainish universe, it is one of a number of Le Guin’s novels that treat with the topic of the alien visitor – oh-so-human Sutty finds herself on a planet where everything seems very human and familiar, but things are not as they appear. The society that she discovers is fragile and wounded, and its scars mirror Sutty’s own emotional pain. Above all, this is a novel about writing and history, and about the stories we tell that make us who we are, and it reminds us that if we forget to tell the stories of our own culture, it will diminish and narrow and fail. There’s something about The Telling that speaks to me on a very personal level, but it’s also a great story told well, and if its climax doesn’t move you to tears then there is no hope for you. Let the cold airs of Mount Silong blow through you and tell your story on the wind.