Lily goes to Rainbow Bridge

It’s been just four weeks since I had to make the dreadful decision to have Lily put to sleep.

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It’s always hard saying goodbye to your pets; they are very much-loved members of the family, after all. However, we all know that there comes a time when they look up at you in such a way and there’s a pleading expression in their eyes. That was exactly what happened and the second I spotted it, I just knew that she was suffering and I couldn’t allow it to happen any longer.
She was a very brave little girl, right up to the very end. I made the decision to have the vet come out to my home and perform the procedure. It meant less stress for her by not having to transport her to a surgery. She was sat on the duvet in my spare room and I stroked her and told her I loved her. As I held her in my arms, she slipped away peacefully, taking an enormous part of my heart with her.

Going ‘over the Rainbow Bridge‘ might be a phrase you’ve heard with regards to the death of a pet. It is believed by many that our pets wait for us at the foot of the bridge until our time comes, and then weLily2 cross the bridge together to go to heaven. The idea comes from Norse legend in which the bridge, known as Bifrost, connects earth with the home of the gods, Asgard. A beautiful interpretation of the ideology can be read here.

It’s an idea which brings great comfort at a time of sorrow for grieving owners. I know many of you will have felt this heartbreak at one time or another too, so my heart goes out to you for your loss.

The vet arranged for a private cremation, so I could keep a small casket with her ashes. It sits in my writing room, on the shelf where she used to sit when she watched me write. I think she would like that. It’s a warm place and she always liked to be near me.

So, this is a very empty and soulless house now, and it’s really hard not having her arrive at the door to greet me when I come home from work. However, this is only a temporary measure, for a have a couple of kittens coming to me after Christmas. I always swore I’d never be without a cat in my life, so it made sense to start looking, and the local rescue centre had a number of kittens arrive a few weeks ago. Stay tuned to my Facebook page for photos and news after they have arrived home.

Happy Christmas to you and your loved ones, I wish you a peaceful a prosperous New Year for 2016.

Liz

xxx

 

To Kill A Mockingbird – Is it still relevant today?

I was absolutely thrilled when someone suggested we read this for my local bookclub last month.

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Having just read the sequel a few months ago, I was very much looking forward to getting into this one again. I say ‘again’ – we actually read this at school, and I remembered that I had really enjoyed it.

I have re-read a number of books from childhood recently. Regular readers may remember my post about the Lord of the Flies and how being an adult can change our perspective on a story. I did wonder if a second reading of Harper Lee’s classic tale would have a similar effect.

There were lots of things about the story which I had completely forgotten. The touching sub-plot of Boo Radley and his affection for Jem and Scout springs to mind.

I remember as a child there was a house in our street which looked a bit neglected compared to the others. It desperately needed a lick of paint and a tidy up of the garden, and that probably would have done it. But to us children it was the topic of much gossip, as was the older guy who lived there, apparently alone. We used to make up stories about how he had murdered all the other children in the neighbourhood, and we used to wonder which of us would be next. (Jeez, I just got a shiver up my spine thinking about that!)

I had also forgotten the court verdict after the infamous trial, although looking at the story as a whole, it almost doesn’t matter.

So, I arrived at bookclub last month full of lots of things to say. Inevitably, most of us thought exactly the same thing: this story is most definitely as relevant today as it ever has been.

*** SPOILER ALERT *** For those of you who have NOT read the sequel, please do not read beyond this point!

I came across this great article from the Huffington Post which discusses what we really think of Atticus Finch (a literary hero so great that his first name is a popular baby name for white males in the US). Especially when we learn that he does not quite deserve the pedestal upon which we have perched him for such a long time.

Consider too the recent uprisings in the US, including KKK rallies and the figures relating to civilian killings of members of the African American population by white police officers. This is very sobering reading and tells us that racism is, in fact, alive and well in certain areas of the United States. Shame on them.

All Night At The Coffin Works: How do you stay up all night to write?

I had very mixed feelings about this event, I’ll be honest.

It seemed like a good idea, back in the summer when I bought the tickets. The nights were warm and stretched out way beyond teatime. Now, it was early October and, while not exactly cold, it was darker and Halloween was approaching with some determination.

Imposing door front. It was now or never!
Imposing door front. It was now or never!

I have always been someone who gets spooked easily, and right until the moment the event started, I had some misgivings about whether or not I would ever sleep again.

A coffin works. All night. What the hell was I thinking…?!

We settled in, eyeing each other with wariness. Twenty writers, most of whom had clearly never met each other, snugly fit into the room. I was very glad I had invited a fellow Swanwicker, Lol Barnes, along to join me. At least I would have someone to hold my hand, I thought, if it got spooky later on Like, in the dead of night. If the lights went out. Or something…

First thing’s first though, a tour round the museum.

Well, Newman Brothers’ coffin works didn’t actually make coffins, as it happens. They were essentially a brass foundry, so they produced all the accessories to go with coffins. Brass plaques, plates, crucifixes and handles were stamped and polished before being shipped out to the undertakers, where they would fit them to the coffins, ready for the deceased to be laid to rest.

Example os brass stamping machinery, still in working order.
Example of brass stamping machinery, still in working order.

Our guide, Owen Edmunds, was hugely enthusiastic about the place. Despite the music thumping from a neighbouring nightclub, we could still appreciate the ambience of this strange monument to Birmingham’s industrial heyday.

He showed us first into the stamping room, the presses still functioning after all these years (since 1882 to be precise) and making a dreadful racket as they stamped the thin brass plates into shapes, ready to be nailed onto someone’s coffin.

After the stamping room, we were ushered into the main building to see the warehouse. Here we learned the difference between a coffin as a casket:

Caskets are seen mostly in the US and are rectangular-shaped, exactly the same width at the top and bottom. You’ll see a single long handle fitted down the entire length of the casket which can be used to carry the deceased to their final resting place. A coffin, however, is tapered to fit the size of a human body as it lies facing upwards. Typically, you’ll have several smaller handles running down the side of a coffin which people can use to carry their loved one.

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Unbelievable variety of accoutrements you can have fitted to your coffin these days. Who knew???

The factory also has a sewing room, where ladies carefully stitched the shrouds for the deceased, in a range of colours. You could even have one made in the colours of your favourite football team, if you so desired.

Finally, we arrived in the factory office, left exactly as it was approximately seventeen years ago, as if it had just been abandoned for an untimely fire drill. The late Joyce Green who was the Managing Director at the time, had even left her reading glasses on her desk. (Slightly unnerving!)

I have to say, as a writing event it is definitely the most unusual I have ever attended. The tutors were friendly and gave us plenty of exercises to complete, along with encouragement into the wee small hours and beyond.

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Despite being dog-tired, there was something about the accommodation which didn’t seem appealing…

I was really pleased that I finally got to try my hand at some poetry, something I’ve been rather reluctant to try before. I don’t know whether it was as a result of sleep-deprivation but at 5.30am I even managed to produce some half-decent haiku. Watch out for some more of that to come perhaps…!

Many thanks to the wonderful team at Newman Brothers for letting us come to your fabulous museum.

Siren Spirit Goes Live on Amazon!

It’s so exciting to have my very first novella released and available to buy on Amazon!

I’m thrilled at the way the cover turned out (doffs cap to Andrew Brown at Design4Writers for an amazing job).

Cover design by Design4Writers
Cover design by Design4Writers

I can’t tell you what a fantastic journey it has been to get this far, to have my very own book in my hands.

Yes, I can actually say that because, even though the paperback copy is not yet available to purchase on Amazon, I am holding the proof copy in my hands as we speak. EEK!

Stay tuned to social media for more news on the launch: Facebook and Twitter are your best ways of contacting me.

“But first, this….” Procrastination and How Writers Deal With It (Or Don’t)

This coming weekend is a bank holiday in England and Wales. I’ve taken time off from my full-time job today and tomorrow, with the sole purpose of getting some serious writing done over the break.

I have about six projects on the go at the moment, all at various stages of completion. Some have barely been started, with notes strewn about all over the place, so it’s not like I’m struggling to find things to do.

I woke around 7am this morning, and between then and the six hours until lunch, I have

  • cleaned my car (it was absolutely filthy, it has to be said);
  • been to the shop for breakfast materials (no milk in fridge);
  • made and eaten said breakfast;
  • tidied up the kitchen;
  • cleaned the inside of the dishwasher (OK, I just inserted some device into the machine and set it on the highest programme, but still…);
  • had a bubble bath (by this time, I needed it);
  • put a load of laundry into the washing machine;
  • painted my nails.

In short, I have procrastinated.

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Courtesy of TheFreeDictionary.com

Now I have covered this topic here before, but this is not an affliction which resolves itself overnight. One has to work hard to overcome this particular bane.

Friends on Facebook have provided a selection of responses. Writers in particular though, seem to be bothered by this condition more than most, and have responded more than everyone else too.

“Amateur! Come back when your hair’s in cornrows,” said one friend. She’s a talented screenwriter (and Master Procrastinator, clearly).

But the procrastination sufferer does not need this kind of idea placing into their head. I am now seriously considering taking a couple of hours out to plait my hair, having surfed the web to discover that cornrows are far too difficult to do on my own. That killed another half an hour, mind you.

I need to know that I’m not alone here. I want to hear your procrastination techniques, large and small. Nothing is too crazy here. Feel free to spill all. I’m a nice, kind person and you’re guaranteed a virtual hug at the end.

In the meantime, I’m off to bake some muffins, or something…

 

Psychedelica: The Adult Colouring Phenomenon

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IMG_0873There are strange goings-on in living rooms all over the world. Colouring books are being completed. Under normal circumstances, this might not sound so unusual. But these books don’t belong to the pre-schoolers. It’s their parents who are picking up the crayons.

Forget yoga and meditation (although they do have their place). The new way to relax from your working week is to grab some pencils, pens or crayons, and get colouring.

It’s even thought to help counter mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

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The pictures in this book are all completed by my own fair hands, and from one such book: Being in the Now by Luscious Books.

I love this book because rather than just the pictures, there are wise words of wisdom, giving us handy life tips at the same time. Zen therapy, you might say.

It’s become the perfect way for me to wind down after work and get into the right frame of mind for accessing my creative brain and writing.

The paper isn’t very thick with these books, unlike those of Johanna Basford, so there is only one image per sheet. However, this allows you to carefully cut out each page and hang it on a wall, if you’d like to. Neat, huh?

I believe I may well do that. Just as soon as I’ve finished this little blue bit…

See here and here for more articles on this topic!

The Social Media Labyrinth

There’s no getting around it these days. If you want to be a successful author, you must have an online presence and this must include the use of social media, at least to some extent. I would recommend a Facebook Page (as distinct from your personal profile) and a Twitter account as the bare minimum.
The reason is very simple: readers expect it.
The days of an author being able to hide behind the security blanket of the publisher are long gone. Even those authors who are lucky enough to have a publishing deal are still expected to engage directly with their readership.
So, the question is no longer “Should I be using social media?” but “How the hell do I find the time to do all the social media engagement required?”
To resolve this issue, I used to use Hootsuite. Once a week, I would painstakingly trawl the internet looking for ideas and content to create a .csv file and upload it into the application. After a few attempts and subsequent corrections, eventually it would upload. This whole procedure would take me approximately two hours, to write 7 days’ worth of tweets at 6 tweets per day. Facebook was another task altogether.
Well, it didn’t take long for me to see the flaws with Hootsuite. For one thing, you can’t bulk schedule posts with images. Images are critical to reader engagement on Twitter, so I knew I was already at a disadvantage. Also, once a tweet has been posted, it is binned, never to be seen again. This meant I would have to repeat this laborious task every week. I began to dread Sunday afternoons.
[Exit Hootsuite, stage left]
Well, folks, I am very proud to say I have found all the answers I need in this cute little fellow:
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Cephalopod frenzy?
Now, I should point out here that I have a full-time job (as well as being a writer), therefore I probably have some more disposable income than some of you may do. However, I do consider this a very worthwhile $49 per month, and I’m all about value for money.
The system works very simply. Having signed up and linked your social media accounts, the next step is to create your categories. You might have one for writing tips, for example, and another for inspirational quotations. I have one for cat pictures too. (Sorry!)
After you have a couple of categories, you need to start adding content to grow your library. The Edgar library is really like a proper library of data. Once an item is saved, it remains in this repository for ever.
Edgar will then recycle these posts for you, over and over again, according to the schedule you give him. Now, let’s take Twitter. Apparently, the life of a tweet is just 24 minutes. Facebook, however, is much longer. Personally, I post 6 tweets a day (sometimes a few ad hoc), and a Facebook post just once.
Because I’m no longer under the pressure of doing a whole week’s worth in one go, I can now get ideas for content whenever I get a few spare moments. I have got into the habit of saving pictures and links I like whenever I’m on Facebook, with a view to following them up at a later date.
For me, Edgar is not free, but is very much about freedom, and in the 20-30 hours I spend a week on my writing business, I’m up for as much freedom as I can get my hands on. I’d highly recommend this to anyone for whom managing your social media feels like a burden. You’ll get some control back in your life and, ultimately, more time for writing!

The Sociological Spectre of Apathy

This is going to be one of those blog posts which asks more questions than it answers, so please bear with me. I like to prompt debate about things which matter to me; this is one of them.

books1I have a friend I’ve known for half my life. I don’t see him very often and when we do meet up, like many friends, the conversation revolves around work, family and mutual friends.

Recently, he happened to mention that his eleven year-old son hadn’t performed as well in school exams as he had expected, and my friend was concerned about this.

Now, his son goes to a fee-paying school. Both parents work – his wife runs a lucrative domicilary care business and he is a company director in another firm as well. This is not a family that is short of resources in the slightest.

“I bet I know one reason why,” I said, and shot him a knowing look. “When was the last time he read a book for pleasure?”

“Oh, I dunno,” came the reply. “Reading’s not his thing really.”

…not his thing…

I shivered.

Sadly, I fear that my friend’s son is not alone. I hear this much more often than I would like to, and it fills me with dismay.

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Studies have shown (click here to read more) that those who read fiction are more inclined to be quick to empathise with others and especially when this reading skill is developed in younger children. It teaches them to detect and understand how certain actions affect the feelings of other people.

We all know how a good story allows you to feel what the characters feel. How many of us have laughed and cried, felt the glow of romantic love or the despair of grief, when reading a story? This is the power of a good author. My favourite books are those which have taken me on an emotional roller-coaster. I want to be reaching for the tissues when I read, I want to be moved.

But for children like my friend’s son, brought up with no books in the house other than his mother’s nursing textbooks, what does this do a child’s emotional development?

Not having my own children, it may be inappropriate of me to comment upon the upbringing of other people’s offspring. But, actually, I think there’s a wider issue here.

If children don’t learn to empathise, what sort of people do they turn out to be? Isn’t that sort of the definition of a sociopath? And, are we convinced that enough emphasis is put upon reading books for pleasure, both in schools and at home?

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As a little girl, my mum used to take me to the local library. In the middle of the children’s area I remember seeing an enormous wooden box, full of brightly-coloured books for young children. (It probably wasn’t all that big, but I was only a toddler at the time!)

Mum tells me, even now, that I would have favourites that I kept asking for, week in, week out. The poor woman must have been bored to tears having to read the same books over and over! But, I am eternally grateful to her for bestowing upon me the greatest gift in the world. For, in teaching me to love literature, she taught me how to escape this world and travel to far-flung places, to have adventures beyond my wildest dreams.

I flew with dragons; I fought demons and befriended angels; I toppled evil tyrants and replaced them on the thrones of lands far, far away; and, I fell in love, over and over and over, with characters who possessed magical abilities, and yet, ultimately, very human traits.

My life would have been immeasurably different without books. Certainly, I doubt I would ever have become a writer. In my opinion, it’s shameful that there are children growing up in our society without being shown the door into this enchanting world of books.

So, I would welcome your comments here. What are your experiences of teaching your own or other people’s children to read? Is it really that important, or am I just banging on about something which is none of my business, being childfree?

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Review: From Cornwall to the Andes, Barbara Webb

I don’t read a great deal of non-fiction but I was drawn to this book, partly due to the striking painting on the cover (which I later found out is the author’s own work), and partly because of its acutely personal nature.

“How brave!” I thought. “What great courage this lady must have to share such a private and emotional journey in such a public way.”

I find I am drawn to people who display characteristics such as courage and strength. Webb seemed to be just such a person and so I decided to purchase this little book.

The first thing that is clear is that the author is no shrinking violet. This is a lady who has travelled all over the world, visiting countries and cultures of which most of us can only dream.

Yet not even such experiences can shield us from the very human condition of profound grief when a loved one dies.

I can only imagine how difficult it must have been, after such a traumatic period in one’s life, to make the decision to commit to paper the journey from her late husband’s diagnosis through his death and into the unknown territory of widowhood.

But the beauty of this story is that there is no wallowing in self-pity amongst the pages. The illness and subsequent deterioration in her husband’s condition is handled with care and tenderness, which many in a similar position will find of great comfort.

Instead, we find a moving tribute to her late husband and a candid reflection of her own despair after his death. How lucky we are that the author found herself and created such a wonderful new life to share with us.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It moved me to tears on occasion, but between the pages lie also joy and hope, and this makes it an inspiration for those with a loved one also suffering from terminal illness.

You can find out more about Barbara Webb and her books below:

Website: http://www.cornwall2theandes.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/cornwall2andes

 

BooksGoSocial Writers’ Conference: Dublin, June 26th-28th 2015

NB: Apologies for the quality of these photos folks. My iPhone does its best, but it also relies on my (un)steady hand…

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Cocktail, retro-style – French 75 at Blanc et Noir, Birmingham Airport

It’s become traditional for me to treat myself to a champagne cocktail at the airport when I fly solo.

If I’m honest, I’ve always liked a bit of the high life. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find the billionaire to go with it but never mind. This is not the time or place for lamentations on the topic of my non-existent love life.

It occurred to me (whilst sipping said cocktail) that I hadn’t packed an umbrella. Yes, that’s right. On a trip to Ireland! Luckily, I didn’t need it. Save for an unwelcome but not inconvenient downpour on the Saturday night, it was remarkably warm and dry all weekend.

I had chosen my courses carefully, based on addressing the one weakness I have found in my writing so far – writing dialogue – and the elephant in the room, my lack of business acumen and, particularly, marketing know-how.

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Saturday morning dawned bright and very early. My apartment in the Smithfield area overlooked the famous Old Jameson Distillery so I decided to take a deliberate walk past on my way to the Irish Writers’ Centre.

Following a cheeky McDonalds breakfast, I arrived at the centre in good time for my first Course, Dialogue in Fiction. It was a wonderful couple of hours spent talking about the importance of good dialogue and how it should be significant to the plot.

It was, however, also the day for Dublin Gay Pride. Not only that – they had organised to congregate right outside the centre in Parnell Square before setting off on their march around the city.

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Rainbow crocodile!

Margaret Murphy, our tutor, performed admirably to be heard above the noise of the pumping dance music. In one particular episode, we were discussing how the use of silence in a conversation can create tension, just as an enormous cheer from outside the window rang through our ears, to much hilarity from the class.

After a brief buffet lunch, Nicola Cassidy and I escaped into the street to join the throng of revellers gathering to see of the Pride Parade. Having been an attendee at Birmingham Pride for many years, it was refreshing to be treated to the Irish version.

The afternoon session was spent listening to the fabulous Catherine Ryan Howard talk about treating our writing as a business venture. This is a skill I need to work on very much, and it requires one to separate emotion from the creativity which is easier said than done.

Dinner on Saturday evening allowed us to socialise with one another, and also to listen to the inspirational Paul O’Brien talk about his dedication to his day job while juggling his passion for writing and a young family.

It was a pleasure to bump into the lovely Krissy V and chat about all things erotic until the wee small hours along with new friends such as John Pitts.

All in all, it was a fantastic weekend, packed with opportunities to all help each other along the self-publishing journey, and offering guidance, support and a helping hand among the group.

BooksGoSocial founder Laurence O’Bryan has built an empire of readers, eager to get their paws on good quality self-published books, and authors willing to provide such material. If you’re interested in self-publishing your work, these guys are essential. Hundreds of thousands of Twitter and Facebook followers, all tuning in for a dose of who’s got what coming out next.

I now have a To-Do list as long as my arm and I’m busy putting it all into practice.

Join the Authors’ Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/booksgosocialauthors/?fref=ts

And, while you’re at it, the Readers’ Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/booksgosocialreaders/?fref=ts

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Blimey! The Bard sure did get around…

 

 

 

Review: Labyrinth, Kate Mosse

This is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year so far, and I don’t say that lightly.

I love reading books where the action takes place along two different time lines, but so few authors can really get this right. I believe Kate Mosse has done a superb job with Labyrinth.

In 13th century France, the spirited and adventurous Alais, daughter to a leading political figure in Carcassonne, becomes aware of a greater truth that her father entrusts to her, that of the safekeeping of ancient Egyptian texts belonging to the Cathars. Her people are being persecuted, however, and she must keep the books safe from the hands of the Northern French Crusaders who are currently marching south, pillaging land and possessions as they go.

In the present day, Alice joins an archaeological dig in the Languedoc region and inadvertently disturbs a curious burial site, bringing Alais’ story to light. Everywhere she goes there are echoes of the past, threatening her sanity and ultimately, her life.

Mosse never allows the two plots to coincide. Instead, they run seamlessly alongside one another, merging only at the very end when the reader gains a beautiful understanding as if, we too have been entrusted with this sacred knowledge of a Universal Truth.

This is a great book for celebrating the role of women in fiction. Both leading characters are women, and neither is constrained by traditional, stereotypical female roles. There is a useful glossary at the back for interpreting the Occitan language (something akin to Old French, but with distinct differences), although this is hardly necessary, and her Author’s Note explains all historical references and separates the fact from fiction.

I was never a fan of history at school. Indeed, it is through reading wonderful books such as these, that the fire in my own belly ignites and I want to write my own stories about the past. I shall certainly be reading many more from Mosse, including her recent offering, The Taxidermist’s Daughter.

Novel Extracts Available!

I was recently made aware of a wonderful little website called WattPad.

I seem to remember joining up a couple of years ago, because someone told me it might be a good idea, but then never used it again. Typical case of good idea, wrong time.

Regular followers of this blog and my Facebook Page will know that I have putting together a novel for some time. It started as just a tiny seed of an idea, some years ago now, and has now grown beyond all expectations, as novels are wont to do.

Anyway, I am very pleased to announce that you can now go and read these extracts online. FOR FREE! Simply click on the link below and it’ll take you straight there!

WattPad gives you access to thousands of pieces of writing, across almost every genre (nothing erotic, sadly). There is a social networking element to it, somewhat like Goodreads, where you can recommend items to friends. But the best thing for us self-published lot is that you can put out your edited pieces of work for absolutely nothing here.

The aim is to gain readers while your work is still in the draft stages and enable them to let you know, by way of comments, whether or not you’re on the right track. Absolutely great idea, especially if you’re lacking a little confidence, like me.

So, without further ado, please follow this link, and if you can leave a comment, I’ll be forever grateful…

George R. Stewart: Earth Abides

I was given this book as a gift and, I have to say, I’m very glad I received it because it’s not a book I would have chosen for myself. No, I would have passed it over on a shelf. However, it came with a healthy recommendation, so I felt obliged to read it.

The critics use some superlative language: “A magnificent piece of creative fiction” blurts one. “One of the finest of all post-holocaust novels” says another. So, I am here to tell you all what I thought of it.

The story begins with the protagonist, one Isherwood Williams, returning home from a trip into the wilderness. During the journey he is bitten by a venomous snake. Ironically, it is this venom which saves his life because at the same time, a curious disease sweeps the globe, wiping out virtually every human being. The venom from the bite appears to cancel out the effects of this plague, thus making him a rare survivor of what is forever afterwards referred to as The Great Disaster.

After some considerable period of time, he meets a woman called Em, a fellow survivor, and they set up home together in San Francisco. In time, they bear children and are joined by a few other survivors, creating The Tribe, and over the years, new generations of humans are born who have no recollection of what life was like before.

For a time, they live by looting convenience stores for tinned food. There are relatively few of them and since there is still running water in the taps, they remain in a group of houses high on a hill over looking the city and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Ish is the one who stands out as the intellectual mind of the group. Surviving this tragedy has not quenched his thirst for knowledge about how to continue civilisation – with books and learning. He even tries to engage the smaller children in an informal school environment with a view to teaching them how to read and write.

One day, however, the water trickles and stops running altogether. Now Ish is faced with finding a resolution to the more basic survival problems.

The author uses some beautiful language in this book. In the first few chapters especially, Ish is alone and therefore dialogue is minimal.

I could identify very much with the character of Isherwood. I myself have an ingrained desire for knowledge through books. One of the downsides of being clever at school was finding that my peers mostly lacked the knowledge I sought, so I came to rely on books for information instead.

Much of the book explores Ish’s frustration that other members of The Tribe, including his wife Em, do not share this academic aptitude. Rather, they seem content to maintain the status quo, changing something about themselves and their habits when it is deemed necessary instead of anticipating problems and planning for prevention or minimum impact.

As The Tribe continues to grow, and the generations expand and change, so too does the natural habitat around them. It’s at this point that the author illustrates the fragile balance of the Natural World so well.

In the early years, the rat population almost overwhelms Ish and Em as there are so few people left and much uneaten food about. Eventually though, their available food supplies dwindle, and the rats turn to cannibalism. The natural order of things is restored and they retreat into hiding once more.

All in all, this is an enormous story. It tackles some of the Big Ideas, touching on religion, philosophy, natural history and anthropology, all of which poor Ish tries to get his head around so he can pass it on to the future generations.

I did find it heavy going at times. If anything, I also found it rather long. However, I’m not sure it could be cut shorter without compromising the story as the prose is already pretty tight and succinct, and there are sections which the author glosses over, referred to as ‘The Quick Years’.

I was quite surprised to find I wasn’t particularly moved by this novel, despite the deaths of so many characters, but perhaps this is deliberate. Maybe primitive homo sapiens was more comfortable with death than we are, accepting it as an inevitability of the Cirle of Life.

Please read this book, by all means. It does not provide answers to the Big Questions of who and why we are, but it will certainly make you think.

 

The Drowning Pool, Syd Moore

The Swanwick Writers’ Summer School of 2013 was a pivotal time in my writing journey. It was the first time I had visited the school, and it was a life-changing experience, both in terms of writing and in terms of the people I met there.

For part of that glorious week, I chased poor Syd Moore around the conference centre with a copy of this book. Eventually, I found an opportune moment for her to sign it for me, and I was thrilled. It was the first book I had ever owned which was signed by the author.

I have always had a fascination with witchcraft, ever since reading Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at school. There’s something about the fact that there is yet so much we don’t understand about the physical nature of the world in which we live. This makes our imagination fill in the gaps of knowledge with stories of fantasy and imagination.

The Drowning Pool gives us a rich story into this abyss of knowledge with a wonderful story about a young widow and her connection with a historical figure, both with the name of Sarah Grey. Sarah’s raw emotions shine through in every page, and her paranormal experience allows her to come to terms with her own loss. I loved the dream sequences and the historical flashbacks which are equally beautifully described and full of imagery.

I’m not usually a fan of ghost stories, but I was drawn to the witchcraft elements of this book and in actual fact, I wasn’t at all spooked out. Instead, the appearances of the ghost are well-handled and much more sentimental than I expected. Certainly, I shall be reading more of Syd’s work, and I do hope she makes it back to Swanwick soon!

Robert Harris: Fatherland

You know what I love about writing this blog? I now have a reason to read all those dusty tomes which have been sitting patiently on my bookshelves waiting to be read. This one in particular, has been waiting longer than most. I believe it has survived three house moves at least, maybe more.

This is, however, a thriller that has touched me like no other. My mother recommended it some years ago. I duly got hold of a copy and finally picked it up a couple of weeks ago.

Imagine, if you will, a world where the Nazis had won the Second World War. It’s now 1964 and The Greater German Reich (Germany, Austria, and large parts of Eastern Europe and Western Russia) is about to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s 75th birthday.

Xavier March is a detective in the police force and disillusioned with The Party. He can’t shake off the uncomfortable feelings about the way his country operates. He is assigned to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding a body found in a lake outside Berlin. However, his lack of loyalty has been noticed and his movements are being carefully watched by the Gestapo.

Enter Charlie, a feisty American journalist with ideas of her own about the truth about millions of Jews who were allegedly ‘resettled’ into Russia during the 1940s. A trip to Zurich takes them deeper into the most horrifying conspiracy Mankind has ever committed.

This is a book everyone should read. History tells us that The Allied Forces won by only a hair’s breadth in 1945. This story will remind us why we are so grateful for those who gave their lives in order for that to happen. Let us never forget what it could have been like otherwise.

Simon Hall: The TV Detective

I’m not usually a reader of crime fiction, I must admit. Not since my days of studying French, when I used to read Agatha Christie novels a-plenty in an attempt to improve my understanding of La Belle Langue. The language was easier to grasp in Christie than Gustave Flaubert, for a start.

However, since meeting Simon Hall at Swanwick this year I decided it was time to expand my repertoire of reading material. He was kind enough to sign my copy, after all. So, I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I picked up The TV Detective, but in fact I enjoyed this book immensely.

Our central character, Dan Groves, finds himself in the unenviable role of crime correspondent just as a notorious local businessman is found murdered. Loved by no one except his poor, long-suffering secretary, there is no shortage of suspects for his murder, but it takes Dan and his CID mentor, Adam Breen, some time to pin down the precise whys and wherefores.

The author’s own career as a TV reporter shines through very much through young Dan, and we can therefore assume all TV references are taken from real experiences. I particularly liked the portrayal of the formidable editor, Lizzy. I can hear her stilettos clattering down the corridor right now…!

Other reviewers have mentioned the references to A Popular Murder, upon which this novel is based. Personally I cannot comment, since I am not familiar with it.

This is a great debut novel and I am looking forward very much to catching up with the rest of the series. Thank you, Simon!

Sad News About Lily

I write this post with a heavy heart.

My gorgeous Lily-Cat is sick. She has CKD (Chronic Kidney Disease). She’s only eight years’ old. I did think I would have had a good few years yet before I had to worry about this kind of thing.

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Luckily, it was picked up early during an appointment for dental surgery.
The vet was concerned about her losing weight so decided to take blood while she was under the anaesthetic.  The results were conclusive. Creatine levels were well above normal.

The vet noted that she was dehydrated and kept her in overnight to administer intravenous fluids and stabilise her so she could undergo the arranged dental work.

I toddled into the surgery to see her on my way home from work that evening. It was a funny sight.

She was lying on a blanket with her paw in a cast to prevent her from trying to remove the fluid line. As soon as she spotted me, she was over the moon. She almost sprang up on her feet and started meowing and purring.

The veterinary nurses told me they hadn’t got a stroke of work done all day because she had learned how to attract their attention.
Whenever a nurse walked past the cage, she thrust out a well-placed paw to swipe them on the arm! Inevitably, this would lead to a stroke of her head, some fuss and a friendly voice.

Despite my sadness, I could see she was in both good spirits and good hands. Everyone loved her. They said she was the most beautiful cat they had ever seen, and I have to agree.

Lily has been such a constant in my life. She has been with me through a divorce, and my other ups and downs. She’s there with me when I’m feeling under the weather – she sits on the bed and watches to make sure I’m not too bad. She licks my tears when I cry and she provides companionship when I’m lonely. There have been times in my life when I have felt she is my closest friend.

When I arrived home from the vets that evening, I held my head in my hands and sobbed.

Regular followers of this blog will know how I saved her life when she was a tiny kitten, suffering hypothermia. I remember holding her in one hand while I held a small bottle of warm milk to her mouth, willing her to regain consciousness.

Well, she was a fighter then, and she’s a fighter now. According to the vet, she’s unlikely to be feeling at all ill at this point. Other than a little weight loss, she’s not yet symptomatic.

She is still hunting a little and still playful in the right mood.
Despite a change to the special renal diet, she seems to be eating well too.

So, the prognosis is good, and as long as she keeps eating well and her charming personality continues to shine, then it’s likely we shall have a few more years together before I have to say goodbye.

This experience has driven home the message that we should cherish our nearest and dearest while they are still with us.
I am lucky that I have been given a warning so I can spend more time with her while she still has a good quality of life.

I’m sure the family of the late Robin Williams wish they had had this opportunity.

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http://felinecrf.org/

Magical Writing Retreat: Kerivoa

I can’t believe it’s only three weeks since I returned from The Write Retreat. It feels like such a long time ago now.

It was the first time I’d ever driven abroad, having previously always been on city break holidays where you walk around everywhere, or beach holidays which involve far too much alcohol to even consider driving. So, a new adventure awaited me as soon as I trundled off the ferry at Roscoff.

The journey to Katherine’s was very straightforward. I knew in advance that the French tend not to label their signs with road numbers as we do, so instead I chose to navigate by towns. The journey from Roscoff therefore, involved following signs first to Morlaix, then Guingamp, then Bourbriac, where Katherine met me and we drove up to the farmhouse.

Sipping bubbles on arrival. Katherine is such a wonderful hostess!
Sipping bubbles on arrival. Katherine is such a wonderful hostess!

The site of the farmhouse is an old Bronze Age settlement (the old bread oven still stands a little way off the main track) and I got a sense of something very special about the place as soon as I arrived. The tranquility is almost palpable.

As regular followers of this blog will be only too aware, I adore animals, so I was overjoyed when Katherine’s Westie, Kerrig, put in an appearance, closely followed by Merlin, the gorgeous black Labrador and finally, the wonderful cat, Fifi, who took a particular shine to me for the entire week. I fancy he sensed I was missing Lily so made it his mission to fulfil surrogate pet duty!

Easter Saturday meant a trip to Guingamp to sample a little shopping and practice my very rusty French. Luckily, I got by rather well and purchased gifts for family and friends before setting off back to the farmhouse for Katherine’s delicious cooking and my writing. (Well, that was the reason I was there, after all!)

Guingamp Market square, Easter Saturday. The obligatory visit to the chocolaterie!
Guingamp Market square, Easter Saturday. The obligatory visit to the chocolaterie!

Sadly, that was the last we saw of sunshine for a good few days. However, I was there to write so it didn’t matter a jot. And, write I did. Lots. Over the course of the week, I wrote no less than seven chapters of my new book.

When I arrived at Kerivoa, I had three chapters completed for what I thought was going to be a short erotic novella. This has now morphed into a larger work, incorporating more characters and venturing off into a paranormal romance direction with just a couple of erotic scenes. Funny how that happens!

Beautiful Fifi - just the most perfect muse one could possibly wish for!
Beautiful Fifi – just the most perfect muse one could possibly wish for!

I achieved so much during that week, that I am now afflicted with trying to recreate that atmosphere here at home, which is easier said than done. I have the cat, yes, but I also have a full-time job, laundry, cleaning, tidying and other procrastinating, which is driving me mad.

On top of those things, I also have some wonderful friends who are writing and publishing new books which I want to read, so I do feel as though I’m spinning lots of plates right now. Having said that, it’s a fantastic feeling to have, as I know I shall never suffer from boredom ever again!

Writing outdoors, with Fifi and Merlin.
Writing outdoors, with Fifi and Merlin.

The best single thing about my week was Katherine’s support and encouragement to follow the story and her gift for creating a truly magical and inspiring setting, even when the heavens opened and I was mooching around in my PJs and slippers!

So, back to the retreat I shall have to go. Probably not this year, what with Swanwick looming and not being able to take any more time off work than I already have planned. I believe I shall make it a priority for 2015 though.

Watch this space!

 

 

Writer With Pets: Madalyn Morgan

I met actress, writer and radio presenter Madalyn Morgan at my first Swanwick in 2013. She was one of many people I met there who inspired me early on in my own writing journey and I’m thrilled that she has contributed to my blog.

Maddie has reminded me that it’s not just the cats and dogs which share our homes which we can consider pets. Those of us lucky enough to have gardens know that the great outdoors plays host to any number of wild creatures and they too can be an inspiration.

Which came first, a love of writing, or a love of animals?

Animals came before writing, but not before acting.  Let me explain.  My first cat adopted me just before I went to Drama College in London.  I had a hairdressing salon in Rugby and the girls who worked for me insisted I took in a scruffy little stray.  I said no, but by the time the girls had fed him for a couple of weeks, they had fallen in love with him and he had taken over my flat.  Toby Two-Shoes ended up living with my parents at the pub I grew up in, when I went off to London in 1974.

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Susie Kit-Kat adopted Maddie when she was an actress living in London

My second cat, Susie Kit-Kat, was fifteen when she came to live with me.  I was an out-of-work actress and she had been orphaned when her mum of ninety-three died.  The lady was famous in South London after a court appearance for not paying her TV license.  She told the magistrates that she had enough money to pay the TV license, or feed her cats, but not both.  She chose to feed her cats.  Susie travelled with me to several repertory theatres.  She wasn’t much help when I was leaning lines though, she used to fall asleep.

Describe your pets.

My first cat, Toby, was jet black with white front paws – hence the name Toby Two-shoes.  Susie was a tabby, very soft and very pretty with big eyes.  Her lips were strange.  Most of the time she looked as if she was smiling.  A regular feline visitor to my garden is, Blanca.  She disturbs my writing so much…  She stalks the fish in my pond, so I run out and shoo her off.  She is pure white with piercing blue eyes – and she is very cheeky.  She knows I would never hurt her, so she sits and stares me out.  Only when she decides to leave, does she slink off.

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Blanca, hiding in Maddie’s wildflower garden under the apple trees

Take me through your writing day.

My day starts early.  I wake as soon as it is light, which is not so bad in the winter but in the summer, it can be too early.  However, it is as I’m waking up that I have my best ideas.  I have to write them down immediately.  Like dreams, they are very real at the time, but they quickly go out of your mind once you’re awake.

Sometimes I’m bombarded with ideas for my next book before I’ve finished writing the current one.  I was line editing my second novel, Applause, for twelve hours a day.  Stupid I know, sitting at the computer for that long is bad for your legs.  However, two nights running I was kept awake by the plot of China Blue, the third book in the Dudley sisters saga,  which I haven’t started writing yet.

“Editing Foxden Acres, I had Applause wake me up. Editing Applause, I had China Blue wake me up.”

 

In the spring and summer, I make a cup of tea and switch on the computer.  While it warms up, I take my tea and walk round the garden.  I fill the birdbaths from the water butt, put down seeds for the birds and look at the fish.  One my garden creatures are happy I go back to the computer and, with a second cup of tea, check my emails, Facebook and Tweets, before opening my writing file.  Once I start writing it’s a cup of tea and a chat to the fish and frogs every couple of hours.

 

How do your pets help or hinder the writing process, and/or inspire you?

That is a good question.  They hinder and inspire in equal measure.  I was prone to being stressed, but my pets calm me.  Fish and frogs are fascinating to watch, which is relaxing.  On the other hand, if the weather is good, I am in and out of the garden all day, which is a hindrance.  In the summer, I eat my lunch outside so I can watch them.  By then the frogs are used to my voice and will sit and watch me as I am watching them.

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Frog sunbathing on a lily pad

The fish too are used to my shape and come for food.  But my favourite time is the end of my writing day.  Around six o’clock I sit and relax by the pond with a dish of olives and a glass of wine.  Perfect.

 

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Shubunkin, goldfish, yellow and black tench

Summer is the best time for man and fish, except when you lose one.  I was heartbroken when I returned from Swanwick in August 2012 and found a beautiful red, silver and black, Shubunkin and two red goldfish were missing.  My neighbours saw a bird of prey in my garden and I guess it took them.  However, the good news is, last year I saw two tiny baby ‘black’ goldfish.  I can’t wait to see how much they have grown, if they survived the winter, which I’m sure they did.

In the winter, my workstation faces the garden and I spend far too much time gazing out the window at the birds.  I hang suet balls, seed, and nut feeders in the trees for the tits and sparrows, throw seeds on the steps for the ground eaters like Robins and other small birds, and put currents and apples out for the blackbirds.  Two beautiful little doves visit every day and what they don’t eat the pigeons see off.  I love my garden, my birds and my fish and frogs.  I never tire of watching them – and I never tire of writing.

Popping in and out several times, a day is good for a writer.  I spent far too many hours at the computer without taking a break, while I edited Foxden Acres and then Applause, and had extremely painful legs as a consequence.  Writers need to get up every hour or so and move about.

Writers with Pets: Heather Cook

Some of our favourite authors, past and present, are famous for their love of animals.

Ernest Hemingway is renowned for keeping polydactyl felines and his home in Key West, Florida, is inhabited by their descendants to this day.

Mark Twain, Doris Lessing, Edgar Allen Poe, Jack Kerouac and George Bernard Shaw all had cats too. Stephen King has both cats and dogs in his Maine home, and the French novelist Colette has been famously described as the original Mad Cat Woman.

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Mark Twain

 

In a new series of articles, I am talking to writers with pets and asking them about their beloved companions and how they inspire their creativity.

Heather Cook used to write a regular column in Your Cat magazine to which I subscribed during my petsitting days. She was a Homing Officer for the Woking and District Branch of Cats Protection before she retired a couple of years ago and continues to write books about cats.

Heather Cook, author and cat-lover
Heather Cook, author and cat-lover

Which came first, the writing or the cats?

I’ve always loved all animals and remember writing about dogs and ponies, lions and elephants as a small child. I didn’t have pets as a child because we lived in a flat in London, but I used to love my grandmother’s cats. As soon as I was able to, I had cats and because I always worked full-time it wasn’t sensible to have animals that needed constant company. Cats were the perfect companions and were I think slightly irritated to have me around more when I retired!

How many cats do you have at present?

I have 12 cats at present. 3 of them are feral cats that live outside, but they have deluxe cat cabins in the garden and at least 3 meals a day, so they’re about as feral as a suet pudding. The other 9 spend a lot of time indoors as they are mainly Special Needs cats. One was born without hind paws, two have brain damage and the others have various problems like heart trouble, missing limbs and dementia.

The aptly-named Stumpy Malone, who was born without his hind paws
The aptly-named Stumpy Malone, who was born without his hind paws

Describe your writing day.

Most mornings I sit down at the laptop as soon as I’ve sorted all the cats out with feeding, room service and medication. I deal with emails first, then look over the previous day’s writing. I do two quite different sorts of writing: the light-hearted cat stuff and poetry of all varieties, so mood comes into the equation as to what I will spend my time on that day. Depending on other commitments, I will usually spend at least 2 hours in the morning writing and a further 2 or 3 hours in the afternoon. Occasionally, I’ll have a sudden inspiration – particularly with a poem that’s been in my head for a while – and work on it very late at night.

How do the cats help or hinder the writing process?

My cats are my main source of inspiration, so they are an enormous help to me! The cat rescue work has also brought me so many lovely friends. Although sad things inevitably happen, I think that cats are very amusing animals and they insist on being written about.
On a practical level, one of my cats – Miss Tiny Trixie-Tribble – is obsessed with the laptop and loves to leap about on the keyboard. I have to save my work constantly because she is always deleting things or pinging off emails before I’ve finished. She also likes to add her own little flourishes: the word ‘ehwk’ is a particular favourite and I dread to think what it means in catspeak!

Heather Cook is the author of Evie’s Diary: A Bad Cat’s View of Life which can be purchased here.