Sunday, 10 February 2019

Love in the Forbidden City

In 2011 I was lucky enough to go to China, to Beijing and Xian and then north-west, far off the tourist trail, to a small town called Xingian in Gansu Province. I found it all so fascinating that in the eight years since then I have read loads of books about China – from its earliest history to the modern day, and even did an online (Future Learn) course on the European Discovery of China.

I’ve only written one story though (so far) inspired by the visit and that was The Palace of Complete Happiness which was published in Woman’s Weekly, and that came about by looking again at the names on this map of the Forbidden City.

I chose it as the title story for a collection of previously published with the theme of love … published on St Valentine’s Day last year.

Two for Joy
Superstitious Jess is looking for true love – will the magpies or the tea-leaves point her in the right direction?

Bonnie Prince Charlie
Isabel has an unexpected guest staying for Bed & Breakfast – and there are people who would pay to know his whereabouts.

Sam Something
Sam is enjoying a cappuccino while waiting for his colleague – when he overhears his name being mentioned at the next table.

Summertime Blues
It’s the year of Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, but Lindsay, part-time record-spinner on a Scottish island, is feeling far from chirpy.

A Green Wedding Dress
As Caitlin attends a rather strange, small registry office ceremony she can’t help comparing it favourably with her own lavish and traditional wedding.

Please, Mr Postman
When Petra tries to track down some missing letters she ends up meeting some of her new neighbours.

Ae Fond Kiss
When cafĂ© owner Mary takes part in a flash mob to sing one of the Robert Burns’ love songs she finds herself standing next to one of her customers.

A Parallel Universe
Louise meets David for the first time in fifteen years and wonders about the life they might have had together – is it too late?

See You Later, Alligator
Lizzie’s met an explorer who wrestles alligators but is she intrepid enough to fall in love with him?

And Pomona Came Too
There’s a third party in Nick and Jill’s relationship – his metal detector. He even wants to take it on their weekend break to Basking-in-the-Wold …

Making a Scene
Of course her little boy’s birthday party is Lorna’s first priority but how she wishes she could be in two places at once.

Meet Your Match
Patsy decides it’s time to look for a new partner on a dating site but she gets distracted by her memories, and by three items that have arrived in the mail.

For Love or Money
Jackie is about to marry someone who’s made a lot of money – is she trying to leave her two oldest friends behind?

The Palace of Complete Happiness
While escorting a school party through the Forbidden City in Beijing, Milly comes to the conclusion that she can learn a lesson in love from the life of the imperial family.

The Palace of Complete Happiness is available from Amazon on Kindle and in paperback from FeedARead.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Eight in January

I read eight books in January – well, seven books and one long short story.

I’ve had a soft spot for the film Where Eagles Dare (based on the novel by Alastair Maclean) since I first saw it, something that for some reason my husband likes to tease me about. So what should I find in my Christmas stocking but this book, ‘Geoff Dyer’s tribute to the film he has loved since childhood.’ I thought I would put off reading it until I had the chance to see the film again – and lo, in early January there it was on one of the Freeview channels.

It was fun to see it again after a long gap and to realise the many ways in which it is preposterous (that seemingly bottomless haversack of explosives and useful things that Clint Eastwood lugs up and down snowy precipices for example) – and that is the tone of Geoff Dyer’s terrific little book: he still loves the film despite/because of its many preposterousnesses.

The Corrections by Jonathon Franzen
My son left this behind after a holiday. I’d never read JF before and I don’t think I will again but I was compelled to finish this once I’d embarked. The premise – an elderly mother wants to gather her three children and her grandsons around her in the family home for one last Christmas – could be the cue for a soft-focus, sentimental story, but soft-focus this most certainly ain’t. Father Alfred has always been a bullying type and, as a mother myself, my sympathies should have been with Enid but I’d avoid spending Christmas with her too given the choice.

Intellectual (too intellectual sometimes; I skipped pages of technical details concerning Alfred’s potentially millions-making invention which he’s sold to a large company for peanuts) but always with an edge of black humour to leaven the mix.

Song of the Skylark by Erica James
A dual timeline story. Lizzie in the present day, at a crossroads in her life, meets elderly American Mrs Dallimore when she volunteers in a care home. ‘As Lizzie listens to Mrs Dallimore's story, she begins to realize that she's not the only person to attract bad luck, or make mistakes, and maybe things aren't so bad for her after all . . . ’ Didn’t grab me.

A Country Christmas by Louisa May Alcott
This is a long short story and was a giveaway at Christmas time by a writer friend Helena Fairfax. Recipients could download the file; I then sent it to my Kindle. What a treat to read something previously unknown to me by the author of Little Women. I've just had a google and see that you can read it online here (along with Christmassy American recipes and other delights).

Read on Kindle. Set in Northern Territory, Australia in the 1970s. The members of the ‘book club’ live miles apart with often hostile terrain/weather between them so they can’t meet very often but their friendship and support for each other sees them all through difficult times. Loved it. And it led me to download, free from Project Gutenberg, an autobiographical novel set in the same region at the beginning of the last century: We of the Never Never.

The Woman in the Dark by Vanessa Savage
Read on Kindle – more or less in one go, on a cold wet Sunday. This is ‘A chilling psychological thriller about dark family dysfunction and the secrets that haunt us’ and had me gripped to the last twist. My only gripe is the title – rather fed up of seeing books called The Woman/The Girl ...

The Hard Way by Lee Child
Paperback from charity shop to whence it returned when I’d finished it. My favourite Jack Reacher (of about four) to date, unusual because it is part of it is set in England. A rich man’s wife has disappeared and Reacher has been hired to find her. He certainly knows how to make you turn the pages. If you want to read what other people think of the book it will take you a while – the last time I looked there were 11,657 reviews on Amazon with an average of four and a half stars.

Read on Kindle. Tagged as ‘the most heart-warming book you’ll read all year’ and although the year has just begun this could well be true. The friendship between twenty-five-old Lucy and her neighbour Brenda who’s seventy-nine is touching and funny, a perfect combination.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

A Time to Reap – hold the front page!

In 2016 I had a serial A Time to Reap published in The People’s Friend. And from 18 January 2019, it’s having a new lease of life as it’s being serialised in a daily newspaper (print edition), another D C Thomson publication, The Courier.

I don’t think I’ve enjoyed writing anything quite so much as this. It’s set in a Highland farming community in 1963. So, yippeee, one modern writerly problem was dispensed with right away – no need to worry about 21st-century methods of communication (about which I blogged here). And as I was brought up in such a community at that time there would be no requirement to do any research.

Or so I thought.

The main characters, including my heroine, farm manager Elizabeth Duncan, are of course grown-ups; I quite wee in 1963 so I had to think from a different perspective. And just because you lived on a farm doesn’t mean you know anything about farming – especially if you were a child who spent most of her time indoors with her nose in a book.

Among the many questions I asked Google/my cousin David/a farm-implement blogger/fashion-expert friend/lawyer husband of (different) friend and a manual bought in a junk shop called The Farm as a Business: A Handbook of Standards and Statistics for use in Farm Management Advisory Work, published for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in 1957, were:

How bad was that snowy winter 1962/63?
How would you look after your sheep in those conditions?
What would you be planting/harvesting in the different seasons?
Good reasons for expanding a dairy herd?
How do you persuade an angry bull into a pen?
What style/colour of dress would suit tall, fair-haired Elizabeth to wear to the gillies’ ball?
How much did it cost to send a letter in 1963?
Did you have to get a provisional driving licence then?
Adoption law in Scotland at the time?

If you don’t manage to get hold of The Courier and you want to find the answers to these questions … you can read A Time to Reap on Kindle; it is also available in large-print from libraries.

It’s April 1963 in the Scottish Highlands. Elizabeth Duncan, widowed with two small daughters, is the farm manager on the Rosland estate, the job previously held by her husband, Matthew. Following a hard, snowy winter, her working life is made more difficult by the unpleasant estate factor.

Elizabeth enjoys support in the small community from family and friends, including her cousin Peggy and local vet Andy Kerr. The arrival of an American visitor at Rosland House unsettles her in a way she hadn’t expected but, after Matthew’s mysterious death, a new relationship has been the last thing on her mind. However, as she dances at the annual estate ball in September, that may be about to change …

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Celebration time at The People's Friend!

My acquaintance with The People’s Friend goes back many (many) years as I said here.

My association with the magazine as a writer isn’t so long but it has been wonderful. The fiction team give such encouragement to writers, whether they are brand new or of longstanding, and in a climate when other magazines are abandoning fiction or being positively discouraging, that is a beacon of light that shines in a naughty world, as Shakespeare (almost) said.

To date, I have had 34 stories published by them and three serials, not forgetting one article and one poem. Along with many other contributors, I was delighted to be invited to help celebrate the 150th (the 150th!) anniversary of the magazine.

And what a swell party it was (fizz, cocktails, canapes and cake plus dancing displays and a small dog ... ); it was lovely to meet staff members, and other writers, some of whom were friends already, plus others I had met only virtually or knew only by name.

As was said in one of the speeches last night the magazine was first published in 1869 when women’s lives were completely different to how they are now and it has sustained them through many vicissitudes including two world wars; that it sells 170,000 copies each week now shows that its comfort and joy are still required. You can find out about the history of the magazine in this anniversary volume.

Long may it continue.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

My life (maybe) – according to the books I read in 2018

 Describe yourself

How do you feel?

Describe where you currently live

If you could go anywhere where would you go?

Your favourite form of transportation is

 Your best friend is

You and your friends are

 What’s the weather like?

Favourite time of day

If your life was a book

What is life to you?

Your fear

What is the best advice you have to give?

Thought for the day

How would you like to die?

Your soul’s present condition

This is a fun idea I saw first on Joanne Baird’s Portobello Book Blog:

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Six in December

I read six books in December.

The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin
I’ve been a fan of CM’s since reading Brooklyn (made into a great film starring Saoirse Ronan, albeit with a slightly different ending). This one is set in Ireland in the 1990s. Declan is dying, and that brings together the women of his family – his sister, mother and grandmother, between whom relations have been strained for a long time. He is so good on family dynamics; for me though this book lacked the warmth and touches of humour that made Brooklyn so wonderful.

The Second Stage of Grief by Katherine Heyton
Read on Kindle. A police series set in New Zealand. I read the first in this series last month and the second one was just as good. Gritty and page-turning:

Ngaire Blakes is trying to put her life back together. The ex-cop resigned from the police after a vicious assault left her battling PTSD. Dragged into a murder investigation, she’s shocked to discover that all the evidence points to her.

Another book set in New Zealand, this time a children’s one with a great cover – I pounced on it in a charity shop. However, the story about Noreen, a girl who works in her aunt’s detective agency, was, I’m sorry to say, dire. Implausible plot to say the least and the aunt is barely mentioned – she is got out of the way in various unlikely scenarios so that Noreen can do the ‘detecting’. Still like the cover though …

The Pen and Pencil Girls by Clare Mallory
Another children’s title and set in New Zealand, although really it could be set anywhere. Six schoolgirls form a club to write and illustrate stories. One of them is set the task of typing the stories up for a competition. I learned to type myself on a manual machine with seven – seven – carbon copies (under the eye of a very strict teacher) so could sympathise with the pains she took. The book was first published in 1948; this edition is a reissue from the wonderful Girls Gone By Publishers.

I’d read reviews of this and have long wanted to read it – not knowing this, my dear d-in-l surprised me by giving me a copy which I proceeded to read in a couple of sittings. 

Sara is Swedish and has been made redundant from the bookshop she has worked in for ten years. She has been having correspondence with an elderly lady in a sleepy small town in Iowa which culminates in an invitation to visit. Not to give too much away – but Sara’s arrival and her love of books draws the town’s eccentric inhabitants together. I love books set in small-town America and I liked all the booky references. Sara’s slow-burning relationship with Tom was very believable. My favourite character though was ‘Poor George’ and his fatherly longing for the daughter of his faithless wife. Recommended …

The Virago Book of Christmas edited by Michelle Lovric
Curl up with a tantalising volume that fives full rein to the seditious humour, peculiar discomforts and exquisite social tortures of the season.

Some familiar and loved authors of mine here – Elizabeth Goudge, Agatha Christie and Laurie Graham for example – and many new to me. Among my favourite pieces was an extract from Winifred Foley’s memoir A Child in the Forest in which she – eventually – comes to love her home-made rag doll. And one unexpected pleasure was Jane Welsh Carlyle’s letter to a friend telling of ‘the very most agreeable party I was ever at in London’ where the company included Charles Dickens doing conjuring tricks.

The problem with anthologies – and I am working my way through The Virago Book of Food too – is the discovery of new authors. So little time, so much to read …

On that note, a very Happy New Year to you.

Monday, 24 December 2018

Stella's Christmas Wish

Stella’s Christmas Wish is set in Edinburgh and ….

… On her right-hand side a train glided into Waverley Station. Down in Princes Street Gardens water had been flooded in and frozen to make a skating rink and it was busy both with competent skaters and people holding on to each other, laughing if they fell over. That was a comic Christmas-card scene – but the wider picture showed the dull winter green of the gardens; stalls selling food and mulled wine; the wheel – Edinburgh’s equivalent of the London Eye over the Christmas period.

 … the beautiful Scottish Borders

The Eildon Hills were white on the top, like a snow queen’s tablecloth. It was said that fairies lived there and that long ago the Queen of the Fairies enticed a Borders man called Thomas the Rhymer away to fairyland. When he returned years later – thinking he’d been gone only a few days – he had the ability to see into the future. Alice read Stella and Maddie that story one winter when they were little and for years they imagined that their Christmas-tree fairy had come from that fairyland in the hills.

Wherever you are I hope your Christmas wishes come true.