Saturday, July 26, 2014

Tea, love and murder

If you're in Scotland, and especially if you're anywhere near Crieff, here are some dates for your diary: 23rd and 24th August 2014 see the second ever Crieff Arts Festival, a combination of live music and literary events and exhibitions of work by local artists. If you live within striking distance of Crieff and have ever fancied coming over to explore the town, have lunch or high tea and enjoy the beautiful Perthshire countryside, here's an excuse for coming. You can have tea, nature and culture. 

For details of the programme, venues, etc see the Arts Festival website, which is being updated as more events are confirmed. 

Once again, I'm going to be teaming up with another Crieff-based author, novelist Susy McPhee, whose latest book is Back to you (see below), which could either be described as a mystery with a love story at its heart, or a love story with a mystery at its heart! Either way, it's a touching and enthralling read which kept me guessing right up to the end. 

My latest book is, of course, my Flanders-based thriller Demons of Ghent, which also has its fair share of mystery and love interest, but a much higher body count...

Last year Susy and I did an evening event with wine at the Drill Hall in Crieff - the venue was kindly supplied by Vivace Lichtman lighting, who have supported the Arts Festival brilliantly by hosting several events. This year we plan to hold an afternoon event on Sunday 24th, with tea and cakes. The event will be at the Drill Hall again, with a start time of 3pm. 

I'll post more information about our event when all the details are confirmed, but it's safe to say that those who attend can expect an afternoon of tea, cake, love and murder!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Ghosts of things past...and of things yet to be

A while ago, I blogged about the first Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows, published in 2012 by Sarob Press, as a beautiful limited edition hardback. The book was a collection of prequels and sequels to the classic ghost stories of M.R.James, including my own story Alberic de Mauléon, a prequel to Canon Alberic's Scrap-book.

I am thrilled to say that the book was so well received that Sarob are bringing out a second volume, which is scheduled for publication in September 2014. You can see the gorgeous cover art by Paul Lowe on the left. Anyone who is familiar with M.R.James' stories will recognise it as being from Count Magnus! 

Volume 2 of the Book of Shadows again includes one of my own stories, The Third Time, a sequel to James' A Neighbour's Landmark. If you haven't read the original story, you can find it here: A Neighbour's Landmark on A Thin Ghost. Incidentally, if you want to know more about this particular tale, there is a super episode about it on the M.R.James-themed Podcast to the Curious. You can listen to it here: Podcast episode 26.

So why did I choose to write a sequel to this particular tale? When the idea of the first Book of Shadows came up, writing something about Canon Alberic's Scrap-book was a no-brainer for me, really. It's one of MRJ's best known stories (with good reason) and I have spent a lot of my own time researching it: I visited St. Bertrand de Comminges, where it is set, and I also wrote an article about the demonology of the story. You can read that online, here: The Nature of the Beast. For the first volume, I chose to write a prequel, set in France in the late 1600s. I aimed for a rather old-fashioned, perhaps Edwardian tone to the prose.

When it came to the story for Volume 2, I wanted to do something completely different. I decided to write a sequel set in the present day, in all its modern grubbiness. I also chose as the starting-point a story of MRJ's that I have enjoyed many times, but that I have never particularly researched nor pored over.

I've always found A Neighbour's Landmark particularly creepy, although it is not one you hear many people mention when asked which of James' tales is their favourite. Perhaps the shrieking ghost is a little too subtle? However, I must say for me it is one of his most frightening stories. The idea of hearing that terrible scream when you are not expecting it, and then the suspense of waiting to hear it a second time, is just appalling! Even if you are not interested in modern sequels, do read the original story; it's fabulous and chilling.

Other contributors to this new volume include David Longhorn, better known perhaps as the editor of Supernatural Tales, and Reggie Oliver, who is a playwright, biographer and writer of many excellent ghost stories. I have not yet read any of the contributions other than my own, so I can't wait to get my contributor's copy so that I can devour them!

Details of how to order the Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows Volume 2 are here, on the Sarob Press website.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Throwback Thursday: past loves

It's Thursday so it's Throwback day!  I posted this pic (left) on Twitter but there's a limit to what you can say in only 140 characters so I thought I'd fill in the rest of the story on my blog.

I think this photograph is from 1989 or 1990. That's me sitting in "Iris" my Mark 4 Triumph Spitfire convertible. Iris rolled off the assembly line in 1973, so in 1989 she wasn't all that old, but by now she'd be a very old lady indeed. She was British Leyland Magenta, which is a kind of violet colour.

Some people buy a sports car because they are having a midlife crisis. I bought Iris after a particularly grisly romantic disaster. She was the ultimate impractical car. She didn't even go that fast!  Admittedly she could, as they say, turn on a sixpence, so she was ideal for rolling English country lanes, where you can't go that fast anyway unless you want to end up in a ditch. You could also park Iris anywhere, because she had such a tight turning circle and was so narrow.

The left-hand catch that was supposed to secure Iris' convertible hood was very worn so the hood didn't close properly. This meant that the wind could get in, and on occasion the hood was even known to open whilst I was driving along. Once or twice the rain got in too, and soaked the passenger seat, seeping right into the foam padding. The seat took a very long time to dry out, so passengers were likely to find themselves sitting in a puddle. What with the vibrations from the engine, it must have been like sitting in a very cold jacuzzi!

Actually, the list of things that weren't working quite as they should have was pretty endless. Sadly, my income wasn't, so I had to live with some of these things for a while before I could get them repaired.

The very first time I took Iris out for a long journey, my youngest sister and I drove from Chesham to Oxford for the evening. On the way home, Iris broke down on the edge of town, and flatly refused to roll another metre forward. By this time it was dark, and this being around 1989, neither of us had a mobile phone. I went to a nearby house, knocked on the door and asked to use their phone so that we could call the AA. Then I went back and sat in the car and waited. And waited. No sign of the AA. The lights in the house where I had knocked went out, so I didn't feel I could ask them again. Eventually, a police car drew up behind us and two policemen came to ask us what the trouble was. After I'd told them the car was new and I didn't know what was wrong with it, one them walked all around it, tapping the bodywork. Then he came back grinning his head off and said, "It's full o' pudding."
I'm still smarting about that remark over two decades later. It's like having someone tell you your gorgeous new boyfriend is an asshole. However, I'm grateful to the police for calling the AA (who hadn't been able to find us) and telling them where we were. We got towed home, ignominiously. The next day I incurred the first of a series of large car repair bills.

Iris and I eventually came to an understanding about her various foibles. For example, if the engine was left idling in hot weather she would overheat and break down. To avoid this, I could put the heating on full blast and let the heat wash through the interior of the car instead of building to a volcanic temperature under the bonnet. I am not sure if there is any mechanical basis for thinking that this would work, but it did seem to. I recall one particularly hot summer's day when I drove into London and got stuck in a traffic jam on the way home. I saw the temperature gauge rising so I put the heating on. Even with the hood down, I was soon being baked. Very unpleasant. The things we put up with for love...

And then there was the starter motor which didn't. Start, I mean. That issue was relatively simply resolved by keeping a geology hammer in the car. If the motor wouldn't start, I'd put the bonnet up, deliver a sharp blow to the starter motor with the hammer, and then it would generally work perfectly - until the next time it jammed up.

In spite of all this, I really loved Iris. There was nothing finer than travelling through the countryside on a sunny day with the hood down and music unravelling scratchily from the cassette player. I used to do up my hair in a silk scarf the exact same colour as the bodywork, and drive along with the ends blowing in the breeze behind me. It was a sure cure for woe and heartache.

Of course, all such improbable and impractical love affairs have to come to an end one day. I met my future husband; he subsequently moved to Merseyside and I used to drive up and down to see him most weekends, which wasn't practical in a very temperamental old sports car. Aside from the risk of breaking down, Iris wasn't fast enough and she didn't have a roll bar, so if I'd had an accident on the motorway the results would not have been pretty. We parted company and I got a much more practical car, who didn't have a name.

I didn't have any trouble finding a good home for Iris: the mechanic who had been patching her up for the previous year or two was very keen to take her off my hands. So keen was he, that I suspect the two of them had been flirting together for a long time before he made his move. I guess he was in a much better position to do all the maintenance she needed, so for all I know they may still be together. I hope so; she deserved to find everlasting love.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The lure of the unattainable

Yesterday I drove to Dundee, a round trip of just under eighty miles.  I was in Dundee for a rather dull medical appointment but whilst I was there, I dropped into the big Tesco on the edge of the city to stock up on things we cannot buy in Crieff.

My daughter, who is a great fan of manga and anime, loves anything Japanese by association, including Pocky biscuit sticks. You can't get those any place nearer than Edinburgh, but the big Tesco in Dundee does stock Gap biscuit sticks from Thailand, which are a reasonable substitute. It also stocks Tymbark iced green tea from Poland; my kids used to love iced green tea when we lived in Belgium and you can't easily get that in the UK, so we were thrilled when we found it there.

Whilst I was filling my shopping trolley with these treasures, I started to think about all the times I had done this when we were living in various places around Europe. Whenever we move to a new place, I do try very hard to integrate, including eating local food. It is unrealistic and expensive to live in rural Germany, for example, and try to follow a completely British diet (the entire time we lived there, I never found a locally produced curry powder with enough strength). Also, you would miss out on lots of wonderful local delicacies. In Germany I came to love cherry streusel, herrings in dill sauce and Bitburger beer. Oh, and Froop, which is a kind of yoghurt with fruit purée at the bottom. I miss the cherry and lemon varieties of Froop more than I can say since we moved away from Germany. *sob*

The one British thing I really couldn't do without, however, was tea. In Germany, coffee is king. You go out for Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cakes), not tea and biscuits. German supermarkets stock a wondrous variety of fruit and herbal teas but I never found a local brand of tea that was strong enough to make a decent cup. A friend told me that East Friesian was the strongest German type, but it still wasn't strong enough for me: I like builder's tea, the colour of teak oil. So I used to order Yorkshire Tea online, or else get it from the British shop in Cologne whenever we happened to be there.

When we moved to Flanders, we found ourselves within a few miles of Stone Manor, the British shop, so the tea supply was no longer a problem. Had we so desired, we could have lived entirely on British produce, including Curly Wurlys and haggis. I was somewhat downcast to discover however that you cannot get Froop in Belgium. So whenever we went back to Germany, which was fairly often as you could drive to Bad Münstereifel and back in a day quite easily, I used to gorge on Froop, and nip into the Erft Cafe (now sadly defunct) for some cherry streusel.

Once again, we made an effort to try locally available food in Flanders. I'm not sure I am ever going to become a wholehearted fan of Paling in 't Groen (fried eel in bright green sauce), but I am a big fan of bessenjenever, which is berry flavoured gin. I came across it because I asked my Flemish friend Tom what Veerle, the heroine of Silent Saturday would drink, and he suggested bessenjenever. Of course I had to try it in the interests of research(!) and jolly tasty it is, too. I liked it so much that when we moved back to the UK in 2011 I was very dismayed to discover that it is not sold here, anywhere. So now, whenever I go over to Belgium, or our Flemish friends visit us, a bottle of bessenjenever always goes in the suitcase on the Scotland-bound leg of the trip.

NB I am sure my Belgian friends, though too polite to say so, think there is something faintly daft about this. Bessenjenever seems to be a young person's drink judging by the advertising, so I am probably a wild anomaly in their consumer demographic. In my defence, I only moved to Flanders in 2008, so I am still in my Belgian infancy. This may explain why I am also a great fan of the Belgian band Clouseau, whom everybody else in Flanders has known about since 1990...

Above: the perfect combination - Flemish bessenjenever cooled in Scottish snow!
(photo by Marc Vastesaeger)

I'm not sure why I felt moved to blog about this topic! I suppose it's because getting hold of these culinary treasures is about more than getting my hands on my favourite nibbles. 

Sometimes it's about carrying a little piece of somewhere you loved with you - whenever I have a glass of bessenjenever, the smell of it makes me think of Flanders; when we go to the German Christmas market in Edinburgh we love to buy the real German pretzels because it is a taste of our former home. 

I like the sense of occasion, too, when I drive into the city to buy things I can't get locally. I'm not sure quite what is going on there - some kind of frustrated hunter gatherer instinct, perhaps? I don't know why I get such a kick out of this. It's not like I'm the heroine of a post-apocalyptic novel after all, discovering a hidden cache of canned and bottled food in a bombed out town. I'm just driving to Tesco's in Dundee. 

I do love the satisfaction of tracking down something that is not easy to obtain. Iced green tea: the Holy Grail of soft drinks. We all like to feel that we are on a Quest sometimes...

Above: Bessenjenever gets a number of mentions in Silent Saturday

Friday, June 13, 2014

Demons in Saint Andrews!

Barely has the dust settled from the Demons of Ghent launch event at Blackwell's in Edinburgh, than I am off to St. Andrews to do another one! I'm quite pleased about that, because I like both Edinburgh and Saint Andrews a lot. If the weather is nice tomorrow I might even manage an hour on the beach after the event...

Anyway, I'm appearing as part of the Waterstones St. Andrews Children's Events Day programme on Saturday 14th June. Starting at 10.15am in the morning a series of children's/teen authors will be appearing to talk about their work.

There's something for all ages, from Mike Nicholson discussing his picture books to me talking about my Young Adult thrillers. Come to the Town Hall, Queen's Gardens, to hear us! My talk is from 1.45pm until approximately 2.30pm and hopefully I'll be showing some brilliant slides of my book locations too - including some scarily high ones!

Further details from Waterstone's St. Andrews: 01334 477 893