The End of November

This comes to you from a very snowy UK. The picture is from our garden and was in fact taken a few years ago but the scene today is exactly the same.

I thought I’d better post again before December. You may remember that last year I did a daily post of winter music. I will try to get a playlist of the music I recommended ready for your use but it might be a day or two because real life is quite busy at the moment.

I found daily posts quite hard so this year I’ll do some sporadic posts of seasonal cooking. Then I’ll have a seasonal story for you round about the middle of the month.

Meanwhile, I did a couple of memes I ‘stole’ from a friend (the writer smallhobbit).

1. Did you grow up with your parents together as a unit?
Yes until I was sixteen, when my father died. From the age of nine I was at boarding school and only saw them in the holidays and when they visited, once a term.

2. Did you reach adulthood with four living grandparents?

No. My maternal grandfather died before I was born and my maternal grandmother died when I was five. My paternal grandmother died a few weeks after my father when I was sixteen and my paternal grandfather survived until I was twenty.


3. Is your extended family a close one or not?
No. Nor is it very extended. My only uncle died before my mother did, in 2005. I have no first cousins but am still in touch with a second cousin and through her hear other news.

4. Does your family have a ‘black sheep’?

Not in recent history. My father’s surname derived from a lowland Scots group of border raiders, so once upon a time, who knows?

5. What is your first memory of a family member that is not your mother(s) or father(s)?
We lived with my maternal grandmother until I was three and then when my father (a CoE vicar) got his own parish she moved to live with us. So she was part of my life all the time.

6. What was a skill you were proud to learn as a kid?
Not sure I remember, but I do recall being pleased at being a good reader and at learning to read music (my grandmother taught me) at the same time as learning to read.

2. What’s something you used to be good at, but can’t do any more?
PE – cartwheels etc… And singing. I used to be in a choir but I no longer have the same range.

3. What’s something you haven’t done in a long time, but you could pick it right back up again with some practice?
Piano playing. I haven’t done any since I retired because for various reasons my piano is inaccessible.

4. What can you teach others to do?
I was a teacher so all kinds of things including: understanding grammar; various maths skills; how to review or critique something; how poetry works; how to read music. In craft terms etc. tatting, reading music, various papercrafts.


5. What would you like to learn next?
I would like to learn more skills with graphics programs.

Boring thrillers

Boring thrillers: a contradiction in terms? It’s something I’ve been promising to write about for a while now.

I like crime stories but I’m quite fussy about them. To begin with, I want to be in the position of the detective, amateur or professional, and I don’t appreciate being given the criminal’s pov, or some prologue that gives the solution away. I like being asked by the author to investigate alongside the detective and draw sensible conclusions then check them against the eventual ending. I like it when the author plays fair – no deus ex machina at the last minute and preferably no ‘well they were insane and nobody knew’. ( I read a couple like that recently.) I don’t like things that are too gruesome as we ‘watch’ though I don’t mind the investigation of gory crimes. Nor am I keen on really cosy mysteries, partly because I don’t often find them realistic; most investigation is done by professionals, either police or private detectives, not by amateurs.

Having said all that, I’m fairly careful about what I buy or borrow, and always read the blurb. I don’t read many reviews, in case of spoilers. I look at the first couple of pages and if an entire novel is clearly going to be in present tense I tend to turn away. Not a criticism because it’s clever and I know there are people who enjoy it – I’m just not one of them. It’s also a literary ‘trend’ and that’s something I don’t want in my genre reading.

However, recently I have read a number of thrillers that passed all those initial tests and then turned out to be totally uninspiring.

There are the police procedurals that are more about the procedure than the crime. I really think we can skip too much time explaining how a police station works. Even differences between different countries can be covered very briefly. Forensic science labs likewise. I want results and then the detective’s reactions to them.

Some stories have so many characters and so many threads introduced very early that my brain switches off. I have no objection to a cast of hundreds if they’re brought in gradually!

Then there are crime stories that are more about the detective than the crime. Yes, I want an interesting detective so that they come alive on the page and engage my sympathy, but I really don’t want chapter after chapter about their family or their problems till it detracts from the main plot.

That brings me to another kind of boring – boring detectives. I don’t necessarily want a superhero (in fact I don’t much like superheroes) or someone with so many quirks they aren’t real, but I do want them to stand out from the crowd. The same goes for their partner or sidekick. I’m happy with them finding romance – with each other or elsewhere – but again, it shouldn’t overwhelm the plot.

I love most Scandi-Noir on TV but have tried some Scandinavian novels and found them lacking. I think the actors and directors must bring extra life to the characters when books are used for series.

So when I give four or five stars to a crime story you’ll know it has passed all my tests. I’ll mention a few writers I love: Charlie Cochrane and RJ Scott both write mm romantic crime mysteries. KJ Charles does the same and includes magic. Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series is wonderful, as is Ian Rankin’s Rebus. My comfort reading includes Lindsey Davis’ Roman detective Falco. There are others but this isn’t a critique or review post. It’s just to explain why sometimes in my reviews I talk about thrillers being boring.

And you know, when I invest time (and money) in a thriller, the last thing I want is for it to be boring!

October’s Monsterfest ficlets – free to a good home.

Community icon courtesy of Brumeier

Every October a writing community I belong to on Dreamwidth runs a monsterfest. The mods give a number of prompts and the members can write to those, rec appropriate things they’ve read or watched or just discuss the monster/legend in question. All the prompts concern fantasy creatures of one kind or another.

I don’t always write but this year I did and my contributions – all short ficlets – are now on AO3. At least one will be expanded and turned into a novella (or even a novel) eventually.

I find writing drabbles and ficlets to prompts a very good writing exercise. Everything has to be finished quickly, must stand alone and should be accessible to readers with no prior in-depth knowledge of the topic. That’s harder to achieve than it sounds.

Some members write fanfic responses. All mine are inspired by various fandoms but are not specific. The pieces reference well known legends, and none contain any sex or violence. The last paragraph leads back here, to the short story I gave you for Halloween.

So here’s the link for anyone who’s interested.

https://archiveofourown.org/works/35085676

You can follow the link to my contribution but if you like monsters I suggest you also check out the collection because there are a lot of good stories there from this and previous years.

https://archiveofourown.org/collections/Shoobie_Monster_Fest

October reading

A very photoshopped version of a photo of the big window arch in Bolton Abbey.

The highly recommended:

The Scarlet Dress by Louise Douglas***** An elegant mystery set on the Severn Estuary. Beautifully told and beautifully resolved. Old bones are found under a funfair that is being demolished. Not a police procedural but as the evidence unfolds the reader feels like a detective.
 
Stalked by Shadows, Marked by Shadows, Conventional Shadows (newsletter novella) and Possessed by Shadows by Lissa Kasey***** An exciting paranormal mm romance series set in New Orleans. The characters (including the minor ones) are beautifully realised and the ghosts and/or demons are interesting and chilling. I bought the first volume then signed up to the newsletter and read the other two novels on KU. I’m so glad somebody (forgotten who) recommended the first! This was my pre-Halloween reading and it was truly memorable.

The recommended:

The I Hate To Housekeep Book by Peg Bracken**** A re-read. This time around (I’ve read it at about 10 yearly intervals) I was struck by the quaintness of some of the things – hat wearing, using canned soup in dinner party recipes, husbands who are not involved in housekeeping, etc. But there are still some good ideas!  

Love’s Heirloom by Blake Allwood**** A great sequel to Love’s Legacy – it was good to see more of the same characters. There was a spooky element too so it was perfect reading for Halloween. This author writes beautifully but like all of us has the occasional typo – I blame our word processor spell checks which don’t quite grasp homonyms. Anyway, I hope Blake won’t correct this one because it had me smiling all day: ‘Desolate planes interrupted by the occasional mountain.’ I’m delighted to see there’s a further volume in the Big Bend series.

Monster in the Maze by Fiona Glass**** is a delightful short story featuring a grand country mansion with extensive gardens (echoes of December Roses), a lord of the manor, a reliable gardener, and of course, a monster.  

A Spell for Master Vervain by Lee Welch**** Another good short story. I almost wanted it to turn into a novel or at least a novella. A student with a crush on his tutor uses a spell to summon an incubus. What could possibly go wrong?

Island Detective by Sue Brown**** Sixth in the Isle of Wight series. Nice sense of place and an interesting cast of characters who form a group of families and friends. An interesting first case for Olaf’s new venture as a PI.

Fathers of the Bride by Marshall Thornton**** Funny and romantic story about a divorced gay couple planning their daughter’s wedding. I’m not usually ‘into’ humour as the focus of romance novels but this had me both laughing and hooked.

https://www.tumblr.com/blog/view/grumpygreenwitch/665812784231202816 ****A lovely short fantasy fic with no title! I understand the monster is based on one from D&D.  

The readable:

Torn by Louisa Mae*** Paranormal Halloween romance novella. Intriguing story but the constant tense switching made it hard for me to read. .  

The Flat Tyre by Stella Shaw (Tom’s Tricks #1)*** Quite a nice introduction to a new rent boy series – a short story which didn’t really go far enough in character development. I might read more to see what happens. Well written and constructed.

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu*** The first couple of stories in this well written sci fi collection were impressive but gradually all the tales seemed to merge into a long rant about modern society, extrapolating from current trends. One, at least, was more of a political debate disguised as a story rather than a story with an underlying political point to make. I like my sci fi to have a message but it shouldn’t overwhelm the fiction aspect.  

Abandoned:
 
 Her Perfect Family by Teresa Driscoll. If I don’t care who, why, how, etc. by p 36 I’m not going to. I think it was going to be supposed to be a thriller.

Fanfic

I got three birthday gift fics in October – all of them delightful!

The Mouse that Soared by Small_Hobbit https://archiveofourown.org/works/34675825 1k words (Sherlock Holms AU)
Pull My Corners Gently Through by MistressKat https://archiveofourown.org/works/34692130 674 words (Harry Potter)
Cake!!! by pushkin666 https://archiveofourown.org/works/34692757 A drabble and a half. (The Hobbit)
 
Also read:

Doin’ Okay (But Not Very Well) by Brumeier**** https://archiveofourown.org/works/34142959  8720 words. SGA – Evan sees a murder. Probably sufficiently AU for the uninformed reader to enjoy though the cameo roles for other characters add to the interest.

October viewing

A wildly photoshopped photograph (mine) of autumn trees.

Highly recommended:  

Manhunt***** (itv hub) Martin Clunes in Season 2 of the drama based on real life police investigations.  

Code of a killer***** (itv hub) Dramatised version of the first case to use DNA ‘fingerprinting’.  

The Long Call***** (itv hub) Fascinating new detective series from Anne Cleeves who also wrote the novels that underpin Vera and Shetland (we’re watching the latest seasons). Martin Shaw appears in a very different role. The lead detective is gay in a perfectly ‘ordinary’ and uneventful gay marriage which I think adds to the series enormously, sending a clear message to viewers. The case, however, centres round his estranged family’s church, and his relationship with his mother comes into play.  

Enjoyed:  

Concert for George**** A concert given as a memorial for George Harrison, introduced by Ravi Shankar whose daughter Anushka conducted the backing orchestra and played sitar. A repeat from years ago but I didn’t see it first time around. I haven’t made a note of where this was shown but it might have been Sky Arts in which case for people like me who don’t subscribe to Sky there’s no catch up service.  

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie**** Lovely story based on a true one about a gay teenager who wants to go to the school prom in a dress. However, it’s a musical and the music was less than memorable. I watched it on Amazon Prime.  

What we do in the shadows**** (Shown on BBC). This is the NZ film that spawned the TV series (which I haven’t watched). Quirky and ‘different’ – vampires flat sharing in modern Wellington. Stand-offs with werewolves. Some echoes of Being Human. I won’t bother with the series because you can overdo some jokes but I enjoyed this for Halloween viewing.  

Disappointing:  

Jack the Giant Slayer*** Take some good actors (including Bill Nighy and Ewan McGregor), give them a rubbish script and poor direction plus cardboard scenery and make a kind of version of a fairy tale… Disappointing to say the least.

Free Halloween story. The Old Ones

I wrote a story for Halloween. It’s about 6k long and it’s free. You can look along the tabs for the Free Stuff page or you can just follow the link here!

The Old Ones

It’s a contemporary paranormal mm romance set in Northumberland National Park. Werewolves and ghosts against a background of heather!

My usual editor (m.a.naess) helped put right the bits I’d left in confusion. Many thanks to her! She is worth more than her weight in gold!

Then I had to get a WordPress chat person to sort out why I was failing to put the link on my page correctly. They ended up editing it for me and have left me with some study materials… I think WordPress, along with Facebook, Microsoft Office and other sites, now have so many bells and whistles it’s almost impossible for the ordinary home user to keep up!

Anyway, I’m glad I got this loaded in good time for the Halloween weekend. Enjoy!

Decadence without effort

I had a birthday recently. And no, I don’t share the date on social media because I believe that’s a first step to identity theft. My daughter brought a delicious coffee and walnut cake but I wanted to try to reproduce a childhood favourite and merge it with a Portuguese favourite. My mother called her version Hedgehog Cake, and the Portuguese sell theirs as Chocolate Salami. I consulted various recipes and ended up tweaking till I got this which was both easy and superb.

Fridge Cake

Really easy to make.

Ingredients:

Condensed milk. I used a ‘normal’ small tin which is about 375g. Make sure it’s condensed, not evaporated – they’re using similar tins.

Butter. I used half a block of salted butter. About 110 g or slightly more. (A normal block is 250g)

Chocolate. I used 2 bars of dark chocolate – about 100g each.

Biscuits. I used half a packet of Marie biscuits. Any plain biscuits would do, including digestive.

Mini marshmallows. A large handful.

Sultanas. A large handful.

Method:

Put the biscuits in a polythene bag and crush with a rolling pin (or a heavy bottle) – you don’t want small crumbs but check for big bits that haven’t broken up properly. Add the marshmallows and sultanas and shake the bag to mix.

Prepare a container. I used a loaf tin but a deep foil tray or a deep plastic box would do  – it’s not going in the oven. Line it with foil. This is important. It’s not to protect the container, it’s to help get the cake out when it’s set. So it needs to line the base and long sides and hang over the top.

Do all this first so that everything’s ready when the melt mixure is done.

Put the condensed milk, the butter (cut into cubes) and the chocolate (broken into pieces) in a pan, preferably non-stick. Use a low to medium heat and stir constantly but slowly while everything is melting. It doesn’t take long.

Once it’s just a gooey brown mix, add the contents of the poly bag and stir again.

Pour into the foil lined container, using a spatula or spoon to get it all, smooth the top, and put in the fridge. At least overnight and preferably about 18 hours. My mother’s was quicker but she used a shallow tray.

Turn out onto a flat board using the foil to help. I used a small chopping board but the lid of a plastic box would also work. Keep covered in the fridge. Slice as needed. It sets even better as it keeps and will slice easily with a sharp knife.

My mother covered hers with a layer of melted chocolate which I think is OTT but it’s up to you and your tastebuds. The Portuguese use a sausage shape and coat it in gold or silver wrap which you peel off each slice as served.

Enjoy!

September Book Reviews

A bird chose to plant a sunflower in our gutter… and yes, that is dead ivy, killed prior to getting rid of it!

The superb

Hidden Wolves by Kaje Harper (series)*****   Unacceptable Risk (volume one) introduces a really well developed werewolf world. Bought the sequel Unexpected demands as soon as I finished and found it  just as good. Thrilled to find there were a further four to go!!  Unwanted Appeal is a novella, Unjustified Claims, Unsafe Exposure, Undeniable Bonds are all full novels. All five star. There’s a coda due some time in October!!

The good

Fourth Point of Contact by AJ Sherwood**** A lovely mm romance with plenty of danger and excitement set in a fantasy world. But – there were some vocabulary choices that made me cringe (e.g. Clydesdales in another world when carthorses would have been fine) including the naming systems, and there could have been more rigorous editing. I might buy the sequel because I liked the main characters.

True (Tales of the Circle Bk 1) by Timothy Warren.**** Rural cabin trope but well told.

Harvest of the Cold Months by Elizabeth David**** Subtitle: A social history of ice and ices. Says it all. Fascinating but occasionally heavy going with all that detail.

May you be the mother of a hundred sons by Elisabeth Bulmiller.**** A journey among the women of India. Danish American journalist writing in 1990. Fresh and perceptive look at Indian society which still has a lot to tell the rest of us today.

Love in a Time of Coronavirus #17  by Dev Bentham (flashfic in her newletter)****

The readable.

The Weight of it all by NR Walker*** A nice mm romance and well written but I didn’t enjoy all the detail about diet and exercise. Although the point of the story was that we shouldn’t judge people by their appearance it still felt a bit like preaching! (Especially since I should follow the advice.)

The guilty man by Helen Durrant*** Police procedural set in a fictional West Yorkshire town. The back story of one of the detectives threatens to take over the plot but is never resolved. There is a sequel but I won’t be reading it because the case was boring and I didn’t get a cop story to read about the cop’s past even though I like well-developed detective characters.

Home again by Ana Ashley*** Sweet romance set in Portugal but it read a bit like a travelogue.

Some Kind of Magic by R Cooper*** (Beings in love series). Werewolves and fairies and more. Some poor world building and character development.

Under Color of Law by Aaron Philip Clark*** Can’t really rec this depressing though worthy.  account of a black cop in LA fighting racism and police brutality. I didn’t like the frequent changes of tense though I understood the literary intention. The book raises questions of whether the end justifies the means.

Angel Maker by Morgan Greene*** Supposed to be Scandi Noir but the heroine was boring (a possible Mary Sue??) and the plot moved slowly.

One Lost Soul by JM Dalgliesh*** Boring thriller set in Norfolk. Doctor’s daughter found dead in the woods. (I must post about boring thrillers…)

Buried by Jeffrey Deaver (novella)*** Quite an interesting premise but I didn’t really engage with any of the characters. I enjoy the Lincoln Rhyme/Amelia Sachs series but the author’s other writing is not so appealing. I couldn’t get really invested in the detective.

Gsbriel Baker’s Guide to Never Falling in Love by EM Lindsey (novella)*** The guide, which the protagonist ignores, is just, really, an excuse for sex. Boring.

Abandoned

Summer in Andalucia by Lucy Coleman. By p 36 I still had zero interest in any of the characters, plus it was in present tense for no apparent reason. A journalist follows a chef to Andalucia for a cookery retreat.

No fanfic  this month

September television and films

Vigil BBC1 and iPlayer***** Quoting from a review in The Guardian: Vigil has been a rich and sometimes sickly meal. Just one of its anxiety-inducing scenarios would be enough for most dramas, but this had international conflict, political intrigue, claustrophobic horror, psychological trauma, murder, cops, romance and nerve agents thrown in and set to various clock-ticking countdowns. I loved it but was a bit sorry they chose such a low key ending with the last few moments taken up by a press conference rather than the further activities of various characters.  

The Crimson Rivers ***** Excellent French cop show, first watched while husband was away and now rewatched with him on All4. There’s at least one episode that wasn’t previously shown or that I missed.  

Wild Swimming with Alice Roberts**** BBC4. Her enthusiasm is almost infectious and the photography is lovely, but it made me cold even to watch it!  

Vera***** Season 11 Eps 1 and 2 on ITV (and itv hub) The rest of the season is delayed and I gather they had problems with both filming and scheduling due to the pandemic. Good as usual.  

Help***** (Ch4) Superb acting by Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham in a chilling tale of a care home at the height of the pandemic. The ending is strange but again, very well acted.

9/11: Life under Attack (ITV).**** Chilling reconstruction with lots of video footage I hadn’t seen. Obviously shown to remember the twentieth anniversary of the date. Plus 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room (BBC) **** Similar programme but from the p.o.v. of Bush and his staff.  
 
Death on the common**** Ch4 The Rachel Nickell murder from the point of view of her boyfriend and her son (the toddler left clutching her body). They recently returned to UK and talk about their experience. A good addition to the Deceit series I watched last month.  

Gunda: Mother, Pig**** (BBC4) 90 minutes of black and white photography with no sound track other than the animal noises.  In comparatively slow motion we watched a mother pig, some chickens (one with one leg) and some cattle. Strange but compelling. I might watch it again, just as a moving background.  

The Hunt for a Killer – abandoned. (BBC iPlayer) Scandi noir based on a true story. They could have watched the Scandi dramas for direction and acting, and the Brit reconstructions for script and continuity hints. Billed as nail-biting… My nails were intact.

Romance plus

I enjoy reading romance, whether it’s boy meets boy, boy meets girl or girl meets girl. I am less interested in threesomes (though I’ve written one in fanfiction). I often, however, read well written books and end up giving them only three star reviews and then forgetting them completely. I was wondering what it is that makes me faintly dissatisfied with a lot of romance books and realised I need romance plus…

Romance plus crime or mystery.

Romance plus fantasy.

Romance plus historical interest.

Romance plus external drama.

In other words, stories where the romance is central but doesn’t play the starring role throughout. Or in more ‘other words’, stories that cross genres – and for that reason can be hard to find.

The first three are fairly obvious. I have to say I love it when more than one box is ticked (e.g. historical crime). There is excitement generated by the world building or by the mystery and that adds immeasurably, for me, to the pleasure of the story.

The last perhaps needs to be unpacked. If the protagonists are going to face drama in their search for a HEA or HFN (I don’t like sad endings in fiction – they’re all too prevalent in the non-fiction I read) I need the drama to come from outside. There are plenty of romance tales that focus on the angst faced by characters who are caught up in their own self doubt or immediate family problems. I prefer it when they come up against things like natural disasters or the dangers posed by social norms within their society. I’m not so keen on war, though I do read it. It reminds me too much of war stories which, as a genre, I tend to avoid. (Again, there’s quite enough war in my non-fiction reading.)

I don’t necessarily want romance plus sex. I will happily read explicit scenes and don’t want any ‘fade to black’ at the bedroom door. However, the slightest hint that the story is in fact a vehicle for sex scenes and I’m instantly turned off. I also find, in this respect, that less is more. I like the UST that precedes the sex, and the personal development that accompanies it far more than details about the mechanics. My imagination is much more likely to work on its own, without the author spending pages explaining unnecessarily how Tab A went into Slot B. Even in books that otherwise fit my preferences, I tend to skim those parts.

This is not to say that I won’t enjoy sweet stories featuring the initial get-together or maybe the effect on one partner’s child, but as a rule these are quickly blurred in my memory into one long trail of sugar. If they’re well written they’ll get their three stars, but no more. Obviously, if a book meets my other criteria but is badly written it won’t make even the three star grade.

The romance plus books are the ones that make four or five stars in my memory and my reviews. Incidentally, five stars are usually reserved for books I would re-read. This cuts out most crime stories because they don’t work as well second time around.

There are the five star series like Seanan McGuire’s October Daye novels, KJ Charles’ Magpie Lord or Kaje Harper’s Hidden Wolves. These do have crime, which adds to their interest, but the crime is not the absolute focus; the magic is (or werewolf society in the case of Hidden Wolves). Then there are the five star standalones like Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks with enough magic to make the pages sparkle, and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy with its piercing dissection of Indian society and politics. And of course Lord of the Rings, which is kind of ‘high romance’ in the mediaeval sense. My comfort reading is Georgette Heyer’s long list of Regency romances but I think it’s the focus on historical detail that makes them so memorable for me rather than the romance element. (Other comfort reading involves Pratchett’s Discworld and Lindsey Davis’ Falco series, both of which have varying degrees of romance but focus on social or historical issues.)

I’m sure some of you thoroughly enjoy the books I discard and find comfort in what I think of as saccharine reading. We all have different needs when it comes to fiction. My need is definitely for romance plus!