What I watched in January

Obviously, in lockdown, everything is watched on the small screen but apart from news and politics programmes I rarely watch anything at the time it’s aired. Catch-up services of various kinds are my friends. Absolute favourites last month were Spiral (cop drama), Whisky Galore (classic comedy) and the New Year concert. By the way, it appears neither Word nor WordPress approve of the Brit spelling of ‘favourite’ – I can assure them (and you) that it’s correct.

TV series:


Crime favourites

Spiral Season 8. *****
(ten one hour episodes shown 2 at a time on BBC4) My all time favourite cop show. I think it’s all currently available on iPlayer (UK) but be warned, there are 8 seasons, you need to watch them in sequence, and iPlayer sometimes removes things at the drop of a hat. I’m devastated that it’s all over. Because there was no filming some years, and the show started in 2006 so no wonder it felt like part of my life. For anyone who doesn’t already know, it’s a French cops’n’lawyers saga (with subtitles) with both groups trying to protect Paris from a very seedy underworld by sometimes rather shady means. Although there are various romance elements from time to time, the main focus is on the relationships between Laure and Gilou (cops) and Josephine and Edelman (lawyers). The brilliant judge, Roban, was written out of the final season. A few cops and lawyers were written out earlier. The complex characters and the gritty criminal cases made for compulsive viewing as did the brilliant acting and direction.

Traces****
We really enjoyed this six one hour episode Brit crime series on BBC1. Since watching, we’ve learnt that although ostensibly set in Dundee it was in fact filmed in North West England. It’s based on a book by acclaimed crime novelist Val McDermid, and the main focus is on the forensic teams rather than the police though Martin Compston from Line of Duty makes a good policeman character again. Available on iPlayer in UK. I read yesterday that another show based on a McDermid book set in Scotland is being filmed.

The Bay Season 2 ****
Another Brit series set in Morecambe Bay. I abandoned the first season because of unbelievably stupid policing, but husband liked it so I gave the second season a chance and quite enjoyed it. Available on ITV Hub (UK) and you don’t need to watch Season 1 to make sense of Season 2. Six  one hour episodes per season.

All the Sins Season 1 ****
Finnish detective drama on Channel 4 with very flawed detectives: a gay man who has been abusing his partner and a woman who shot her abusive husband then left their daughter to be brought up by her grandmother. Interesting serial killer case set in Finland’s ‘bible belt’ with lots of discussion about rights both re religious belief and re feminism. Nice shots of the apparently very flat Finnish countryside and some exploration of Finnish culture. Six 45minute episodes, in Finnish with subtitles, and there is another season but it seems it’s a kind of prequel, with a different detective pair so I haven’t decided yet whether to watch it. Both seasons are currently available on All4 (UK)

Drama favourites

Whisky Galore ***** (rewatch) The famous Brit comedy about a shipwreck off the Hebridean coast during WWII. Black and white, with lots of actors you’ll recognise including a young Gordon Jackson and a middle aged James Robertson Justice. Hilarious, beautifully timed comedy. This must have been the original inspiration for Dad’s Army. I thought it might not be as good the third time round but if anything it was better. Still available on iPlayer (UK) for about a fortnight but you can’t download, just stream. About 90minutes.

Revolution of the Daleks**** The New Year Special episode of Dr Who. I suppose it was all right. I like the current Doctor but find her surrounded by far too many extra companions. I’m not sure I wanted yet more daleks.

Comedy favourite 

The Vicar of Dibley in Lockdown**** Three ten minute episodes with the vicar trying to do everything via Zoom. Very funny and available on iPlayer for another 10 months.  

Music favourites

New Year Concert from Vienna***** Gorgeous. Previously reviewed separately in more detail. (No longer available to download or stream)

Dolly Parton: 50 years at the Opry**** I enjoy Country Music and I admire Dolly Parton. This was a nice way to spend an evening – 75 minutes on BBC 2 celebrating 50 years of Dolly and her music. However, I would have liked to hear more songs in full. The programme is available for another couple of months on iPlayer (UK)

The photograph is of January skies in Aachen from a friend’s house. No photoshopping other than cropping and resizing.    

January – and beyond

Two and half thousand words of blog post. Plus just under seven thousand words of WIP. That’s nearly ten thousand in the last week. An average of two thousand a day with weekends off for good behaviour. I’ve also been adding to my reviews of everything I’ve watched and read so that next month’s review posts will happen. I think I’ve been too ambitious. I set off, inspired by my daily music posts in December, with the intention of posting every other day, and didn’t really mean to get involved with very long pieces every time. But somehow, I invariably ramble and also need to look things up (like the names of authors or artists I like) and it all takes for ever. I suspect I could write more of my WIP if I was a little more laid back about the blog posts. So in February I intend to reduce the endeavour to a post every three days. Over the course of an average month that should mean four or five review posts, a meme, a couple of things that are bugging me, news about my writing (or a poem) and maybe a cookery post. That’s the idea, anyway.

When I post about cookery, be warned. I love cooking (though not planning a week’s menu, or shopping) but I’m a rather haphazard cook. My husband follows recipes religiously, and has been known to visit at least three supermarkets to get the right kind of kale. I tend to subsitute whatever I happen to have at hand. I don’t measure for a lot of things (though I do for baking) and I look for alternatives, short cuts, etc. As a result, after years of practice, I find most cooking easy, and will share my findings with you. If you want accurate quantities etc. please look elsewhere. If you want to feel confident about basic cooking – and some ‘party’ dishes, follow me! I also enjoy recipe books and will share new discoveries with you. Oh, and I cook in UK using scales that show grammes, a fan oven that uses centigrade temperatures, and most of my recipes are for two, with leftovers to freeze. Some of my recipes are vegetarian – we don’t eat meat every day – and where meat is in the dish you can substitute extra veg. I will give warnings etc. We are not, however, vegan, and nor are our extended family (though some are vegetarian). So expect butter, cheese, milk, etc. I have no idea how or whether the recipes would work with vegan substitutes.

The header photo is from my site header/banner/whatever. I created it using, as a base, a photograph of a violet in our garden. The violets could be out again soon!

Fantasy: third post in the ‘interests’ meme

An interest in fantasy. It’s hard to ‘unpack’ because fantasy is a huge multi-faceted genre and means different things to different people. It is often assumed to include sci fi and although I also like sci fi I don’t find the two similar at all.

It is often thought to include the paranormal: witches, ghosts, shiftes, vampires etc. operating in the mundane world. There are aspects of that kind of fantasy that really appeal to me. Examples of shows and books I have enjoyed include Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series (a changeling private eye also works for the faerie courts), Grimm ( a traditional grimm or hunter is a police officer dealing with cases that resemble fairy tales and often have were-creatures as the criminals), A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (romance between a vampire and a witch that includes time travel), Laurell Hamilton’s Merry Gentry series ( a fairy princess tries to settle in the modern world, helped and hampered by her lovers, who are all fae), Labyrinth (where a child needs to be rescued from the goblin king after a wish gone wrong) and Eli Easton’s How to Howl at the Moon series (dog shifters in the fictional town of Mad Creek). There are more but I’m sure you get the idea. In this type of fantasy I prefer to have at least one or two paranormal characters. I am less keen on series like Gabaldon’s Outlander books where the only fantasy element is the time travel. I love werewolves (and other shifters), particularly when they are involved in police work or romnce or both. I like witches, especially when humour is the focus. I adore unicorns. I am less keen on vampires and ghosts but couldn’t really tell you why unless it’s because they seem to have an unfair advantage when interracting with the mundane world. I think this interaction is at the core of my liking for books and shows like this. My brain asks things like: what if one of the police partners turned out to be actually a werewolf and could follow the scent of the murderer? (That’s one of the delights of fanfiction that takes known characters down a fantasy rabbit hole and gives them magical attributes.) The best of these ‘urban fantasies’ not only describes our own world in detail but also builds equally intricate fantasy worlds that exist in tandem, inhabited by fae, by shifter packs, by vampire families. I think a childhood favourite, George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblins falls into this genre, as does Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market although in this tale I have to say my interest is mainly in the various styles of illustration. I never enjoyed Alice in Wonderland but I loved the Pooh books. I think even at an early age I wanted to enter another world, one with magic of one kind or another, without an omniscient narrator telling me what to think. In Alice, I felt there were too many moral judgements.

Then there are the fantasy worlds that have no real connection to our own. My all time favourite has to Lord of the Rings with its saga of Middle Earth, but I am rarely as thrilled by the other high fantasy ‘quests’ that publishers assure us will appeal to lovers of Tolkien. Some that are less well known but equally loved by those like me who have found them are series like Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, and Felicia Davin’s The Gardener’s Handbook. The only TV shows I can think of in this category are Carnival Row (a Victorian-style society which treats fae from its conquered colonies badly) and The Dark Crystal, both Hensen’s original film and the recent ‘prequel’ series. I suppose I’d include the film versions of Pratchett’s Discworld, though not the Harry Potter films which belong in the urban fantasy genre. These pure fantasy books and shows create complete and complex worlds with huge histories and multiple characters. Here I think my liking stems from being able to view a totally different society and then return to my own with some new perspectives. In this one respect it is similar to my love of sci fi. I never want the creators to insist on a particular viewpoint or morality; I do want to ‘watch’ the behaviour of intelligent beings unconstrained by the limits of my own reality. I am more than capable of reaching my own conclusions.

I also, of course, simply like magical beings. I have always been intrigued by folk tales, adored Arthurian legend, and wanted there to be ‘more’ out there while at the same time not believing in it in the least. I don’t want my fairies twee, like Tinkerbell in Peter Pan (I never liked the book or the play) and I am not convinced by Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies though I learnt a lot of botany from her books. Fairies need to be capable of ‘passing’ as human, even in other worlds though I admit to liking stories like The Borrowers and The Carpet People. I want my werewolves to be complicated people rather than vicious beasts. I like seeing the results of other people’s wild imaginings, and I also love fantasy art. For instance I like the drawings of Arthur Rackham, and the modern paintings of Amy Brown and others.

I write fantasy. My own work falls into both ‘urban fantasy’ and ‘other world’ fantasy in different stories. Naturally, I read,.watch and enjoy a lot in what I think of as ‘my’ genre. Some writers may have influenced me though I think their main contribution has been to give me the confidence to write what I enjoy and share the results with others.

The photograph is of a metal unicorn that graces the grounds of a fascinating forge outside Leatherhead just south of London.

Politics: second post of three in an ‘interests’ meme

We don’t often share our personal views on politics. Well, not in UK, anyway. There are all kinds of taboos. It isn’t just that there’s so much emphasis on the secret ballot. There are strong but unspoken social rules about not offending people by trying to discuss political issues. Never, we were taught (when I was growing up) talk about religion or politics. Never. It seemed almost as strong as the taboos surrounding sex – and made about as much sense. Even politicians seem to struggle to express beliefs rather than talk about e.g. numbers of immigrants or unemployed. Sometimes, on social media, I think those walls are beginning to crumble, but still, it’s hard to know where your friends are coming from. I don’t mind putting my cards on the table. They’re quite varied cards.

Over the course of my life I have voted for numerous different parties. When I first went to uni, a school-friend’s older brother dragged me into the Young Conservatives but I retreated fairly sharply. When I was first married we supported our local Liberal Party but were gradually disillusioned by the behaviour of various national politicians (including one who was on the board of the company I worked for). I joined the Labour Party for a short time but didn’t feel the local party was my spiritual home even though I share a lot of their socialist ideas. Whilst teaching, I was a union rep for NASUWT and was on the local committee. I was also a delegate at various TUC meetings and conferences – and at NASUWT annual conferences. Once I retired I joined the Pirate Party and definitely agree with their manifesto whilst rolling my eyes at their inability to organise themselves. I have never cancelled my membership but I have only once been to a conference and of course they don’t provide candidates to vote for in most places.

I have voted for all the main parties in both local and national elections, and once for the Greens in local elections. Sometimes I vote tactically. I suppose you could call me a floating voter but that implies shifting philosophies and being easy to sway. I don’t believe either applies to me. I’m quite cynical about politicians but eternally hopeful that socialist policies might prevail. I remember when I was working and someone was asking who would or wouldn’t man the barricades (I think we were discussing Les Miserables at the time) another colleague pointed at me and said I would have built them. I ought to point out, for the benefit of any American readers, that all our main political parties (with the exception of UKIP etc. and other right wing organisations) are well to the left of anything that happens in US. Our politics have more in common with the Australian variety except that they call Conservatives ‘Liberals’ and so on.

My career was largely in the field of anti-racist education, with a short side step into language teaching for a company (the one with the Liberal director). Again, I attended and organised conferences, went on marches, and read and read and read. I got interested in the politics of some of my students from countries including Libya, Iraq and Iran.

I follow politics avidly. I read New Statesman every week. I subscribe to Searchlight and read their magazine – I think it’s currently quarterly but it keeps changing its mind. I enjoy Private Eye but don’t subscribe so haven’t seen it during lockdown. I watch programmes like Dateline London, Peston, Newsnight, Hardtalk, etc. Our default TV channels are BBC Parliament and various news channels including BBC News and Al Jazeera. I read the Guardian daily, plus a Spectator email. I buy and read books about politics and economics. I get email news from organisations like Hope Not Hate, and Electronic Frontier Foundation. Sometimes I donate. Sometimes I sign petitions. Sometimes, as with EFF, Avaaz, the Refugee Council, and Amnesty, I subscribe.

I like to follow international politics, not just those of my own country. I’m no expert but I think I’m reasonably well informed. I’m particularly interested in Australian and US politics simply because I have friends in both countries and since their main language in both cases is English, the reports are easy to follow and I can then have discussions with my friends. However, I also enjoy information about e.g. Germany, Portugal, and Spain, garnered through media reports but also from friends who live in those countries. I have also read a lot of history dealing with western European countries in particular. I used to devour books about the Third Reich and more recently I dived deep into accounts of Franco’s Spain.

I enjoy fiction that centres round the history and politics of a country. I did a postgrad thesis on the uses of literature – written in English but from other countries – in the English classroom and read a lot of books dealing with India, Pakistan, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as well as US. I was fascinated – and then sad that the National Curriculum would not allow me to share my fascination. Again, I should tell American readers that American literature is currently frowned on or ignored in our high schools. I like films like Pride, Made in Dagenham and I, Daniel Blake.

I have been on numerous political marches, sometimes as a union delegate and with a group carrying a banner, and sometimes just for myself (usually with a friend or my husband). These have varied – memorable examples are the annual Tolpuddle Martyr’s March, the Live 8 Edinburgh event, and local anti-fascist demonstrations against e.g. the National Front.

I have always voted. I believe in democracy, and I believe in socialism. But I’m not a supporter of any particular party at the moment and apart from my somewhat distanced membership of the Pirate Party I can’t imagine joining one. I agree with the Martin Luther King quotation in my header, but would leave religion out of the equation. (The other taboo, religion, is for another day…)

So I’m very left wing without being a member of a left wing organisation. Nowadays I would be a physical liability on a march or demonstration of any kind, but I can still sign petitions, donate to causes I think worthy, and, as ever, read, read, read.

First post of three in an ‘interests’ meme

Some friends on Dreamwidth were ‘playing’ with a meme where if you answered a post they chose three of your interests for you to write about for them. I answered, and the friend who was finding interests discovered I’d only listed two very general ones, travel and writing. So they looked at my tags and chose the following:

Being Human

Politics

Fantasy

I’ll write about them in three separate posts. If I try to do very long blog posts I end up with less time for my fiction writing. I also end up with nothing to blog about another day!

Being Human was a very British TV series between 2010 and 2013 featuring a ghost, a vampire and a werewolf who became flatmates and attempted to live in the mundane world. I loved the concept of the three trying desperately to maintain a ‘human’ facade, and I thought the acting was extremely good. The scripts, in the first season especially, were excellent. Once the original three characters had been replaced because of various events, I lost interest in the storyline so I didn’t follow the series through all its seasons. I had talked about the series at some point so the tag (only used once) was still there. Let’s just stress that: once! A fleeting though genuine interest, abandoned some years ago but kept on file by my social media account.

I am not particularly interested in ghost stories though I have read some very good ones. Nor do I usually like vampires. I do, however, love werewolves and shifters of any kind. I will seek out shifter stories but will only read ghost and vampire tales if they’ve been specifically recommended by people whose general tastes I trust or share.

However, in the series, I really liked the way the ghost and vampire characters were explored, with the idea of ghosts being unable to move on into the light until they had dealt with unresolved issues, and the way vampires coped with age, the need for blood and vampire politics. I also liked the interactions between the different types of paranormal beings.

I have to admit I would watch Aidan Turner in almost anything – though I didn’t watch Poldark since I didn’t like the books. In Being Human he made a very attractive vampire.

I loved the werewolves, particularly the way Russell Tovey’s main werewolf character tried so hard to be ‘good’ and not hurt anyone. He was so invested in ‘being human’.

In my own writing (in my Living Fae series) I have a werewolf character who interacts with the fae and is not in the least bit dangerous to those he cares about though he is fierce when dealing with anything that threatens his extended family. He tries, quite hard at times, to ‘be human’, or perhaps to be fae.

For anyone else who loves shifter stories I can recommend Eli Easton’s Howl at the Moon series which features the town of Mad Creek where many of the inhabitants live a double life as dog shifters.

Lockdown and vaccination

(The cartoon is from yesterday’s online Spectator.)

I have an appointment for vaccination on Monday.

So far as I know this is simply because of my age. I fall into the ‘next cohort’.

I have been mostly isolating since last March. I shop online as far as possible. I have not been to a shop, or used cash, since then. Occasionally, my husband and my daughter have brought shopping to me and I disinfect everything. I cannot take advantage of the permission to go out for exercise. I walk, badly and slowly, with a stick, and need frequent rests on e.g. a park bench. I understand that this is currently illegal. The last time I left our house and garden was for a flu jab, in autumn.

I am not grumbling, or at least, only at the virus. I am no different from lots and lots of people and I know I’m better off than a lot. I have a comfortable house, a supportive husband who is good company, no money worries, and no health problems other than my bad back and some hay fever. All our extended family are currently well, even our son-in-law’s father who was hospitalised with Covid. However, I’m still, like many others, in a kind of prison and can only begin to imagine how dreadful it must be for people who live alone or in less than comfortable surroundings.

I am pro-vaccination. I believe in the concept and science of vaccination. I believe in the way vaccination protects the entire community including people who for health reasons can’t be vaccinated. I have some confidence in the new Covid vaccines. The researchers have worked very hard and the trials have been properly carried out. However, the results from Israel, which is ahead of most countries in rolling out the programme suggest that protection will be limited until the second dose has been not only administered but had time to develop full efficacy and it is still not clear whether the vaccine prevents transmission as well as protecting against severe symptoms.

I have no idea which vaccine I will be given or even if the appointment will go ahead. I was asked to make the appointment for the second dose at the same time I made the first and I did, but I have no idea whether that will go ahead either – it’s for 12 weeks’ time. There are rumours, half bits of information, lots of encouragement, and virtually no hard facts. Some areas and centres run out of vaccine or run out of staff. But the Manchester Etihad Stadium has not reported any problems so far. (I just hope I don’t have to queue or that if I do there is seating.)

So I ought to be excited about my appointment. I’m sure friends and medical staff will encourage me to express delight and optimism.

I will turn up for my ‘jab’, but forgive me if I am less than enthusiastic. People are talking as if we have actually reached the light at the end of the tunnel and guess what? We haven’t.

This is not a get-out-of-gaol-free card. It takes about three weeks for any protection to kick in, and then there’s the 12 week wait for the second dose and a further 3 week wait. So we’re looking at the beginning of May… I can’t imagine much lifting of restrictions before then in any of UK because it’s going to be at least then before most older people are protected. Even then, it’s only partial protection.

Meanwhile, we are all still in lockdown. I can’t see my family, even my daughter and grandson (last seen in August) or my friends. I can’t go out. I’ve mentioned the walking problem and of course I can’t drive anywhere for a change of scenery. I can’t stand and queue for a shop though I hate shopping anyway so that isn’t a real concern. Other than medical appointments such as the one for vaccination there is no legal way I can leave the house even once vaccinated. Dentists, opticians, hairdressers, etc. are still closed and will remain so. Besides, those are not exactly things to look forward to. We have been told not to plan summer holidays or days out, even in UK. The weather is cold, dark, and depressing. I live in a big house but I’m feeling slightly claustrophobic.

We are currently still in January – and I’m one of the lucky ones.

Also, it’s snowing, which is very pretty and very cold. We were invited (it’s random) to be on the ONS covid survey so we get tested regularly – they aren’t allowed to come in and they’re due today at 12.30 and that means having the door open for longer than I would like.

Can you cook?

A friend on Facebook asked if people could cook and gave a quiz. It’s a little US-centric so some of my answers show my Brit perspective. I love cooking – I hate having to plan a meal every day, but the actual preparation is fine. Anyway, on to the questions:

HAVE YOU EVER?

1. Made biscuits from scratch? Yes Both Brit biscuits (UScookies) and US biscuits (Brit scones)

2. Fried fresh okra? No. Not too much fresh okra here. I’ve had it but I think it was steamed.

3.Made sourdough bread? No – don’t like it much. I’d rather have multi-grain types.

4. Fried chicken? Yes although I prefer to roast it.

5. Made spaghetti sauce from scratch? Yes, Every time I make sauce it’s from scratch

6. Made any kind of yeast bread? Yes. Nowadays I have a bread machine and experiment with stuff (I can’t cope with too much kneading) but I’ve recently made Irish soda bread, banana bread, and pizza base from scratch.

7. Baked a cake from scratch? Yes.

8. Made icing from scratch? Yes – butter icing, frosting, royal icing…

9. Cooked a pot roast with all the veggies? Yes. I have a slow cooker, a tagine, a domed enamel roaster, etc. etc.

10. Made chili from scratch? Yes, but I go easy on the chili. Too much and I can’t taste anything else.

11. Made a meatloaf? Yes though rarely because it isn’t our favourite.

12. Made scalloped potatoes? Yes

13. Made mac/cheese from scratch? Yes. I don’t like the tinned or shop made kind.

14. Made a jello salad? I assume this is an aspic salad. Don’t like it much but have made jellied beetroot which is nice.

15. Made peanut brittle? Don’t like it so no.

16. Made fudge? Yes but it was a failure.

17. Made cookies from scratch? Yes see #1

18. Cooked a pot of beans from dried beans? Yes

19. Cooked a pot of greens? Yes

20. Made cornbread? Not sure what cornbread is.

21. Make a pie dough from scratch? Yes. Not always because I’m lazy.

22. Cooked a whole turkey? Yes but not often because I prefer chicken or duck.

23. Snapped green beans and cooked them? Yes. We grow our own.

24. Made mashed potatoes from scratch? Yes

25. What’s the most people you have prepared a whole meal for? 12 but I had help. Also, party buffet for far more.

26. Poached an egg? Yes

27. Made pancakes from scratch? Yes, always, but Brit pancakes, not US ones. I think theirs are what we call drop scones and if so I have made those too.

28. Roasted vegetables in the oven instead of boiling them? Yes, frequently and I never boil them, I steam them.

29. Made fresh pasta? No – don’t see the point. I can’t tell the difference in taste.

30. Made croissants from scratch? No, not keen on croissants and they’re cheap.

31. Made tuna salad? Yes – had it last night, in fact

32. Fried fish? Yes – I usually make my own breadcrumbs and fry with those and egg, but sometimes I bake fish in the oven (in foil) with herbs and/or e.g. chili dipping sauce.

33. Made baked beans? No though I know you can. But there are more interesting things to do with beans.

34. Made ice cream from scratch? Yes. Most recently, one with yoghurt and juice from our red currants. I have the kind of ice cream maker you have to freeze in advance but as a child I recall stirring the mixture in a cold double pan, with salt.

35. Made jam or jelly? Yes. I like using the microwave and making small quantities.

36. Zested an orange or lemon? Yes. I seem to have at least three zesters in the small equipment drawer.

37. Made grits from scratch? What are grits?

38. Made an omelet? Yes, regularly, but we spell it omelette

39. Lived in a house without a dishwasher? Yes, growing up, and when I was first married.

40. Eaten a bowl of cereal for supper? No – prefer it for breakfast!

The photograph shows our Christmas dinner 25th December 2020.

Roast chicken

Pigs in blankets (bought ready to cook)

Roast potatoes

Roast parsnips (bought ready to cook)

Sprouts (steamed)

Bread sauce

Cranberry sauce with port

Sage and onion stuffing (added extra onion to packet mix)

Red cabbage salad

Gravy (bought ready to heat)

The things bought ready to cook were all things I can cook, and have done in the past. The choice of ready items was just dictated by time, oven and stove top space, and pans. I should probably add that our dishwasher chose Christmas to die so the pan situation was crucial. The problem with a dinner that includes a lot of ‘trimmings’ or side dishes is getting everything ready, hot and fresh, to serve at the same times. I managed it, but only by judicious choice of ready-made ingredients.

Fanfiction over the holiday

I’ve used a Photoshopped version of a promotional picture of the main ‘team’ from Stargate Atlantis for my header, because that’s the fandom where I’ve been most active over the last month.

To anyone who isn’t sure about fanfiction, I have written more about it elsewhere but let me just assure you that it isn’t by any means all very amateur or pornographic. There is a lot of extremely good writing, some of it by published authors who enjoy playing in other writers’ ‘sandpits’ and some of the best stories are ‘gen’ involving no romance or sex whatsoever. Where there is sex – and of course there is, in any genre – it is not usually as explicit as some I have come across in published and comparatively mainstream fiction. And of course there is dross, as there is, again, in any genre.

I know people in most of my favourite fandoms. Some I have only met online but some are ‘real life’ friends. Fandom has given me some of the most rewarding and lasting friendships in my life. Some of them are superb writers. Others are excellent and insightful critics. I’ve met them through fan conventions, through smaller fan ‘meets’ and through collaboration online.

I rarely look beyond AO3 for my fanfic reading. As an ex-volunteer I’m familiar with the platform, with its ratings, tags, etc. and know how to subscribe to series, find collections, and so on. As this year saw the archive achieve 7,000000 works in over 40,000 fandoms, there has to be something for everyone.

For everyone who already enjoys fanfiction, I’m sure you’ll share my quiet pride that our very own archive has reached such a fantastic place.

For anyone who enjoyed The Merchant of Venice, West Side Story or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, fanfiction is for you. Give it a try and if you can’t find work that appeals, ask some of us to point you in the right directions!

December is a wonderful month for fanfiction.

I wasn’t involved in the Yuletide fic exchange this year but I have great fondness for it. The first ever fanfic I read was a Yuletide offering: The Water Horse by Thamiris***** https://archiveofourown.org/works/1630331 The rest is history…

I did get involved in the SGA (Stargate Atlantis) Secret Santa and have been avidly perusing the other offerings. It was fun trying to guess the authors who weren’t revealed until Christmas Day. My own contribution for anyone who’s interested was Not elves exactly… which can be found at https://archiveofourown.org/works/28091619 My recipient’s request let me explore world and culture building to my heart’s content. The team find a strange planet…

There were some excellent stories this year, but as they all require some knowledge of canon I won’t go into details. If you’re an SGA fan, you can find the collection and indulge. https://archiveofourown.org/collections/sga_secret_santa_2020

Of course, as usual, I’ve also been following the Marylebone Monthly Illustrated by Mafief, okapi and Small_Hobbit ***** and am always thrilled when one of the small offerings in this delightfully tweaked Sherlock Holmes universe turns up in my inbox. I inevitably want to leave kudos and am stymied by the rule that only lets you do so once. I was also delighted to receive a gift fic from Small_Hobbit, one featuring my favourite of her characters, Mouselet. Mouselet’s Review of the Year***** is quite short, very funny, and gives a taster for anyone who has not seen this writer’s work before. https://archiveofourown.org/works/28240377

I also want to recommend A Cyber Christmas Carol by asparagusmama***** This is a robotic AU version of Dickens’ story and is very clever and imaginative. https://archiveofourown.org/works/28292130 Save it to read next December!

I will confess to still not having read all the Pros Big Bang stories that were published in October. All I can say is that Secret Santas in fanfiction and special stories/giveaways in original fiction simply stole my time. Maybe this month… though I still have at least two SGA stories to read..

Sometimes writing goes slowly

Why some chapters are a lot harder to write than others.

So I, or rather my characters, had reached the ball – the one the fairy princess didn’t have the right shoes for. And suddenly, my writing turned to treacle. It wasn’t writer’s block – I knew perfectly well what would happen next, what all the participants felt, thought, did, and so on. I could see the scene vividly in my mind. Translating that into something that would make sense to readers was what was giving me a headache.

I realised, rather belatedly, that it had a lot in common with the other things I find hard to write, and for exactly the same reasons. Sexual encounters and battle scenes. What on earth, you may well ask, have these got in common with each other and then with dancing?

Think about it. They all involve quite detailed choreography. With dancing that’s fairly obvious. Battle scenes and individual fights have to be carefully constructed so that the required outcome is reached. The correct ‘side’ has to win. Some characters really mustn’t lose their heads or their limbs. Serious injury has to be avoided by anyone whose story is unfinished, and yet there usually have to be some deaths. So it’s all a bit like arranging a fight for stage or film. (Some people make an entire career out of that.) The sex scenes, too, have to have all the limbs in the right place at the right time. I find the sex, the duels and the individual dances slightly easier; I can always fall back on the feelings of one of the protagonists though in some way’s it’s a coward’s way out. But the crowd scenes defeat me every time.

They really shouldn’t, should they? I mean, most of us have been to dances, had some kind of sexual encounter, wanted or otherwise, and probably indulged in at least play fighting as children. We’ve also witnessed crowds dancing, and sex and fighting on the screen. So I know what goes on, what should go on, what my characters need to do, etc. It’s not at all like using my imagination to create something like magic or aliens or a landscape.

Well, that’s part of the trouble. I can visualise the scenes so well. I can even feel the physical contact, smell the gunpowder, and so on. But when I experience them that way I’m caught up in the speed of what happens and that’s definitely at odds with the speed of describing them for readers. I’ve tried using dolls and those posable wooden artist’s models but dolls don’t move rapidly whereas people do. A doll can show me what positions in sex, dance or a fight are impossible, but can’t show movement in slow motion which is what I need if I’m to describe the encounter in a meaningful way.

If I’m describing a long journey, readers don’t expect a minute by minute account. An overview is fine. But for some reason close personal stuff, loving or hostile, needs detailed description. I believe some publishers demand detail, and certainly my beta readers tell me to expand those scenes.

There’s a further problem. When I read explicit sex or battle scenes my mind usually switches off. I skim till I reach the end when the characters start talking to each other again or till I know who has won. This doesn’t apply to dancing but dancing other than ballet tends to be boring to me as a mere observer. Since I don’t often read the details I find them even harder to write.

And yet the fairy princess had to go to the ball, with the right shoes, and meet her fairy prince, if the novel was to progress in the right direction, and somehow, merely saying there was a ball and starting the next chapter with: And the next day… wasn’t quite going to work.

I sorted it, but slowly. As I say, some chapters are a lot harder to write than others.

As for the picture, yes, we really did find a nail that shape, so I photographed it. I now use it (from a different angle) as an avatar.

Short stories read in December

Well, short stories and a book of poetry – it was quite short so I’ve included it here.

The really really good. I don’t often give five stars to short stories but there were some real treats this month.

Dr Bones and the Christmas Wish by Emma Jameson***** I love this mystery series set in a Cornish village at the beginning of WWII. Dr Benjamin Bones is a wonderful ‘hero’ and his relationships with his neighbours and patients plus a budding romance with Lady Juliet are delightful. The author is clearly not British and there are occasional anachronisms as a result, but the stories are fascinating and heart warming and the style is assured.

Goldilocks and the Bear by Clare London***** The story of Gil, Bruin and the Christmas Tree. How do you get a large Christmas tree through a narrow door? The story is light hearted fun with lovely references to the fairy tale and plenty of innuendos for grown ups – a kind of textual pantomime. It brightened my day.

The White Gods by Lawrence Osborne ***** This story in the Christmas Special of New Statesman absolutely hooked me. A wealthy American family tour Mongolia with guides, and inadvertently disturb a grave. To say any more would be to give spoilers and I really hope some of you might be able to find it somewhere.

Frost at Midnight by Elin Gregory***** A gorgeous look at Dafydd and Colin sharing a farm in the Welsh countryside. It has Dafydd attending midnight mass, and there is snow in the hills. The perfect story for Christmas.

The good. This is my default setting for short stories as a rule.

Gifts for the Season edited by RJ Scott **** This collection had some really gorgeous stories but some were set in series I hadn’t read and I quickly learnt to avoid those. Anthologies are always difficult to grade as they inevitably have at least some content that is not to this reader’s taste. The profits go to The Trevor Project and the book is worth buying for all the lovely standalones, and because this is a worthwhile charity.

Katy by Bryan Washington**** This story appeared in the Guardian on 20th December. The narrator moves back to Katy (a town) to help his friend open a bakery. It’s a very sweet mm story that shows how people can be wrong about events in the past, and that there’s always hope for the future. It pleased me because it appeared in mainstream media with no hint of apology or explanation for its inclusion.

The readable – well written but ultimately boring to me.

A Christmas Intervention by Mara Ismine *** This was a very readable story but for my tastes there was too much explicit sex, especially for a short piece. If you like ‘steamy’ mm romance, you’d enjoy it because it’s well written.

Boxing Day 1975 by Drew Payne *** This can be found in Stories written on lined paper. It’s quite short and the use of Rashomon style is clever but didn’t go far enough. Drew isn’t afraid to experiment: Rashomon style uses more than one narrator for the same event and the reader has to make up their own mind about reliability. The story suggests one of the characters is outed as gay, and looks at family reactions but I would have preferred some kind of follow-up using the same technique.

 Travelling Light edited by A Elliott-Cannon and Neil Adams *** This is a book of poems I unearthed from one of our boxes and couldn’t remember having read. I’m not surprised. It’s a collection of semi-humorous poems by a variety of authors and the standards are very varied too. The good ones can be found in other anthologies.

And the ones I didn’t like

Handspun by Charlie Descoteaux** This is very short and is mostly explicit sex so although the writing is technically good I didn’t enjoy it at all.

Difficult Times by Adrian Tchaikovsky** A sci fi tale about a pop group called Cosmic Strings. It appeared in the New Scientist Christmas special. I nearly abandoned it but husband wanted confirmation that it was rubbish… It wasn’t well written and the concept could have been much better handled. Then we saw that the writer has had multiple awards for his work. I have no idea why.

Incidentally, I didn’t abandon any novels or short stories this month. In fact, the only thing I abandoned was the Peak Cavern Concert I referred to in my post about December viewing.

The picture is an enlarged version of an icon by roxicons.