Starting to sort out my box of Christmas gifts that I’ve been steadfastly filling over the last few weeks, my heart sinks at the odd shapes that I’ve committed myself to wrapping. I still have quite a few presents to buy, including the one at the top of my daughter’s wish-list – a pair of Heelies (wheeled trainers). I’m hoping these will come in a box, or I’m in trouble.
I’m reminded of a Christmas in my teens when my then-boyfriend decided to liven up his gift wrapping by disguising his presents to look like something else, so that the recipients couldn’t guess what they were. I’d asked him for an LP of Wings’ Band on the Run. (Yes, I am that old – and for my more youthful readers, I should probably explain that an LP is a long-playing record album, as opposed to a single. Yes, we’re talking vinyl here – out of fashion long enough for it to be coming back into vogue again now.)
When he brought my gift round, it was a big box the size of an LP but about four inches deep.
Oh, how lovely, I thought, he’s bought me something extra too. I wonder what it is?
Cue huge disappointment when the parcel turned out to contain only the record, plus a lot of empty packaging. I tried not to look crestfallen. After all, we were only teenagers, and records were expensive.
Unfortunately he didn’t know that when you are in a hole, you should stop digging. Guessing that I’d expected something else, he added in his defence “My mum said not to get you anything else in case you split up with me again.”
I bet you can guess how that relationship ended up.
In the meantime, I’ve decided that for the rest of my Christmas shopping this year, I’m going to buy the ultimate easy-to-wrap present for everyone – a book, carefully chosen to suit each recipient’s interests, so that I can put my energy into the fun of book browsing rather than wrestling with wrapping paper.
If you’re after festive books for your friends and relations, let me leave you with a few recommendations. Biased, me? Well, it is my blog,😉
(This is my November column for the Hawkesbury Parish News, published just before the annual village Bonfire Night celebrations)
I’m old enough to remember not only the time when “Penny for the Guy” was a common cry at this time of year, but when a penny would be enough to buy something.
You could get four fruit salad sweets or a chocolate mouse for a penny. Or for just a few pennies, you could buy the cheapest fireworks from our local Post Office. My favourite was a box of coloured matches, while naughty boys preferred bangers or jumping jacks. Children were allowed to buy them, and we did. These days we may complain that health and safety regulations have gone mad, but looking back, you can see why we needed to invent them.
My favourite childhood memory of Fireworks Night was our family party. Raised in London suburbia, I was lucky enough to live in a house on the corner of the street, with a wrap-around garden big enough to host a decent bonfire without torching either the guests or the neighbours. That’s something you couldn’t do in most modern estate houses.
Each year our guy got sent on his way atop a pile of crumpled newspaper and sticks. In that simpler age, it didn’t occur to us to build a bonfire shaped like anything other than a bonfire.
Not so now we live in Hawkesbury, where the village bonfire is always a spectacular structure: Tower Bridge last year, complete with London bus. What shape will this year’s be? Whatever it is, if the old guys we used to make could see it, they’d be flabbergasted. Some guys have all the luck, they might say.
As today is Thanksgiving in the USA (Canada’s is the second Monday in October), I thought it could be a good time to let you know about a new mini paperback I’ve just published about a turkey.
An owl and a turkey, to be precise. (Always one for an obvious title, me.)
Different Turkey Traditions
While turkey is the classic Thanksgiving dish in North America, here in the UK where I live, it’s inextricably linked with Christmas dinner. Most British households will tuck into a turkey on Christmas Day – though not ours, because my husband and daughter are vegetarian. Much as I like turkey, I certainly couldn’t eat a whole one.
So my story has a British take on the old bird’s destiny. It’s told in the style of a traditional folk tale, in which a new young queen, bored of wild boar, despatches the royal huntsmen on Christmas Eve to find a new dish for Christmas dinner, with entertaining results.
The Story Behind the Story
The story behind the story is much more modern. It was sparked by my mishearing a news report on the radio one winter’s morning, which included the line “The trouble with turkey is that it doesn’t have its own missile defence system.”
Did I say turkey? Of course, the newsreader was actually talking about Turkey the country. But by the time I realised my mistake, my overactive imagination was already running away to invent an entirely different kind of tale.
Now in Paperback and Ebook
This story was originally published as a stand-alone single short story ebook. It was also selected to appear behind the door of an online advent calendar at the parenting website Mumsnet a couple of years ago, which really tickled me. One day I hope to write a whole advent calendar of stories myself. Maybe next year…
In the meantime, I’ve turned this story into a tiny slim paperback the size of a postcard and not that much thicker! It could be the perfect stocking filler for foodie friends or anyone who likes a humorous story, or you could even slip it inside a Christmas card.
The paperback is priced $3.99 / £2.75 and the ebook 99c / 99p.
You’ll find it easily on whichever Amazon website serves where you live – just plug my name and the book title into the search box, and up it’ll pop. You can also click the “look inside” link there to read the foreword and first couple of paragraphs to get the, er, flavour of my turkey tale before you buy.
Suitable for vegetarians: I can assure you no birds were harmed in the writing of this book!
Some 5* Reviews for The Owl and the Turkey on Amazon (from both sides of the Atlantic)
“Crisp, clever, fast-paced- this short story receives my highest recommendation” – Ginger Dawn Harman on Amazon.com
“A neat short which made me smile (and I’m a vegetarian!) all about how the poor old turkey became the victim of choice at Christmas. Carefully crafted and entertaining, it draws you into the tale much as you were drawn as a child. You know it cannot be true, but can’t help but enjoy the storytelling. Lovely.” – Leekmuncher on Amazon.co.uk
“I think the reason I loved this story was because it had the feel of a French folk tale of yore. The court, the outrageous demands, the competitive quest, the castle and forest, all set the imagination off in romantic direction… This story could be read to children before or after the Christmas feast of today. Parallels could be usefully drawn with current food whims and demands!” – Rosalind Minett on Amazon.co.uk
Whichever side of the Atlantic you’re on – or whether you live far away from it – I wish you a happy Thanksgiving, whether or not it’s an official day for counting your blessings where you live.
(This post was written for the November issue of the Tetbury Advertiser, which was published prior to both Guy Fawkes Night and the US Election)
“We don’t do Halloween in our house, because it’s all about fear and ingesting too much sugar,” said a friend of mine halfway through October. With two children under five in her household, the second point alone was something to fear.
While her comment didn’t make me cancel the Halloween party I’d promised my daughter (13), it did remind me that prior to becoming a parent, I’d been anti-Halloween too.
I’d preferred Guy Fawkes Night, believing it to be a more patriotic tradition until I discovered recently that Halloween was a British export to America.
Who’s That Guy?
Even so, when I was a child, we never celebrated Halloween. My first taste of trick or treating was when I spent a year in the USA at the age of eight. No-one over there had ever heard of Guy Fawkes Night. Fireworks, they told me, were for the Fourth of July, not the Fifth of November.
Back on home turf, we resumed our annual family Guy Fawkes parties. As a child, chucking an effigy on a bonfire and watching it burn never bothered me. These days, that spectacle horrifies me. Even if Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed in the act of attempted mass murder, burning him in effigy for hundreds of years afterwards is hardly a civilised response. It’s not far removed from reenacting a public hanging with a mannequin, or seeing a dressmaker’s dummy hung, drawn and quartered.
Variation on a Horrid Theme
These days most Guy Fawkes Night parties have moved away from the original cast, losing any historic justification in the process. Some communities even have elections to choose who to burn in effigy. I daresay there will be plenty of Donald Trumps atop our nation’s bonfires this month. To be fair, his hair would make a great firelighter.
I hadn’t realised how strongly I felt about this issue until I read a request from our local Fireworks Party committee to send along the scarecrows from the recent village scarecrow trail to grace this year’s bonfire. I was aghast, and not only because four new IKEA lime-green blankets went into the giant Very Hungry Caterpiller in our front garden. Most of the other scarecrows had been equally lovable figures, including a sweet elderly couple with a zimmer frame outside the local retirement home. I imagined local children being traumatised by seeing their favourite storybook characters go up in smoke, their parents worrying that granny had wandered into the danger zone by mistake.
So my vote goes for a humane rethink of Guy Fawkes. By all means keep the bonfires and the fireworks. I’m even happy for you to make a Guy. But when you’ve finished, please don’t burn him at the stake. Just chuck him in your cellar, lock the door, and throw away the key. Or export him to the States to stand as president. They could do with a good guy as candidate.
Today is World Diabetes Day. November 14th has long been designated as a day to draw attention to this important disease.
Because both my husband and our daughter both have Type 1 diabetes, I like to do something special on this day to raise awareness of this condition. The incidence of Type 1 is increasing at an alarming rate, with a radical effect not only on the lives of individuals but also on national healthcare services.
This year what I’d like to mark World Diabetes Day is to introduce you to a terrific Australian author Belinda Pollard, whose novel Poison Bay features a character, Rachel Carpenter, who has Type 1 diabetes so must overcome extreme challenges when she gets lost in New Zealand wildnerness with her friends.
Although Belinda’s initial intention was just to write a great thriller, the final result is a terrific novel that will raise awareness and foster better understanding of Type 1 around the world. I was privileged to help her fine-tune the diabetes story line drawing on my family’s experience of living with the disease.
So for this World Diabetes Day 2016, I’d like to share the story behind Belinda’s story, and I’m very grateful to her for answering my questions below.
Debbie: What made you choose Type 1 diabetes as a condition for one of your characters?
Belinda: Poison Bay is about a group of old school friends with past secrets who go hiking in the remote New Zealand wilderness, and lose their way, both geographically and morally. Basically, they start killing one another, as old friends so often do.
The terrain and weather are brutal in Fiordland National Park, but it’s feasible that a large, well-equipped group could just sit tight and wait a few weeks to be rescued. I needed to raise the stakes. A character with Type 1 diabetes added urgency for both the lost hikers and their rescuers.
It was the plot-tensioner that came to my mind because I’ve had some friends with Type 1 diabetes over the years, even if I didn’t fully understand what daily life was like for them.
From the start, I was determined that Rachel be a physically strong character, not a feel-sorry-for-me weakling. She is the fittest of them all at the beginning, because she uses exercise to give her a sense of control over her condition.
The more I learned about Type 1 during my research, the more glad I was that I had chosen that character trait. She’s also doing her best to heal from a recent bereavement, which adds another layer of emotional strength to her.
Debbie: How did your perspective on the condition change between you starting to write the book and publication day? Did you actually know anyone with Type 1 before you started writing, or was it more of a plot device to add tension to your story?
Belinda: Big changes! There’s been a kerfuffle recently about writers who appropriate other cultures into their books in a negative way. I think the same is often true of various medical conditions, belief systems and personality traits.
I’m embarrassed to say that Rachel was little more than a plot device at the beginning.
While I was writing the first draft, I won a prize that gave me a manuscript consultation. It turned out that my manuscript consultant had a daughter with a significant medical condition. She said something about how Rachel’s mother might be feeling in this situation, and it flicked a switch in my brain.
I realised that some readers might have a strong emotional investment in Rachel’s fictional outcome, and though I knew it would be impossible to please everyone, I owed it to them to do my best. It became almost like a ‘duty of care’ in my mind.
I cruised the internet and read books, and a nurse I met online did some training with me over Skype in the various glucose meters etc that Australian diabetics most commonly use. This only got me just so far. Strangely enough, there are not that many books on how to manage Type 1 diabetes while lost in the wilderness without food for a couple of weeks!
That’s when you came into the equation, Debbie. I knew you were an advocate for Type 1 research, and we’d brushed past each other on Twitter and blogs. I screwed up my courage, and asked if you’d mind checking the Type 1 storyline for me, and you said yes!
The feedback you gave me was bracing and somewhat bruising – but also thrilling! It gave me the chance to fix some serious misunderstandings and reconfigure certain sections of the plot. I’m sure the result is not perfect, but I felt like I now had a plausible outcome for Rachel. I’m incredibly grateful for the feedback!
Debbie: How did including a character with Type 1 diabetes enhance your story?
Belinda: All my characters have challenges of various kinds. I love writing them that way, because every single person I know is fighting a battle.
Anxiety, grief, chronic fatigue, depression, Type 1 diabetes, cancer, fear of heights, social awkwardness… these or any of a million other challenges might be our daily companions, but they don’t define us. It’s our character that defines us, and we make the most of the life we’ve got.
In the same way, I want my characters’ problems to be almost incidental. I want them to be defined by how they treat other people and the great things they achieve. Hopefully, I will get better at writing ‘real’ characters as I continue to grow as a writer.
Debbie: Have you had any feedback since publication from people affected by Type 1?
No, but I see that as a good thing: apparently they’re not annoyed! (Thanks, Debbie.)
Debbie: You’ve had some healthcare challenges yourself in the past which you overcame by what I might describe as dogged determination! Can you tell us a little about that, because it seems analagous to someone trying to deal with the challenges of living with Type 1 diabetes?
Belinda: In 2004 I was bitten by a mosquito and got a virus that left me with enduring pain and fatigue. Ever the eccentric, I chose to hike New Zealand’s Milford Track as part of my rehab program! This sounds even more nuts when you know that I’m not a particularly athletic person, even when I’m well. The Milford Track is 53km over mountains that look like upside-down shark teeth, and I’d been wanting to do it as part of a research trip for Poison Bay.
I’d also heard that a program of consistent exercise helped some people heal from chronic fatigue, but exercise seemed virtually impossible to me at that time. Training for a research trek gave me a deadline as well as the motivation to push through the pain and exhaustion, and keep on plodding.
My weird rehab program wasn’t a miracle cure, but I found that with each training session I could do a little more for the same amount of pain.
The day I arrived at the start of the trek was terrifying. I really didn’t know if I would end up on the evening news, being airlifted off the side of a mountain. But somehow I did it, one painful step at a time. I have a photo of myself standing under the sign that marks the end of the track. To the casual observer, it’s not obvious that my hiking poles are acting almost as crutches by this stage, or that my heart is on fire with the joy of having done this crazy thing.
Today, I still have bad days, but I have a lot more good ones. I achieve a lot of things that didn’t seem possible in those dark early days of the illness.
Debbie: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Type 1 diabetes while writing this book?
Belinda:I didn’t know that exercise could reduce the amount of insulin a Type 1 diabetic needed to inject. And I didn’t know that a dwindling supply of insulin would not be Rachel’s biggest or only problem – that low blood sugar with no hypo remedies available was also a serious threat as the survival situation went on.
Debbie: What would your advice be to anyone with Type 1 diabetes who might be thinking of making a trek like the one you describe in Poison Bay?
Belinda: Don’t go into the wilderness with a deranged murderer.😀
Debbie:I really enjoyed Poison Bay, and would have done even if it wasn’t helping raise awareness of the challenge of living with Type 1 diabetes. What are your future plans for writing novels? And do they include Type 1 diabetes?
Belinda: I’m currently working on Venom Reef: Wild Crimes #2. This time my two journalists are heading to a remote tropical island on Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef to make a documentary. (A rather less gruelling research trip for me this time!) Groundbreaking medical research collides with terrorism and greed, and… well… let’s say it’s not the best holiday they’ve ever had!
If you’d like to learn more about what it’s like to live with Type 1 diabetes in your family, you might like to read my slim memoir, Coming To Terms With Type 1 Diabetes, available as an ebook or paperback.