Posted in Personal life, Writing

Kitten Therapy

During the early part of lockdown, the Tetbury Advertiser furloughed itself for a couple of issues (May and June). With content that is events-led, reporting on recent events and anticipating imminent ones, it seemed a sensible step. However, it’s good to see it return for its summer issue (a joint July/August edition, for which I wrote this piece about our new kittens, acquired just before we began to self-isolate. As ever, you can read the whole issue online – here’s the link for the July/August edition

(I also wrote about kittens for the June issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, and I posted that article on my blog here last month- so apologies if this sounds familiar!)

There’s nothing like the acquisition of kittens to lift the spirits, and ours couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

We arranged in February with the Stroud Cats’ Protection League to adopt a pair of boys as soon as they were old enough to leave their mother. This took us to Saturday 21st March, a pleasingly auspicious date on two counts: the first day of spring and my parents’ anniversary (67 years and counting).

Silver Linings

Back in February, little did we know that collecting the kittens from the kindly foster-carer would be our last family outing before lockdown. Ever the optimist, I soon realised that enforced confinement at home would give us the best chance of bonding with our new arrivals, especially for our daughter, who would otherwise have been at school all day.

photo of Bertie with his head in a mug of tea
The kittens share many of our simple domestic pleasures. Bertie is especially enjoys fishing for teabags.

Once home, inspecting the adoption papers revealed another good omen: the kittens had been born on my birthday. This happened also to be the date our senior cat, Dorothy, a former stray, adopted us seven years ago. We called her Dorothy after the character in the Wizard of Oz who finds herself unexpectedly far from home. We named Bertie and Bingo, both boys, after the skittish, privileged and generally irresponsible young men in PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories.

Dorothy, my personal assistant at my writing desk – where the kittens are not allowed, for fear of the ensuing chaos

Bertie and Bingo, after spending the first nine weeks of their lives in a pen (albeit an ample one), were initially content to keep to one room in our house. Since my husband built his room a couple of years ago, we had, with a singular lack of imagination, referred to it simply as “the extension”. Now I think of it as The Drones’ Club, which is where Bertie Wooster and chums take their meals in the Jeeves novels, often leaving chaos in their wake.

Advised to keep the kittens indoors for a couple of weeks, we eventually let them into our enclosed garden. We kept them on tiny harnesses to slow them down until they’d got their bearings. Bertie and Bingo do everything at high speed, unlike our senior cat, Dorothy, who lopes around languidly like the Pink Panther.

kittens curled up asleep in base of plant pot
In their early days, the kittens moved so fast it was hard to get a photo that was not blurred – until they were asleep.

Off the Leash

After a few days we allowed them to roam at will, gradually expanding their territory and surprising us with their feats of athleticism. They share a talent for scaling vertical walls with the power and grace of Spiderman. Bingo has proven a dab paw at swingball, which he sees as a scaled-up version of their scratching post, which happens to be topped by a ball on a string. Bertie prefers the trampoline, climbing to the top of the netting surround with ease.

photo of kitten in tree
Bingo and Bertie both love to climb the fruit trees in our cottage garden

It’s only when one of the kittens tries to squeeze into the cardboard box that used to be big enough for both of them that we realise how much they have grown. I haven’t yet dared step on the bathroom scales to see whether lockdown has had the same effect on me.

(The next issue of the Tetbury Advertiser will be out in September, as they also publish a double issue for July/August.)


Cats and Kittens in my Stories…

cover of Stranger at St Bride's
Spot the cat! McPhee appears on the cover of both my St Bride’s novels

As a cat lover, it’s perhaps inevitable that cats and kittens feature in my novels, often serving to move the plot along and adding new dimensions to the characters.

In Springtime for Murder, the fifth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Sophie acquires a kitten, while investigating the strange goings-on at the Manor House, where Bunny Carter, a sparky elderly lady, lives with a houseful of cats and her cat-averse daughter.
(Buying links: buy the ebook online herebuy the paperback online here, or order from your local bookshop quoting ISBN  978-1911223344.)

In Stranger at St Bride’s, the first in my St Bride’s School series, McPhee, the headmistress’s cat and constant companion, joins forces with Gemma to try to drive away the unwelcome stranger, with comical results.
(Buying links: Buy the ebook online, buy the paperback online  or order from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 979 19 11 223 597.)

(I’ve just realised that in both cases the cats are black – I suppose that’s what comes of writing mystery stories!)

 

 

 

Posted in Reading

Reading Tag #1: In Which Robinson Crusoe is “It”

As a long-standing Desert Island Discs fan, I can’t help speculating Crusoe’s choice of music

If you’ve ever looked something up on Wikipedia, I bet you’ve found yourself clicking on a link in one article that takes you to another. Then in the second article, you find another that leads you to a third… and before you know it, an hour’s flown by.

It’s especially easy to play reading tag online like this, where hotlinks provide easy stepping stones. Playing the same game with physical books requires more planning and patience, but I still find it hard to resist.

The most recent bout for me took Daniel Defoe‘s novel Robinson Crusoe as its starting point. To mark its three hundredth birthday, we chose it earlier this year as our Book of the Month at the BBC Radio Gloucestershire Book Club, hosted by Dominic Cotter as part of his lunchtime show, with Caroline Sanderson and me as his regular panel.

This wonderful 1964 children’s television series is now available to buy as a DVD

I’d read Robinon Crusoe at university and really enjoyed it, as well as Defoe’s Moll Flanders, but that was long enough ago for me to have forgotten most of the content. To be honest, my most vivid memories of the story stemmed from the old French television series, dubbed into English, which made a strong impression on everyone of my vintage who saw it, with its stirring theme music (do click the link to listen!) and compelling narrative, mostly true to the original novel.

Robinson Crusoe…

For a three-hundred-year-old novel, it was surprisingly accessible. Written in the voice of Crusoe, the novel fooled many of its early readers into thinking it was a memoir. As well as the familiar story of his shipwreck and solitary status on the island for most of his stay, there is wrapped around it a substantial tale of how he came to go to sea in the first place, including an earlier adventure along the coast of Africa, and the saga of his journey home. Rereading it now, I found it compelling and intriguing, although as a twenty-first century reader, his condescending attitude to non-Europeans jars.

… and Other Castaways

Hearing the Book Club broadcast, my author friend Edward James recommeded a new non-fiction book to complement it: Crusoe Castaways and Shipwrecks in the Perilous Age of Sail by Mike Rendell. On request, the publisher, Pen and Sword, kindly sent me a review copy.

Tales of real-life castaways and shipwrecks

The book was a pleasure to hold as I read it – it felt like a luxury item. Here’s how I reviewed it on Amazon UK:

This is a beautifully presented book, the cover immediately getting you into the frame of mind for the era that it describes. I had it recommended to me after reading Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”, which is, as the title suggests, the jumping off point for this guide to the real Crusoe (and Defoe), other castaways of the era, and victims of shipwrecks, some famous, some infamous, some little known but worth knowing about.

It’s a very readable guide for the casual reader, as well as for serious historians, with a high level of detail about the various journeys. The author’s style is personal and personable, authoritative without ever being stuffy.

Having read it, I realise that Crusoe was not untypical of this dangerous age, and reading about the hazards of the journeys even when plain sailing (the nutrition, the piracy, the mutinies) made me wonder that anyone arrived at their destination intact at all.

This would be a good gift for anyone interested in Robinson Crusoe and Defoe in particular, or in historical sea voyages in general. My only criticism is that the captions on the very attractive colour plates, which added atmosphere to the narrative, were absurdly short. There is a list of image acceditation at the back, but I thought it would have made more sense to add this detail to each picture, rather than have the reader turning back and forth between the plates and the text. Otherwise, an engrossing read and aesthetically enjoyable too.

… including a Castaway Cat

At around the same time, by chance I cam across another Crusoe-inspired book, (and goodness knows, he’s inspired plenty of spin-offs over the years, from The Swiss Family Robinson to Lost in Space). Visiting the fabulous Old Station Pottery and Bookshop in Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, I spotted The Nine Lives of Island Mackenzie by Ursula Moray Williams, its cover featuring an Edward Ardizzone illustration referencing Robinson Crusoe.

A heartwarming castaway tale for all ages

Ardizzone’s evocative line drawings are scattered throughout Moray Williams’ gentle and witty text, intended as a chapter book for younger readers, but a delight to Crusoe fans of any age, especially if they also love cats! Not wishing to spoil the plot of this delightful read, suffice to say there are plenty of parallels to Defoe’s story, as well as a satisfying ending.

Over to You

So now I’m all Crusoed out – but feel free to share via the comments box news of your own reading tag adventures.

I wonder how many degrees of separation there are between books? I’d love to know!

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Posted in Personal life, Writing

She Stoops to Conkers*

This post first appeared in the November 2018 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News

(Photo of conkers by Dawid Zawila via Unsplash.com)

While I was growing up in a suburb where many roads were lined with horse chestnut trees, playing conkers was one of my favourite autumn games. I still can’t walk past a freshly fallen conker without picking it up and slipping it into my pocket. My grown-up excuse for collecting conkers and taking them home is that they’re an effective spider deterrent.

Nature’s timing is perfect, because the conker harvest coincides with the mass migration of spiders from our gardens into our homes. Escaping from the chill and damp outdoors is the arachnid equivalent of flying south for the winter.

However, I’ve just heard on the radio that ingesting conkers can be harmful to dogs. They contain a toxin called aesculin, also present in every other part of the horse chestnut tree, which can make dogs very ill and in rare cases prove fatal.

On his podcast, the radio presenter, Rhod Gilbert, wondered how to reconcile his arachnophobic wife who fills their house with conkers and a pet dog who perceives every conker to be a dog toy. How to keep both of them happy and safe?

My cat Dorothy suggests the answer. All summer she’s been snacking on flies and moths. Rhod just needs to follow her example and cut out the middleman (the conker).

If he trains his dog to eat spiders, his problem will be solved.

For more information about dogs and conkers, visit: www.bluecross.org.uk/pet-advice/conkers-and-dogs.

(photo of 1905 performance – public domain)

* With apologies to 18th century Irish playwright Oliver Goldsmith for repurposing the title of his excellent and very funny play, She Stoops to Conquer.


Meanwhile in other news…

cover of Springtime for Murder

I’ve just launched Sophie Sayers’ fifth Village Mystery,
Springtime for Murder,
now available in paperback and ebook.

 

cover of Murder in the Manger

If it’s a more seasonal read that you’re after,
check out her third adventure,
Murder in the Manger
a cheery antidote to festive stress.

 

Coming in 2019:

  • Murder Your Darlings (Sophie Sayers #6)
  • Flat Chance (Staffroom at St Bride’s #1)
Posted in Personal life, Writing

Spring Fever

It seems appropriate to share my post for the March issue of the Tetbury Advertiser on the first official day of spring – also my beloved parents’ 65th wedding anniversary. Such a romantic and positive day for them to have got married, I always think.

cover of the March issue of the Tetbury AdvertiserAdmiring the green shoots of daffodils popping up in my front garden, I’m struck by their similarity to post-hibernation grizzly bears. Both spend the winter tucked away, hidden and forgotten, in a kind of cocoon: bulb and cave, respectively. Seeing them emerge in spring is enough to warm the heart of any mortal, though round these parts you’re more likely to spot the former than the latter.

A friend advises me that narcissi contain a natural form of antifreeze. I bet hibernating bears would like some of that, but unfortunately it’s not in a form that’s accessible to them or to us. Otherwise I could have offered a bunch of daffodils to my husband for his car radiator when its burst hose deposited all his antifreeze on the M4 yesterday.

Fur Fury

Further signs of spring at Young Towers are the little tufts of white, orange and black fur scattered throughout the house. Unlike me, Dorothy, our calico cat, takes no heed of the maxim “Cast not a clout till May be out” (or, possibly may with a little m, as in the flower, depending on which version of the saying you prefer). Dorothy starts ditching her winter coat as soon as the days are noticeably longer. By mid-February, she’s kitten-skittish, despite her middle age.

blue sky over the rec
Big spring skies above the Hawkesbury Recreation Ground

I know the feeling. A single day of forget-me-not blue skies and bright sunshine is enough to infect me with spring fever even in stubbornly sub-zero temperatures. That is, until I stumble across an article identifying this notional affliction as a tangible, physical and serious illness. Common around March in pre-industrial times, “spring disease” was characterised by muscle weakness, wounds that wouldn’t heal, and loose teeth. It could even prove fatal.

C Fever

dorothy looking out of the window at the snow
“Ok, who’s hidden the spring flowers?”

Although the article is hardly ideal reading the night before a dental appointment, I brace myself to investigate. The disease turns out to be scurvy, caused by a winter diet low in fresh fruit and vegetables. By early spring, the only sources of Vitamin C were vegetables that didn’t rot during storage, such as leeks and cabbages, and, once we’d discovered them, potatoes. Given my impending trip to the dentist, I concoct a supper consisting entirely of all three vegetables, just to be on the safe side.

Confident that I can now enjoy my spring fever without losing my teeth, I step out next morning into a crisply cold but sunny day, ready to visit the dentist. But unlike Dorothy, I keep my winter coat on.


Cover of Murder by the Book
Coming this spring: the fourth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery

You’ll find a further taste of spring in the fourth novel in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, Murder by the Book, to be launched at the FREE Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on Saturday 21st April. The ebook is already available to pre-order at a special earlybird price of just 99p/99c here: viewbook.at/MurderByTheBook

 

 

Posted in Personal life, Reading, Travel, Writing

A Holiday from Housework

cat sitting on cushion
“Don’t you dare pack my favourite cushion!”

You can tell a holiday is looming in our household when the place starts to look unusually tidy. As if the effort of planning and packing for a trip away is not enough, I pile on the pressure by insisting that the house is spick and span before we go. It never looks tidier than the day we go away.

“Who are you tidying it for, burglars?” asked a friend, curious as to why I was in such a frenzy one morning.

Actually, it’s for me – so that when I walk back into the house on our return, I think “Ooh, how lovely – I’d forgotten how nice our house is!” rather than “Oh god, what a mess”.

Until now, I’d always assumed that when our cat Dorothy regards us with suspicion as we prepare for our holidays, it is because she equates the act of packing with being abandoned her for a fortnight, and she’s anxious as to whether she’ll get her daily biscuit ration. But as I cleared a longstanding collection of my husband’s shoes from the bottom of the stairs this afternoon, it occurred to me that she’s probably just bewildered by so much sudden change to her territory.

I also hit upon a simple way to keep a tidy house all year round: I just need to go on holiday more often.

(This post was originally written for the August issue of Hawkesbury Parish News.)

Cover of the paperback showing blurb
Need some light reading for your own summer holiday? My collection of very short stories is perfect for whiling away time in airports and on the beach. Available to order from all good bookshops, and from the usual online stores.