Saturday, 13 December 2014

SANKTA LUCIA

Today is Day Fourteen of Christmas with the Crooked Cats.  It is also the feast of Santa Lucia, which has great significance in Sweden.  The date of the feast falls very close to the winter solstice - the shortest day of the year - and many believe that as the name "Lucia" means "light", the saint signifies light and hope in the darkness of a cold northern winter.

The original Lucia was born in the late third century AD in Syracuse, Sicily, at a time when Christians were forced to hide in the depths of the catacombs in order to avoid persecution.  Lucia secretly brought food to them, and to light her way through the darkness underground, she wore a crown of candles on her head so that both her hands would be free to carry the food.  The tradition of this candle crown lives on, in the way in which Lucia is commemorated today in homes and churches all over Sweden.



In the morning of December 13th the eldest daughter of the house dresses as Lucia, in a long white gown tied around the waist with a red ribbon (symbolising the saint's martyrdom).  On her head she wears a crown of fresh greenery and lighted candles. Traditionally these are real candles, but the safety-conscious might prefer to use battery-powered ones.

If "Lucia" has younger siblings these may be her attendants.  Her sisters will wear white robes with tinsel tied around their waists and heads, whilst her brothers will wear white robes and cone hats decorated with stars.  Each will carry a single candle.

The children sing the traditional Sankta Lucia song as they serve their parents a festive breakfast consisting of coffee or mulled wine, together with special buns called Lussekatter.  One of the legends of Saint Lucia is that she was blinded but her eyesight was miraculously restored, and she is often portrayed in art with her eyes on a plate.  The shape of the buns, and the stragegically-placed currants used to decorate them, represent Lucia's eyes.



If you'd like to try making some Lussekatter, here is a simple recipe.  To make twelve buns, you will need:

300 ml whole milk
1 pack (0.5g) saffron
75g unsalted butter, cut into cubes
500g strong white bread flour
100g golden caster sugar
1 sachet (7g) fast-acting yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, beaten, plus a little extra for glaze
a little oil
24 currants

Put the milk into a small pan and heat gently until it starts to steam.  Use a pestle and mortar to grind the saffron strands into a powder, and add this to the pan of milk along with the butter.  Swirl the mixture around until the butter has melted, then set aside and leave to cool until it is lukewarm to the touch.

In a large bowl mix together the flour, caster sugar, salt and yeast.  Make a well in the middle of the dry mixture, and pour in the milk mixture and the beaten egg.  Mix together to form a sticky dough, then turn out on to a floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic (this will take about ten minutes).  Put the dough into a lightly-oiled bowl and cover with oiled cling film, then leave the bowl in a warm place for about an hour, until the dough has doubled in size.

Knock back the dough and divide it into twelve equal portions.  Keep the pieces covered with oiled cling film whilst you make the rolls - this will stop the dough from drying out. Take each piece of dough in turn and roll it out into a 30cm-long strand.  Roll up one end into the middle, turn it over and roll the other end into the middle, forming the dough into an S-shape.  Put all the buns on to a large parchment-lined baking tray, lightly cover with oiled cling film, then leave them to prove until they are almost doubled in size.  In the meantime, heat the oven to 200C (180C if you have a fan oven) or Gas Mark 6.

When the buns are ready to bake, remove the cling film, brush them with beaten egg, and press a currant into the centre of each spiral.  Put the tray in the oven and bake for around 15 minutes.  Allow to cool before serving.  The buns are best eaten on the day they are made.



For a light-hearted but informative piece about the Lucia celebrations, take a look at this.









Sunday, 7 December 2014

I AM WITH YOU IN SPIRIT - a short story for Christmas

Miss Blythe, with her twinkly eyes and her wicked sense of humour, was an integral part of our Christmas past. She’d lived in the house across the road for as long as I’d been able to remember, was of indeterminate age, and had no relatives.  And as far as I could tell nobody even knew her first name, let alone anything about her past history. My Mum, whose natural generosity of spirit could never entertain the idea of anyone spending Christmas alone, always invited her to join us for Christmas dinner.

Miss Blythe was intensely grateful, and repaid Mum’s kindness in her own inimitable way. Her witty conversation was a joy as we munched the turkey and pulled the crackers.  She even managed to make the jokes sound funny.  And – as one might expect from a retired English & Drama teacher – she was an absolute whizz at Charades.  I leave you to imagine how she portrayed Nicholas Nickelby; suffice it to say that I was jolly glad I didn’t have to face her in class afterwards. She would always bring us a delicious home-made Christmas cake, together with a bottle of a strange dark purple liquid which, unfortunately, looked and smelled exactly like cough mixture. And sadly, the resemblance didn’t end there. 



The bottle was labelled, in her neat italic handwriting, “Blythe Spirit” – and the liquid was, she explained, home-made damson gin, made to her grandmother’s secret recipe. When the cake was cut we would all dutifully force down a small dram of the syrupy jungle-juice and collectively try not to wince. Miss Blythe, for some reason which we could never quite fathom, always downed hers in one gulp. The remains of the brew were then discreetly disposed of on Boxing Day. When we saw how effectively it cleaned the toilet (killing 99% of all known germs and leaving the other 1% too intoxicated to bother), we could only begin to wonder what effect it might be having on our own internal plumbing. But for Miss Blythe’s sake, we continued to pretend that we liked it.

Then, in April of last year, Miss Blythe had a fatal stroke. It was mercifully quick – the results of the post-mortem suggested that she’d probably been dead before she hit the floor – though (as is always the case with sudden death) it left the rest of us pretty shell-shocked. But that was nothing compared to the further bombshells which were to follow. We were amazed to discover that she was almost ninety, that she was a devout Roman Catholic, and that her name was Bernadette. And it transpired that apart from a modest bequest to her church, she’d left everything to Mum. 

Sorting out her stuff brought home to us just how little any of us knew about her. Indeed, it was the first time that we had even ventured beyond her front door. Once inside her house we tiptoed around and spoke in whispers, as though we were invading some kind of sacred shrine. And so it proved. On her bedside table, next to a black Bible and a rosewood rosary, stood a faded black-and-white photograph of a handsome young fellow in naval uniform. As Mum cautiously picked it up, the back of the frame came away in her hand. Tucked behind the photograph was a ruby ring and a small yellow envelope – a telegram telling of the young sailor’s death at Dunkirk. Miss Blythe would have been about twenty at the time.

It was whilst we were clearing out her cellar that we came across the two boxes, each containing twelve bottles of Blythe Spirit. None of us can remember how they subsequently ended up in our own cellar. Perhaps Mum had in mind to use the stuff as toilet-cleaner when we ran out of Domestos.

Christmas dinner last year was a much more low-key affair. The familiar conversation over the turkey seemed stilted and mechanical, we didn’t bother with crackers or Charades, and the Christmas cake came from Waitrose. A deafening silence descended as Mum half-heartedly reached for the knife to cut it. Then I heard myself say (in a voice that was clearly not my own), “What about the Blythe Spirit?”

For a long moment nobody moved – then a bottle was duly brought up from the cellar and hastily dusted off as the small glasses were once again filled up and handed out, and the contents forced down. This time there was no need to hide our distaste for the stuff – but as we collectively grimaced, the atmosphere of doom and gloom evaporated. And Miss Blythe, in our minds’ eyes downing her dram in one, was present again. The party was complete.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

SANTA'S MAGIC

Almost exactly two years ago, I met Santa. 



No, you didn’t read that wrong.  It was, truly, only two years ago. 

Let me set the scene.  It was a grey, gloomy, rainy Saturday – one of those days where you get the impression that it’s never going to get fully light – in late November 2012.  For reasons which I won’t trouble you with here, I was spending the day, on my own, in Stratford-upon-Avon. 

On a previous visit to Stratford, I’d come across a quirky little place called The Creaky Cauldron.  It’s situated in Henley Street, just a few doors down from one of Stratford’s more famous attractions, the Shakespeare Birthplace.  The Creaky Cauldron describes itself as “a wizarding world of wonder”, and anyone who loves the world of magic in general, and Harry Potter in particular, can happily pass an hour or two revelling in the place’s truly magical atmosphere.  I remembered that on my previous visit, there had been lots of fascinating exhibits in all the rooms, and I was looking forward to seeing them again. 

But on this occasion, the place had been redecorated for Christmas.  The magical themes were still there, but the exhibits were now geared much more towards the Festive Season.  Including, according to the poster outside, Santa in his grotto.

Oh well, I thought, I won’t need to bother with that part of it.

How wrong I was.  Santa, it seemed, was non-negotiable.

I’d made my way through the museum’s maze of corridors and ended up on the top floor, where a young lady was waiting at the top of the stairs.  “Once you’ve finished looking round these rooms,” she said, “I’ll take you through to see Santa.”

“Oh, thank you,” I said, trying not to sound surprised or self-conscious.

Santa himself was a kindly-looking, very well-spoken fellow with twinkly blue eyes.  He seemed not the slightest bit fazed to find that his visitor was a solitary middle-aged woman with rain-bedraggled hair and mud-splattered jeans.  (He did not, to my relief, invite me to sit on his knee.)  After we’d said “Good morning,” he asked me what I would like for Christmas.

I opened my mouth to reply.  What came out was: “I’d like to get my novel published.”

Without batting an eyelid, he answered, “What sort of novel is it?”

I told him a little about it – that it was based on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, but that in my version the story had a rather happier outcome.

“That sounds fascinating,” he said.  “Now – have you got a proofreader?  And an editor?  And have you been in contact with a publisher?”

My goodness, I thought.  I expect he gets a lot of weird requests – but what a professional-sounding answer.  Aloud  I said, “I’ve made some enquiries about that.”

“That’s good,” he said.  “It sounds as though you’re going about it the right way.  I wish you the very best of luck.  And a very merry Christmas.”

That was in 2012, and publication still seemed as far away as ever.  But less than a year later I signed a contract with a wonderful publisher , and in early 2014 my Romeo & Juliet novel, entitled The Ghostly Father, was released.  My second novel, a romantic intrigue entitled Nice Girls Don’t, was to follow a few months later.

Did Santa really work a little magic for me, back on that rainy Saturday two years ago, a mere few yards from Shakespeare’s birthplace?  

I’d certainly like to think so.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Guest of Seumas Gallacher

Today I have the honour to be the blog guest of the lovely Seumas Gallacher, where I'm talking about The Ghostly Father.  Why not hop over there and take a look?

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION - a guest post by Jane Bwye

Today I have the great pleasure of welcoming fellow Crooked Cat author Jane Bwye to my blog.  Her astonishing first novel, Breath of Africa, was nominated for The Guardian First Book Award 2013.  Today she celebrates the launch of her new novella, I Lift Up Mine Eyes.


Welcome, Jane!



Sue, thank you for having me back on this auspicious day – you talked about family histories on my blog a few weeks ago. We writers are taught to tell of what we know, and our families are ingrained into our very beings. I’ve often said that my family is my life.

And my life is a patchwork of catching up with the past. I’ve come to writing books late because of the demands of family, but along the way have stumbled upon some extraordinary icebergs.

I only met my father a couple of times. He had an Austrian surname, which changed when he became naturalised British. I’m told that General Orde Wingate is a vague ancestor. There must be a semblance of truth, because Wingate was my father’s second name. But I’m too busy to go digging.

In the year 2000 I found a half-brother (I’ll call him Jim) in Cape Town and enjoyed supper with his family. It was weird; we started arguing with each other over a triviality, just like typical siblings. He has two younger brothers living in South Africa, and we have a half-sister from yet another mother. “Our father,” as we called him, had passed away the previous year, which unsurprisingly was news to me, and then this sister appeared out of the blue…

I wondered if Jim thought she was after an inheritance, and I quickly quelled any similar thoughts he may have had about me, the first-born (I think…).

He told me that when he was twenty-one, he went on a long car drive with our father through the South African desert from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Jim had been brought up to believe he was the eldest son. They picked up a newspaper from a wayside eating place and Jim opened it as they continued their journey. Spread across the inside pages was a glamorous photograph of a woman hanging on the arm of a film star.

“Sue C-,” said Jim. “Dad – I wonder if she’s a relative of some sort…”

Our father braked hard and pulled into the side of the road. He snatched the paper from Jim’s hand and studied it.

It turned out Sue C was a half-sister, from his second wife in what was then Rhodesia. The remainder of the journey was spent in outrage and recriminations. Jim never did get on with our father. He told me as a small boy he was made to play tennis, but in a fit of temper, smashed the wooden racket over his knee and refused point blank to carry on. Our father used to attend Wimbledon every year; I now know the source of my love of this game – it must be in my blood.

The story gets weirder, but I’m not divulging any more, as the seed of another book is germinating in my mind. Truth is indeed sometimes stranger than fiction.

People ask me how much of BREATH OF AFRICA is autobiographical. I say the story is made up, but the scenes draw from my experiences in Kenya. But a close friend pursed her mouth when I told her this.

“It’s not fiction,” she said, with a knowing look. But even she cannot know everything.
Which brings me to the present. Today - Tuesday 7th October - my second book, a novella, I LIFT UP MY EYES is launched! 

There is no hint of Africa in its pages, but there is a sense of loss and frustration and an attempt at coping with some of the hard knocks which life can throw at you. There is also love lost and found, and a life-changing situation.

Here, the characters are a fictitious conglomeration of people who may have crossed the paths of my life; but who is to say how much of the emotions are mine and those of my family?

Wow, Jane - what a fascinating story!  Thank you so much for sharing it! 


 

To buy Jane’s new book, click here.

Jane Bwye’s website: www.janebwye.com

Thursday, 2 October 2014

WHITE LADY - A guest post and giveaway by Jessica Bell


Today I have a very special guest on my blog - the author Jessica Bell.  If you'd like the opportunity to win a free e-copy of her latest thriller, read on!

GUESS THE TRUE STATEMENT & WIN JESSICA BELL’S THRILLER, WHITE LADY! 






To celebrate the release of Jessica Bell’s latest novel, WHITE LADY, she is giving away an e-copy (mobi, ePub, or PDF) to the first person to correctly guess the one true statement in the three statements below. To clarify, two statements are lies, and one is true:



For the first half of the book, ...

a. Sonia never swears in the hope that she will appear more respectable.

b. Sonia never uses contractions, in the hope that she will sound more sophisticated and sane. (i.e. will not, instead of won’t)

c. Sonia tells everyone that she was born in America, and pretends to have an American accent.



What do you think? Which one is true? Write your guess in the comments, along with your email address. Comments will close in 48 hours. If no-one guesses correctly within in 48 hours, comments will stay open until someone does.



Want more chances to win? You have until October 31 to visit all the blogs where Jessica will share a different set of true and false statements on each one. Remember, each blog is open to comments for 48 hours only from the time of posting.



If you win, you will be notified by email with instructions on how to download the book.



Click HERE to see the list of blogs.



ABOUT THE BOOK:

*This novel contains coarse language, violence, and sexual themes.



​Sonia yearns for sharp objects and blood. But now that she’s rehabilitating herself as a “normal” mother and mathematics teacher, it’s time to stop dreaming about slicing people’s throats.



While being the wife of Melbourne’s leading drug lord and simultaneously dating his best mate is not ideal, she’s determined to make it work.



It does work. Until Mia, her lover’s daughter, starts exchanging saliva with her son, Mick. They plan to commit a crime behind Sonia’s back. It isn’t long before she finds out and gets involved to protect them.



But is protecting the kids really Sonia’s motive?



Click HERE to view the book trailer.

Click HERE for purchase links.






Jessica Bell, a thirty-something Australian-native contemporary fiction author, poet and singer/songwriter/guitarist, is the Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal and the director of the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek island of Ithaca. She makes a living as a writer/editor for English Language Teaching Publishers worldwide, such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, MacMillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning.



Connect with Jessica online:



Wednesday, 1 October 2014

CREATING THE CRITS - a guest post by Emma Silver

Today I have the pleasure of welcoming fellow Crooked Cat author Emma Silver to my blog.  Her latest novel, Blackbrooke III: King of Queens (the third book in her Blackbrooke trilogy) will be released on 14th October 2014.




Welcome, Emma!  Over to you...



Creating the Crits

I always wanted to write something that would scare my readers. We live in an age where very little frightens people. With the emergence of realistic video games and awesome special effects in movies, we’ve become somewhat desensitised. 

Yes, everyone’s fast to blame the hyperrealism of the media. However, I believe we’re not scared because everything has been…well, done. 

We’ve seen and read it all: ghosts, vampires, werewolves, witches etc. Is there anything left? 

Blackbrooke started out as another tale of folklore. The town was inhabited by all of the above and I wrote the whole book that way. It was only when I sent it to a prominent literary agent that it evolved into what we have now. 

Although she politely turned down the thrilling opportunity to represent me, she gave me the best constructive criticism of my life. Apparently, vampires et al equals a yawn fest in young adult horror. 

I didn’t want to go back to the drawing board, but she was right. Instead I had a good long think about my fears. 

As I child, did I believe witches hid under my bed? Were werewolves lurking at the bottom of the stairs when I turned the light off behind me? 

Of course not. So, what did scare me? 

When I woke up in the middle of the night and screamed for my parents to come, I always rambled about the same thing: 

Monsters. 

Different for every child, but every bit as scary. 

With this in mind, I created my own monsters for Blackbrooke and they became an amalgamation of everything I hated: 

Sharp teeth. Check.
Long necks. Check.
Red eyes. Check.
Hunched shoulders. Check. 

I made my own fears come to life and the reaction from the readers has been incredible. Some told me they felt genuine fear going to bed after reading the books, with others even having nightmares.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not proud of terrifying my good reader folk, but I can’t say I’m not pleased I’ve managed to reawaken the fear of the monsters under the bed. 

I sometimes wonder whether I could have evoked the same reaction if the Crits were still vampires. 

I very much doubt it. 



Blackbrooke III: King of Queens is released 14th October, courtesy of Crooked Cat Publishing.

You can follow Emma on Twitter @emma_silver or head to her blog emmasilverauthor.blogspot.co.uk.