Friday, 12 August 2016

For The Love of Cheese

My favourite cheese in all the world is Pecorino.  The fact that I can name an Italian cheese as my first cheese love is entirely due to my university boyfriend, Andrew.  He also introduced my very na├»ve South African butt to pubs and Belgian fruit beer, but that’s a whole other blog post.

The main point of this post is that I regularly have wedges of stinky weird cheeses taking up space in my fridge.  They don’t last in the fridge for very long as cheese with a piece of fruit is a regular snack when I’m lounging on the sofa watching a box set or two.

Even before I met Andrew I liked a bit of cheese.  But if you’d asked me about varieties I would have looked at you with a blank stare.  In South Africa I ate of the cheese.  Of course I did, but it was mainly of the Cheddar and Edam sort.  Red Leicester was introduced into the repertoire once I came to the UK.  I didn’t really know there was much else.  

Please remember, before crossing an ocean to my adventurous life in the UK I lived in the land of big meat and any other food group was categorised as a mere condiment.

But after I met Andrew one of our Sunday brunch rituals involved lounging for long periods of time in The Mark Addy Pub which is located on the banks of the river Irwell.  There they served sizable chunks of any cheese you could care to name with hunks of tasty bread and heaped spoonfuls of chutneys and pickles to boot.

Suddenly, along with intermittent bouts of studying, my life was full of blue veins, oozing Bries, Stinky Bishops and a whole lot more.  I’ve always been of the opinion when it comes to food that one should taste first and ask questions later.  This particular brand of cavalier food negotiation skill has led to some truly yeugh moments but equally to other mouth-watering moments of taste-bud bliss.  So all in all it’s a tack which has led me down new food routes I’m very happy to have taken.

And with my taste tour of cheeses within the walls of the Mark Addy overlooking a rather splendid view of the river I might add, I learned to love the cheese.  I care not for all those health warnings about high cholesterol.  I am a health food rebel and proud to be so.

So I was heartily pleased when I attended a wedding earlier this year to see that the wedding cake was made up of several wheels of delicious cheese.  Now these are my kind of people I thought and this wedding cake only serves to confirm that.

There is a belief held in some cultures that one meets and interacts with certain people so they can enhance certain aspects of one’s life and hopefully you do the same for them.  Well, university boyfriend Andrew – you’ve certainly done that for me with regards to cheese.  So, thank you, thank you, thank you.

Some out there may think this a trivial thing.  But opening up to something as simple as a new cheese is opening up the possibility of new tastes to savour in life itself.  So my advice: try new things people and see what the world has to offer.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Character: The Peripherals

This is the final instalment of posts about my writing process.  So last but not least I'm focusing on my peripheral characters.

It seems wrong to name these characters such: marginal, outlying, minor.  Because they are far from it.  Often they are integral to the further development of the protagonist and serve as strong a role as the antagonist.

My list of subsidiary characters will seem strange to some of you.  But what my protagonist requires I write to accommodate that need.  So they range from aunts, brothers, fathers and magical realms to animals.  Here they are in all their glory:

Roxanne, Francesca and Thorin (Sharp Dark Things)
Bruno Kiefer (Sharp Dark Things)
Faetaera (Sharp Dark Things)
Arthur Deed (Palindrome)
Horatio Luther Henry (Of Dragons & Witches series)
Jinx & Snookie (Of Dragons & Witches series)
Chisanda (Where Rainbows Hide)
Marco Zeppo (Where Rainbows Hide & When Rainbows Cry)

In Sharp Dark Things: Roxanne, Francesca and Thorin could almost be protagonists in their own right.  As Alanna’s mother, Roxanne’s death is required or there would be no story.  Roxanne’s sister, Francesca is integral to the plot as she is a character who both hinders and helps Alanna in equal measure.  Alongside Francesca I needed a character who would explain why Francesca shuts her life up in a box and so her twin Thorin was created. 

The creation of one character can at times produce the need for another character.  This is not always the case as I sometimes keep them in a coma in the backstory so they never get into the book itself.  But at other times the character forces their way into the plot.  This was indeed the case with Bruno.

He is Alanna’s father and comes with his own set of issues which could be a novella in their own right.  I wanted Alanna to have a complicated relationship with her father which would explain the absence of a male role model in her life.  While Alanna’s day to day existence is peopled with strong women, her fantasy world is filled with all manner of creatures: male, female and other.  There are correlations to my own life here.  Growing up, my world was full of such Amazonian women.  But I was nevertheless aware of the diversity around me.  It has been absorbed into my writing via my fantasy creations.

Bruno however, is not a good father.  This is not a reflection on my dad.  In fact, Arthur Deed and Horatio Henry are much more like him.  Arthur is my dad in his non-receptive moods when he couldn’t be bothered to understand why the teenage me was crying on my mother’s shoulder over a broken love affair.  Horatio however, is my dad’s unfailing support of my life decisions, his deep love for me – which I have never doubted – his kindness, his gentleness and incredible sense of humour.

Other subsidiary characters are born out of my love for subjects or things.  So as an animal lover it seemed only fitting that at some point one or two would creep into my work.  In childhood I had a little Pekinese called Snookie who apparently shared my cot, bottle and pacifier.  From stories told by family members, we were inseparable.  So his literary counterpart has made an appearance in my Dragons & Witches series.  I’ve changed the breed to a terrier but the cheeky personality remains the same.

It seemed unfair to have a dog in the mix without the assistance of a supporting cat character.  So Jinx is in these stories to serve as Kastaspella’s pet.  But I also wanted to move away from the run of the mill narrators.  Having owned both cats and dogs I also thought it would be fun to illustrate the differences between their personalities.  I was further inspired by a short piece Romi wrote on Wattpad.  I hope she doesn’t mind that I’ve taken her idea and run away with it.

My strangest yet most wonderful character thus far has been Faetaera.  It is the magical realm which features in Sharp Dark Things.  The first character I met from Faetaera was a pixie called Sprax.  Once he launched himself at me, I was forced to create a world for him to inhabit.  So Faetaera came into existence.  It is still a realm in progress as it is a fantasy world and these, as you well know, are in constant flux.

While you would think the characters in my science fiction books would be equally as unusual as my fantasy ones, this is not entirely so.  Yes, Chisanda is a genetically engineered chimpanzee with a human splice in her DNA but Marco Zeppo is not unusual.  The creation of Chisanda came about because I love apes, specifically orang-utans, gorillas and chimpanzees.  I always turn to what I know and love when I write.  I hope this serves to give the characters fullness.

Marco’s character is another example of someone who goes through trials and tribulations but comes out good in the end.  This is because I truly believe we can throw off adversity and be the best possible us there is.

As with every character I write, even my marginal characters are imbued with the personalities of the people around me, whether they are loved ones, enemies or merely passers-by.  I am always watching, listening, absorbing.  Sometimes I’m not even aware I’ve done it until I start writing and a character emerges on the page.

This is how my characters come into being and I know no other way. 

So I apologise to all those who know me.  If you believe you see yourselves or fragments of your personalities in my stories, I promise, I always change names to protect the innocent.  And sometimes, even the guilty.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Character: The Antagonists

Now it's back to writing about my writing process and it's time to focus on the antagonists I write.

It seems I don’t mind having male and female antagonists even though I’ve plumped so heavily for females in the protagonist camp.

Robert Deed (Six Dead Men)
Terence Ire (Six Dead Men)
Zaq (Where Rainbows Hide)
Irina Bushka (Where Rainbows Hide)
The Authorities (When Rainbows Cry)
Kastaspella aka Jocasta Incantata (Of Dragons & Witches series)
Grief/Brairton (Sharp Dark Things)

Robert Deed’s name in this list may well surprise you.  Let me explain.  To begin with, his main aim is to prove Madison Bricot guilty of her boyfriend’s murder.  The twists and turns of the plot however mean he ends up sharing protagonist status with Madison.  He ultimately has too sound a nature to be the villain and his role shifts to that of the main romantic interest.  But then, that was my aim all along, to trick the reader into thinking he was the enemy.

It is in fact Terence Ire who is the true villain of Six Dead Men.  He and Robert are two sides of the same coin.  I wanted a character that shared many of Robert’s traits but had a rough time in life and chose to use that as an excuse for his future actions.  He is a character most definitely born out of all the villains I’ve encountered in the crime dramas I watch on telly.  The list is endless.  I won’t go into it here.  It is a little worrying that I did not find Terence hard to write.

In my Rainbow series of science fiction novels, Zaq is a short lived antagonist but is crucial to plot development.  I liked the idea of having a completely obnoxious and unlikeable child genius character who Neera and her friend Chi have to tussle with on their journey.  So out popped Zaq.  He was fun to write and I could be as outrageous with him as I liked.

But he had to die because waiting in the wings was Irina Bushka.  With this character I wanted someone whose outer beauty belied the ugliness inside.  She has no terrible backstory to justify her actions.  Much like the Stazi or Mafia or Nazis, she does what she does and enjoys it far too much.  As with Terence Ire, I found writing Irina very easy.  There may well be a cruel streak lurking at the centre of my being which emerges whenever I get to write these characters.

In the second book of my Rainbow Series I opt to have the government as the antagonist.  This is most certainly born out of the fact that currently, governments around the world are making decisions I find difficult to fathom.  It’s my way of crying out at the injustice heaped upon the average person on a daily basis.  Through the book I can win out against the authorities and show there is always an alternative solution if only they’d give it a try.

Okay, rant over.

Now on to my dastardly witch Kastaspella.  Unlike Irina Bushka, Kastaspella most definitely has a backstory which is behind the way she behaves as she does.  She is the embodiment of all the young people I meet who are damaged by the circumstances they encounter on a daily basis.  Some of them find a way out of the madness and invent new lives for themselves.  Others do not.  Thankfully Kastaspella’s character has a way out and friends she is yet to make to help her along the way.

My final antagonist is grief.  The reason for this is most definitely the death of my parents and dealing with the emotions and fallout of it.  I began writing the book shortly after my mother died.  It is no accident Sharp Dark Things has a lot of fantasy content.  

Whenever I’m feeling particularly low, I turn to this genre for solace.  It takes me away from painful thoughts and the decision making process which becomes a person’s life when a much relied on love one dies.

In the fantasy (Faetaera) sections of the novel, grief takes on physical form in the shape of another extremely cruel and vicious creature – Brairton.  He is a cat-fairy hybrid.  I chose this shape for him because cats have an intrinsic cruelty.  We see it in the way they play with animals they’ve caught before they finally eat them.

All these characters share the desire to come between the protagonists and their ultimate goals.  They are there because without them the protagonists would not have the possibility of overcoming adversity.  When I write antagonists, my protagonists are sitting on my shoulder, whispering.  And whenever they shout an objection to my creation I know I’m on the right track because my antagonists are there to push the protagonists’ buttons and force them on to newer and better things.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Guest Post by Anna Caig

By day, Anna Caig manages the media relations team at Sheffield City Council, walks up hills in the Hope Valley and takes care of her two amazing and very cheeky children. But by night, she loses herself in the world of reading, and writing about reading, that is Murder Underground Broke The Camel's Back, her beloved book review blog.

 How Murder Underground Broke The Camel's Back

In March 2015 I visited the amazing Salts Mill bookshop in Saltaire, and bought Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay. It looked fantastic, so up my street it is untrue.

But I took it home, and it joined a shelf of ‘to read’ books. Which was just one of many shelves of 'to read' books.

I have a house full of books. Bookshelves in nearly every room, crammed with hundreds and hundreds of books, some of which I have read and loved (and would happily read again), and many of which I have never read but thoroughly intend to (in some cases I have been thoroughly intending for up to 20 years, yes 20). Books that I read and wouldn’t read again, I give to a charity shop. But in my last ‘really ruthless’ clear out, I managed to get rid of six.

But still I was buying more. And more.

I realised that day that it had to stop. Murder Underground broke the camel's back. I resolved to read the books on my shelves, and only the books on my shelves. And my beloved blog was born.

The original plan for the blog was to give focus and structure to my attempt to read the house dry, and to provide an incentive to keep to my self-imposed book buying ban. I review each book I read with a non-spoilery post not just on its contents, but also any musings it provokes.

But over the past 14 months or so, my blog has become much more than this. It is a celebration of one of the most enriching parts of my life. An exploration of the many ways that the books I read impact on the life I live. In just one year, I reduced the amount of meat I eat; I gave to different charities; I survived a mini mid-life crisis; I lost some of my greatest heroes, but reflected on and reaffirmed the best of what they taught me; I laughed my head off, and cried several rivers. All as a result, direct or indirect, of reading these books.

And… have I kept to the vow? Well, the answer to that is of course is a big resounding no.

But I have only bought 6 books in the last 14 months (although I have borrowed many more than that), and I have made inroads into the 'to read' pile for the first time in many years. By my conservative estimate, I will have read everything in my house in 16 years' time! Not too bad.

Rae has asked me to chose the five top reads of the blog so far. Which is spectacularly hard, as I have read some absolute crackers. But these are my recommendations for you.

Possibly cheating as this a trilogy, but these are the books that I was reading when I started the blog. All three are incredible, and the final installment, Monsters Of Men, is a rollercoaster of constant action bringing it all to a spectacular conclusion.

An absolute no-brainer. This is my favourite book of all time, ever. I reread this in January when I took my daughter to Haworth for the first time, and as always I got something new from it.

I feel like I should have a claxon to sound when I read a book this fantastic by a new (to me) writer. There is a huge amount going on in Boy, Snow, Bird. Oyeyemi’s writing is so good that she can take on huge themes, and make them feel entirely personal and encapsulated in her quite frankly outstanding characters and their experiences.

Yes, I loved Go Set A Watchman. I know not everyone felt the same, but I absolutely loved it. More than anything though, I loved the event that the publishing of this book became: it was shocking; it was exciting; it was controversial; it was emotional. It was a giant kick in the teeth for anyone who says the book is a dying medium.

This book is wonderful. It feels like this generation’s A Christmas Carol, even dare I say it this generation’s nativity story. It is at once bang up to date and incisively political, whilst also feeling utterly timeless.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Exhibition Impressions

So Lambeth Council have presented an ‘exhibition’ of their plans for the future of Carnegie Library in the church hall of St Saviour’s on Herne Hill Road.  The word exhibition has been misused in my opinion.  The council have provided the community with poster boards which contain little more information than the leaflets of spin regularly pushed through my door.  So no change there.  I cannot even bring myself to provide a photograph of their display as it is so pathetic in my view.  But if you really want to see it you can take a look at the great pictures on Brixton Buzz.

Evidence my response card actually exists
To say I am angry about this is an understatement.  After all, it’s what I’ve come to expect from this borough’s handling of the whole abominable situation.  I’m now so distrustful of Lambeth and how they deal with the community that I even resorted to photographing my response card so that I have a record that it actually exists.

To compound my anger even further, earlier I read a Brixton Blog post by a young mum which encapsulates one of the problems I anticipated happening to the most vulnerable and isolated members of our borough.  For this young mother, Carnegie library was a lifeline.  And while Lambeth claims there are other libraries available to Carnegie users, it is plain to see that it is not working out as Lambeth envisaged.  They are merely alienating their voters and adding pressure to lives which are already heavy with the burdens of modern living.  

In response to Lambeth’s utter foolishness, the community are rallying round and have created a Pop Up Carnegie Library, hosting a variety of fantastic events during the two days of the ‘exhibition’.  This is being held in Ruskin Park.  If you’re in the area why no pop into the park to check it out.  Take the opportunity to do the user survey explaining exactly what you want from your local library and join in with the many activities on offer.

Our beloved Toot Toot Wendy has penned a poem about her feelings and has kindly consented to me posting it.  So here, in the words of Wendy are a summing up of what I personally feel about this whole mess.

Once Upon A Time

Above the hoots of cars
I stand and dream of revolution
Whilst tears of rain
Wash out the anger
And then someone hugs me
And warmth returns
To right a wrong made redundant

The gates of wrath dismantle
Those locked doors of insurrection
Baring faces young and old
Pressed against its steely bars

A saxophone sweetly soars
Alert to sounds of hope
Dispelling darkening sombre days
Unfolding odd planes of peace

Between one protest and the next
Pockets of life will intervene
From school to work to painted scenes
Reliving that which went before
To what is now an interlude

Whatever happens will be so
Whoever stays whoever goes
Somewhere sometime passers-by
Will stop and wonder what was there
In that space now unfulfilled

Only a stepping stone this verse of mine
A pause before the bigger size
Now a walkway made from weeds
Reaches up to catch the breeze
Wafting words from books to leaves
Uttering, muttering wreaths indeed

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Carnegie Refugees 3

It seems a lifetime ago that we were forced out of our beloved Carnegie Library but it’s only been 2½ months.  We’ve more or less settled into The Cambria but it is not ideal for our club as it is first and foremost a pub.  This was made very evident when a session had to be hastily rehomed in lead tutor Caroline’s house (living room, garden and kitchen) as the pub was having its floors re-sanded.  Our residency at the pub is further threatened by the arrival of Euro 2016.  Then of course, once the football is done and dusted Wimbledon will strawberry and cream its way onto the scene.

We always knew The Cambria could only ever be a temporary solution and Caroline has been searching out alternative venues.  The best options have been narrowed down to a wonderful room in The Camberwell Bus garage or St Faith’s on Red Post Hill.  So we conducted our very own version of the IN/OUT campaign and voted for one of the venues.

Sophisticated voting
system employed -
written on the back
of an old envelope to
avoid vote rigging

It was neck and neck between the two venues for quite some time but due to late arrivals (Sean & Suzie) the vote shifted at around 7:48pm just before the match between Belgium and Italy kicked off.   So after the votes were counted (I assure you there was no vote rigging whatsoever and we have photographic evidence to prove it) St Faith’s won out as our new venue.

During all the disruption the students have been remarkably resilient and are managing to focus despite the many distractions around us.  The learning ethos still burns bright at Ruskin Readers regardless of where we are forced to park our pencils and worksheets.

Victoria Warne of LCF, the group who gave us our grant, has also been hugely supportive and the Adult Literacy Fund donors are insisting on aiding us further until all our rehoming problems are resolved.

To all those who have helped with our rehoming issues: The Cambria, Simon Parham for his generous donation towards rehoming costs, The Adult Literacy Fund donors, Julie Parham for finding the bus garage, Amanda Edwards for suggesting St Faith’s – we cannot thank you enough.

Simon Parham presenting his very generous donation to Caroline at The Cambria

Friday, 10 June 2016


So, it’s six months into this crazy Goodreads 100 book challenge I set myself and I’m happy to report that I'm now two books ahead.  This is largely due to the fact I’ve also been reading children’s books at breakfast.  Without this saving grace I believe I’d be whimpering in shame at this point. 

“But is this reading of children’s books thing allowed?” I hear you all asking.

The simple answer to that is:


As I work with children, primarily instructing them on how to improve their creative writing, it is only fitting that I check out the books deemed to be totally read WORTHY by the kids and also by those who reckon they’re in the know.

It will come as no great shock to you that I have disagreed with the Know-It-Alls from time to time but NEVER with the kids.

However, this post is not about that.  What I would like to do now is give you a run down of the 5 books I’ve found most enjoyable thus far.  You would assume there’d be at least 10 considering I’ve read 42.*  But no, I’m pretty fussy about what counts as tops.  So here are 5 of my favourite challenge reads:

At number 5 is Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell.  A book makes it into my top 5 if I want to keep turning the pages and if I want to read more of that author’s work.  This is indeed the case with this one.  It first came to my attention because of the BBC series of the same name and like the series, it did not disappoint.  I was further thrilled to discovered that the entire series was being re-aired on the Freeview Drama channel.  Guess how I’ve been spending my Sunday afternoons.  

Trust me, with the words British and Summer not always syncing together very well it’s always advisable to have alternative Sunday afternoon plans other than that barbecue you were planning on.

The Savage by David Almond, beautifully illustrated by Dave McKean, is number 4.  This book had a raw quality which I feel sums up the sense of loss and frustration when dealing with death.  It touched the side of me which is still coming to terms with my dad’s death three years ago.  The sombre colours of the illustrations capture the wild nature of loss and how it affects our thought processes.  A sad but brilliant book.

Saffy’s Angel has jumped into the number 3 spot because it made me chuckle throughout the reading of it.  One section in particular had me in stitches.  I highly recommend it as it looks at how a family can appear to be completely dysfunctional while loving each other deeply and supporting one another to the max.  It’s a quirky, fun read and should not be missed.

Sunita’s Secret is a great little book about how life can knock you down but it’s up to you to get up again and make the most of what you’ve got.  So it thoroughly deserves to be at number 2.  I thought the characters were well realised and the real life situation was tackled with empathy and great finesse.  Another thing I particularly liked about this book was its message about the importance of little kindnesses.

It will come as no surprise that Pratchett has made it into my number 1 spot.  Snuff is chock full of world issues and is an easy one to love.  But what I relish most of all is the way Pratchett looks at preconceived ideas of a species (in this instance goblins) and turns it on its head.  The topic of slavery and a group of individuals being treated as less than others is a serious one, yet Pratchett makes time to litter this novel with humour that is insightful and spot on.

So there you have it, my five top reads so far.  Please note: this is subject to change the more books I read for this challenge.  If time allows I’ll do another top five in a few months to see if my list has changed much.

At present the thing I’m enjoying most is reading tons of children’s fiction I’ve not read before.  Getting my students to recommend reads has been brilliant.  If you ever thought young people don’t have a clue about what makes a good read then you’re sorely mistaken.  Thank you to all my students for the suggested reading material but in particular to Ari for her splendid suggestions thus far.

* which incidentally is also the answer to life, the universe and everything even though we haven’t established what the question is (if extremely confused at this point I suggest you read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for clarification)