Thursday, 21 February 2019

The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad - reviewed by Katherine Roberts

When I first saw the cover of this book, I knew I had to read it! The gorgeous orange flames, the mysterious golden horses, and the intriguing title all speak of an exotic historical setting, and possibly a bit of magic, too. As it turns out, this is historical fiction rather than fantasy, but Saviour Pirotta weaves a rich tale that brings the ancient city of Baghdad and its unfamiliar (to me) culture alive in a way that should appeal to both sets of readers.

The horsemen of the title are part of the elaborate mechanism of a water clock presented by the caliph of Baghdad Harun-al-Rashid (he of the Thousand and One Nights fame) to the Emperor Charlemagne in the eighth century. There were twelve horsemen altogether, carved out of wood and gilded, which appeared through little doors to mark the hours. But who made this fabulous clock, and whose hand carved the horsemen?

Meet young Jabir, whose father - a night fisherman on the River Tigris - has drowned in mysterious circumstances, leaving Jabir as head of the family to care for his mother and sisters.  Unfortunately, Jabir is not as good a fisherman as his father, and his skill at whittling toy animals for his younger sisters is not enough to feed the family or pay the rent when the landlord comes knocking. So Jabir sets out for Baghdad to look for work, where he is at first arrested for stealing food but then comes to the attention of the clock-maker whose task it is to fashion the famous clock that the caliph will present to the Emperor.

Charlemagne in Baghdad
by Julius Köckert - Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Together with the clock-maker's daughter Yasmina, whose sketches of the horsemen act as a guide for Jabir's work, Saviour Pirotta's young hero whittles night and day to have all twelve horsemen ready in time - only to see his hard work destroyed when the evil landlord tries to stop him from saving his family.

Rich with historical atmosphere, yet economically told, this story should both interest and excite younger readers. I could almost smell and taste the streets of eighth century Baghdad, and see the stars in the desert where Jabir seeks help from his mother's people. Saviour Pirotta is an experienced author for children and has written that rare item: an adventure story that also educates, although (as appropriate for this age group) the historical detail does not overpower the book and leaves the reader wanting more... did you know, for example, that there is such a thing as beauty contests for camels?

More details can be found on Saviour Pirotta's  website https://www.spirotta.com/books-the-golden-horsemen/

Interested readers can discover more about Charlemagne's water clock and other fantastic clocks of the Islamic golden age here:
http://muslimheritage.com/article/clocks

*
Katherine Roberts is an award-winning author of fantasy and historical fiction for young (and older) readers. See more about her work at www.katherineroberts.co.uk

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Random thoughts about dreams and writers by Sandra Horn



The poet M R peacock has talked about the creative process as arising from that part of the brain where dreams are made, and she suggested that calm and quietness are prerequisites for both. That seems to me more like day-dreaming than the dreams that come in sleep: day-dreams, the slipping of a cog in the brain towards unfocussedness,  letting thoughts drift as they will. I’ve found that story or poetry ideas sometimes float through in that pleasant, what-looks-like-idle, state. They may just be fragments that float off again and never make it into wholeness, but occasionally they grow and settle into something worth working on. My children’s story Goose Anna came from that out-of-focus state on a long motorway drive (I was a passenger, I hasten to add) with a soft-toy goose on the back seat, and picture book The Crows’ Nest formed from a chilled-out evening (with wine) in a friend’s garden, half-listening to crows gossiping in nearby trees.




Days out in the wind and sun between Keyhaven and Hurst Castle Spit, with nothing to do but stroll along the marshes or take the little ferry across have produced two poems. On the Ferry is obviously directly related to the sea, the little tethered boats with their poetic names and watching a kite-surfer soaring over us. Here’s a bit of it:

Oh, I am nudging threescore years and ten,
Slack-fleshed, stiff-jointed,
Needing to feel my feet flat on the ground;
But now I’m up there with the surfer – past him –
Riding the wind on strong and tireless arms.

The ferry chugs below.
Skugga and Sylph, Sea Eagle, Seren Wen
Clatter and tug and fret;
Sea-bound, earth-bound, while I surf the sky.

But The Name came out of the blue while we were walking; years after my last pregnancy had ended in a miscarriage, the urge to name the lost child came surging up out of the blue: 

the ache  – the need to name her, came from everywhere.
It called across the waves, sang in the salty wind,
and could not be denied. 


It was odd, inexplicable, and disturbing – why at that moment, after all this time? why there? - until I could release the tension it created by putting it into a written form.  It made me think that, sometimes at least, the creative process owes more to the strangeness of night-dreams than to the more familiar state of day-dreaming.

Sometimes it’s obvious where the issues and anxieties in the dream have come from, even though they will have been transformed by the mysterious processes involved in dreaming. On the other hand, sometimes the content of a dream is so off-the-wall that it defies understanding. In a recent Fb post by writer Katherine Langrish, she recounted an incomprehensible dream which, if I remember rightly, involved being in a railway carriage with Margaret Thatcher, papers being spilled and people arriving with chocolate cakes. Katherine could not make any sense of it – not surprisingly, perhaps. Jung’s explanation is that we dream in symbols, but that’s not much help in understanding the content unless you know what the symbols stand for. Freud translated some of them (you know, sex, penis envy...) but they are so many and so various that they mostly remain unaccounted for – although they may be very useful for writers, gleaners of odds and ends to weave into words.



I like the ‘clear store’ theory of dreams, the idea that while we sleep, our brains sift out the accumulated bits and pieces of the day and bring them to the sub-surface, where we are aware of them albeit in transformed guise, and they can then be removed to leave space for the next day’s lot. Something like that, anyway. Neil Gaiman once set a theme for a mini-opera libretto based on the idea of a Sweepers of Dreams, whose job is to ‘clear the store’. I was very taken with the idea that if the Sweepers didn’t do their job, people would be driven mad by all the swirling junk in their heads:

Sweeper:
The scrapings and the tatters of your day
The guilty thoughts that will not go away
The fury and the lust you keep inside
Your avarice, your envy, sloth and pride
Your naughty habits, secret fears, your lies
Lurking between your ears, behind your eyes,
Swirling, heaving, jostling in your brain
You hide them there - we dig them up again.
While you are sleeping we will peel away
The inhibitions of your waking day
Your Dreams will set them free!!

But if you can use them creatively  instead of going mad, perhaps you’re a writer.


Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Tea During World War II -- Jan Edwards

In writing the various Bunch Courtney books food and drink often seemed to play an important part. The discussions between Bunch and various characters sometimes take place over the traditional cup of tea and yet we all know that tea was rationed from July 1940 with each adult allowed just 2 oz per person per week.
There is a lot that I could say about tea during ww2. It is a treatise in itself, but one thing that came as a surprise, and yet was no surprise to me, was that in 1942 the UK government — close to defeat on all fronts and close to broke, its reserves drained as Atlantic convoys were hunted by U-boats— made the decision to buy up every available pound of tea from every country in the world. (With the obvious exception of Japan.)
It was estimated that government purchases in that year were, in order of weight, bullets, tea, artillery shells, bombs and explosives.
German High Command fully understood the importance of tea  and one of the primary targets for the sustained bombing of London in 1941 was Mincing Lane, sometimes called  “The Street of Tea.”  Mincing Lane was tea's major UK trading centre and most of the records for stocks, trades and finances were destroyed by the bombing.

One historian named tea as Britain’s secret weapon in the War. Churchill is reputed to have called tea more important than ammunition and every one of the 20 million Red Cross packages sent to POWs contained a quarter pound of Twinings tea as did army field rations.
There was a heavy price for the morale-boosting benefits of tea however. A price paid by the workers of the tea gardens in Assam and other Indian peoples. Once Rangoon, the capital of Burma,  had been taken, the Japanese troops attempted to invade Northern India via the narrow passes through the Himalayas. Assam was also the base for the most dangerous air route in the world that transported US supplies to China’s army fighting the Japanese.  The Battle of Kohima marked a crucial turning point and the complex and protected Kohima-Imphal campaign led to the annihilation of the Japanese forces and reconquest of Burma. 1942 was a pivotal year in history. Britain survived with a great debt owed to the Indian fighters. Tea helped.
***
You can find out more about Jan Edwards at:
Blog page: https://janedwardsblog.wordpress.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Janedwardsbooks
Twitter: @jancoledwards and/or @bunchcourtney00
Winter Downs : Bunch Courtney Investigates #1 is available in paperback and on all of the usual digital platforms.
In Her Defence : Bunch Courtney Investigates #2 will be available at all of the usual outlets in paper and digital form
  

Monday, 18 February 2019

Time doesn't heal -- Ava Manello

Today marks a year since I lost my amazing Mum to cancer. I guess she gave me my love of reading as she always had a book on the go on the side of her bed. Through her, I was introduced to Agatha Christie, Jean Plaidy and the like.

I'll admit she wasn't a fan of my style of writing as it has descriptive sex in it, but she was always proud of me as a writer and told all her friends about my books.

I don't know about you, but when life throws curveballs at us, I always escape into a book. For those few hours, I'm lost in another world, away from my problems and worrying about someone else's life instead of my own.

There is a magic to reading that is like nothing else, escapism and pleasure that I have never found in any other medium be it on the screen, stage or music.

So when you're having a rough day and losing your writing mojo, just remember that the words you create on the page may just make a difference to your reader, they may make a bad day better.

Apologies this is such a short blog post this month, but today isn't about books, it's about time spent with family remembering an incredibly special and very much missed woman.

I miss you Mum. Love you always x


Sunday, 17 February 2019

Other forms of transport, by Elizabeth Kay


Whatever you’re writing, on the whole, people need to get from one place to another. And the more experiences you have yourself, the more likely it is to occur to you to use something a bit different. When I started thinking about this, I decided to list every experience I’d had, but, to my surprise, there were so many that I had to create some categories. So, land, sea or air, and weather.
Weather is easiest. Snow and ice are the obvious examples. I first learned to ski in Poland with my father, when I was fifteen. I wasn’t very good at it, and I’m still not very good at it. But I did discover what it’s like to head down a slope which is far steeper than you thought, and the terror when you realise there’s no alternative to just keeping going. On the other hand, there was the sheer pleasure of a gradual descent through tracks in pine forests with hawfinches, crested tits and black squirrels. Skating was something that scared the living daylights out of me. But my six year-old daughter wanted to try it, and showing her I was frightened just wasn’t on. And to my surprise, I could do it when I had to and I actually enjoyed it. But falling over hurts, and other people get in the way! I imagine that skating on a river or a canal is very different to an ice rink, and a lot nicer. I had a sledge as a kid, which my dad made for me, but there’s not much snow in the UK, and there weren’t many hills where I lived. I went husky sledging in Norway, and that was a surprise. I didn’t expect the dogs to be so enthusiastic, but they couldn’t wait to get going. Nor did I expect it to be quite so
Tatra Mountains
smelly. There are no comfort breaks for the huskies, so draw your own conclusions... But the silence zipping along under the stars is magical. Horse and sleigh? Yes, I’ve done that too. It’s very Dr Zhivago, with tinkling bells, the creaking of leather and the occasional snort. And it’s cold, even with a sheepskin over your legs. What’s left to try? Snowboarding. Too old, I think. But what about a snowmobile? I quite fancy that.
Air travel. Aeroplanes were the only thing that frightened my dad, who had faced just about everything on the long walk from Siberia to Monte Cassino. It took me a long time to get over my fear of flying and, strangely enough, it was going up in a light plane that did it. If I’d realised that was on the itinerary, I don’t think I’d have signed up for the holiday! But it was Venezuela, and it was the only way to reach Canaima, and the foot of the Angel Falls. It felt like going down the runway in a bicycle, but six-seaters don’t go very high, and the view of the tepuis (table-topped mountains, as in Conan Doyle’s Lost World) was stunning. When we came in to land the pilot announced that he would land on the road, as the runway had too many potholes. And since then, I’ve been fine.
Coming in to Canaima
Familiarity helps a lot, of course. The more you do it, the easier it gets. I know that air travel gets bumpy when you cross from sea to land, or vice versa. I know the engine tones. I know that it changes as a plane levels out. In days gone by I could never have envisaged doing a balloon flight – but I did, over the Masai Mara. When the burners aren’t going the silence is amazing. These days, travel is accompanied by noise so frequently that to be without it is luxurious. The wildlife isn’t bothered by you, and because you’re travelling with the wind it seems that there isn’t any wind at all. The landing was a bit bumpy, but we were warned well in advance. Air travel is the category in which I have the greatest number of untried methods. Helicopter, hang glider, microlight – space travel? Even if I had the money, I don’t think I’d be up for that one!
Over the Masai Mara

Water transport. Big boats, small boats, speed boats. Power or sail or oars, I’ve done all of them. Hovercrafts. Most of us have experienced many of these at one time or another. Wind-surfing. Couldn’t get the hang of it at all to begin with, and kept falling in the water. Then, suddenly, everything clicked and I was away. A fabulous feeling of freedom, and yet being in control. And then lots of aching muscles the following day. And as for under the water… I’ve been in two submarines, once in the Mediterranean (too muddy to see much, and not much to see anyway) and once in the Red Sea, when the water was crystal clear and the fish many and varied and very colourful. These tourist subs are like small aircraft with seats by little round portholes, and are great fun. Which brings me to snorkelling, which I adore. You are exploring a new world that is so different from the one on
Iguana
land that it is utterly addictive. I’ve seen Galapagos iguanas that feed on the sea floor, sea lions that wanted to play with me, huge turtles that were just quietly going about their own business. I’ve been head-butted by fish which felt I was encroaching on their spawning grounds, and made eye contact with an octopus. And the beauty of the coral and the seaweed and the anemones beats any garden. So what’s left – Scuba diving, which I can’t do for health reasons, and water ski-ing.
Uzbekistan bullet train
Land travel. In my student days I hitchhiked a lot, which meant that I got to travel in anything from Rolls Royces and E-type Jaguars to Robin Reliants, 2CVs and motorbikes. Not sure there’s much to be said about cars, although I had a few dodgy experiences in lorries abroad. But the vast majority of people were incredibly kind, and would go out of their way to get you where you wanted to go, and sometimes even buy you a meal. Train travel – anything from wretched Southern Region to bullet trains in China and Uzbekistan. Overnight trains are the most interesting. The one from Lviv to Kiev had a place to store your champagne bottle, and a lounge with easy chairs bolted to the floor and curtains at the windows. In India it was suggested that you kept
Camel ride in Mongolia
your luggage secure with chains, and use the local toilet rather than the Western one, as the locals know how to keep it reasonably hygienic. Trams in many places – a good way of getting about, but not necessarily the fastest. I’ve ridden horses and camels, both Dromedaries and Bactrians, and travelled in horse-drawn carts and a proper carriage in Krakow. In Madagascar the carts were pulled by Zebus, a sort of cow with a hump. Riding an elephant was the most interesting, however, as they are very intelligent indeed. The one I was on in Sri Lanka knew where the banana sellers were, and used to slow down as he approached them. Of course we bought some, and fed them to his questing trunk as we went along.

My friend the cuttlefish

I have a huge back-catalogue of transport ideas, and it’s the little details like the cuttlefish
following me around in the China Sea out of sheer curiosity and the Russian truck belting across the Gobi Desert without anything that looked remotely like a road to guide the driver that stay with me. And I’ve often combined experiences to create something new when I’m writing fantasy. I couldn’t have done it without the raw material in the first place.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Motivation Matters by Wendy H. Jones


For the last several months I have found myself thinking a lot about motivation and inspiration. Many of my writer friends, several of whom have been writers for years, have been saying that they just can't seem to get motivated. Why is this? What is happening that their get up and go seems to be on an extended holiday? It was these questions that got me thinking about what motivates us and what keeps us writing. 

Motivation can be both extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic can be monetary reward - your paycheque at the end of the month, or selling more books. Intrinsic is what keeps us going when times are hard, what allows us to put one finger in front of the other on the keyboard, or keep turning those pages in our notebooks. Ultimately it is intrinsic motivation which gives us resilience and is most important to our writing career. So why does it disappear?

In my view, the biggest barrier today is that our creative reservoirs have run dry. Modern life, despite numerous labour saving devices, is frenetic. Everyone seems to be chasing their tails (or indeed tales) and authors, with an endless round of writing, marketing, promotion, speaking engagements, book signings, etc, are no exception. It is no wonder that most of us are running on empty and our brains are saying "That's it I've had enough."

However, there are numerous things that we can do in order to fill up our reservoirs and get our brains  once more excited about the writing process. In fact, I am currently editing a book called Motivation Matters, which shares 366 ways in which we can shake up our get up and go. However, it won't be out for another month, so here are a few to get you going and get those creative juices flowing.

1. Step away from the computer or notebook. Have a day off. Do whatever makes you happy, something you enjoy.

2. Now for something completely different - switch from Keyboard to pen and paper or vice versa. 

3. Go for a long walk in the woods. Take in everything about your surroundings - sight, smell, feel, sounds. Use all your senses. Write it all down.

4. Writing prompt - The sun was high in the sky when I realised the world was vastly different. I stopped and ...

5. Where in the world - take your main character to a different place or city. How would they react when they are out of their comfort zone? get to know them better.

6. Time for a change - take yourself somewhere else to write - library, coffee shop, summer house, writing retreat, local airport, the sky's the limit. 

These are just some ideas. The world is full of them. Try them today and change your thinking regarding your writing. Rejuvenate your writing one creative change at a time.




About the Author

Wendy H Jones is the Amazon Number 1 best-selling author of the award winning DI Shona McKenzie Mysteries. Her Young Adult Mystery, The Dagger’s Curse was a finalist in the Woman Alive Readers Choice Award. She is also The President of the Scottish Association of Writers, an international public speaker, and runs conferences and workshops on writing, motivation and marketing. Wendy is the founder of Crime at the Castle, Scotland’s newest Crime Festival. She is the editor of a Lent Book, published by the Association of Christian Writers and also the editor of the Christmas Anthology form the same publisher. Her first children's book, Bertie the Buffalo, was released in December 2018.

Website

Amazon Author Page

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Thursday, 14 February 2019

We Were an Oldsmobile Family

I continue to write about my father's family through my grandfather's large photographic archive. Repeated tagging, reviewing and sharing of these photos has allowed me to see our family patterns in surprising ways, like how my grandparents used their money to purchase automobiles and travel and snap pictures.

They were devoted to one American car brand.

Cars and photography seem to go well together in the United States. We traverse the country by auto, get out at some known or unexpected vista and take a photo or ten. Our family was no different. My grandparents and father, then later my grandparents with my aunts and me, drove all over Colorado and New Mexico, Mexico, Texas and Michigan.

All motoring was done in Oldsmobiles. Three different Oldsmobile 88s moved them through their lives for more than 30 years.⠀⠀

The first instance of their Oldsmobile devotion can be found in the photo below. My father and grandmother prepare to go skiing and have loaded their skis on to the ski racks of their Oldsmobile 88, possibly a 1950 model. ⠀

Color photo of Jon Allen and Fabyan Watrous, Climax Colorado, circa 1953.
My grandmother on the right and my father behind her. Possibly in front of the Climax Molybdenum Mining Co. hotel. They are preparing to go skiing. Climax, Colorado, ca. 1953

A few years later my grandparents bought a brand new Oldsmobile 88. The importance my grandfather felt about the car are on full display in the below photograph. He photographed this car as on object in its own right more than any other car he owned.

image00724
My grandmother, father, Scottie the dog and my grandparent's 1955 Oldsmobile 88. Shot at Maroon Lake, elevation 9585 feet. The Maroon Bells, Aspen, Colorado are behind them.
The car makes a prominent appearance, almost as a member of the family. In the 1950s America ruled the world as the only superpower, ascending to this spot while Europe and Asia rebuilt after the depredations of war. The exploding US economy lifted many people into the middle-classes, including my grandfather. His employer, Climax Molybdenum Mining Company paid him well. He used his salary to reflect his class aspirations. The Oldsmobile 88 reflected his class standing, hopes and dreams.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

The last Oldsmobile my grandparents owned I recall with the fondest and sweetest of memories.
W R Allen Photography Robin Allen Oldsmobile Delta 88
Robin Allen in the back of an Oldsmobile Delta 88, circa 1973 or 1974.

My aunt Robin sits in the backseat of an Oldsmobile Delta 88 Hardtop Sedan (1973?), the final Oldsmobile in the Allen family. Summers spent with my grandparents and my aunts Deb and Robin are intertwined with riding in this car. I recall a spacious tank with a sleeping area in the rear window fit for a kid.

Robin agreed. "That behind the backseat area was coveted. You could lay back there and watch the stars." At night the stars seemed endless, whether we were driving in Colorado or down to New Mexico.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Deb added, "The stereo speakers were there and we loved listening to the radio." Deb also shared that when she, Robin and my grandparents moved from Leadville, Colorado to Durant, Michigan, the Delta 88 led the way in a summer snow storm.

"We left Leadville on July 4 driving and it snowed that day."⠀

I find this type of family history detail fascinating. Somehow knowing it brings me closer to my now deceased grandparents. Were they still alive I would want to know why they chose an Oldsmobile over a Chevy or a Ford. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

Living as I do near Detroit, this a question of utmost importance.⠀


More of my grandfather's photography can be found on Instagram.