Thursday, June 26, 2014

Throwback Thursday: past loves

It's Thursday so it's Throwback day!  I posted this pic (left) on Twitter but there's a limit to what you can say in only 140 characters so I thought I'd fill in the rest of the story on my blog.

I think this photograph is from 1989 or 1990. That's me sitting in "Iris" my Mark 4 Triumph Spitfire convertible. Iris rolled off the assembly line in 1973, so in 1989 she wasn't all that old, but by now she'd be a very old lady indeed. She was British Leyland Magenta, which is a kind of violet colour.

Some people buy a sports car because they are having a midlife crisis. I bought Iris after a particularly grisly romantic disaster. She was the ultimate impractical car. She didn't even go that fast!  Admittedly she could, as they say, turn on a sixpence, so she was ideal for rolling English country lanes, where you can't go that fast anyway unless you want to end up in a ditch. You could also park Iris anywhere, because she had such a tight turning circle and was so narrow.

The left-hand catch that was supposed to secure Iris' convertible hood was very worn so the hood didn't close properly. This meant that the wind could get in, and on occasion the hood was even known to open whilst I was driving along. Once or twice the rain got in too, and soaked the passenger seat, seeping right into the foam padding. The seat took a very long time to dry out, so passengers were likely to find themselves sitting in a puddle. What with the vibrations from the engine, it must have been like sitting in a very cold jacuzzi!

Actually, the list of things that weren't working quite as they should have was pretty endless. Sadly, my income wasn't, so I had to live with some of these things for a while before I could get them repaired.

The very first time I took Iris out for a long journey, my youngest sister and I drove from Chesham to Oxford for the evening. On the way home, Iris broke down on the edge of town, and flatly refused to roll another metre forward. By this time it was dark, and this being around 1989, neither of us had a mobile phone. I went to a nearby house, knocked on the door and asked to use their phone so that we could call the AA. Then I went back and sat in the car and waited. And waited. No sign of the AA. The lights in the house where I had knocked went out, so I didn't feel I could ask them again. Eventually, a police car drew up behind us and two policemen came to ask us what the trouble was. After I'd told them the car was new and I didn't know what was wrong with it, one them walked all around it, tapping the bodywork. Then he came back grinning his head off and said, "It's full o' pudding."
I'm still smarting about that remark over two decades later. It's like having someone tell you your gorgeous new boyfriend is an asshole. However, I'm grateful to the police for calling the AA (who hadn't been able to find us) and telling them where we were. We got towed home, ignominiously. The next day I incurred the first of a series of large car repair bills.

Iris and I eventually came to an understanding about her various foibles. For example, if the engine was left idling in hot weather she would overheat and break down. To avoid this, I could put the heating on full blast and let the heat wash through the interior of the car instead of building to a volcanic temperature under the bonnet. I am not sure if there is any mechanical basis for thinking that this would work, but it did seem to. I recall one particularly hot summer's day when I drove into London and got stuck in a traffic jam on the way home. I saw the temperature gauge rising so I put the heating on. Even with the hood down, I was soon being baked. Very unpleasant. The things we put up with for love...

And then there was the starter motor which didn't. Start, I mean. That issue was relatively simply resolved by keeping a geology hammer in the car. If the motor wouldn't start, I'd put the bonnet up, deliver a sharp blow to the starter motor with the hammer, and then it would generally work perfectly - until the next time it jammed up.

In spite of all this, I really loved Iris. There was nothing finer than travelling through the countryside on a sunny day with the hood down and music unravelling scratchily from the cassette player. I used to do up my hair in a silk scarf the exact same colour as the bodywork, and drive along with the ends blowing in the breeze behind me. It was a sure cure for woe and heartache.

Of course, all such improbable and impractical love affairs have to come to an end one day. I met my future husband; he subsequently moved to Merseyside and I used to drive up and down to see him most weekends, which wasn't practical in a very temperamental old sports car. Aside from the risk of breaking down, Iris wasn't fast enough and she didn't have a roll bar, so if I'd had an accident on the motorway the results would not have been pretty. We parted company and I got a much more practical car, who didn't have a name.

I didn't have any trouble finding a good home for Iris: the mechanic who had been patching her up for the previous year or two was very keen to take her off my hands. So keen was he, that I suspect the two of them had been flirting together for a long time before he made his move. I guess he was in a much better position to do all the maintenance she needed, so for all I know they may still be together. I hope so; she deserved to find everlasting love.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The lure of the unattainable

Yesterday I drove to Dundee, a round trip of just under eighty miles.  I was in Dundee for a rather dull medical appointment but whilst I was there, I dropped into the big Tesco on the edge of the city to stock up on things we cannot buy in Crieff.

My daughter, who is a great fan of manga and anime, loves anything Japanese by association, including Pocky biscuit sticks. You can't get those any place nearer than Edinburgh, but the big Tesco in Dundee does stock Gap biscuit sticks from Thailand, which are a reasonable substitute. It also stocks Tymbark iced green tea from Poland; my kids used to love iced green tea when we lived in Belgium and you can't easily get that in the UK, so we were thrilled when we found it there.

Whilst I was filling my shopping trolley with these treasures, I started to think about all the times I had done this when we were living in various places around Europe. Whenever we move to a new place, I do try very hard to integrate, including eating local food. It is unrealistic and expensive to live in rural Germany, for example, and try to follow a completely British diet (the entire time we lived there, I never found a locally produced curry powder with enough strength). Also, you would miss out on lots of wonderful local delicacies. In Germany I came to love cherry streusel, herrings in dill sauce and Bitburger beer. Oh, and Froop, which is a kind of yoghurt with fruit purée at the bottom. I miss the cherry and lemon varieties of Froop more than I can say since we moved away from Germany. *sob*

The one British thing I really couldn't do without, however, was tea. In Germany, coffee is king. You go out for Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cakes), not tea and biscuits. German supermarkets stock a wondrous variety of fruit and herbal teas but I never found a local brand of tea that was strong enough to make a decent cup. A friend told me that East Friesian was the strongest German type, but it still wasn't strong enough for me: I like builder's tea, the colour of teak oil. So I used to order Yorkshire Tea online, or else get it from the British shop in Cologne whenever we happened to be there.

When we moved to Flanders, we found ourselves within a few miles of Stone Manor, the British shop, so the tea supply was no longer a problem. Had we so desired, we could have lived entirely on British produce, including Curly Wurlys and haggis. I was somewhat downcast to discover however that you cannot get Froop in Belgium. So whenever we went back to Germany, which was fairly often as you could drive to Bad M√ľnstereifel and back in a day quite easily, I used to gorge on Froop, and nip into the Erft Cafe (now sadly defunct) for some cherry streusel.

Once again, we made an effort to try locally available food in Flanders. I'm not sure I am ever going to become a wholehearted fan of Paling in 't Groen (fried eel in bright green sauce), but I am a big fan of bessenjenever, which is berry flavoured gin. I came across it because I asked my Flemish friend Tom what Veerle, the heroine of Silent Saturday would drink, and he suggested bessenjenever. Of course I had to try it in the interests of research(!) and jolly tasty it is, too. I liked it so much that when we moved back to the UK in 2011 I was very dismayed to discover that it is not sold here, anywhere. So now, whenever I go over to Belgium, or our Flemish friends visit us, a bottle of bessenjenever always goes in the suitcase on the Scotland-bound leg of the trip.

NB I am sure my Belgian friends, though too polite to say so, think there is something faintly daft about this. Bessenjenever seems to be a young person's drink judging by the advertising, so I am probably a wild anomaly in their consumer demographic. In my defence, I only moved to Flanders in 2008, so I am still in my Belgian infancy. This may explain why I am also a great fan of the Belgian band Clouseau, whom everybody else in Flanders has known about since 1990...

Above: the perfect combination - Flemish bessenjenever cooled in Scottish snow!
(photo by Marc Vastesaeger)

I'm not sure why I felt moved to blog about this topic! I suppose it's because getting hold of these culinary treasures is about more than getting my hands on my favourite nibbles. 

Sometimes it's about carrying a little piece of somewhere you loved with you - whenever I have a glass of bessenjenever, the smell of it makes me think of Flanders; when we go to the German Christmas market in Edinburgh we love to buy the real German pretzels because it is a taste of our former home. 

I like the sense of occasion, too, when I drive into the city to buy things I can't get locally. I'm not sure quite what is going on there - some kind of frustrated hunter gatherer instinct, perhaps? I don't know why I get such a kick out of this. It's not like I'm the heroine of a post-apocalyptic novel after all, discovering a hidden cache of canned and bottled food in a bombed out town. I'm just driving to Tesco's in Dundee. 

I do love the satisfaction of tracking down something that is not easy to obtain. Iced green tea: the Holy Grail of soft drinks. We all like to feel that we are on a Quest sometimes...

Above: Bessenjenever gets a number of mentions in Silent Saturday

Friday, June 13, 2014

Demons in Saint Andrews!

Barely has the dust settled from the Demons of Ghent launch event at Blackwell's in Edinburgh, than I am off to St. Andrews to do another one! I'm quite pleased about that, because I like both Edinburgh and Saint Andrews a lot. If the weather is nice tomorrow I might even manage an hour on the beach after the event...

Anyway, I'm appearing as part of the Waterstones St. Andrews Children's Events Day programme on Saturday 14th June. Starting at 10.15am in the morning a series of children's/teen authors will be appearing to talk about their work.

There's something for all ages, from Mike Nicholson discussing his picture books to me talking about my Young Adult thrillers. Come to the Town Hall, Queen's Gardens, to hear us! My talk is from 1.45pm until approximately 2.30pm and hopefully I'll be showing some brilliant slides of my book locations too - including some scarily high ones!

Further details from Waterstone's St. Andrews: 01334 477 893

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Demons in Edinburgh!

I've mentioned this before but here's a reminder for anyone who lives in or within travelling distance of Edinburgh!

I'm having a launch event for my new thriller Demons of Ghent tomorrow, Wednesday 11th June, at Blackwell's Bookshop (left).

The evening kicks off at 6pm with a glass of wine, and from 6.30pm I will be talking to fellow author Susy McPhee about the book. Anyone who has heard Susy talk before will know that she is great fun, so the evening is sure to be a sparkling one with a few unexpected questions!

Here's the address of Blackwell's Edinburgh, where the event is being held:
53-62 South Bridge,

This event is ticketed, but tickets are FREE. Tickets are available from the front desk at Blackwell’s Bookshop or by phoning 0131 622 8218.

For more information or if you would like to order a signed copy please contact Ann Landmann on 0131 622 8222 or

Above: Susy McPhee, who will be interviewing me tomorrow at Blackwell's Edinburgh.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Seven days of demons

Today is the last day of my first ever blog tour, organised for the launch of my new thriller, Demons of Ghent, and it's time to say a big huge THANK YOU to everyone who took part!

As well as a whole week of demons(!) I'm pleased to say that the book was featured in Countdown to 5th June, with this interview on Choose YA

This was followed by Demons of Ghent's first ever review by The Bookwitch, who described it as "that strange thing, the perfect book." I hope Demons will be reviewed many more times, but it's hard to imagine topping that! 

On 2nd June the official tour began, with fellow author Emma Pass hosting a blog post about my Top 10 Kickass Heroines.

3rd June saw Tripfiction, the site that matches your holiday reading with your destination, hosting an article about Ghent and why it has provided me with so much murderous inspiration!

Next up was the Fantastical Librarian, who asked me some brilliant questions for her author interview. Like my heroine Veerle, the Fantastical Librarian is a native Dutch speaker, so hopefully she has some fellow feelings (and doesn't mind the rude Dutch words!).

On launch day itself, June 5th, it was back to the Bookwitch, who did an author profile of me. You can find out about my favourite Swede and my hidden talent in that one!

After that I was interviewed again for Project UKYA, which was a great thrill because founder Lucy Powrie does a huge amount to support UKYA books - look out for her latest project here!

On 7th June, Fluttering Butterflies hosted something a bit new - a group interview! I asked a group of UKYA authors to ask me one question each. Featured authors were Caroline Green, Lisa Glass, Rae Earl, Keren David, CJ Daugherty, Michelle Harrison and Leila Rasheed. They asked me some amazing questions!

Last but most definitely not least, today UKYA, the site that celebrates young adult fiction by UK authors, featured my Top 10 Things I Need To Learn About UKYA. I lived abroad for a decade which is why all my novels to date are set outside the UK, and my Top 10 is a list of some of the things I need an update on before I can set a novel back here in Britain! 

Thank you so much to everyone who took part - either interviewing me, hosting guest posts or kindly sharing my blog tour on social media. It is very, very much appreciated! The virtual flowers are for you. Thank you!