Friday, December 16, 2011

Last Christmas . . .

  . . . I gave you my heart, sang stubbly George. 

In my case, last Christmas I tore down a house (not the Ugliest House in California - we kept that one  - but instead the spare house, with more right-angles, less beige and, crucially, no building permit.)

Gasp, by all means, but note two things:

1.  It was made of wood, not stone or brick.
2. I didn't do it single-handed - there were six of us for one day, four of us for one day, and then two of us for the rest of the time.  Even so, it was the heaviest, least rewarding, stinkiest (the carpets fermented in the rain) job I've ever done and I'm never doing it again. 

You know that bit in Die Hard when Bruce is crawling along a duct, bleeding and filthy, and remembers his friend saying "Come out to the coast, we'll have a few laughs"?  Well, that was me last Christmas, dressed in yellow raingear, shovelling wet sheetrock/plasterboard into a dumpster/skip and remembering the undergardener (but head shoveller) saying "come to California with me, live in the sunshine and eat lotus blossoms".

Here it is in photo-form.  These are the Christmas pictures I took, in order, just as they came off the camera:

Sunday, December 11, 2011

There's a moose (and and an elf) loose about this hoose.

So, Catherine Lepreux, is my oldest friend.  We've known each other since we were babies too small to know that we knew each other.  See what good friends we are.

That was Mondavi Winery, Napa, on the 2nd of December.  Now see how tenuous the friendship became during two and a half weeks of constant contact and design decisions?

Just kidding, the photographer wanted to get the wee boat in.

My living room (a pretty weird-shaped room even for a ranch house (but right at home as part of the Ugliest House in California)) looked, last month, like face with no eyebrows and too much lipstick.  Lots of colour round the bottom and lots of nothing round the top. 

But now, it's got brows:

It's got lashes:

And it's got a beauty spot -

 - a wee mouse,hiding a bracket that was on show thanks to the wonky - make that organic - shape of the eucalyptus log.  And isn't that just about the funkiest vintage barkcloth in all of eBay?

Not only that either.  Catherine was roving the halls with a needle in hand and mouthful of glass-headed pins.  There was no stopping her.   Every dull corner of the U-est H in C has been spruced up.

The U-est thing in the U-est H - the aircon return pipe - has disappeared.

Spot the difference in this corner of my study.

Unfortunately the house-elf is on her way home now.  But when I get back from dropping her off at SFO this afternoon, she'll still be everywhere.

Friday, December 2, 2011

101 things to do with a dead eucalyptus

Well, okay two.  Three - just thought of another one.  Four.

To start with the last one: you can use a dead eucalyptus instead of a gym.  God, it's hard.  Here is the undergardener, peching like a bull mastiff, after sawing up a wheelbarrowful.

And once it's sawed and split and your arms have turned to jelly, it lights with one match and a barely scrumpled style section and burns hot and bright for hours on end.  Here's a picture of the first fire we lit after moving in.

You'll have noticed what it's burning in.  That, folks, is what we call The Flinstones' Memorial Fireplace.  Or sometimes The Climbing Wall.  Occasionally we call it The Ugliest Fireplace Ever Built (Also The Largest).  And yet, and yet, I've grown to love it over the last year in the new house.  I love it like you would a one-eared, three-legged cat with halitosis.  Protectively.  In spite of yourself.

So we decided to honour it with a mantelpiece.  After a year of having nowhere to put a clock or prop an invitation, it was back to the cuddy for the undergardener and his boss/father-in-law.  I somehow managed not to get any pictures of them actually working (funny that) but here they are doing the almost-as-important sitting down with a beer afterwards.

And here is the fruit of their labour.  The Jim McPherson Mantelpiece, with clock.  As fine a dod of eucalyptus as was ever hewn and oiled and placed atop a bracket or two.

It was no mean feat, thanks to the idiosyncrasies of Fred the Fireplace.  There was a bit of trigonometry involved in getting it to fit.

And now there's no stopping him.  Curtain poles?  Pah.  Curtain poles are for wimps.  Crack out the chainsaw and get some pelmets worth the name.

If only I could sew I could match the effort with something to hang from them.  I can't sew (or knit, or crochet, felt, quilt or tat)  but luckily I have a friend who'll fly from Edinburgh to San Francisco to sew stuff for me.  And she's a professional designer.  Catherine Lepreux, my oldest and dearest friend.  

Next week, I'll show Catherine's part of the project.  By then, I'll still have the ugliest house in California on the outside but the inside will be dripping with original craft and design genius (and all I did was open the beer and make the tea).

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The name's Kipling. Mrs Kipling.

.I make bread.


I make biscuits aka cookies, shortbread, focaccia, and shortcrust pastry (but I don't take pictures of them).

I don't make puff, flaky or choux pastry (who does?) and until this last month I'd have said I don't make cakes.

Not that I haven't tried.  With Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson at my side I've tried and failed and tried again.  And failed again.  And tried.  And failed.

Until this last month my cakes were so flat they looked like Pearson's Nut Goodies that have travelled a thousand miles through the US mail.  I choose my analogy for good reason.  Relieving news, eh?  If that was my idea of a good analogy plucked from the air I'd need a lot of luck to be making my living as a writer.

No, Pearson's Nut Goodies  - or Jessiecakes, as they're known in my house - have been a bit of an obsession since I first came across a description of them in May Day by Jessie No.1, Jess Lourey.  Her heroine's sojourn in rural Minnesota is  . . . well, not lightened, exactly, but certainly sweetened by the ingestion of Nut Goodies every now and then.

I read of their toothsome (unless you're a dentist) sweetness and mountainous chocolately chunkiness and had to taste one.

Needless to say you can't get them in northern California where Michael Pollan comes from.

Enter Jessie No.2, Jessie Chandler, also of Minnesota, who took time off from writing her Shay O'Hanlan capers to send me a couple in the mail.  They arrived, really quite sweet indeed - and this from someone with Tunnock's snowballs in her genes and Irn Bru thudding round in her veins - but not as mountainous as they should be.

Hence the analogy and from there back to the cakes. 

My mother has just gone home after a month's visit and both our birthdays fell while she was here.  So, for the first time in many years, ma mammy made me a birthday cake.  Then four days later, under very close supervision but still with no great hopes of success, I set about making one for her.

Miracle.  Wonders.  Amazement.  For the first time in my life I made a cake worthy of the name.  Here it is in the tin.

On the rack, being measured. 

I couldn't believe the airy heights it had climbed to.  NB: the clown?  He's behind it; not in it.  I haven't got as far as integral clown-heads just yet.

Here it is, decorated, with butter icing and fresh local walnuts (take that, Michael Pollan).

And finally being cut open, with an ordinary knife.  Not a hammer and chisel.

I went to bed that night trailing clouds of glory and lay awake going over and over what I'd done in my head until the recipe and procedures felt as if they were in there to stay.  Needless to say, my mother's cake recipe isn't written down.  She just knocks them together.

So do I now.  Here's cake number 2, made for pudding for a dinner party the next weekend, under less close supervision but still with my magic mother in the house.

I took it out of the oven and thought "Could it . . . ?  It looks . . . ?  Could it possibly be . . .?"

Yes!  It was even bigger.

But as I say, the master baker was still in the building, actually right in the kitchen.  She made a break for the fireside at the eggs and flour stage, but I herded her back again.  And there were still some bits of the process that felt shaky.  Like listening to it to see if it's ready.  Yup, my mother has no truck with clean skewers and disappearing dimples; she takes it out of the oven after an hour, leans in close and listens to see if it's ready.

So after she went home on Saturday and took her ears with her, I was all on my own. 

Today is my undergardener's birthday.  I took a deep breath, tied my pinny strings tight and went for it.  No written recipe, forty years of failure, guru away across the ocean . . . I give you . . . cake number three.

And if it tastes as good as it sounds, I'll be very happy.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Oh, will ye no' come back again?

Yes, I will.  Next week.

This week I'm Q&Aing with the wonderful, writes-creepy-stuff-but-is-really-a-poppet, Todd Ritter on his fantoosh website cum blogspot.  His questions were fun, my answers display the usual dignified reserve . . .

Thought I'd add the Q&A now (14th Nov), for anyone else whose connection is so feeble that Todd's amazing website gives it the hiccups.

Catriona is a recovering academic, now a full-time writer, recently transplanted from southern Scotland to northern California.  The Dandy Gilver novels (six and counting) are set in a slightly imaginary time and place, made up of 1920s Scotland and the golden age of detective fiction.

Q. Tell us about your book and what inspired you to write it.

The Proper Treatment of Bloodstains is the story I’ve been looking forward to as it came down the pipe towards me.  I started writing about Dandy Gilver when she was in 1922 and I was in 2001.  We were the same age then.  Now, ten years later, she’s six years younger than me.

Anyway.  The thing about 1926 was the general strike.  Reparations from Germany/cheap coal/denationalisation . . . the trick is to do all the research but put as little as possible of the boring stuff in the book . . . all led to a walk-out by the coalminers and a huge supporting shut-down.  For nine days, in May 1926, it looked possible, even likely, that Britain was going to see a workers’ revolt the like of which kicked off the Russian revolution.  We know that didn’t happen , but I was excited at the thought of writing about characters who didn’t.  Talk about tension. 

Also, for once it wasn’t too bonkers to have a private detective solve a murder.  During that nine days, anyone who stood still long enough got drafted in as a special constable to help the police.  Dandy was one of them.

Q. Did you need to do any special research for the book? If so, what’s one of the most interesting facts you discovered?

Okay, so the other half of this story is that during the nine days of the strike, Dandy is undercover as a servant in an Edinburgh mansion house, trying (and failing) to prevent a murder.  And it wasn’t so much that I had to do research as that I had to write the book to release all the research that I had done already.  I do a lot of traipsing around stately homes, castles and palaces (and I have the cheek to call it a day’s work) but impressive as the state rooms are, it’s the domestic offices that fascinate me.  Finally, in this book, I got to use all the treasure trove.  For example, did you know:

That the staircase leading to the bedrooms of the male servants was wooden so the family wasn’t disturbed by their boots clonking on the steps, but the female staircase had a layer of slate on top so that the family would hear the boots of any men who tried to sneak up there?

Also, I discovered that although jam and honey were kept in the larder (US pantry?) with the rest of the food, marmalade was kept in the cupboard which housed the boot polish and laundry soap.  I’ve no idea why.  I put this snippet in the book hoping someone would email me and tell me.  Nothing so far, but I’ll put it in my FAQs if I ever find out.

Q. Many people are content to just be readers. How did you become a writer?

So many different ways to answer this question . . . I’ll choose the one that makes me sound like an idiot, I think.  Right.  I revered writers, envied them, imagined being one ‒ all that.  I just had no idea how they did it.  I also spent a lot of my life in the midst of day-dreams of unbelievable length and complexity, with settings, characters, scenes and dramatic twists.  It took until I was 35 for me to realise that writing these down was how it was done.  See?  Moron. 

Q. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Prepare to be amazed:- I read a lot.  I also garden.  I used to garden pretty well in Galloway; now I garden very badly in California.  I’m slowly turning my gardening vigilance from frost-protection to drought-proofing.  But it’s a humbling experience to know nothing again.  I love cooking (and the resultant eating) and so, because I’m vain, I run and cycle and swim.  If I could grow a tapeworm, I’d happily never run again.  It’s not about health: it’s all vanity.    

Q. What are you reading right now?

Bugger.  It’s never something obscure and impressive when you’re asked that question, is it?  Makes me think of when I went for a sign-up visit to my new doctor in Galloway and he asked “What did you eat yesterday?”.  I said “Ahhhh, yesterday’s not a good example, as it happens”.  He said  “Exactly”.  Clever man. 

I’m reading Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, which is perfect reading matter while I’m pounding out a first draft because I could no more write an epic about an Ethiopian/Indian surgeon than I could grow a watermelon (it turns out).  So it doesn’t interfere.

There are some writers I daren’t look at while I’m writing a first drat – chipping it out of the ground without breaking bits off, as Stephen King puts it.  PG Wodehouse is horribly infectious.  So is Raymond Chandler.  And it’s depressing to write a crime novel while reading one written by a genius, so Ruth Rendell is out.

Q. If you were stranded on that proverbial deserted island, what five books would you want to have with you?

Right, well, BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs spots you Shakespeare and the Bible.  I always thought I’d take another copy of one –Shakespeare, it’s longer – in an exotic, unstudied language.  Then, falling back on my training as a linguist, I’d use the two texts to decode the new language and write a monograph.  When the shipload of burly rescuers hove into view around the headland, I’d have a completed work to wow the world with.  Well, to wow a few dozen grammarians with.  This plan might need some work.

Seriously?  1) Pride and Prej  2) John Irving’s The Water Method Man 3) Sunset’s Western Gardens (and I’d be up to speed for my return) 4) Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and 5) – are we allowed collected works? – Dickens.  For the length.  I panic if I’m in a waiting room with nothing to read.  I’d go nuts on an island.

Q. What’s your favorite movie?

What’s that you say?  My favourite five movies?  Okay 1) North by Northwest (except for the cheesy last shot) 2) Moonstruck  (worst plot-envy of my life; it’s perfect) 3) Calamity Jane (I don’t care; I love her) 4) Mildred Pierce (the Joan one) 5) The Station Agent – this is a recent addition to my list of favourites, but I adore it.

Q. What’s your favorite food?

Leftovers.  Especially leftover Christmas dinner.  Specifically, very clear cold turkey gravy, set to a stiff  jelly, chopped onto hot buttered toast made with home-made bread, for breakfast, on Boxing Day.  Quite a lot of salt and insane amounts of black pepper.  With a strong cup of Yorkshire tea with whole fat milk in a white cup.  (Fussy, moi?)

Q. Cats or dogs?

Cats, cats, a thousand times cats.  I’m always surprised that people happily admit to preferring dogs – “Yes, I like an animal who looks up to me with slavish devotion”. Although, now I think of it, American dogs don’t understand my accent so when I say their names they treat me as a cat would.  I like it.

Q. Name one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you.

I dye my hair?  Kidding.  Ummmmm – there’s been a lot of accidental nudity.  I met the art director of an important UK publishing house when I had no knickers on.  And I once went to work without my skirt.  On a third occasion, I wore this weird-shaped dress to a party that was easiest dealt with in the bathroom by taking it off and hanging it up on the door hook then putting it back on again afterwards.  I forgot the last bit.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

One starrrrrr, shining in the darknesssssssss

I'm out and about again, guest blogging at Jungle Red Writers - eight smart and sassy women who write crime: it's like The View/Loose Women, with corpses.

If you've ever been laid low by a one-star review on Amazon: step right in, the doctor will see you now.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

It's not a cozy if you nail a kitten down . . .

. . . is the title of my blog this week, but it's not here.  It's on the Lipstick Chronicles site, at the kind invitation of the brilliant and beautiful Hank Phillipi Ryan.

But you know what?  Nailed-down kittens, schmailed-down kittens - controversy arose over the true nature of the turnip.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

. . . is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains recipes or graphic or gratuitous violence

I changed one word in this excerpt from Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities Para 3. Item 7.

Can you guess which?  No prizes.

Can you guess which word I took out?  What else is like graphic or gratuitous violence?  Just as shocking, just as pernicious, just as corrupting.  Why, it's nudity, of course.  As construed in the West.  Ankles are in, women's faces are fine, but breasts, bottoms are fiddly bits are out.  Facebook save us from pictures of what's under our own clothes.

I've never been able to get all that exercised about nudity one way or the other.  I'm amazed and amused to find out that breastfeeding mothers in my new country fling a tarpaulin over themselves in public (even the prudish Scots in the chill winds of home don't do that).  It never occurred to me to wear clothes in the Turkish baths, or to turn my back in communal changing rooms.  I've even been on a naturist beach.  Once.  It was nice not to have to do the beachtowel marenge to get dried and changed after swimming, but in the end I decided I'd rather wear bikini bottoms than sunblock.

One odd moment that afternoon in Norfolk was when a power-boat-ful of male morons came whomping across the bay to leer and jeer and do that bellowing noise that makes you think evolution has started running backwards.  They were having great fun until a little girl of about five, who'd been crouched filling her bucket at the water's edge, stood up and stared back at them, clearly wondering what all the noise was for. 
The leering and jeering snapped off like someone had pulled a plug; they fired up the engine and took off around the headland again.  I often wonder if they managed to reassemble the experience into a funny story in which they *hadn't* suddenly found themselves wolf-whistling at a naked little girl, or maybe an outraged story in which her naturist parents were the villains and they were just regular guys.  I hope not.

Anyway, back to Facebook.  Nudity is defined in a clear, no-nonsense way.  Photographs, paintings, cartoons, sketches: nope, no way, a strong and steady no.

And now I get to my point, possibly even slower than usual.  Facebook doesn't take the same steady line when it comes to hatefulness, threats, and incitement to violence.   There's a page on Facebook called "I know a silly little bitch that needs a good slap".  And that's one of the milder titles of pro-rape/violence pages to be found.

What's that creaking noise?  Ah . . . it's our old friend the free speech, censorship, humourless women wagon rolling onstage.

But here's the thing.  Facebook doesn't offer itself as a platform for unconstrained free speech.  It holds out against hateful, threatening or pornographic speech (I know a silly little bitch that needs a good slap).  It refuses to publish incitements to violence (I know a silly little bitch that needs a good slap).  It's against nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence (I know a silly little bitch that needs a good slap). 

I think the nudity clause is the only part of 3.7 that this page doesn't violate. 

If you'd like to see Facebook abide by its own rules even when it's only women who are the target of the hate, threats and incitements to violence, you can  sign the petition at:

Next week, light-hearted fun.  Promise.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

New cylon model spotted at Bouchercon 2011

Since I forgot to take a picture of my lovely panel on Thursday, I spent the second half of Bouchercon stalking them and pouncing.  Here they are at last.

PJ Parrish (for all your adrenalin needs) and Jess Lourey (Minnesota Tourist Board's Public Enemy No1).

Donna Andrews (a hard woman to hate, but if I did hate her it would be because her suggested cure for procrastination is to write more books - seriously).

Sarah Shaber (a glittering example of how to write historical fiction stuffed to the gunnels with perfectly researched details . . . and have none of the research show (would hate her too if I could (but I can't))).

And Sandra Balzo (who else has ever set a snow-bound, Christie-esque locked room mystery . . . in a strip mall?).

Ands as well as these wonderful women, there was -

Michael Ayoob, who won the first novel Edgar for In Search of Mercy (Minotaur Books - yeay!).  How can anyone so young have written a book, you say?  And bear in mind this photo was taken at a party, well after midnight, when all the rest of us could have gone on without make-up as extras in The Name of The Rose.  Well, he only looks young; actually he's fifty-four.

Other kindred spirits included -

Esri Allbritten, another Minotaur author, whose Chihuahua of the Baskervilles, introducing Tripping: a paranormal tour company, (yeah, I know, yet another paranormal tourist chihuahua book; they're worse than vampires) broke my self-imposed B'con rule.  I told myself I wasn't buying anything.   I was noting down names and buying them at home afterwards in The Avid Reader.  But Esri's cracked me.

With Esri is Debi Huff, super-reader, good egg and wise woman.

Doesn't everyone look happy?  For balance, then, here's the tartan contingent on Sunday morning.

Val McDermid, Russel McLean and me, looking miserable, belligerent and hammered (variously) and so covering all ethnic stereotypes between the three.