On Weeding & Writing - an occasional eclectic blog by author C.F. Dunn
Christmas Past, Christmas Present
We have been unwrapping the Christmas boxes and finding all our old friends. I imagine many families have similar hallowed decorations. You’d think we’d get tired of all the Christmas prep in which we indulge at this time of year. Decades have passed and we’re still bringing out the baubles and making plans to the sound of the same carols we’ve been singing for generations. But we don’t. If anything, time adds its own resonance as the years pass and the bells and baubles, stringy tinsel and tatty angels are welcomed from their boxes with fond smiles of recollection.
We have kept all the decorations from both sides of the family. The oldest bauble dates to the letter years of Queen Victoria’s reign; a few others to the first decades of the next century. A good dozen remain from our own – vintage – youth, and many, many more have been added over our daughters’ childhoods. Every year each girl chose a decoration and these they will take when they make their own homes. With this in mind, we add a bauble here and there as others meet their inevitable doom on the wood floors or at the swipe of a dog’s tail. I’m not particularly attached to the newcomers, but these additions will take on their own patina over time, accumulating memories and associations of their own.
Free! Free! Free! Mortal Fire: Publisher Give-away on Kindle
My wonderful publisher is offering Mortal Fire FREE on Kindle until 19th October, 2022. With just 24hrs to go, grab a copy while you can and find out why Mortal Fire won GOLD for Adult Romance in the USA Book of the Year Awards.
Perfect for curling up as the nights draw in, Mortal Fire combines romantic mystery with paranormal suspense as young historian, Emma D’Eresby, hunts the secret hidden in the pages of a 17th century diary. Emma finds herself drawn into conflict with the present; but can she discover the truth – and will she believe it?
‘C.F. Dunn’s vivid prose holds the reader’s attention right to the riveting conclusion.’ Mel Starr – The Unquiet Bones
‘The sense of growing menace will have readers gripping the edge of their seats. A tense and accomplished debut blending romance with thriller.’ Fay Sampson – The Hunted Hare.
‘An ominous sense of developing tension… a most fluent writer.’ Colin Dexter – Inspector Morse
The Secret of the Journal series is a single story told over five books.
Book 1 Mortal Fire
Book 2 Death Be Not Proud
Book 3 Rope of Sand
Book 4 Realm of Darkness
Book 5 Fearful Symmetry
New Book Review: BRAVER by Deborah Jenkins
I read Braver as a new book review copy, keeping an open mind as this is not a genre I would normally choose. Braver, however, has turned this around, demonstrating the power of a simple story involving seemingly unremarkable people. It’s told with a powerful intelligence and absolute conviction of people’s inner strengths and had me hooked from the start.
The story revolves around three ordinary individuals, for whom everyday life is compromised by traumatic events and lingering fears: Hazel’s acute anxiety, Harry’s home and school life, and Virginia’s struggles with her past and burdens of the present.
The characters are deftly crafted, evolving as the novel progresses from the roots of their differing pasts. Each is treated with empathy and respect, and without judgement, letting them speak for themselves.
Hazel’s anxiety is particularly well handled, especially considering such a complex range of difficulties. However, all the characters stand out as engaging and beautifully human individuals.
Deborah Jenkins writes with a light touch, illuminating the story and characters through moments of brilliant imagery. Through her skill and elevated prose she roots the reader in the tender reality of the everyday.
‘It’s a drab day with a sky the colour of lead and the kind of spring chill that makes you sulk. Of course it is.’
Demonstrating the power of a simple story, Braver by Deborah Jenkins is a study in humanity and an unadulterated joy to read.
Published by Fairlight Books, Braver is released on 30th June 2022.
I’m turning the soil in the raised beds ready for planting veg. Even though I protect them with a thick layer of leaves against winter rain, by spring the soil is compacted and heavy and frankly uninviting if you’re a seed. I spend some considerable time with a narrow trowel forking the soil, breaking up lumps, removing larger stones and hunting dreaded wire worms.
I’ve a sudden image of all those ‘medieval’ films from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s in which peasants can be seen digging. I’m not sure what they are digging and I don’t think they do too, but digging dirt is what they are doing – even though there’s no sign that the soil shows any evidence of being husbanded before.
Come to think of it, have you ever noticed how – in films – castles and villages stand as if plonked on the landscape, devoid of any sign of agriculture, industry, or anything else which indicates human occupation over a long period of time? Occasionally, chickens scutter past the lens, a pig, perhaps even a dog, but little else. The landscape lacks purpose and the people associated with it are portrayed in the same way – aimless. And, like the earth they dig, they are always dressed in brown. The villages they live in are brown – sometimes grey (the medieval period comes down to us with a blue filter, whereas the 1970s nearly always has a yellowish tinge.) Where are the clashing colours so beloved by our ancestors and seen in clothing, church and castle? Their world, like ours, was richly hued, even if often mired in mud.
Easter Sunday was full-on with me getting up at 4am for the sunrise service on the beach and then back home to cook. Today I’m taking it easy. Easy-ish – apart, that is, for prepping tea for my Beloved Parents. And as my pa has baked his famous shortbread and infamous chocaholic, all we’re doing is providing tea, coffee and savoury snacks. However, since beginning to write this, I can now hear Child Two in the kitchen. That bodes well for the taste buds (but is lethal for the waistline) as she is probably cooking her stonkingly good chocolate brownies, the likes of which have to be tasted to be believed. I wish I had more will-power to resist, but the simple truth is that I don’t – not when it comes to home-baked delights.
Switching Off The Heating: A Few Home Truths
It is freezing but we switched off the heating a month ago and have been relying on passive solar gain (i.e. sunshine through the windows) and log fires/burners to heat the house. I’ll let you into a secret: when we were growing up the copper warming pans and stone water bottles were not kept for decorative purposes.
As an aside to saving fuel costs, I’ve been monitoring the effects on the ambient temperature on us – and the house – and relating it to previous eras when central heating wasn’t a thing.
I grew up in cold regions – first in Lincolnshire, where the damp winds blow straight from the east and into your bones, then in Norway, where I don’t ever remember being cold despite the enduring snow and ice.
The difference between the two was marked. In Lincolnshire, the walls were brick-built, the roof space uninsulated and the metal-framed windows (single-glazed) leaked like crazy. At night, insulation was provided by heavy curtains. We had a coke boiler in the kitchen and a small fireplace in the drawing room. We ran around in wooly socks and balaclavas, shorts or skirts, little mittens, and Startrite shoes in which our toes froze. That was it.
In Norway, our wooden house was heavily insulated, the windows secondary glazed, and the solid fuel stove provided ample hot water as well as keeping the house warm. We dressed for the cold and never felt it.
What of now? We live in an old house with C16th origins and state-of-the-art additions built in 1902. The walls are thick, we have insulated the loft copiously, and have secondary-glazed the windows (the metal frames had 1cm gaps when we moved in).
The house gets very cold over a few days if left unheated. Until the 1990s it didn’t have central heating at all. However, every room has a working fireplace and the main rooms have big windows facing south. These windows gather the sun in winter but the angles ensure the rooms remain temperate in summer. On cold sunny days we don’t need additional heating until sunset. On cloudy days it is a different matter altogether and we light the fires and log burners in my study, the hall and the sitting room (I can’t write if my fingers and feet are cold). These keep the chill from those rooms, but the rest of the house remains unpleasantly cool.
So, after a month in which the outside temperature varied from a balmy +18 degrees to -1, we came to the conclusion that:
- To keep the fires stoked in all the rooms would require constant attention and barrow-loads of wood, notwithstanding the need for fuel to cook and heat water if we didn’t have a modern hob and oven.
- The sun is a vital source of heat – during daylight hours and when not obscured by cloud.
- Even with the fires lit and the sun shining, we have been unable to raise the temperature of the house to more than 16.5 degrees centigrade.
- Most of the house remains chilly, reminding me of my grandparents’ old home in Stamford, where we would scuttle as fast as we could to the lavatory and back to the relative warmth of the drawing room, admiring on the way the vapour rising through the stone-flagged floor.
- Being cold makes us prone to rattiness, less likely to leave the warm spots in the house, and generally curled in on ourselves as we huddle against the chill.
- We eat more.
- Shutting doors in the house makes a HUGE difference. And do you remember, ye of a certain age, the home-made draught excluders like long, stuffed sausages that sat at the bottom of the doors? We used them for a reason.
- Curtains, blinds, shutters are the BEST form of insulation at night.
- Household staff were a necessity if the home was larger than, say, a three-bedroomed house just to keep the fires burning.
- A plentiful and reliable supply of fuel was needed. Wood and charcoal were expensive for a reason.Coal was a Godsend – heavy, smelly and polluting though it was, it provided steady heat at higher temperatures than wood alone.
- Shutters weren’t just for privacy and security, but moderated the heat of the summer and the cold of winter.
- Multiple layers of clothing were both a necessity and a more efficient way of keeping warm. Long skirts are better than trousers (the toga/tunic/long gowns for both men and women might not be for today’s fashion conscious but, boy, were they practical.)
- Previous generations were hardier, more tolerant to cold because they had to be.
Shivering in this cold snap, we are thankful to have clothes to layer and to have south-facing windows to capture the sun when it shines – and wood, and the fireplaces in which to burn it, when it doesn’t. But I am acutely aware that most people don’t. Whether due to the current fuel crisis or because of an unjust war, too many people are without access to something we have become accustomed to over the last few generations: ready warmth. We can no longer rely on wood, oil, coal and gas to stave off winter cold, but must seek alternatives and soon. Complacency has just come face-to-face with reality.
New Book Release: The Wounds of Time by S.L. Russell
Hooray! Hurrah! The 21st March, 2022 sees the eagerly awaited launch of author S.L.Russell’s latest contemporary novel The Wounds of Time and, for me, this is her best novel to date.
Set in the fictional town of Brant, and maintaining the link with characters in each of the two preceding Brant novels – The Healing Knife and The Thorn of Truth – The Wounds of Time can be read as part of the series or as a stand-alone book.
The protagonist in this case is Janet, a strong-minded, independent woman of middling years, who has clawed her way out of a challenging childhood to become the highly respected Senior Clerk of Chambers. Top of her game and queen of her small realm, at first glance Janet is a prickly character and not someone that ticks the usual protagonist boxes. She can be abrasive, standoffish, even a touch arrogant. She doesn’t suffer fools and is quite likely to tell them as much. But beneath the hard shell is a woman with whom many readers can identify and therein lies just one aspect of S.L. Russell’s skill as a writer. The author deftly conjures a complex, believable character who faces difficult circumstances but does not neatly overcome them. Instead, Janet does what we all do: reacts imperfectly to changing circumstances, makes wrong decisions (albeit with good intentions), and alienates those closest to her as she builds a shield wall to protect herself and others. Simply put, Janet is a recognisable, multi-coloured individual, not bleached of her imperfections for the sake of narrative, but someone we grow to know and care about as we make the journey with her.
And while S.L. Russell’s books have a benign disposition (there is nothing offensive in terms of language or content) they are neither cosy nor sentimental. Each deals with life situations with a clear-sighted reality as down to earth and compassionate as the author herself. Sue Russell is the champion of real and The Wounds of Time is likely to provoke a degree of gentle self-reflection.
Tightly plotted and with a building tension, The Wounds of Time is written in a concise style with an exquisite use of language, leaving a lingering impression – a resonance akin to eating a fine, dark chocolate – delighting the senses and satisfying in its depth.
The Wounds of Time is available to order: https://amzn.to/3JqoJIk
Books in the Brant series:
Soggy Bottoms: Protecting Plants in Winter
The sun has made a welcome appearence and beckons to me. Plants are similarly beguiled and the first signs of spring are there in the green shoots beneath overhanging hedges. It’s that time of year when an unexpected frost can nip tender plants. As a result, I’ve been out and about protecting the most susceptible. Those that don’t need the shelter of the greenhouse – such as pelargoniums and over-wintered physalis – might still fall foul if we have a really sharp spell of cold weather.
The semi-hardy plants fall into three main categories: those that hate having soggy bottoms (and who doesn’t?) and crowns, those that loath dry winds and frost, and those that despise both. Open-structured stems especially fall prey to sub-zero temperatures, the moisture freezing and expanding until the stems are reduced to a brown, rotting mass.
In areas of the UK where a prologned frost can be expected most winters, it is traditional to lift softies like dahlias, but here is the balmy South West we can push our luck and leave the tubers in the ground. I’ve tried both ways, but prefer to leave the tubers undisturbed if I can. The east border is pretty much sheltered from the worst weather and what the walls can’t provide in terms of shelter, Salvia Hot Lips does the rest. On the south side of the house, though, the short border gets blasted by wind and rain straight off the sea. Here the dahlias need more than Salvia Amistad offers and I provide them with a thick coat of Strulch or other mulching material to protect them from the twin monsters of wet and cold. This seems to do the trick. I say that in the hope that we are not faced with another Beast From The East (although snow is a surprisingly good insulator).
I can’t mulch our tree ferns (Dicksonia antartica), but Eric and Ericson (see what I did there?) are on a raised terrace area and exposed to drying winds. They have been with us for decades and I used to cosset them with swathes of old towels covered with black bin liners until temperatures rose to a more acceptable 15 C. However, this made them more prone to rot in their lovely knobbly crowns, so an alternative method had to be employed. This proved to be an age-old method of using sacking stuffed with straw, allowing the wooly crowns to breath while providing an insulating layer.
It’s a method used extensively throughout the medieval period and is still used today. Now a cage of chicken wire restrains the straw over which sacking covers all. In the more distant past, open woven structures of willow or hazel might form a cone slipped over a frost-tender plant and this filled with straw. Vases or planters, too large to be moved from the open garden, could be wrapped in sacking to prevent frost shattering the fragile clay and to protect the contents. Smaller pots were often placed against a wall to gain the double benefit of shelter from icy winds and the release of stored warmth from the sun. If snow threatened, staves – bound together to make a crude trellis – could be propped at an angle like a lean-to and covered with sacking or sheaves of rushes as a make-shift roof.
Even now – when plastic umbrellas sprout over arid-loving plants in Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens like glossy mushrooms – the tried and tested methods prevail. Increasingly, I forego the use of plastics in favour of straw, the latter lending greater insulation than chilly plastic and the dubious benefits of horticultural fleece. As long as enough air can circulate around the crowns or necks, there is little risk of rot. And, if laid as a mulch, straw will protect the roots and keep the soil relatively warm. Come spring, worms will have integrated some of the material into the soil and the rest can be added to the compost heap. Both will add valuable nutrients to be taken up by new growth. Yet it is only by mid summer that I will discover whether my risky strategy has paid off when the dahlias begin to bloom.