Friday, December 31, 2010

Year's End

I'm really not sure how I manage to kid myself that I have enough time to blog, read or knit much in December, but I fall for it every year. Somehow, between one December and the next I forget that it's not just the extra day of work each week that sucks up my spare time (such as it is) but also the weariness that comes from working extra, extra hard for those few crucial weeks in the shop. Someone remind me next year, will you?

Anyway it's all over now, bar the January sales, and I have a few days off (in a row!) now so I can get back up to date with the blog and the housework and all the other sad neglected stuff.

I'm having a little trouble remembering what I've read since the last update. I went on a bit of a Stuart MacBride kick, reading first Dark Blood (out in paperback in January) and then the proof of Shatter the Bones (thanks to Karen at Eurocrime for that). Both are excellent. They seem to be getting darker though as the series goes on, less of the gallows humour, more of the stuff that makes you wince when you read it. They're not for the faint-hearted these books, but they are well-written and the characters are wonderful. I do think, should you be reading this Stuart, that it may be time you gave Logan McRae a break - how much misery can you heap on one man? Can something nice happen to him? Just once?

I had a proof (courtesy of Little, Brown) of the new Dennis Lehane novel Moonlight Mile (out in hardback in January), which is a long-awaited return to his Kenzie-Gennaro partnership. The story is set some 12 years after the events of Gone Baby, Gone in which the four year old Amanda McCready was kidnapped. Amanda's aunt contacts Patrick because Amanada is missing again. Patrick, who's doing corporate investigative work to pay the bills (and hating it) really doesn't want to open that old can of worms again, to rehash all those old moral dilemmas, especially as he's still not sure he did the right thing back then. Eventually though he gets dragged back into the case, and into a world he thought he'd left behind. This is intelligent crime fiction at it's best. I love Lehane's writing style. He's not afraid to pose difficult moral questions of the reader and of his characters. And it's immensely readable, just sucking you straight into the story and keeping you gripped, right to the end. I really didn't want to put it down. This caused me a problem with my Christmas knitting, but more of that later.

Now I'm reading Telling Tales by Ann Cleeves, which is one of the books being adapted for TV by ITV. The series will be called Vera (after the main detective Vera Stanhope) and stars Brenda Blethyn. My copy is a battered ex-library paperback, but they've been repackaged for the TV series with new covers and are in the shops now.

Also at the moment I am reading Findings by Kathleen Jamie. This was recommended by someone, either a fellow blogger, or on a podcast somewhere, I really can't remember, but it sounded interesting. It's very much a book to dip in and out of meaning that it's been perfect for December when I haven't really been able to concentrate on anything for long. All I knew about this book was that the writer lived in Fife and that it was a sort of travelogue of her journeys around Scotland. Reading the first few chapters however I realised that I recognised some of the landscapes she was describing, and it turns out that she lives in Newburgh, where my parents used to live, and where I lived myself for a few years before I left home. This makes it all the more interesting to me, quite apart from the fascinating detail about wildlife and the landscape and history which pepper the narrative. She's obviously very influenced by George MacKay Brown who is one of my favourite writers, referring to him often thoughout the pages. If it was you who recommended this then I thank you. One of my favourite books this year.

Talking of favourite books - it's that time again. Time to figure out my favourite European crime books of the year for Karen's annual list over at Eurocrime. And next up - drumroll - the traditional Mysterious Yarns Book Awards.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Little Christmas Present

By way of an apology for my lack of posting though December, (and apparently November too) I've got a little story for you. It's a little Christmas present for you all. I hope you like it.

The Winter of the Wolves

It started, this endless winter, back in December of 2010. There was an unseasonable cold spell and deep snow covered Northern Europe. Up here in the valley, on the Welsh border, we scoffed at the soft city dwellers as they floundered in the drifts and the airports closed and the trains stopped running. By the end of January however it was no longer a joke as the country ground to a halt and food rationing was introduced.

Scientists argued constantly on every radio and TV program as to the cause of the extreme weather. Climate change, said some. New Ice Age, claimed others. No-one seemed to have an explanation. They just knew that the polar ice cap had expanded and that the ice now reached down over Europe, North America and most of Asia. No one knew when it would end.

March came and brought no let up. There were riots in the cities where local services had stopped entirely and there were shortages of bread, milk and other essentials.

By June, the government had fled to Zimbabwe, from where they issued edicts on how to keep warm. Europe was forced to go cap in hand to Africa and ask for its help. Africa declined. It could barely feed itself. There was nothing to spare for Europe.

There were fewer angry broadcasts now, blaming people with gas-guzzling cars, or frequent fliers. The Pope, broadcasting from his tent in Buenos Aires, blamed godlessness, and told the Frozen North it should repent. The Frozen North ignored him and went on trying to survive.

Here, at home, we carried on the best we could. Lambing was late, causing problems for the ewes, and we lost a few. The lambs didn’t thrive anyway with no spring grass to nourish the mothers. Our winter stores of feed began to dwindle, as did our larder.

It was in August that we first heard the wolves. We never did find out where they came from. Over the frozen seas from Scandinavia maybe, or through the Channel Tunnel from France. The howling seemed to carry on all night. There were reports in the neighbourhood of missing children. People began to venture out less, and only then if armed with guns. We saw less and less of our neighbours until it seemed that we were the only people left in the valley, just Trevor and I.

We slaughtered the last of the sheep, salted the meat and retreated into our ever-narrowing, monochrome world. Staying warm was top priority so we shut up and abandoned most of the cottage, using just the one room with the wood-burning stove. Collecting wood for the stove became almost our sole occupation. When we had used the logs in the woodpile, we burned the fence posts, the doors from the outhouses and most of the furniture. We avoided the woods for fear of the wolves. In the beginning Trevor used to bring back birds he had shot, or the odd skinny rabbit, but they became fewer and fewer until we realised we hadn’t heard any birdsong for weeks. Every night I could still hear the wolves.

Three weeks ago Trevor went out to gather wood and didn’t some back. He left a note that said “I’m sorry.” I used the note to restart the stove. Paper was precious as kindling. We had burned almost all the books we had.

Last week someone came to the door, knocked loudly for a while then left. I was too afraid to open the door. I just sat in the dark and waited for them to leave. Some hours later then I looked out there were footprints in the snow, leading away up the valley. A wolf howled somewhere near so I shut the door again and bolted it tightly.

The world is crisply white as far as the eye can see, and totally silent. There are no birds anymore to sing, no insects to buzz. The water in the stream is frozen solid. Everything is quiet and still. It should be beautiful but instead it is menacing.

There is almost no food left. A few dried beans, a scrap of sinewy, dried mutton. I need to go out and get some wood or the stove will go out. I don’t dare let it go out these days for fear that I won’t be able to get it relit. Without the stove there is no heat and no way to melt snow for water to drink.

I venture out, bundled tightly in many layers of clothing, in search of fuel. There is a strange air today, something different about the sky. I dismiss this fancy and concentrate on finding sticks. It is not easy. I have been over this ground so many times, but there has been a little wind and a few trees have shed some twigs in this direction so I collect enough to last a few hours, enough to get me through the night.

When I go through the door of the cottage something odd happens. A drip of water falls on my face. I stop and look up. Another drop lands in my eye. I put down my bundle of wood and walk back across the yard to look down the valley. I can see nothing different but I feel the breeze, and realise that it is coming from the south. Then far, far off I see a faint glimmer of sunshine break through the clouds briefly. It is meaningless in this wintry world, but still it warms my soul. I turn and go back towards the cottage.

I have left my pile of wood in the doorway, letting in the cold air. I curse and drag the wood inside towards the stove, closing the door tightly behind me. I bend and warm my numb fingers on the faint heat of the metal and fantasize about a cup of hot coffee.

It is then that I feel the hot damp breath on my cheek and hear a faint low growl.