A brief history of our favourite Christmas traditions

christmas-baubles

Well, here we are, December is already upon us, and for those who celebrate it but have failed to notice, Christmas is well and truly on its way. Traditionally popular for gift buying, December is the month Christmas shopping begins in earnest. It is also a time for other traditions; the trimming of trees, the hanging of lights, the writing of Christmas cards, letters to Santa, turkey and mince pies, absurdly silly knitwear and mistletoe and woe in soapland.

Therefore, as a writer and lover of history, I thought it would be interesting to explore some of our Christmas traditions and where they originate.

Medieval times brought us the Holly and the Ivy. The tradition of decorating the home with evergreens is an ancient one stretching back to pagan times. Evergreens were valued for their ability to retain life in the middle of winter and holly, traditionally thought to be masculine and ivy, feminine, were believed to bring stability to the home.

holly-and-ivy

Elizabethan times brought us sugar and spice and all things nice. ‘Eat, drink and be merry’ epitomised Christmas in Elizabethan England. Spectacle was of great importance and those households that could afford it, would indulge in a Christmas feast concluding in a banqueting course of sweet and colourful delicacies. Beautifully decorated sweetmeats were accompanied by hot drinks including ‘lambswool’ – made from hot ale, cider or sherry, apples and spices, which, when hot, would explode to create a ‘wooly’ top.

xmas-punch

Victorian times brought us the Christmas tree and the Christmas cracker. The image of a glittering tree, it’s branches illuminated by twinkling lights and decorations, is one of the most powerful and recognisable images of a ‘traditional’ Christmas. The introduction of such is said to be credited to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband – both great advocates of Christmas – however, he simply popularised an already existing custom originally introduced to England much earlier.

christmas-background

The story of the Christmas cracker is down to one man’s ingenuity; Tom Smith, a confectioner’s apprentice working in London in the early 19th century. After a trip to Paris in 1840, he admired the French sugared almond bon-bons wrapped in coloured tissue paper, and introduced them to London. Some years later, after watching logs crackle on a fire, he imagined a bon-bon with a bang. Adding a strip of paper – infused with chemicals which, when rubbed, created enough friction to produce a noise – inside a coloured paper wrapper containing mottoes and poems, the Christmas cracker was invented.

christmas-cracker

The Christmas Promise – my book review

the-christmas-promise

Originally posted in The Fens – A FREE lifestyle magazine with the heart and soul of the Fens (for further information follow the link here), this is my review of The Christmas Promise by Sue Moorcroft, published by Avon.

‘Hats off to Ava Bliss.’ The Christmas Promise promises, and delivers, a lovely Christmassy read with a little more to boot. Curl up with your favourite hot drink, or better still – a glass of wine, and settle down to the ups and downs of Ava Blissham in this modern, romantic festive tale.

Ava Blissham, milliner by trade, is struggling to make ends meet with her fledgling, bespoke hat making business. Christmas is fast approaching and as an only child, with both parents now retired and living abroad, Ava isn’t particularly looking forward to the festive season. Luckily Ava has a couple of good friends and a night out with them sees her being introduced to a possible love interest. However, the path to true love never runs smoothly, especially when there is a vengeful ex-boyfriend on the scene. Throw a spotlight on the pros and cons of the ‘instant sharing’ world of today’s internet based society, add some cyber bullying and revenge porn, not to mention the dazzling world of celebrities, including Ruby, the savvy wife of a famous footballer, plus an interesting insight into the cut and thrust world of viral marketing campaigns, and The Christmas Promise makes for a very modern day romance.

Set between London and the fictional Cambridgeshire town of Middledip, the narrative flows at a steady pace as does the storyline. As well as the two main protagonists, Ava and Sam, the author also introduces some other lovely, well-rounded characters, and Wendy was, without a doubt, one of my favourites – her strength of character and eternal optimism, despite the dark cloud hanging over her, at times reminded me of my own lovely mum.

Clearly well researched, The Christmas Promise also provides a fascinating insight into the craft of hat making. Add to that a liberal sprinkling of festive good cheer, despite Ava’s obvious dislike for Christmas (she has her reasons), readers will not be disappointed with a tale about romantic love, of family love, of friendships, old and new, and most of all, hope. A modern day cautionary tale gift wrapped in a traditional love story.

PS – if you’re lucky enough to have a current copy of The Fens (thanks to Sue and her lovely publisher) you can win a FREE signed copy of The Christmas Promise. Just turn to page 44 and follow the instructions. Good luck!

Mothers & teenage Daughters: the amusing facts and figures.

Mothers & teenage Daughters: the amusing facts and figures.

mother-daughter

Photo courtesy of Pixabay Free Images 

Originally posted in the (current) November 2016 issue of The Fens – A FREE lifestyle magazine with the heart and soul of the Fens (for more information see here) – here are some amusing facts about mothers and teenage daughters.

As both a mother and stepmother of teenage daughters, I had plenty of inspiration to draw from at home when writing my debut novel, 183 Times A Year – a humorous observation of contemporary family life. However, like most writers, I also carried out a great deal of research. These are just some of the interesting and amusing facts I discovered about mothers and their teenage daughters.

About teen girls and power

It is suggested that the mother-daughter relationship is so powerful it affects everything from a woman’s health to her self-esteem. Dr Christiane Northrup, author of the book Mother-Daughter Wisdom (Hay House), says, “The mother-daughter relationship is the most powerful bond in the world, for better or for worse. It sets the stage for all other relationships.”

Their need to separate

While most 5 year-old girls love their mothers with an unshakeable conviction, it’s often a different story by the time they reach their teens. The once-adored mother who rarely put a foot wrong is suddenly always doing or saying embarrassing things. Teenage daughters often feel torn between wanting to remain close to their mothers and wanting to separate.

The facts and figures

According to a survey posted in The Telegraph in May 2013 studying the relationship between teenage daughters and their mothers, the Facebook/Tweeting, selfie-taking, music and mobile phone obsessed teenage girl will, during a year:

  • Cry over boys 123 times
  • Slam 164 doors
  • Have 257 fights with brothers and sisters
  • Fall out with their friends 127 times despite spending 274 hours on the phone to them.
  • Guess what they do 183 times a year!

Hang on in there!

It is estimated that by the time a woman reaches the age of 23, she finally starts to acknowledge and appreciate everything her mother did for her. Most daughters are grateful for their mother’s guidance throughout the tough times, even though they failed to realise it at the time.

 

**Blog Tour** Her Last Breath by J. A. Schneider

her-last-breath

I’m very pleased to be taking part in the Blog Tour for Her Last Breath, the second psychological thriller by J.A. Schneider,  released on October 21st and described as…

A chilling psychological thriller about a woman caught between two men…
Mari Gill wakes to horror in a strange apartment next to a murdered man, and can’t remember the night before. Accused of murder, she feels torn between her husband, a successful defense attorney, and a mysterious, kind man who wants to help. Can she trust either of them – or even her friends? Detective Kerri Blasco battles her police bosses believing Mari is innocent…but is she?

Here, Joyce writes about how and where she writes and I totally understand her need for peace and quiet and the hectic days of raising small children! 

How and Where I Write

 by J.A. Schneider 

First, disclosure: my children are grown. As any author with young kids knows, that makes all the difference. I remember entire days never taking my jacket off, dropping off, picking up, driving to lessons, waiting trying to write in the car, or making a mad dash to the supermarket and then running back to pick up again. And always, in the scrambled-brains head, trying to figure the next page, the next sentence. I wrote in the oddest places! Once I got a whole two pages down in a pediatrician’s waiting room, filled with yelling, bawling, sneezing, coughing kids. “A contagion ward,” my husband called it when I got home. Oh yeah, I came down with strep thirty-six hours later. Couldn’t write or do much of anything for days. 

Frustrating times, end of disclosure. I was, and am, a good mom, but I’ve never forgotten those early, hard days of writing, the feeling of struggling against chaos. 

Which is why I now love as few distractions as possible…and sameness, predictability. Writing Fear Dreams and Her Last Breath, I tried to work daily from noon to six, give or take, in the same small room usually lying on my back on pillows with my laptop on my knees. It was pretty much the same writing my Embryo medical thriller series. The curtains stay closed, because if I look out I’ll fret that there’s weeding that needs doing or quick – move the car, it’s blocking the driveway, or no end of things. Even with the blinds closed, a gorgeous, glowing shaft of light will squeeze through and start slowly sweeping across the rug, and I’ll stare at it. Two minutes pass – it’s moved, the earth is turning faster than we realize, it’s like watching an ancient timepiece. Concentrate, self, I’ll think. Focus

Writing is incredibly hard, and it never gets easier. Thinking is hard. That, plus what I consider the hardest part: the first draft, the weeks and months of the daily blank page. For editing, after I’ve gone through all the tough, early drafts and I finally know what my story’s about…then I could work in Starbucks, or while waiting somewhere to pick up a loved one, or even standing in line at the supermarket, going over a familiar page in search of typos. 

But that’s when the story’s down, the hardest mental lifting part is over. For the weeks and months preceding that, I practically need a monk’s cell to do the job. And even then, I’d notice the spider spinning her web and become fascinated, or hear a bird and want to run to see it. Once, on a windy November day, I heard the most delicate thump against the window, and I had to run out and see. A little sparrow had broken its neck, and for the rest of the day my heart was broken. What do you do with a poor little dead sparrow? I got busy, it found is final resting place under a blue hydrangea, but I felt too depressed after that to work. 

Friends have suggested that I use earphones and listen to music. “It’s terrific,” they tell me. “Shuts out the world!” 

Wouldn’t work with me. I’d be constantly tempted to switch to Bob Seger, wake up my sleepy head with his “Roll Me Away,” or “Centerfield.” I love music. Have no need for earphones, actually, music often goes through my mind as I write. There are some Beethoven concertos that also help. 

But those daily six hours in my “cell,” argh, headache. Once, writing Her Last Breath, I decided to give my smart NYPD Detective Kerri Blasco a headache she had to force herself through. It worked. The scene got written because I made the character feel what I felt. 

Eureka! Writing that scene was my first taste of a new kind of progress – give my problems to my characters, let them slog their way through it. A lot of writing got done that day of Kerri’s headache. Maybe I won’t need that monk’s cell after all… 

Her Last Breath is available to purchase here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
 
J.A. (Joyce Anne) Schneider is a former staffer at Newsweek Magazine, a wife, mom, and reading addict. She loves thrillers…which may seem odd, since she was once a major in French Literature – wonderful but sometimes heavy stuff. Now, for years, she has become increasingly fascinated with medicine, forensic science, and police procedure. Decades of being married to a physician who loves explaining medical concepts and reliving his experiences means there’ll often be medical angles even in “regular” thrillers that she writes. She lives with her family in Connecticut, USA.
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herlastbreath-poster_465x679px

Cover Reveal for Her Last Breath by J.A. Schneider

I’m very pleased to share with you the cover for Her Last Breath, the second psychological thriller by J.A. Schneider, is due for release on October 21st.  #HerLastBreath is the second thriller – after Fear Dreams – featuring highly intuitive NYPD detective Kerri Blasco. Here’s the blurb to whet your appetite…

A chilling psychological thriller about a woman caught between two men…

Mari Gill wakes to horror in a strange apartment next to a murdered man, and can’t remember the night before. Accused of murder, she feels torn between her husband, a successful defense attorney, and a mysterious, kind man who wants to help. Can she trust either of them – or even her friends? Detective Kerri Blasco battles her police bosses believing Mari is innocent…but is she?

It begins in horror…

Mari Gill’s hand felt sticky.

That was the first thing to trouble her, still clinging to the safe, solid darkness of sleep. Next came pain in her head, a different kind of pain from the other thing, so she squeezed her eyes shut, dreading the day…

…but the stickiness bothered.

Involuntarily, she felt her fingers open and close.

Something was wrong there, in her hand. She squinted open; peered at it. 

Red.

Her palm was smeared dark red.

She blinked. Saw more red smear on her forearm, then the torn cap sleeve of last night’s black dress, then the sheet under her arm, stained with…

“Huh?” Her eyes grew wide before her mind processed it.

Thrashing onto her back, Mari saw bloodied sheet reaching halfway up the torn front of her dress, and then saw an arm. A man’s arm, faintly blue and blood-smeared – and with a cry her whole body practically flipped from the bed. “Oh God!”

She hit the floor hard and then scrabbled back up, gaped wildly and saw him. Her shocked vision jumped and saw two then one then two of him on his back, eyes closed, mouth open dribbling caked blood. She froze; gasped. Couldn’t take in air seeing his black hair, his chest hidden under a tent of bloodied sheet. 

“Mister?”

A high, involuntary whisper. Mari’s heart rocketed but she felt compelled; jerked out a hand and pulled away the sheet.

Under it a knife, its handle long and black, protruding from his chest. 

“Oh God!” Her scream got it out but used up breath as she spun on her knees, recognizing the new trouble. Where was her handbag? What was this place? Who was that guy?

Her bag, her bag…she crawled over hardwood and a man’s flung jacket and hit a cold, metal pole. Something crashed down on her, crashed to the floor but she crawled more, over broken shards with her breath coming harder, wheezing high like a small, dying animal. 

Where, where…? She gasped and scrabbled. 

There.

Her bag, way under a desk. How could it be under a desk? She was always so careful to keep it close but no time to think, she was upon it, fingers fluttering getting it open, her cries a child’s high mewling as she dug past her phone – no time to call – found her inhaler, got her fingers around it then saw it fly from her and skitter through an open doorway.

“No…”

Wheezing harder she crawled toward it, the little white plastic thing that meant life or death to her. Her chest heaved, and heaved again. Her vision blurred and she couldn’t pull in air. She made it through the door onto a wider floor, was inches away with her hand reaching desperately. 

Then her vision darkened and she collapsed, crying; lay her cheek down on the polished cold hardwood. From far away she heard a crash. Her eyes closed. She lay, her fingers stretched futilely toward the inhaler. Her desperate wheezing stopped. 

Running feet. Someone’s hands on her, strong hands. “Lady! Omigod, lady!” 

From deepest, dying sleep she felt herself raised up; heard a voice, urgent, telling her to breathe, breathe – “Please, lady!”

She felt hard plastic pushed through her lips. Felt the little blast of life, then a man’s warm stubble press his lips on hers. He was breathing her. Two good breaths and then holding her, rocking her. 

Her eyes stayed closed as she heard him call 9-1-1…

*****************

So…are you ready for the cover reveal? Here goes…

her-last-breath

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
 
J.A. (Joyce Anne) Schneider is a former staffer at Newsweek Magazine, a wife, mom, and reading addict. She loves thrillers…which may seem odd, since she was once a major in French Literature – wonderful but sometimes heavy stuff. Now, for years, she has become increasingly fascinated with medicine, forensic science, and police procedure. Decades of being married to a physician who loves explaining medical concepts and reliving his experiences means there’ll often be medical angles even in “regular” thrillers that she writes. She lives with her family in Connecticut, USA.
joyce-schneider

Author Guest Post by Ross Greenwood

lazy-blood-new

I’m extremely pleased to introduce fellow local author to me, Ross Greenwood. Ross is the author of the debut novel Lazy Blood. Now published by Bloodhound Books with a brilliant new cover, I thought this would be a great opportunity to remind everyone why they should read his book.

Are your friends to die for?

Did you make friends at school?
Are they still your friends now?
Do you trust them?
Will is on his way to prison. His life is a mess, but who is to blame?

Here, Ross talks about what inspired him to write and he also gives us a brief idea of what to expect from his second upcoming novel The Boy Inside.

‘Lazy Blood.’

By Ross Greenwood

I never wanted to go to prison. It was certainly not one of my choices at school when asked. Doctor, postman maybe, radiographer (obviously later on), never prison. I had passed my A-levels but was so unfocussed I just decided to get a job. As the years went by I seem to find myself working in a variety of call centres. First, as a phone jockey and then as a manager. Good money, as I was good at it, but hardly inspiring stuff. I found myself never staying in one job for long. Even now, at 42, the last job at 4 years’ service is over twice as long as anything I had achieved before.

I found myself travelling to get my thrills. The usual holidays when I was young, 18-30 etc., European capitals, then later 3 months in Asia and a year in Australia. More obscure capitals followed, living in Spain and then a month in Indonesia and 3 months in South America, before unexpectedly (how did that happen) children arrived. It was at that point, as I was trying buy-to-let and being a landlord, that the need to write a book was becoming very difficult to put aside. I had met such a range of people and had participated in so many amusing, mad events that I hoped I had a book people would be interested in.

I began what eventually became Lazy Blood. Life gets in the way and soon the need to get a job outweighed the urge to finish the book. I was stuck anyway. I had managed to mould many different attributes of hundreds of different people into four likeable and flawed characters, but I was struggling for a start and a beginning; the bite that would make the book interesting and exciting.

I wanted a career change though. No more insurance companies and depressing Mondays, I wanted something exciting. I was going to get it. I actually wanted to join the Police but, as you can imagine, my CV wasn’t going to stand any kind of investigation. The prison service wasn’t so fussy. As government cuts bite it is even less so now, the staff are leaving in droves.

After the training, how I got through those first few weeks I will never know. Only a commitment to myself to finish what I started got me through that period. HMP Peterborough is a B-category local jail. The hardest type to work in. We were constantly understaffed, sometimes running 80 man wings on your own for hours at a time. It is a revolving door for some, the drug addicts and shoplifters, but it takes all the prisoners from Cambridge, Huntingdon and Peterborough Crown and Magistrates Courts.

So there were murderers, rapists and psychopaths merged in with dangerous drivers, embezzlers and drug dealers. All of them meshed together in a crazy world of violence, depression, suicide, anxiety, drug abuse, self-harm and disorganisation that they weren’t allowed to escape from.

Obviously after a little while I had more ideas and stories than I could ever imagine. I was desperate to get back to writing my book. All the time the book was percolating and composting in my head. I think that was one of my coping mechanisms. When they wanted volunteers to put riot gear on and break up a barricade, I would be there, sometimes just for the experience. When you work in that environment, you certainly know you are alive. Then another child came along and the book went back on the shelf.

By that time I had got to grips with the job. I found consistency, professionalism and politeness with a certain amount of apathy was generally the best way to get the job done. Aggression and arguing generally led to assaults and rage. The prisoners get to know you too. They know which officers will help them and they are also fully aware what a tough job it is.

Another year went by and I took child friendly hours and started to work in Resettlement. The idea behind it was that you assisted them when they arrived in prison. For example, ringing the bank for them, finishing tenancies and then when it was time to leave you set about making sure people had somewhere to go. Unfortunately that wasn’t always achievable.

This job still had its difficulties as some people were almost impossible to help. There are many charities out there and Peterborough Council do a brilliant job in housing people, but If you have been made to sign the sex offenders register or, worse, are an arsonist, then it is very hard to find somewhere for you to live as there is a duty of care to existing residents.

I got to chat to a lot of people and got much more material! I still wanted to finish my book and my boy gave me the opportunity. He was waking for his four a.m. feed and with a sense of determination that this was my time, I completed it in the early morning hours. Lazy Blood is available on amazon and has been well received. Just £1.99 until the 1st May.

Prison is a crazy place, not for the faint hearted. It is an unnatural environment but not what people expect. Prison for most is Bad Girls, Shawshank, Prison Break and Porridge. A British jail is none of these things. Most people there are not ‘bad’ people. Sure there are career criminals and obviously these figure strongly in the book too. That’s why we love crime books, but many have just done something stupid. Perhaps used their phone whilst driving and killed someone. Silly things with terrible consequences. Got involved with drugs and had to steal to service their habit. Maybe borrowed a few quid from work and things have got out of hand, or had a few beers and got in a fight. These things could happen to most of us. This is their story too. The list is endless and so are the ideas for characters.

I finally left the job after nearly four years to get my first book published and take a year out to do some more writing. I will look back fondly on my time there though. By far and away it was the worst job I ever had, but it was also the best job. I worked with some amazing people as well. The money wasn’t great, but the commitment had to be. I’m nearly six foot tall, mature (ish) and fourteen stone so I walked on those wings armed with physical presence and life experience. You had to bow your head to small school leavers on their first day in the job, whose nervous hands fumbled with confusing keys, as they entered the abyss.

What I wanted to focus on for my second book, ‘The Boy Inside,’ was one of the more depressing and sad parts of prison society. The young. Before you judge these boys in hoodies you should really have walked a mile in their shoes. I know that is a little cliché but many of them never stood a chance. Parents who were drug dealers for example, or no parents at all.

Once you are in the police and prison system, especially as a juvenile, it is hard to get out. The people in it often do not have the skills, knowledge or finances to climb out of the hole they are in. They become careless, chaotic and have no expectation of any kind of future. They are a burden to society and there seems to be little appetite to deal with these issues. There are many who work tirelessly with young people and try to get them back on track, often without being paid, but it is hard work and often unsuccessful.

Ironically to paraphrase The Shawshank Redemption, a life without hope is a terrible thing. Many of these issues are brought up in ‘Lazy Blood’ and the ‘The Boy Inside,’ but they are also books about persistence, determination and luck. In some ways they are also modern love stories. I hope to change your perception of those who end up in prison, but after reading these novels there is one thing I can be sure of. You will never want to go there yourself.

Lazy Blood is out at amazon now, read the reviews and you decide.

www.rossgreenwoodauthor.com

After you have finished the book you can visit the website and see if you can match the locations in the story to those on the site. Some of the names have been changed for obvious reasons. All the best, Ross.

If you want to connect with Ross on social media you can find him on Facebook and on Twitter @greenwoodross.

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