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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

All About Covers!

Today I am very excited to post the new cover for my e-book The Secrets of a Courtesan which will be available from MIRA/HMB in May. I think it is beautiful and I hope you like it too. This is the style for the UK covers of my Fortune's Folly books and I really love them! Details of all the books in the series are on my website.

Meanwhile in more cover news, the cover of my book The Scandals of an Innocent has been nominated in the Cover Cafe Contest as one of the best book covers of 2009! Click here to take a look. I was thrilled to see covers nominated from two of my UK colleagues, Louise Allen and Jo Beverley. For a look at the full line-up of all nominated covers, click here!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Recipe of the week!

Recipe of the week this week is Tipsy Cake. This is more of a dessert than a cake and was apparently enjoyed by eighteenth century bucks (who seldom turned away anything with a whiff of alcohol). It was traditionally served at ball suppers. I chose it because I like the name and I also love the thought of young ladies meekly drinking lemonade and then becoming completely cast away on a pudding that had enough alcohol in it to sink a battleship!


1 large sponge cake, three or four days old.
Enough sweet wine or sherry to saturate it (about half a pint!)
6 tablespoons of brandy (because there isn't enough alcohol in it already!)
2 oz sweet almonds
1 pint rich custard
ratafia biscuits or macaroons

Cut the bottom of the cake so that it sits flat in the serving dish. Make a hole in the centre and pour in and over the cake the wine, sherry and brandy mixture. Blanch and cut the almonds into strips and stick them all over the cake once it is well soaked. Pour the custard around the base and garnish with the biscuits. Enjoy!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Is the White Horse really a Dragon?

Today is St George's Day, the patron saint of England, and in celebration I am posting up a picture of the actual place where he slew the dragon. Yes, Dragon Hill, near Uffington in Oxfordshire has been identified as the site of the dragon-slaying and as "proof " there is a patch of chalk on the top of the hill where the grass never grows because this was where the dragon's blood was spilt. You can see the patch in the photograph. It's a wonderful story and a fabulously atmospheric place.

According to legend, St George was a Roman soldier who killed the dragon to save a princess. In this picture the dragon appears to be smaller than St George's horse, which isn't really a fair fight, and the setting doesn't bear much resemblance to Uffington but we must allow for artistic licence.

Just above Dragon Hill is Uffington Castle, an Iron Age hillfort and on the side of the hill is one of the most famous chalk figures in the country, the Uffington White Horse, which has been dated as being over 3000 years old. To the west of Dragon Hill is "the manger" (picture below right) where the horse is said to come down to graze on the night of the seventh moon.

But some people think that the famous Uffington White Horse is actually a depiction of St George's Dragon. Horse or dragon? What do you think?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Have you ever had a library fine?

Up until about a year ago I had never had a library fine. It was something of a point of honour for me; I prided myself that I was never late taking books back and I always remembered to renew if I needed a book for longer than the date it was due. Perhaps this was because as a child I loved the library at my primary school and then as I grew older libraries became an incredibly important part of my life. We seldom bought new books in our family because of the cost, but I knew that I could find whatever I wanted in the local library and if it wasn't there already they would order it in for me. The fact that my local library was housed in an imposing Victorian building with grandiose architecture, high ceilings and huge windows was an added bonus.

It was in my local library that I first discovered Mills & Boon romance books and I went back week after week to borrow my full allowance, becoming quite annoyed that the authors' output didn't seem to be able to keep up with my borrowing habit. Later I studied in grand libraries in London and Oxford and the highlight of my library habit was going to the Bodleian Library in Oxford to take the oath all students have to make not to burn the place down.

Anyway, back to that library fine. Given this history of blameless library devotion you can imagine how I felt last year when I discovered that I had inadvertently kept a book for one day longer than the due date and that I therefore owed my local library five pence in fines. I was very disappointed in myself.

It cheered me up a great deal to read in the paper yesterday that George Washington, founder of a nation and the man who trounced the English, had taken out two volumes from the New York Society Library on 5 October 1789 and had failed to return them. George Washington has always struck me as a conscientious sort of character, as I am, and so the fact that he could make a mistake like this made me feel a lot better. Even more so when I read that his library fine now stood at roughly $300 000 in present day terms. The works in question were and essay in international affairs called Law of Nations and the 12th volume of a 14 volume collection of debates from the British House of Commons. The ledger apparently has a quill pen entry referring to the borrower as "President" and the volumes should have been handed back by 2nd November the same year. Or renewed, presumably, if Washington wanted to keep them for further perusal.

Apparently other borrowers were more efficient than Washington in returning their books on time. The first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, the first chief justice, John Jay, and Aaron Burr, Jefferson's vice-president, are all listed in the ledger as returning their books on time.

Have you ever had a library fine or do you have an unblemished record?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The influence of volcanoes in the Georgian/Regency period

In 1990 we took a trip to Iceland, driving ourselves around the entire country in a Land Rover and camping out in some of the most remote and extraordinary places I have ever seen. As a trip it was superb. One of the places we went to was the Krafla volcano, where we walked around the explosion crater of Viti (translated as "hell"). The rock beneath our feet was warm, steam was rising from the vents and the smell of rotten eggs was strong. Every indication was that this was a volcano that was sleeping but not very deeply. I remember it as one of the occasions in my travels when I felt least safe (and that's up against some stiff competition!) but it was utterly awe-inspiring.

The recent problems caused by the Icelandic Eyjafjallajoekull volcano reminded me of this trip and also made me wonder about the influence other volcanoes had had on societies in the past so I did a quick bit of research and here are the results, courtesy of the BBC, which has provided some fascinating information on historic eruptions. From the downfall of political systems to inspiration for art and literature and the invention of the bicycle, volcanoes have a lot to answer for!

The Laki volcanic fissure in southern Iceland (featured above) erupted over an eight-month period from 8 June 1783 to February 1784, spewing lava and poisonous gases that devastated the island's agriculture, killing much of the livestock. It is estimated that perhaps a quarter of Iceland's population died through the ensuing famine. Then, as now, there were more wide-ranging impacts. In Norway, the Netherlands, the British Isles, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, in North America and even Egypt, the Laki eruption had its consequences, as the haze of dust and sulphur particles thrown up by the volcano was carried over much of the northern hemisphere.

Ships moored up in many ports, effectively fogbound. Crops were affected as the fall-out from the continuing eruption coincided with an abnormally hot summer. A clergyman, the Rev Sir John Cullum, wrote to the Royal Society that barley crops "became brown and withered … as did the leaves of the oats; the rye had the appearance of being mildewed". The British naturalist Gilbert White described that summer in his classic Natural History of Selborne as "an amazing and portentous one … the peculiar haze, or smokey fog, that prevailed for many weeks in this island, and in every part of Europe, and even beyond its limits, was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man. "The sun, at noon, looked as blank as a clouded moon, and shed a rust-coloured ferruginous light on the ground, and floors of rooms; but was particularly lurid and blood-coloured at rising and setting. At the same time the heat was so intense that butchers' meat could hardly be eaten on the day after it was killed; and the flies swarmed so in the lanes and hedges that they rendered the horses half frantic … the country people began to look with a superstitious awe, at the red, louring aspect of the sun."

Across the Atlantic, Benjamin Franklin wrote of "a constant fog over all Europe, and a great part of North America".The disruption to weather patterns meant the ensuing winter was unusually harsh, with consequent spring flooding claiming more lives. In America the Mississippi reportedly froze at New Orleans. The eruption is now thought to have disrupted the Asian monsoon cycle, prompting famine in Egypt. Environmental historians have also pointed to the disruption caused to the economies of northern Europe, where food poverty was a major factor in the build-up to the French revolution of 1789.

The eruption of Tambora in Indonesia in April 1815 is thought to have ejected 50 cubic km or more of material and pumped vast amounts of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. The cloud from Tambora caused an unusual chill, lowering global temperatures by an estimated 0.4-0.7C. In parts of Europe and in North America, 1816 became known as "the year without a summer".

Frosts killed off crops in New England and Canada and Europe was also hit badly. The volcanic cloud from Tambora is thought to have been responsible for the unusual, yellow-tinged sunsets painted by JMW Turner. The unseasonable weather also trapped Mary Shelley and her husband Percy in Lord Byron's house on Lake Geneva. To divert his guests, Lord Byron suggested a writing competition, the most notable result of which was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In Europe, the soaring price of oats - which were fed to horses - may have prompted German inventor Karl Drais to invent a horseless form of transport: the velocipede, which was a direct ancestor of the bicycle.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The History of the Loch Ness Monster

I first had the idea for this post when I was reading about Big Cat sightings in the newspaper. Notwithstanding my post a few weeks ago about the extinction of various wild species in the UK, I wondered if there had been reports of big cats roaming the UK countryside in the 19th century or earlier. That led me on to thinking about Scottish Wild Cats and from there I leapt to Loch Ness, metaphorically speaking. So here is a potted history of the Loch Ness Monster. I do like quirky history.

Nessie was apparently first spotted by the Vikings. Celtic and Norse folklore has stories of water horses seen in the lochs. However, we do have to acknowledge that stories of terrifying Each Uisge, water horses, are quite common in Gaelic folklore so perhaps these cannot be taken as conclusive evidence.

The first written account of a meeting with the Loch Ness monster seems to be that of Adamnan in 565 A.D. He describes St. Columba's sighting of a very large monster in Loch Ness. Legend tells of how St. Columba heard about the monster's murder of a man and how he rowed out to the centre of the loch to order the beast to desist from such attacks in the future. This account was written almost a century after the events took place and is open to interpretation. It is only one of many miracles attributed to St Columba so again (sorry!) perhaps we need to be a little sceptical on authenticity.

After this, written accounts of monster encounters seem thin on the ground. One Duncan Campbell witnessed ‘a terrible creature on the shores of the Loch’ in 1522. In 1650 Richard Franck reported seeing "swimming islands" in Loch Ness. The monster was seen in the nineteenth century but apparently the man who sighted the beast was so shocked he did not speak much about the incident which seems rather a pity.

So what do you think? Is it possible that a creature that apparently looks like a seal or an eel, a slug or even a sheep (!) that is from 25 to 75 foot long, could live under the waters of Loch Ness? And could it possibly have survived from the 6th century to the present day? Or is it just a folk tale of the sort that all cultures seen to have, whether it is Bigfoot, the Yeti or Nessie?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Few Little Known Facts about Gold

I was in the mood for trivia today and so a piece in the paper caught my eye: Ten little known facts about gold. I'm a bit of a silver girl myself, but who can resist the lure of a few doubloons? Here are a few choice facts.

Almost all the rocks and soil in the world contain traces of gold. Most of it could not be mined profitably. All the gold that has ever been mined would make a cube 20 metres on each side. This doesn't seem very much to me!

Gold is a safe food additive. Edible gold and silver leaf is classified as a natural food additive. When the Wispa Bar was relaunched in 2009 a gold leaf covered special edition was produced that cost £961.48, supposedly the precise value of its weight in gold.

Gold has been used by humans since the early bronze age 6000 years ago. It was particularly highly prized in ancient Egypt. Tutankhamun's inner coffin is made of 110kg of pure gold.

HMS Sussex, an English warship lost off Gibraltar in 1694, contained tonnes of gold coin to fund the Duke of Savoy, an ally of Britain in the War of the League of Augsburg against France. The ship sank in a severe storm on her first major voyage. Today the gold and silver it carried is thought to be worth up to $1 billion.

The largest horde of Anglo Saxon gold ever discovered in the UK was found recently in a Staffordshire field. It is thought to be the loot of a Mercian raiding party from circa 700 AD. Whenever I hear of finds like that I always wonder why no one came back for the treasure. Perhaps there was another battle and the raiders were killed. Or they buried it and then couldn't find it again. We'll never know...

In St Mary's Church at Lydiard Park Swindon is the Golden Cavalier, a full sized effigy of Edward St John emerging from his tent in full battledress. Captain St John died of wounds after the 2nd Battle of Newbury in the English Civil War.

Gold has always been recycled so the jewellery we are wearing today could well contain gold once worn by a Roman or an Incan. I love the thought that a Roman on Hadrian's Wall might have been wearing a gold brooch and now a speck of that gold is in my wedding ring!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Do you like licorice?

I haven't thought about licorice for years and then recently I saw a TV programme about it that reminded me how much my grandfather adored it - and how much I hated the flavour of it myself. There are some foodstuffs that if anyone asked me where they came from, I would have to think hard before I replied. Licorice is one of them. Did I even know it grew on trees? (Well, in bushes). I'm not sure that I did. Yet the history of licorice growing in Pontefract, a town near where I grew up in Yorkshire, is fascinating.

The precise date when licorice arrived in Britain is unrecorded. It could have been brought over by the Romans, as it grew well in Europe, or it may have been brought back from the Crusades. In medieval times it was a plant well known for its medicinal qualities (although in the programme I was watching we were told that it makes your teeth fall out and causes high blood pressure! My grandfather suffered from high blood pressure for years. Now I know why.)

The first mention of licorice growing in Pontefract was in the 1500s and during the English Civil War in the 17th century, the siege plans of Pontefract Castle show a "licorice garth" between the castle and the siege works. As an aside, during the sieges of Pontefract Castle rough coins were struck to pay the troops. Following the execution of Charles I, the royalist motto became "After the death of the father, we are for the son" and this can be seen on the Pontefract Siege Coins. It remains the motto of the town today. Anyway, it is known that medical "Pontefract Cakes" made of licorice were being made from as early as 1614. Around 1720, the Dunhill family rented land in the Castle to grow licorice. George Dunhill, who became a chemist, claims to have made the first Licorice, or Liquorice, Confectionery, by adding sugar in 1760. The production of licorice sweets became a booming cottage industry, with families contracted to sweet firms. They soaked the roots in hot water in their homes then having passed it through their household mangles, they boiled the liquor on the kitchen cooking range. At harvest time all the family became involved, with the men digging up the roots and the women and children picking it.

By the 1940s, Pontefract was producing 400 tons of licorice a week and exporting it all over the world. The industry went into a decline as land use came under pressure because the crop took so long to mature and so it was cheaper to import licorice from the continent.

Licorice contains Vitamin E, B1, B2, B3, B6, B9 complex, Biotin, Lecithin, Manganese, Niacin, Pantothenic Acid, Phosphorus, Protein, Zinc and other trace elements, and has been used for centuries to treat a huge variety of ailments. A word of warning, though - it is also a laxative. There are various licorice recipes here. Try as I might, though, I cannot embrace the idea of licorice and tomato soup!

Monday, April 5, 2010


This weekend I visited a fabulous little antiquarian bookshop, Evergreen Livres, in the historic market town of Stow on the Wold. It's the sort of bookshop I can easily go mad in and spend a fortune on out of print historical reference books. It has a great stock of unusual and reasonably priced books, the owners are very friendly and they have a cute dog - all recommendations as far as I'm concerned.

One of the books I picked up was about fans. I have been aware of the language of fans for a while, although I knew nothing about what the different signals meant. Now I can see how you could build an entire story around this clever and complicated art. Some of my favourite gestures/ messages are:

Placing the fan on the left ear - I wish to get rid of you.
Drawing the fan across the forehead - You have changed.
Covering the left ear with the open fan -Do not betray our secret

I can see a couple of difficulties here, not least that some of these gestures seem quite odd and might draw attention. Also if you were trying to communicate with someone who did not understand the language, you'd be fanning away to no effect. But it is an intriguing idea.

Another aspect that fascinated me was the sheer variety of different styles of fan. I love the idea of an aide memoire fan decorated with the steps of a dance or the rules of card games, so that you could jog your memory if you became stuck in the quadrille. Almanac fans, displaying historical data didn't seem as practical but sounded rather fun. The author also included other fan-type implements in her list, including the fly whisk. Apparently the fly swatter has been around for as long as there have been flies, which does make sense. One of the earliest references to a muscatorium or fly whisk comes from the records of the Chapel of St Faith from the old St Pauls Cathedral in 1298. It was made of peacock feathers.

The fan was also a multi-purpose object in another way. For those who were short-sighted, a magnifying glass could be set into the guardstick, near the rivets. These were known as quizzing fans. Men were also known to carry fans during the eighteenth century. Lord Hervey carried a large plain fan and was known as Lord Fanny.

Have you read any historical novels in which the language of fans played a significant part and do you think you would have liked to learn how to flick your fan in all those meaningful gestures?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Recipe of the Week!


This recipe originated in India as khichri, a combination of rice, lentils and spices, and was a popular breakfast dish. As early as 1845 Eliza Acton was recommending the anglicised kedgeree in her book Modern Cookery for Private Families, suggesting serving it with fish such as haddock, brill, salmon or sole. It became a feature of Victorian and Edwardian breakfasts in Britain and no sideboard was complete without a large dish of kedgeree to start the day.


9oz smoked haddock

1oz butter

8oz long grain rice

1 tsp garam masala or curry powder

2 hard boiled eggs

Chopped parsley

Place the haddock in a pan with barely enough water to cover and gently poach for approximately ten minutes or until the opaque and flakes easily. Drain and break the fish into pieces, discarding the skin and bones. Simmer the rice until cooked and drain well. Melt the butter in a pan and add the rice, haddock, garam masala or curry powder, stirring gently until everything is mixed in and thoroughly heated. Transfer to a warm dish, garnish with the egg and sprinkle with parsley.

What do you think? Fish and boiled eggs for breakfast? or do you have a breakfast recipe you prefer?