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To kick off the new year, I wanted to finish my look back at the quirkier news items from the second half of 2019, as reported in The Guardian newspaper online.

July

The England team at the Women’s World Cup reach the semi-finals before going out to the USA, narrowly failing to become the first England team in a World Cup final since 1966. Snowball, the sulphur-crested cockatoo, not only dances but does his own choreography, too. As an incentive for good behaviour, prisoners are offered keys to their own cells. A message in a bottle dropped into the seas off the Australian coast in 1969, is finally discovered. A study reveals that chimps are more sociable after watching movies together. And Neuroscientists manage to decode brain speech signals into written text.

Snowball the dancing cockatoo Pic: the Guardian

August

Having a healthy social life is shown to help ward off dementia in later life. Scientists produce ‘Atomik’ vodka from grain grown around Chernobyl. Two footbridges, cantilevered out from the cliffs with a 4cm gap in the middle, meet to connect Tintagel Castle with Merlin’s Cave in Cornwall. A cure for the previously deadly Ebola virus is tested successfully in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Growing up in areas with high air pollution is linked to mental health issues, a new study shows. Six portraits of the ‘Petworth beauties’ which had their lower legs removed in the 1820s when the owner of Petworth House, the third Earl of Egremont, required more room to hang other paintings, have been restored to full length by the National Trust.

Tintagel footbridges, Cornwall Pic: the Guardian

September

It is thought the Loch Ness Monster could be a giant eel, after researchers from Otago University find the water contains no dinosaur or monster DNA. Astronomers using NASA’s Kepler space telescope determine that there is water on planet K2-18b, in the constellation of Leo. The planet is twice the size of earth and orbits a cool red dwarf less than half the size of the sun, which warms the surface of the planet to approximately 10C (50F). The annual science prizes the Ig Nobel, given to work that ‘first makes people laugh, then makes them think’, are awarded in a ceremony at Harvard University. A British researcher, part of an international team, wins one for discovering which parts of the body are most pleasurable to scratch. The ankles, apparently, closely followed by the back and then forearm. A Japanese Airline indicates seats with infants up to two years old for the benefit of other passengers booking seats.

the Loch Ness Monster

October

A council house development wins the Stirling Prize for architecture. The development of 105 environmentally and socially conscious houses in Norwich has been called ‘a masterpiece’. The tiny island of Sark in the Channel Islands is called a hotbed of crime by the outgoing constable in charge of law and order. The island, which has no cars, also has no customs post, and smuggling is rife, apparently. A man is arrested in the Netherlands after keeping his five adult children in a cellar for years, ‘waiting for the end of time’. They were discovered when one ‘ran away’ to a local bar. The Amazonian white bellbird is revealed to have the noisiest mating call of all avian species, at 125dB, three times louder than its nearest rival.

Norwich council house development Pic: The Guardian

November

NASA’s Voyager 2 probe sends back its first message from interstellar space. First launched in 1977, the probe has been sending back pictures of the solar system. There’s a public outcry in Japan after a TV show exposes a business ban on female staff wearing glasses at work. The new Disney+ streaming service attaches warnings of ‘outdated cultural depictions’ to classic movies such as Dumbo and Lady and the Tramp. Thieves break into the Jewel Room at the Green Vault in Dresden and steal ‘cultural treasures’ of ‘immeasurable worth’ in what the German media describe as the biggest such theft since World War Two.

Pictures from Voyager 2 Pic: the Guardian

December

Mixed-sex civil partnerships become legal in England and Wales. An artwork that consisted of a banana duct-taped to a wall, which sold for $120,000, is eaten by a performance artist while on display in Miami. He said ‘he was hungry.’ A painting believed to be by Gustav Klimt, Portrait of a Lady, is found hidden in a wall after being missing for 23 years. Certain species of crocodile can perform a horse-like gallop, where others can only do a fast trot, it has been discovered. Tests were carried out in Florida. What or who they were chasing is not recorded… Fallon Sherrock becomes the first woman to beat a man at the PDC World Darts Championship.

Recovered Portrait of a Lady possibly by Gustav Klimt Pic: the Guardian

This week’s Word of the Week is the buzz word of 2019, prorogue, meaning to delay, postpone, to discontinue or end a session of a legislative assembly, from the Latin prorogare,to ask publicly.

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As this is my last MurderIsEverywhere blog of 2019, it seemed only right to look back at just a few of the oddball news stories that have caught my eye this year.

January

In January, it was announced that by the time the average child in the UK reaches the age of ten, they have eaten eighteen years’ worth of sugar. As part of the pre-Brexit preparations, the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, awarded a £13.8m contract for additional ferries to a start-up company that didn’t actually own any ships and had never operated such a service before.

A yacht called Wild Eyes, which was abandoned in the middle of the Indian Ocean in 2010 by teenager Abby Sunderland, who was attempting a round-the-world voyage, was spotted floating upside-down near the Australian coast after eight and a half years adrift. A beach in Ireland disappeared overnight. Two teenage Indian girls posed as boys for four years in order to keep their father’s barber’s shop going when he became too ill to work. They were honoured by the Indian government. The British intelligence service, MI5, was named among the best LGBT-inclusive employers by the equality charity, Stonewall.

wild eyes

February

The largest collection of protective symbols to ward off evil were found in a small cave in the East Midlands at Creswell Crags. Researchers discovered that the stripes on a zebra deter flies from landing on it. They experimented by dressing horses up in striped rugs. Numbers of Scottish Terriers—the most famous incarnation of which is possibly the piece in Monopoly—have fallen to an all-time low. Susan Rennie published a dictionary of author Roald Dahl’s most inventive expletives.

Scottish terrier

Read the rest of this post over on Murder Is Everywhere.

In my last blog I talked about the instances of flooding in the UK and touched briefly on the problems it causes. Or, more to the point, the mess it leaves behind. Of course, if you actually find yourself caught up in flooding, the last thing that should be on your mind is how you’re going to get raw sewage out of the living room carpet.

You have far more important things to worry about.

Like not drowning.

In a House

If you’re in a building, unless it’s in direct serious danger of becoming completely submerged, they reckon your chances of survival are far greater if you stay inside.

Turn off the mains electricity and gas.

Close all the doors and windows.

Fill empty containers with drinking water as tap water will quickly become contaminated.

If you’ve had enough prior warning, think about moving sentimentally important items onto tables or to an upper floor. If you haven’t had much warning, leave it. Nobody ever said during a eulogy, “She died trying to save her credenza. It was what she would have wanted…”

Move to the uppermost floor with water, food, spare clothing and flashlights. Also take a ladder with you, if one is needed to access the roof space, just in case the water gets really high.

If you are forced to take the the roof, rope together all the members of your party to the chimney, so no-one is swept away. If no rope is available, use bedsheets or blankets, knotted together.

Read the rest of this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.

 

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I’ve just come back from a trip to south Wales (old rather than New) with either the cleanest car bottom ever, or the dirtiest—not sure which!

There was a huge amount of standing water all over the main roads and dual carriageways. And even the A-roads had deep puddles lurking at corners, or full flooded sections in the dips. As for the B-roads, well, I managed to get within about half a mile of my destination before I was confronted with a lake where the road should have been.

As my car is not blessed with the greatest ground clearance in the world, I decided discretion was definitely the greater part of valour. This involved reversing along a watery single-track lane for about 300 yards and finding an alternative route. Mind you, even the navigable way meant driving along several miles of what seemed to be a muddy river bed.

A glance at the UK government Flood Warning Information Service website on Saturday evening shows 106 Flood Alerts in place, meaning flooding is possible and should be prepared for. It also shows 72 Flood Warnings, meaning flooding is expected and immediate action is required.

UK Flood warnings in place on November 16 2019

According to the figures, there are more than five million people living in areas of the UK vulnerable to flooding every year. They used to talk about such events as happening ‘the first time in living memory’ or ‘once every hundred years’. Now they seem to have become almost annual.

Read the rest of this post over on Murder Is Everywhere.

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Lhakpa Sherpa. Photo by Kayana Szymczak for The Guardian

Do you recognise this woman? No? How about the name Lhakpa Sherpa? Still ringing no bells?

Still nothing? I am as unsurprised as I am saddened.

Lhakpa Sherpa lives in Connecticut. She washes dishes in a restaurant for minimum wage. And yet she has conquered Mount Everest.

NINE times.

Lhakpa was the first Nepalese woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest and make it back alive. She climbed Everest eight months after giving birth to her first child, and again while two months pregnant with another.

One of eleven children, Lhakpa is around 45, although as she and all her siblings were born at home, no accurate records of birthdays were kept. Her whole family are Sherpas. One brother has summited ten or eleven times, another eight times. Her younger sister has done it once.

But Lhakpa is the current holder of the World Record for women. Despite this, her name is almost unknown, her accomplishments unsung, and her climbing efforts unsupported by the kind of corporate sponsorship that has become so familiar for such a remarkable athlete.

Read the rest of this piece on Murder Is Everywhere.

Picture courtesy of Pixabay

Here in the UK we throw away approximately seven million tonnes of food every year. They calculate that about five million tonnes was food that could actually have been eaten. The vast majority of this waste comes from households. This has a cost both in monetary terms (around £14 billon) and in its effect on the environment, accounting for something in the region of 16 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.

Sobering figures at a time when more and more people are in food poverty, forced to use food banks and make decisions every week on whether to pay a vital household bill, or to eat.

According to the UK charity WRAP (the Water and Resources Action Programme) household waste in 2015 would fill 70,000 three-bedroom terraced houses.

However, we have reduced our food waste since 2007, saving local councils nearly £70 million in 2015 alone through lower landfill charges.

Each household throws away the equivalent of eight meals each week, costing almost £70 per month for an average family with children. The carbon generated by the production of this food is the equivalent of that produced by one in four cars on the road in the UK.

And, as every statistic is obliged to be compared to something the size of Wales, how about this: An area the size of Wales is required to grow all the food we waste annually.

Among the foods wasted in UK homes are:

  • fresh potatoes (4.4 million of them)
  • bread (1 million loaves at an average of 20 slices per loaf)
  • milk (3.1 million glasses’ worth)
  • 1.2 million whole tomatoes
  • 1 million whole onions
  • 2.2 million slices of ham
  • chicken (the meat from 120 million of them)
  • 0.7 million whole oranges
  • 0.8 million whole apples

So, this weekend, in an attempt to do my bit for reducing food waste, I picked all the cooking apples from the tree in the garden, which had actually fallen over because of the weight of fruit on it. I didn’t weigh them, but they filled four of those large bag-for-life supermarket shopping bags. Some of the apples were so big you could barely get both hands around them.

I’m not much of a pie maker, so I’m in something of a quandary to know what to do with cooking apples. I took some to the local community shop for them to sell, but then I spotted a notice from the village pub in Kirk Ireton. the Barley Mow, saying they were having an apple-juicing day. They invited everyone to bring along their spare apples, together with either clean containers to take away fresh juice, or to donate it to the pub’s cider-making process.

Some of the apples I took were so big they wouldn’t fit into the pulping machine and had to be quartered. Once suitably mushed, they went into a wonderful old-fashioned apple-press, which produced pure juice with no artificial flavourings, colourings or additives.

And the result? Absolutely delicious. Didn’t need a drop of extra sweetening, despite being mostly cookers. Of course, without preservatives, there’s a limit to how long it will keep, even in the fridge, but you can always freeze it. And I look forward to trying a sample of the rest of it, once it’s become Barley Mow cider in due course.

Cheers!

 

This week’s Word of the Week is amanuensis, meaning a literary or artistic assistant, particularly one who takes dictation or copies manuscripts. It also refers to a person who has the authority to sign a document on another’s behalf. The word comes from the Latin servus a manu, ‘servant of the hand.’

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Recently on the news there have been a lot of pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, mounted on an eye-catching white horse, riding through snow up the sacred Mount Paektu, the highest mountain in the country.

Kim Jong-un on Mount Paektu

It struck me when I saw those pictures that there was something vaguely familiar about them. It didn’t take long to recall why. Back when I was a horse-mad small child (and indeed, a horse mad NOT-so-small child) I had a wonderful book about famous horses through history. One of them was a small grey Arabian stallion, Marengo, who belonged to the Emperor Napoléon I of France.

Napoléon apparently once told an artist who inquired how he’d like to be portrayed, “Paint me calm, on a spirited horse.”

It is said that the Emperor owned 130-150 horses during his career, but the most famous of these is probably Marengo.

Napoléon Bonaparte was noted for liking small, agile horses although it is said that he was not a particularly skilled horseman. He was raised modestly on the island of Corsica, and did not learn to ride until beginning his military career. He had joined the artillery and was serving as an officer when Revolution broke out in France in 1789. Capitalising on the opportunities provided by the Revolution, he climbed the ranks very rapidly—he was a general by the time he was twenty-four.

Read the rest of this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere

As I write this, early in October, the news is full of what’s happening in Syria. In human terms, it’s an utter tragedy that is unfolding as we watch. In political terms, the ramifications could resonate world-wide.

Normally, I shy away from commenting on politics. But last year when I was looking at the underlying themes for BAD TURN, the latest Charlie Fox crime thriller, I knew there was going to be an international arms dealer involved. I also knew I there were going to be differing opinions within the dealer’s organisation about which side of a conflict he was going to supply—or refuse to supply—with arms and equipment.

Syria was, to me, an obvious candidate. And not just Syria but the Kurdish population of the region. The Kurds inhabit eastern Turkey, areas in the north of Syria, Iraq and Iran, as well as touching into Armenia and Azerbaijan, almost up to the border with Georgia.

When Syria slowly disintegrated into civil war following the Arab Spring, the rebels, including the Syrian Kurds, were supported by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. The Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad was backed by Russia, Iraq, Iran and Hezbollah.

The situation in the region is incredibly complex and has no easy solution. I knew the Kurds had been instrumental in the suppression of ISIS in Syria and northern Iraq. I also felt, rightly or wrongly, that the Coalition forces involved in the first Gulf War had called upon groups such as the Iraqi Kurds to rise up against Saddam Hussein, then abandoned them to his not-so tender mercies afterwards.

The civil war in Syria has been ‘characterised by a complete lack of adherence to the norms international law’ according to a United Nations report. More than five million Syrians have fled the country during the conflict, with over six million being recognised as Internally Displaced Persons. An estimated 13.5 million required humanitarian assistance.

While both sides of the conflict are guilty of human rights abuses, the Syrian regime was named by the UN as one of the worst offenders on its annual ‘list of shame’. It is estimated that at least 60,000 people have died through torture or the dire conditions in Syrian government jails since 2011. Many of the violations are judged to be war crimes.

As things seemed to quieten down over last winter, I wondered if the underlying themes I’d chosen for BAD TURN were still relevant. And particularly the point that one of the major players in the story might have a certain sympathy for the plight of the Kurds and want to find a way to assist.

For one thing, during their battle against ISIS, the Kurds captured and held many thousands of accused ISIS members in detention camps across north-eastern Syria. This included more than ten thousand actual fighters as well as supporters. Pleas for international help in dealing with these detainees have gone unanswered.

Now, with  the Turkish incursion across the border into Syria, there are fears that the inevitable chaos could lead to a wholesale release or escape of prisoners and ISIS regaining a foothold in the region.

When I originally looked at the situation in Syria as a theme for BAD TURN, I saw it as a larger conflict being played out on a smaller stage. I tried to condense it down into one man’s efforts to do the right thing when there was no right answer. Events of this month have suddenly made it all rather more prophetic than I ever intended.

Somehow, I’d much rather have been way off base.

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For the past ten days since the new Charlie Fox novel, BAD TURN, came out, I’ve been on the road—virtually speaking. I’ve travelled halfway around the world without ever leaving my desk. I’ve been Blog Touring—or perhaps that should be Tour Blogging?—rather than the physical kind of touring. And it’s been fun.

Of course, in the past I’ve travelled all over the place to libraries and bookstores for the publication of various books in the series, quite often using a trip to the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention to kick things off. As Bouchercon is held in a different city/state every year (even making it over to the UK several times) it means that the starting point has also always been different.

But, this time around I knew I wasn’t going over to Bouchercon and work-in-progress projects are beginning to pile up. So, doing another blog tour, ably organised by the fearsomely efficient Ayo Onatade, seemed like a good choice.

I’m told that sometimes authors rely on their blogger hosts doing a series of reviews but I hesitate over this way of doing things. What happens if one of the reviewers involved really doesn’t like the book? After all, I would have thought they have far too many books on their teetering TBR piles to read it first, just to make sure.

So, I prefer to do guest posts and articles on topics related to the book, mixed in with a few reviews where blogger/reviewers are happy to do them.

Read the whole of this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.

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The brand new Charlie Fox crime thriller, BAD TURN, is due to be published this coming Friday—September 27.

Hard as it is for me to believe it sometimes, this will be book thirteen in the series. They do not get any easier to write.

Mostly, though, I feel that’s the way it should be. If something is worth having, it should be worth struggling for. And I do agonise over the story, the development of the characters and the continuing journey of my main protagonist, Charlie herself. I always try to find a slightly different problem to throw at Charlie, a different means of testing her.

This time, the question I posed at the outset was, having resigned from the executive-protection agency run by Parker Armstrong and been forced to give up her company-subsidised apartment in New York, has she gone over to the dark side by taking on a job for a shady international arms dealer?

Usually, you have the reassurance of your agent and publisher behind you. They are excited by the initial idea, approving of the outline, and then they get to go through the delivered manuscript, line by line, to give you their feedback and advice.

Or not, as the case may be. I’ve delivered books to publishers before now only to be greeted by weeks of silence before the copy-edits turn up with no comment on the work other than corrections to punctuation and spelling.

It can make the approach of publication day something of a nail-biting experience.

This time, however, is different.

 

Read the rest of this blog over on MurderIsEverywhere.