Book review Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries II

The Kitchen Diaries II coverI sometimes think of Nigel Slater as the favourite uncle I never had, and in a curious way this book is like a series of postcards from an affable relative, keen to ensure you’re eating well and taking good care of yourself.

It’s a beautiful, hefty tome, with a textured cover, elegantly patterned endpapers, a fat silky ribbon to mark your place, and page after page of sumptuous sounding recipes to pore over in a favourite squashy armchair rather than risk on a kitchen shelf.

Recipes are laid out by date (hence the kitchen diaries of the title) so you can look at a calendar then turn to see what Uncle Nige is recommending for that day, each flavour discussed with powerfully evocative descriptions. For April 15th, for example, the chapter’s heading is ‘A fistful of garlic leaves’, and begins with a dreamy paragraph on the scent of wild garlic encountered while walking in the countryside. “Each leaf crushed underfoot will send up an instantly recognisable puff of the sweet, fresh young herb.” Continue reading

See the Lake District with a photographer’s eye

The Lake DistrictExtraordinary landscapes inspire extraordinary creativity, from poems to photography, with one occasionally fuelling the other.

Now snap-happy creatives can develop their ability to capture Britain’s Lake District natural beauty with a special mini break that will encourage you to make the most of the areas diverse landscapes, which include ancient woodlands, rivers and, of course, lakes.

Located in the heart of the beautiful Borrowdale valley, the Leathes Head Country House Hotel has teamed up with award winning photographer Jason Chambers to offer a one-day photography course on Thursday 8th May 2014.

The Lake District2

Participants will be drawing inspiration from the scenery that prompted much of the output of William Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter, and fell walker, guidebook author and illustrator, Alfred Wainwright.

“Cumbria has some of the best scenery to capture and we have it on our doorstep!” says Jason. “The course is aimed at the beginner to intermediate levels. Come prepared with all your equipment incusing tripod, fully charged batteries and memory cards as well as walking boots and sensible clothing as there will be walking involved.”

Sounds like a heavenly excuse for an idyllic excursion, rain not withstanding!

Find details at
 or call 017687 77247.

The Lake District3

Laments in Lisbon

iew of Lisbon from St George's Castle, LisbonA hush falls as an elegantly dressed woman stalks among the crowded tables, coming to a halt into the centre of the room. A guitar is gently strummed, then the laments begin.

I sit in near-darkness in a room crammed with Portuguese Fado aficionados, all listening intently. Not a single fork scrapes against a single plate. I haven’t experienced Fado before. Part of me was expecting something akin to the explosiveness of Spanish Flamenco, but Portugal’s national song is far more contemplative. I don’t understand the words, but the sentiment is clear, and shivers race up and down my spine.

“Fado translates as fate,” Carmo tells me when the performance ends. “Many of the songs are about beloveds who never returned home from sea.”

Tram, Lisbon cr Judy DarleyI’ve only been in Lisbon a matter of days, but the area around Clube de Fado, the Alfama district, is already one of my favourites. When we return in the morning, only a little the worse for wear, Carmo reminds me that it survived the great earthquake of 1755, so retains a sense of the small city as it would have been long before then, with washing hanging haphazardly between wrought iron balconies and steep, narrow streets. “Many homes here still don’t have their own bathrooms,” she comments, an note that could equally be horror or pride in her voice.

The streets are stacked one above the other another, giving the impression they were built in haste, yet it’s hard to imagine anything here ever being done in a hurry – even the trams amble like commuter-crammed caterpillars.

There’s a curious beauty about the Alfama, with some of the houses beautifully tiled. Most feature at least one small painted tile paying homage to a saint, and keeping the homeowners’ family safe from harm. This is a place where fate is taken seriously – anything you can do to safeguard your family is done.

Castelo de Sao Jorge, Lisbon cr Judy Darley

Above all this sits Castelo de São Jorge, where we wander through dappled sunlight and drink in panoramic views that showcase the city like a painted tableau. Despite the tourists, it is peaceful here – people murmur as they pose beside cannons, and cameras whir gently. Terracotta roofs are stacked above creamy buildings, and the strong, rectangular towers of churches rise above all else.

Far to my left I glimpse a crimson bridge that seems oddly familiar. “It was designed by the same company as San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate bridge,” Carmo says.

Ah, that explains it. The river it spans is the Tagus, a thread of water that broadens at times into an estuary lake so wide it resembles a sea, yet it narrows as it nears the sea – seeming reluctant to leave.

It’s an impulse I can relate to. I wonder how Portugal‘s explorers could bring themselves to head out to the unknown, knowing they might never make it safely home.

“This is my favourite place in Lisbon,” Carmo says, eyes half closing in bliss. “You know, don’t you, that the city was founded by Ulysses?”

I ask her to repeat herself. Surely Ulysses, the one I’m thinking of, is a fictional hero.

She shrugs, either uncertain or not caring. “I like to imagine him standing here on this hillside and saying, yes, this is good, this is home.”

Castelo de Sao Jorge cr Judy Darley

Discover Barcelona.

Remember Me To The Bees – the launch

Remember Me To The Bees book launchI’m a great believer in doing the things on your wishlist, your bucket-list, if you get the chance. A book launch was on mine, though I hadn’t dared look it straight in the eye.

So when the opportunity came to have my short story collection, Remember Me To The Bees, published, that was exciting, but glimmering at the edge of my vision was the launch.

But I almost didn’t do. Almost lost my nerve. Almost let the idea of ‘what if no one comes’ fright me into inaction.

I pushed past the fears – started planning the night.

And one excellent piece of advice from Mike French on throwing a successful book launch made it work – plan it not as a selling exercise, but a celebration, as a party.

Here are the ingredients of my book launch

1. The venue

I thought about what I would do if money was no object and set my heart on my dream venue, The Birdcage – a coffee shop cum vintage clothes shop cum bar cum music and lit night hosts.

The Birdcage, BristolI had a few chats with them about what I wanted to do, and they agreed to let me have the space free of charge on a Monday night. And that was that, preparations in motion.

The Birdcage Bristol

2. Live music

Having achieved this, I had the courage to come up with a dream list, and a pretty clear picture of the kind of tone I was going for – going with the party theme and the vibe of the venue, I was keen to have live music…

Rabbit City at Remember Me To The Bees launch

I asked around a discovered that a friend of a friend, Anders aka Rabbit City, is an extremely talented musician and singer/songwriter. I listened to some of his sets on SoundCloud and realised his music would work really well with the stories in my collection, create the vibe I was after and was exactly what I was after.

Rabbit City play Remember Me To The Bees launch

3. Original artwork

Art was always my vision for the night. Bournemouth-based artist Louise Boulter created the cover for Remember Me To The Bees and artwork for each of the twenty stories in the collection. I checked with the venue and then asked Louise if she fancied holding a one-night exhibition of her work at the Birdcage on the launch night. She was keen – so that was the décor sussed, if a way that matched the feel of the book, the music and the venue.

Louise Boulter Fishermen

4. An outfit for the author

Okay, this one may feel pretty frivolous, but for me the right clothing can help to put me in the right frame of mind, and I wanted a fancy frock. I opted for a vintage-look silky navy blue number with a wonderfully flowy skirt and lacy back, and felt like a literary princess all night long. It helped give me an extra boost of confidence, and added to the party feel for me.

Judy Darley Remember Me To The Bees launchI also wore a gold bee pendant my hubla had given me, just in case people weren’t aware this was a book of stories smattered with bees.

5. The readings

I prepared four excerpts to read at the launch, only around ten minutes in total, and just enough to whet people’s appetites. My reasoning was that a full story demanded too much attention from attendees – I wanted everyone to be intrigued by what they heard, and be left wanting more. It seemed to work!

Judy Darley reading from Remember Me To The Bees I practised diligently in the weeks before the launch so that I almost knew the snippets off by heart. It definitely helped to be so well prepared when I took to the stage and saw quite how many people had turned up!

Remember Me To The Bees launch

Which takes us to…

6. The invitations

I invited people I loved, people I liked, people I respected and people who I simply thought might be interested.

Philip at Remember Me To The Bees launch This included members of my family, local publishers, authors, journalists I’ve worked with, and just a lot of people I’ve enjoyed the company of at one time or another. The majority of the people I hoped would come did, and a few more besides. The place was packed!

7. A compère

I was happy to go up and introduce myself, but my hubla wisely pointed out that it would look far more professional if someone introduced me and then Rabbit City, and he kindly offered to take on that role, and did a grand job!

James as compere fro Remember Me To The Bees launch

8. The signings

Judy signing copies of Remember Me To The BeesThe Birdcage is a curious l-shape, with a main room that has the bar at one end and the stage at the other. A slightly smaller space spills off this and we took over a large table in there to pile up the books onto. I sat there and signed copies of the book and chatted to my fans (!) while Rabbit City played. It was utterly exciting, but when I felt overwhelmed it definitely helped to have a friend come and sit with me, or get lovely Louise Boulter to come and sign a few books too!

Judy signing copies of Remember Me To The Bees1

9. The photography

Last but not least, the gorgeous photographs that will helped me remember this night till the end of my days. Pete Gettins turned out to be the perfect man for this – unobtrusive and keen-eyed. Pete took all the photos published in this post. He captured many moments I hadn’t seen and many that made me exclaim as I laid eyes on them for the first time. Working in low-lighting and a party atmosphere he managed to take a collection of images that feel to me part art, part reportage.

Remember Me To The Bees photographer Pete Gettins

And on the night everything went swimmingly – there was a golden glow to the evening that brought to mind weddings, birthdays, the gladdest of times.

I shared excerpts from Girls in Windows, Stalagmite, On The Ledge and Singing For Seals, signed and sold a lot of copies of Remember Me To The Bees, basked in the shimmer of a job well done, saw the pride on the faces of family and friends, revelled in having my own, one-person house band, posed for photos, forgot to pose for photos (those ones turned out better, I think), made contacts, had some jolly chats, felt like a literary star, and floated home feeling like moonlight was seeping from every pore.

So this is my advice. If you publish a book, even if your publisher has no publicity budget, have a launch. It raises awareness of your work, but more importantly it marks a pretty special achievement, and you’re bound to have a fantastic night.

Remember Me The Bees – On The Ledge

On The Ledge by Louise BoulterThe 13th story in my debut collection Remember Me To the Bees is one of my stranger ones. It’s called On The Ledge.

It began to form in my mind the day I walked down a particularly unpleasant, narrow pavement to the office I then worked at, and passed the body of a pigeon.

I walked past it day after day, and found it really disconcerting. What could have happened to it? And, more bizarre, why was nothing feasting on its remains? An odd preoccupation, for sure, but when I raised it in polite company, someone suggested it must have been poisoned, by rat poison, most likely, and other animals could sense the toxins in its systems.

My imagination took hold.

The artwork is by Louise Boulter.

A short excerpt from On The Ledge

The next morning, I saw something ahead of me on the road that resembled a discarded glove. It was a sunny warm day, so this seemed unlikely, and as I neared the slumped grey shape I realised it was the body of a pigeon. Poor thing seemed asleep, nestled into the narrow shade cast by a lamppost, but its head had fallen back, revealing the vulnerable feathered throat, and I knew it was dead.

The next day it was still there, untouched by the beetles or spiders or flies who skittered along that stretch of road. The whole thing struck me as rather odd and I mentioned it to Old Dave, who nodded wisely.

“That’ll be the rat poison,” he commented. “Oh, well, they’re vermin and all, just with wings, eh? And plenty more where that came from.”

The following day, as I walked towards the train station, the poor creature was still lying there, wings tucked in neatly, chest feathers ruffled fetchingly by the breeze. Glancing around at the empty road, I picked up the corpse with both hands and slipped it into my handbag.

All the way home, I thought about the dead animal I was carrying along with my glasses’ case and mobile phone, and imagined how horrified my fellow commuters would be if they only knew. The thought made me smile to myself and as we passed briefly through the small tunnel that opens out into south Bristol, I saw myself reflected in the window, grinning like crazy person.

Pigeons cr Judy Darley

Midweek writing prompt – overlooked

Pigeon cr Judy DarleyI confess, I have an uncommon fondness for pigeons. Not the glossy, wood pigeons and the like admired by bone fide pigeon-fanciers, but the lame-footed ever-hopeful bedraggle-feathered critters who crowd our city streets, and occasional soar over the rooftops with unexpected grace.

It’s partly what prompted me to write the story On The Ledge.

But this week’s midweek #writingprompt is more general than that, so don’t worry if, like so many others, you detest pigeons and think of them as vermin with wings.

I’m asking you to consider the overlooked, by which I mean any animal, person, or indeed, thing, that most of us stalk past without even noticing, but which you personally have an inexplicable fondness for.

The abandoned house standing at an odd angle on the hillside, the undernourished sapling struggling to thrive in rocky soil, the bus that should have been put out to pasture years ago, the aged newsagent who can barely make out the names on the broadsheets he stacks each day, the arthritic dog watching the frisbee sailing by overhead and wondering whether chasing it is worth the effort…

Any of these could be the beginning of a great story packed with heart-rending decisions, but ultimately hope.

If you write something prompted by this idea, I’d love to know. Just send an email to Judy(at)socket With your permission, I’d love to publish it on

Book review – Blood Etc by Gee Williams

Blood etc by Gee WilliamsSet in the strange ‘neither here nor there’ borderland of Flintshire between England and Wales, the stories of Blood Etc examine human relationships, love, lies, regret and hope.

Gee Williams paints rich images of the landscape and lives that her characters inhabit. In Morfa she describes the weather as a living thing that “squatted, huge and immovable, on the too-close horizon.”

Her sentence are often unexpectedly vivid, capturing scenes effortlessly as she describes a character’s eyes “widening in their crepe nests”, while a woman walks inside “off the lawn, the emerald slivers falling from her dagger-heels.”

Then, the moment you relax into a tale, Gee takes your breath away with a simple revelation of human nature, ruthlessly revealing the deep, vast truths the rest of us carry unconsciously within us, never recognising them until she throws them before us, murmuring look at this. Continue reading

Submit your art

GB Gallery exhibition New Visions IIOne of my favourite galleries in Bristol, The Grant Bradley, is inviting you to submit your artwork to New Visions, their annual open submissions exhibition.

This is definitely an opportunity to stand out, as the exhibition aims to showcase a broad, varied look at contemporary artwork, with no limitation on style or medium. My talented mum had her collage work displayed as part of the exhibition two years in a row (different pieces, though, because they sold – yay!).

With no theme each entry is judged for acceptance purely on its own merits.

Past exhibitions have enjoyed an exceptional media response with a popular private view evening that is a great place to meet other artists and discuss the work on show. The gallery receives a footfall of up to 3,000 visitors for the duration of the exhibition, so this is a great chance to get your work noticed.

The deadline for submissions is Friday 16 May at 5pm.

You can submit a maximum of 3 pieces at a cost of £10 per piece of artwork. To submit work please click on the link: Enter work for New Visions IV.

Alternatively you can pick up a submissions pack from the gallery, or download it by clicking on the link below. Fill it out and return it either by hand or post.

Images of artworks submitted will need to be emailed to

Download submissions pack.

If you have any questions regarding New Visions IV then please contact the gallery on 0117 9637 673. Good luck!

How to write picture books

BEST FRIENDS COVERAuthor and commissioning editor Mara Bergman shares her secrets for writing successful picture books.

Although I started writing from a very young age, it was only when my three children were growing up that I thought about writing picture books. I read to the children all the time and knew what worked – for them and for me – and thought it would be fun to have a go at writing one.

It took quite a while to get my first book published though, and there was a gap of a few years between my first book and my second. Even now, after having had quite a few books published, when my editor tells me that one of my stories has made it through an acquisitions meeting and has been accepted, I’m absolutely over the moon with excitement!

oliver small but mighty coverMake your language concise, rhythmical and playful

When writing a picture book you have to remember that the language needs to appeal to young children but also to whoever is reading to them, and it should never talk down to the child or be patronising.

For me language is paramount, something which became evident when I was reading all those picture books aloud to my young children.

If I didn’t enjoy reading a certain text, if the rhythms or words were flat, I would simply reach for another book. I think it’s important for language to be concise, rhythmical and playful.

Keep your form tight and your emotions real

The picture book certainly presents many challenges. First of all, the form is extremely tight and has to encompass so much. I enjoy the economy and the challenges of working in a tight form.

The story should be about 300 words long and have a beginning, middle and end, with a climax falling about two-thirds of the way through.

It’s important to make sure pieces are targeted to the right ages, but I don’t think of a particular age of child when I write, though my work is primarily aimed at three- to six-year-olds. I think it’s important to write what comes naturally to you.

I love the simplicity of picture books, or rather the pared-down-ness of them, and how they can get to the heart of emotions.

Think of your picture books as a puzzle to solve

The picture book is often likened to a piece of theatre, with each spread a stage set and the drama occurring at the turning of the page.

I’ve also heard it compared to a hugely condensed novel! But when I’m working on a story I find it’s more like one of those puzzles made up of little tiles that you have to shift around on a square to create a picture. You often have to move many pieces to get one piece in the right place.

Changing a phrase often means reworking several lines, and when one thing is wrong, the whole story has to be rethought. I love the simplicity of picture books, or rather the pared-down-ness of them, and how they can get to the heart of emotions.

Lively Elizabeth COVERUnless you can draw, leave that side of things to the illustrator

I wish I could write and illustrate, but as I can’t I’m extremely fortunate to work with some wonderful illustrators. My publisher Anne McNeil at Hodder paired my text for Snip Snap! with Nick Maland. Lively Elizabeth, illustrated by Cassia Thomas, is a completely different sort of story and required a completely different style of artwork. Both are extremely gifted artists.

For my newest book, Best Friends, Nicola Slater’s fantastic bright, bold and slightly retro illustrations make me laugh each time I read it.

There are lots of wonderful illustrators out there and therefore publishers’ expectations for the look of a book are extremely high. And they have to be, as it’s the artwork that catches your attention and makes you pick up the book in the first place. No matter how good a text might be, if someone isn’t attracted to the illustrations they are not going to read or buy the book.

Take time to understand the picture book market place

Publishers are leaning towards commissioning series, which tend to be character- based, so this is something you may want to keep in mind. The characters have to appeal to the children being read to, and children must be able to relate to them.

The picture book market isn’t an easy one, and it’s becoming ever more difficult, but no matter what, I sincerely believe that if your work is really good it will eventually find a home.

Know the market – visit bookshops and libraries and read magazines and websites geared to children’s books.

Most importantly keep writing, and keep submitting your work, and don’t be discouraged when your stories are rejected at first: they will be. You have to be serious about your writing and develop a thick skin – and stick with it.

Mara BergmanAbout the author

Mara Bergman is Senior Commissioning Editor at Walker Books, an independent publishing house focusing on children’s books and young adult fiction. In addition, Mara writes picture books and her many books include Snip Snap! and Lively Elizabeth, both published by Hodder Children’s Books. Best Friends will be published by Hodder in July. “It’s the story of three very different dogs who are each chasing their own ball in the park, causing havoc as they run from their young owners. I hope this is a book that will be equally enjoyable for parents and children.”

Remember Me The Bees – Chrysalis

Chrysalis by Louise BoulterThe 12th story in my debut collection Remember Me To the Bees is one of the shortest tales in the collection, Chrysalis.

Just occasionally a story reaches me in the form of an image, which is exactly how this tale arrived. It began with the idea of a child taking the smallest painted doll from a set of matryoshka dolls and placing it in a nutcracker, in the hope of finding something magical hidden inside.

The artwork is by Louise Boulter. I love the way the doll’s eyes look like two little birds with wonderful tails.

A short excerpt from Chrysalis

Ella likes to line the dolls up and place them one after another on her grandma’s kitchen countertop. That way, if she lies her cheek against the cold surface, she can pretend she’s in a forest of painted dolls. They stretch all the way to the horizon, as colourful as tropical flowers or birds, casting shadows taller than giants. The smallest, the un-openable doll, catches the sunlight and blazes like a birthday candle. If Ella tries very hard she can make it lift into the air – fuelled by sunshine and her imagination – and zoom around the ceiling.

Matryoshka dolls, that’s what her grandma told her they were called, and Ella repeats the unfamiliar word to herself like a magic spell: matryoshka, matryoshka. As she says it, she feels like she’s making something happen. Granddad used to get her to repeat strange words like that to help him do his conjuring tricks. “Repeat after me,” he’d say. “Verucca, pertrucca, kertrucca.” And then he’d open his hands and the coin would be gone, or would have appeared, glowing against his greyish wrinkled palm like a solid spot of sun. She had a feeling he made up some of the words, but she didn’t know all the words yet, so she couldn’t be certain.

These days he doesn’t do magic tricks any more. Doesn’t do anything much. He just sits in his chair in the corner of the living room making strange noises now and again that make Ella jump, sort of harrumphing sounds with a wet, sticky finish. Ella cringes when she hears them, but Grandma just murmurs: “Oh dear” and goes over and wipes his chin.

Sometimes, when he opens his pale blue eyes and seems to be watching her, Ella will kneel down beside him and whisper, “matryoshka, matryoshka”, and close his fingers around the smallest doll, just for a moment. Sometimes when she does this, his lips twitch like he’s about to smile.

Matryoshka doll in nutcracker cr Judy Darley