Absolutely lovely review of the reissue of Cold Iron

There’s an absolutely beautiful review, on the Book Muse website, of the new reissue of Cold Iron (Brio Books in the Untapped list) by a wonderful reader who loved it as a young reader when it was first published back in the late 90’s, and loved it just as much now on rereading–the best tribute ever. Thank you so much, Ashleigh!

Here’s an extract:

I was just as enraptured by this book as I was when I first discovered it at fourteen, and I think the Shakespeare connection was richer because since then I have read A Midsummer Night’s Dream and many Cinderella-like fairy tales throughout my studies and reading journey. It is a book that is magical and whimsical, and hopeful – filled with the delight of friendship and doing anything for the people you love. And there is a bit of a love story in this – the love of friends. Malkin and Tattercoats drive the story, and it is their friendship that made me fall in love with this book. It was one of the first young adult books I read where the female friendship was celebrated above all else throughout the story and journey to the ball at the palace, and that allowed the women to speak for themselves. I quite enjoyed that it gave the women – Malkin and Tattercoats – agency in a world where they usually didn’t and allowed them to drive the story. It showed that women across history had voices even if men tried to deny that voice to them. It is reassuring to read these stories and know that there were women that spoke up in times when they were expected to remain silent.

You can read the whole review here.

A celebration of Nicholas Stuart Gray’s The Stone Cage

This piece of mine, about one of my favourite childhood books, was published in the wonderful books magazine, Slightly Foxed, in issue 18, in 2008. I know a lot of people share the same fond memory of Nicholas Stuart Gray’s gorgeous book, The Stone Cage(and his other lovely works) so thought I would republish it here, as a new year’s gift. Hope you enjoy!

Nicholas Stuart Gray

by Sophie Masson

first published in Slightly Foxed, issue 18, 2008.

If you were a bookworm as a child, your memories are measured not only in family or school or public events, but in stories you read. You remember vividly the smell, the touch, the sight of certain books. You clearly remember picking them up from the shelf—an ordinary act—and then the extraordinary happening, as you open the book and fall straight into another world. The pure pleasure of it, the immediate liberation. For me, who loved fairytales and fantasy, who longed to go through the looking-glass, the wardrobe, stepping through the borders into another world, where anything might happen, it was also a blessed escape from the confusing, disturbing and tumultuous family dramas that dominated my childhood. In those stories of other worlds, I found pleasure and consolation, transformation and possibility. And I found my own calling as a writer.

It can be dangerous revisiting those important, beloved stories, as an adult, for it’s not just a book that might be found wanting, but memory itself. And yet, when it works, when the barriers of time dissolve before the sheer magic of a real storyteller, it is probably the most thrilling experience a reader can have.

The Stone Cage, by Nicholas Stuart Gray, was one of those books that I remember clearly not only because they were so good to read, but because they were also so influential on me as a developing writer. Picking it up again after a gap of more than three decades was one of those magical moments that made me rediscover not only my childhood self, but also the reason why the book stands out in my memory. For from the very first sentence, you are plunged into a briskly unsentimental fairytale world, tartly guided by Tomlyn the witch’s cat:

Ever heard of a ‘dog’s life’? I’ll bet you have. Everyone has. Means a low, miserable kind of life. Full of kicks and curses, and nothing much to eat. I don’t know, I’m sure—what about a cat’s life, then? There’s not much said about that, is there? Nine lives, yes—but what sort of lives are these supposed to be? I’ll tell you the sort I had—a dog’s life.

I have to admit it isn’t every cat who lives with a witch, though.

And what a witch! Bad-tempered old —! No, it’s not fair to a cat or she-dog, to liken her to one of them. Let’s say she was a bad-tempered old beldam, and leave it at that. She hated people. She hated Marshall, her raven. She hated her bats and her toads. She hated me. Sometimes I think she even hated herself. A great old hater, was madam.

A naïve young stranger intrudes on this loveless, isolated mini-dictatorship, and is forced to pay a terrible price for his presumption, as he must give up his only child to the witch. And so the poor child is taken from her parents and put into a world where no-one trusts anyone else, love isn’t allowed to exist, and bitterness and cruelty reign. But all is not lost, for this is a very special child indeed, who will achieve an extraordinary miracle, greater than the greatest of spells, greater even than the most malevolent hatred.

As I read, I was swept along, just as in childhood, on the irresistible tide of a gripping story that for all its wit, humour, accessibility and clarity is also a compassionate, tender and complex evocation of the transforming power of love. But it’s certainly not all sweetness and light. Going way beyond a mere retelling of the fairytale of Rapunzel, on which it’s based, The Stone Cage reaches deep into the darkest, most painful aspects of life, as well as its most beautiful and joyous. In the way of the best children’s literature, it attains a profundity that’s all the more remarkable because of its sheer lucidity and unpretentiousness.

I finished The Stone Cage exactly as I’d done all those years ago: with tears in my eyes, and a thrilling heart, for the book also ends in one of the most perfectly judged, moving yet unsentimental scenes of its kind. Allied to my renewed love was a keenly increased admiration for the artistry of the author, which had easily stood the test of time. The characterisation is superb, the dialogue crisp, the pace good, the combination of light and dark subtly achieved. And the beauty of the style! Fluid, graceful, it is humble—in that it doesn’t draw attention to itself—and yet it’s fresh, distinctive, individual. The Stone Cage had been so important to me because everything in it worked. It was all so natural, so flowing, so multi-layered, its world richly imagined, yet delicately evoked. It was a real masterpiece, a novel just about perfect both in concept and execution, and timeless in its appeal, a novel that should have just as many young readers now as it did back then.

Aye, there’s the rub. For The Stone Cage is out of print, and has been for a long time. In fact, and rather astonishingly, in a culture like Britain’s that generally does value its children’s literature, all of Nicholas Stuart Gray’s books are presently out of print. Beautiful, original and accessible though The Stone Cage, Mainly in Moonlight, Grimbold’s Other World, Down in the Cellar, The Seventh Swan, and his other works are, they are unobtainable except through second-hand shops and the Internet, although some are still in libraries. It’s not as if modern children don’t like them, or don’t understand them, either; I know of lots of  young readers who, introduced to Gray’s books by their parents, have loved them just as much, and have found them just as easy to read. It’s not as if there’s anything dated or offensive in them, no obvious or hidden misogyny or racism or class stuff or anything like that. There is nothing really to properly explain this puzzling situation, other than that they’ve simply been overlooked.

And yet, Gray’s work has deeply influenced many of today’s writers working in the fields of children’s literature and of fantasy—Garth Nix and Neil Gaiman and Cecila Dart-Thornton, for instance. I’m certainly not the only reader-turned-writer to remember Gray’s books with great love and respect. Australian children’s novelist Cassandra Golds, author of the acclaimed Clair de Lune, wrote to me about the huge impact on her of one of Gray’s books, Down in the Cellar :’I will never forget the Sunday afternoon on which I finished reading it. I remember feeling a kind of mysterious desolation, partly because I’d finished reading it and would never be able to read it for the first time again, but partly also because I KNEW I had now read the best book I was ever going to read. And I felt, then and still, that the only possible response to that experience was to become a children’s author myself.’  As an eighteen year old, Cassandra had written the author a fan letter, and she still treasures his modest, graceful reply, in which he said, amongst other things: ‘As all my books and plays are only written for myself and not for any imagined audiences, readers, age-groups, publishers, etc, it is always a delightful surprise to get proof that anyone BUT myself ever reads or sees them..’

Perhaps that answer gives a clue as to why Gray’s work is not recognised as it should be. This was not a man who blew his own trumpet, not a writer who sought publicity, but one who loved his work and felt privileged to be doing it, and who was too humble to thrust himself forward. Who was perhaps also at heart a rather private, reserved, even secretive person, despite his long association with theatre, which many people would consider the home of trumpet-blowing, egotistical extroverts. Certainly, when I went to research his life, I found precious little information.

Nicholas Stuart Gray was a Highland Scot, born in 1922, the eldest of four children. As a child, he wrote stories and plays for his siblings. Not one to bend easily to the routines of school, he left at the age of fifteen, to become an actor. He kept writing as well, and his first play was produced two years later. His first children’s play to be published was Beauty and the Beast(1951), and from then, he wrote and produced a good many plays for children, before turning his hand to novels and short stories(where I think his true gifts flowered).   Some of his novels, like The Stone Cage (1963), he also adapted for the stage: he told Cassandra Golds that he himself played Tomlyn in the play’s premiere at the Edinburgh Festival and its subsequent successful seasons in London and on tour. (That would have been something to see! ) He never married or had children. His plays fell out of fashion, but his novels and short stories continued to be published until his untimely death from cancer in 1980, and right into the late 80’s, we were still seeing frequent reprintings of his books.

But in the last fifteen years or so, there have been no more new editions. In this new Golden Age of children’s literature, it’s more than time to bring his books back so that a whole new generation can fall under their spell. Any publishers out there listening?

As a present-day coda to the end of my piece: as I mentioned in the article, second-hand copies of The Stone Cage are not easy to track down–and I’m certainly hanging onto my own beautiful hardcover copy, found by chance in a secondhand bookshop in Oxford some years ago . So it always astonished me that The Stone Cage hasn’t been republished, but when, five years ago, on behalf of the little publishing house I’m involved in, I made enquiries as to who might own the rights, it appeared that no-one was actually sure what had happened to them. Gray had no direct descendants, though he did have extended family, but a letter to an address I was kindly given by the ALCS (Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society) in the UK went unanswered.

Easy and delicious version of Bûche De Noël

The French Christmas cake, or Bûche de Noël (Christmas log) is a delicious cake, normally consisting of a Swiss roll-type sponge cake, filled with coffee, chestnut or chocolate butter cream and covered with the same cream, then decorated to look like a log, with extra little decorations on top. But in my childhood, my mother invented a new and equally delicious version of it, which was eminently suitable for an Australian summer Christmas. It’s super easy, doesn’t heat the house up–because no baking required at all!–and can be made Christmas Eve. I make it every year. It’s always popular!

I’ve published this recipe before, but not for a while, so here it is again, Maman’s Bûche de Noël.

Ingredients:

1 packet sponge finger biscuits

200 g unsalted butter, melted

1 or 2 eggs(depending on how much mixture you have)

half to 3/4 cup hot strong sweet coffee(a good instant coffee works fine)

Good cooking chocolate, melted with a little cream.

Crush all the biscuits (you can do this in the blender), add the hot sweet coffee, the melted butter, and mix well. Add the slightly beaten egg(or two). You need to obtain a good stiff mix that you can easily shape into a log. That’s what you do then–shape it into a log, and then put it in fridge till it is set. Meanwhile melt the chocolate over a low heat with a little cream, stir till all melted and glossy. Spread over the cake, on the top and sides. Put in fridge to set overnight. You can decorate the top with angelica leaves, almonds, rose petals, candied flowers, whatever you feel like! (Picture above is of one I made a couple of Christmasses ago)

Story for the season: Christmas in the Kennels

Introduction: It’s a bit of a tradition for me to publish a Christmas story in this festive time of the year, and this year’s no exception. I first wrote this story quite a few years ago, but it’s never been published anywhere, not in print or online. To tell you the truth, I’d forgotten about it in fact until I came across it again in my files just a couple of weeks ago, and thought it still worked pretty well. It’s a story for a general audience, for both kids and adults.

It’s a seasonal story with a difference, told from the point of view of dogs in boarding kennels and was inspired by the fact that when our kids were growing up, we had a lovely dog called Tess, a Border Collie cross(see pic just below) and when we occasionally went down to Sydney for Christmas, she had to go into boarding kennels nearby, as we couldn’t take her with us. The kennels were run by some very nice people who were always kind to the dogs, but Tess was not very keen on being there, she just loved being with us, of course. There were always lots of dogs there, of all sorts, and one day, as we were picking Tess up, the idea for this story jumped into my mind. (Tess by the way also features in my picture book with illustrator Katrina Fisher, A House of Mud , published by Little Pink Dog Books, 2020).

So now, without further ado, here’s the story: Christmas in the Kennels. Hope you enjoy!

CHRISTMAS IN THE KENNELS

by Sophie Masson.

Look, Tess, this is a nice place, lots of space, and those trees, aren’t they beautiful and shady!

You’ll be happy here. There’s lots of other dogs.

See?

Mum, Dad, do you think she understands we’re coming back? She looks sad…

Of course she does. Come on, children. We’re late. Bye-bye, sweet Tess. We’ll be back soon, we promise.

That would have to do, Tess supposed. It didn’t make it much easier, being left behind, but holding on to the promise would have to do. She had little choice anyway. What dog did?

That’s right, my dear, look on the bright side, said a gruff voice from the next cage, where a St Bernard sat with his chin on his paws, looking at her. Tess started, for she had not been aware she’d spoken out loud.

They look like good people, the St Bernard went on, kindly. They’ll be back.

Hmmm, sniffed an elegant black poodle on his other side, if they were so good, they wouldn’t leave you here, would  they, while they went off to their Christmas!

Please, Miss ffrench-French, said the St Bernard gravely, you must be patient and bear our lot with fortitude and show the world the true honour of a dog.

The poodle snorted loudly and was about to reply, when a mournful-looking Labrador broke in. It’s fine to think so, Professor, he said, turning to the St Bernard, but still, you must admit that it is strange. All year, they pet us and love us, but then disappear to this Christmas, and never take us. And I never stop wondering why. What is this place that wants no dogs near it?

I don’t know what it is, said Tess, perplexedly. This is the first time my people have left me here. I think they must only just have found how to get to Christmas.

It’s a place they go to every year, my people, said a Scottish terrier excitedly, they are bidden there by a fat man in a red suit, who you must never, never bark at.

Perhaps it’s a kind of kennel, suggested a timid-looking young spaniel, waving her plume-like tail.

Don’t be foolish, Carla, snapped the poodle. People don’t go to kennels. Only we do.

Christmas is a place wherever people are, said the Professor firmly. It is a place they carry with them, because even the kennel-people talk of it, and they do not move from their house.

Only people? said the spaniel. Not dogs?

Of course not, said the poodle. Whoever heard of dogs going to Christmas? No, it’s a place for people, and people only, whether they stay, or go away.

There was silence for a moment while they all thought about this, then the spaniel said anxiously, But even if people go away, they always come back, don’t they?

You are only ten moons old, Carla, said the poodle, contemptuously, what would you know? They don’t always come back.

Hush, hush, Miss ffrench-French , said the Professor, quickly, but too late.

All at once, a terrible sound tore into the air, a sound such as Tess had never heard before, not a yelp, not a bark, not even a howl, but a shriek, a scream, a veritable ululation of madness and grief.

And Tess saw that what she had taken to be an bundle of dark rags left in the empty cage opposite, was in fact a dog. A pitiful, shaking beagle, with a dull coat and thin legs and haunted eyes.

Tess was shaking too. She stared at the beagle, the dull coat, the haunted eyes. The terrible shriek rent the air again, and the same pain was on everyone’s faces, the pain of a big dark empty world, an endless space of lonely abandonment.

We can’t do anything, whispered the Professor sadly, nothing at all. You see…

But a woman was coming towards the dogs, rattling keys, tutting, and so he fell silent.

Now then, Bess, said the woman, opening the beagle’s door so that Tess saw the other dog was not even locked in; now then, Bess, what’s upset you this time, sweetie? And she got down on her knees, and gently patted the beagle’s shuddering head, and made her lie down on the little blue rug in the cage, and then she left. Once again, the beagle lay limp and listless, just like old clothes on the floor of her cage. Tess could not take her eyes off the pitiful sight.

 Her people left her here two moons ago, hissed Miss french­ French’s haughty voice. They left her here, and they didn’t come back.

Weren’t they good people? breathed Carla.

They seemed like good people, said the Professor heavily. I was there when they brought her. They  fussed  over her, petted her, said goodbye with many promises. But they didn’t come back . And they still haven’t come back.

Silence, while they all digested the awful fact, then Tess whispered, But why, why hasn’t someone else come to take her? Why is she still here?

They’re kind-hearted people, in the kennels, said the Professor gently . They tried to find her a home–they even tried to adopt her themselves. But she won’t leave her cage: you can see she’s not locked in. She won’t leave the rug her people left for her. she thinks that if she stays here, in the same spot, with that same rug, that they ‘ll be back one day. She can’t bear to go anywhere else, not even out in the yard, in case they do.

But, said the Labrador with a sob in his throat, they won’t be back , will they…

No, said the Professor sadly, I’m afraid they won’t. They can’t. He whispered something to Tess , then to the poodle , then down the line , and as he spoke, the same look flashed on all their faces , even the poodle’s. They were nearly all quiet, though; all but the spaniel, who lifted up her muzzle to howl in fear and pity, for she was too young to keep silent before the mention of death. But everyone gave her such a glare that she subsided, twitching.

It was not a pleasant night, that night, for Tess; and the next day was grey and damp and gloomy. But the kennel-people seemed cheerful enough, they hummed under their breath as they hosed out the cages and let the dogs out to run in the yard. Tess ran a few paces, more from habit than conviction; the other dogs did the same, all but Bess, who sat in her cage crouched over her blue rug.

Well, my friends, said the kennel -lady, when she’d herded them all back in, we’ll give you an extra big feed today, because I’ll have no time tonight. She seemed excited, and hummed whilst filling the dishes, and in her hurry to get back to the house, forgot to lock the shed where she kept the dog food.

The rain came in the afternoon, drizzling at first, then thick grey ropes of it. The dogs were all in their cages, chins on paws, looking out at the rain, talking softly of this and that and watching the glow of the kennel-people’s house, lit up already for the dark afternoon. Their keen eyes could see busy shadows passing across the lit windows and their sharp ears could hear cheerful noises, and somehow, it made them all feel strange, jumpy, even a little excited. Only Bess did not move, hunched in her corner.

The rain eased towards night, then stopped altogether as the big white moon began to rise in the clear sky over the trees. The dogs ‘ chatter eased with the rain and stopped in joyful wonder at the sight of the moon, and peace descended on the kennels, a strange deep hush that was made up of  tiny sounds, like the noisy silence of the sea.

All at once, ears pricked, heads turned, hackles rose. There was another sound, not made of moonlit night, but of something different. Tess sat bolt upright. A whisper.

Human. Rough, young. Normally, she would have barked, loudly, but tonight, she did no such thing, just rose stiffly to her feet and peered in silence at the people out there. A girl, a boy, stumbling a little; the girl round­ bellied, with a lovely face the colour of honey and long dark hair, the boy thin, pale, pinched face, sad blue eyes.

This is the place, Sal. I worked here once. The dogs were cool. There was a shed…it was dry, warm.

Oh, Tone, why don’t we just ask at the house? They’ll help us…and the dogs…I’m not sure about the dogs…Oh Tone, I’m afraid. I wish we could…

Tess could see the girl’s frightened brown eyes flashing over the kennels, the dogs silent and tense in their cages, listening but not barking at the intruders, not yet.

You know they’d call the cops, if we went to the house. And dogs are cool, repeated the boy. They’re kind. Not like people. Come on, Sal. You’ll be safe there, I promise. There’s hot water there, I remember. And spare blankets… I’ll help you. I won’t leave you.

There was a strangeness to his voice, thought Tess. A roughness that might turn fierce, that might be frightening, but with a timid tenderness in it , something not quite sure of itself, and deep underneath , a fear, a fear that all living creatures know well, the aching fear of loss. Held by the strange silver night, and the things she heard in the voices, Tess stayed quiet and, like the others, watched as the boy and girl made their way to the shed and disappeared into its darkness. Now the dogs stirred. We should bark and alert the kennel-people , whispered Miss ffrench-French. They should not be here, those people. They are intruders.

No, they’re just poor strays, said the Labrador, quietly.

Strays should go to the pound, Gelert, snapped the poodle.

Miss ffrench-French, said the Professor, that is not a fate to wish on one’s worst enemy. And that girl is carrying a pup in her belly, if I’m not mistaken.

All the same, sniffed the poodle, they should not be here. But despite her stern words, she did not bark, or yelp, or draw any attention from the brightly-lit house to the dark shed. Like the others, she waited, uneasily still in the moonlit night.

No-one took any notice of Bess, sitting huddled in her corner, almost as still as before, but with her ears twitching, feebly, once or twice.

Do you hear that, whispered the spaniel, presently, her body trembling all over. That noise, oh , what is it?

It’s the pup, said the Labrador, with his eyes huge in the moonlight. It’s the pup, coming. I remember when…

Spare us your stories, snapped the poodle. Oh, it really is too bad. We should bark. Someone should come, to help that girl.

We could help, said the Scottie excitedly, jumping up and down on the spot. We could do something …something, er…something really useful.

Oh, and what do you propose, my dear Jock? said the poodle with heavy sarcasm, silencing the Scottie.

The spaniel turned towards the Professor. Oh sir, what do you think?  What can we do?

Don’t call me sir, said the St Bernard, rather glumly. Professor is my title. Er…my dear , I think Miss ffrench­ French is right. We should bark, and alert the people in the house. I think it is the only thing to…

But all at once, a new voice interrupted him. An odd voice that sounded cracked or rusty, as if it had been left out too long in the rain.

My rug, said this voice. It’s a baby’s rug.

The dogs all turned in amazement. Bess was standing at the wire door of her cage, and she had a limp blue thing in her mouth. The rug.

After a while, the Professor said, gently, That’s a lovely thought, Bess, but a rug won’t do anything…

Then from the dark shed came muffled screams, and then a tiny, thin cry. That little cry was like the opposite of Bess’ shriek, before. Tiny as it was, it seemed to fill the whole world. It resounded in the dogs’ ears like fear, and like joy. Tess felt the mystery of it tingling in all of her being, so that she wanted to lift her muzzle to the sky and cry her heart to the moon. And she saw that the others did too.

No, said the cracked voice of the beagle, don’t do that, my friends. Tess looked at the beagle and saw that her haunted eyes were filled with the mystery too, and that the mystery, somehow, had reached her sooner than the others, and caused her to stagger up onto her feet at last. You’ll frighten the baby, and the mother too, if you howl, went on the beagle. My people always said I must be quiet, near the baby. They all stiffened at those words, but the beagle’s eyes were not mad with sorrow now but calm and determined.

But Bess, said the Professor, humbly, at last, you know we only wanted to mark the birth of the child.

I know that, said Bess, but they don’t. And they’ll be frightened. And you’ll alert everyone in the house.

That would be for the best, then, grumbled the poodle, and almost jumped back in astonishment when Bess replied, quietly, Why, so it would be, Miss ffrench-French. But later. Later. For now…

And she pushed at the wire door of her cage. It opened, and she stepped out. She picked up the blue rug and trotted off towards the shed. They all watched her go, in an aching silence. Only the poodle spoke.

Well, really, the ungrateful chit, after all we’ve done, you’d think she’d think of us…

Hush, Miss ffrench-French, said the spaniel, not timidly at all. And so determined was her voice that the poodle subsided without another word.

Tess stood behind the wire of her cage in the moonlight and watched the dark space at the mouth of the shed. She was thinking of the human pup in there, of its parents, and of her own people. Her people had little ones too, though they were not so small as that unknown one in there, and she had never seen them very small. But once, she’d had a pup herself; a little black one, with white-pointed ears. He had tumbled over her, and she had let him bite her ears, and her tail, and put up with his frantic barking, and his foolish tricks, for he was her pup. In time he had grown up, and gone away, and for a while she had missed him, and howled.

But after a time, she’d grown used to his being gone. Now, she remembered him again, his bright mischievous eyes, and the white points on his busybody ears. Somewhere in the world, he was, and perhaps had fathered pups of his own. The thought made her tail twitch, and her ears prick, and her body fill again with the tingling sensation that was like fear, and like joy.

Look, said the Professor, look, my friends…

And there was Bess, and the boy beside her. He staggered a little, his pale face was no longer pinched, but somehow puffy, his blue eyes shone with the bright strangeness of tears, and his voice trembled with a tenderness that was no longer timid, and no at all rough.

Oh dogs, dear dogs, he whispered, she’s so lovely, so lovely, like you wouldn’t believe!  So lovely, like her mum. So lovely, our little daughter. He paused for a while, then went on, An’ dogs, I think I’d better…I think we’d better go down to the house . She…they need proper care. They’ll call the cops, maybe, and then, well…His shoulders sagged. But otherwise it’s not fair to my love. Not fair to our little one.  No more runnin ‘, see? No more. No matter what.

The moon shone on his face, and there was a smile on it, growing and spreading. And it was as if the moonlight itself was in that smile, as if it grew from it, and filled the whole of that place. He reached  down to Bess, and stroked her ears, and he said, almost as though he was speaking to himself, Christmas…it’s Christmas. Never meant much to me, before. But I’ll never forget this one. Never.

The dogs watched him go, running towards the house, with Bess at his heels. Their sharp ears heard his knock, the surprised voices at the door, their keen eyes caught the succession of wary, then astonished, then urgent expressions on the faces of the kennel-people, caught in the yellow flood of light at the door. They saw how the people came hurrying across the lawn and into the shed to fill it with soft exclamations, and warm cries of delight and concern, with Bess making soft sounds, her nose pushed into the boy’s hand, and he was stroking her, his face filled with light.

The dogs stood there at their wire doors and watched the girl and her baby being helped gently, oh so gently, towards the welcoming house. They watched not in silence, this time, but with a chorus of joyful barks and shouts and yelps and howls that filled the moonlit night and made the people shrug a little, and smile, but not tell them to hush. And just as the people disappeared into the full yellow light of the house, the spaniel said, thoughtfully, Did you hear what he said, before? He said it was Christmas.

All eyes turned to the poodle, sitting silent on her haunches, staring up at the moon. Tess saw that Miss ffrench-French’s elegant nose twitched slightly, and her groomed black sides moved in and out rapidly, as if she’d been running. But when she spoke, the poodle’s voice was very quiet, and soft.

Yes, Carla, she said. That is quite right. It is Christmas, right here amongst us, in the kennels.

Text and photo copyright ©Sophie Masson.

Looking forward to the High Country Writers’ Festival!

Next Saturday, I’ll be heading to Glen Innes for the High Country Writers’ Festival, where I’ll be presenting a workshop on creating children’s books, based on Inside Story: the wonderful world of writing, illustrating and publishing children’s books, which I was involved in writing. I’m really looking forward to it! The workshop is two hours long and features a talk, Q and A, and hands on activity. You can get tickets for the workshop here.

The rest of the program is great too, with sessions on true crime, historical fiction, how to get a book project back on track, and more. See the full program here. Concurrently with the Festival also is the High Country Writers’ Retreat.

So looking forward to Satin coming out!

I am so looking forward to the publication next year of Satin, my forthcoming picture book with the wonderful illustrator Lorena Carrington, to be published by MidnightSun Publishing in March 2023. I am really excited about this book, which came about in the most magical way (which I’ll write about in another post, later), and which I think is going to be just loved by both children and adults.

Here’s the gorgeous cover:

And here’s the blurb:

Every morning early, when no-one’s about, Satin slips out of the forest and walks along the sleepy sunrise streets, looking for blue…

He’s collected all kinds of blues, from all kinds of places. He’s making something beautiful, with all those blues. But something’s missing, and he doesn’t know what it is. And then, one day, he comes to a street he’s never been in before. And what he finds there will change his lonely life forever.

A beautiful, haunting fable by award-winning writer Sophie Masson and acclaimed illustrator Lorena Carrington.

Lorena’s exquisite, superb creation of Satin’s visual world is just stunning in its depth and beauty, conveying a mix of natural enchantment and human warmth which goes right to the heart of the story. (Below is a sneak peek at the first page spread)

I am so happy that Lorena is co-creator with me on this gorgeous book, and so happy too that it was taken on by such a wonderful publisher as Anna Solding of Midnight Sun.

Making rotisserie-style chicken at home

One of my favourite food things, whenever I’m back in France, is to head to a small neighbourhood rotisserie or one in a market, and grab a delicious roast chicken for a picnic lunch with family. French rotisserie chickens have a very particular taste you just can’t seem to get elsewhere. Sometimes it has to do with the fact they are poulets fermiers, chickens that are really free range, and often fed on corn, so the flesh is golden rather than white. Those are, of course, particularly delicious. But not all rotisserie chickens are from those superior breeds (the cheaper ones aren’t, anyway), yet all of the roast birds taste really very good indeed. It’s to do with a savoury, deep golden brown skin(not crisp, but melt-in-the-mouth) and very moist flesh, and up till recently I had no idea how you could possibly reproduce that at home. Did you need special rotisserie equipment, maybe? And then, I came across a page from a French blog which set out a very simple recipe for how you could in fact produce a roast which had exactly the taste of rotisserie chicken. I admit I was a little sceptical at first, because it seemed in a sense counter-intuitive, what you did with the chicken–and yet it turned out perfectly, and now it’s been several times since I’ve made a roast chicken that has that amazing rotisserie taste. Absolutely definitely worth trying!

So, what do you need? A chicken of course, then also Dijon mustard(about 1-2 tablespoons); 3 garlic cloves; juice of 1 lemon; butter; 125 mls warm chicken stock(use half a stock cube only); herbs(your choice, but thyme and bay leaf or thyme and parsley work well); salt and pepper. What you do is first massage the chicken with half the lemon juice, then pour the rest into the cavity. Put the herbs into the cavity, chop the garlic(don’t crush it) and put half in the cavity, half under the chicken. Next, massage the mustard into the chicken, taking care that all the skin of the bird is well-coated–the mustard needs to almost disappear into it. Place the chicken in a roasting tin, salt and pepper it, sprinkle a few small pieces of butter over it(I also add a tiny bit of canola/sunflower oil), and then pour in the stock under the chicken, not over it. Put in the oven at 210C for 30 minutes, then turn down to 180C and cook for a further 45-60 mins (depending on size of the chicken).

Serve with roast potatoes or salad and good bread. I also make a sauce for the chicken which is basically just the utterly delicious cooking juices, to which extra lemon juice and pepper have been added. The whole thing is truly sensational–and simple, at the same time!

Food in fiction: reposted from Writer Unboxed

I thought readers of this blog might enjoy my latest post around the craft of fiction, reposted from the wonderful site Writer Unboxed. This one’s on food in fiction.

In life, people’s days are punctuated by meals. Food is an important part of our lives: of course, we need it for survival, but it’s much more than that. It’s pleasure, it’s penance, it’s anxiety, it’s joy—depending on our relationship with it. Eating together or alone, eating at home or out in restaurants and cafes, eating on the go or around the family table: it’s all part of the fabric of human life, all over the globe.

And in fiction? Well, it always used to puzzle me, as a kid, when people in books never stopped to eat or drink or you never got to hear what was for lunch, if it was mentioned. For me as a child, it was important to know: my diary as a twelve-year-old is full of mentions of the delicious things my mother had cooked up for us that day, or the yummy thing I’d bought at the school canteen that day (which my mother would have considered rubbish) or, conversely, the yuckiness of something I’d been made to try by a friend, such as vegemite—an Australian classic but not to my taste. Sure, I’m from a French background and food was intensely important in our family, but we certainly weren’t alone in that. To read a story in which there was no mention of food at all seemed odd. But to read one in which exotic delights like ginger pop (as in Enid Blyton) were mentioned—often!—was such fun. I had no idea at the time what ginger pop was but it sounded exciting, like the adventures the Famous Five or Secret Seven went on. And when Edmund, in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, is offered endless Turkish Delight by the White Witch to bribe him to betray his siblings, I was horrified, but understood. Hard to resist Turkish Delight! Growing up through adolescence and into adulthood, I never lost my interest in food and cooking, and never ceased to wonder why in some novels, people seemed to exist on air.

When it came to writing my own books, that was never an issue. Food always appeared, whether glancingly or more substantially, in both my fiction for young readers and for adults. Sometimes it was just for the sheer pleasure of the description, sometimes to evoke an atmosphere, sometimes to symbolize something about a character. I couldn’t imagine leaving it out altogether. In my recent adult novel, for example, A Hundred Words for Butterfly, which is set in the French part of the Basque country, where my mother’s family is from, food functions very much too as an expression of an ancient, distinctive culture and landscape, as well as illuminating certain aspects of family. If you’re interested, the publisher produced a lovely, free digital magazine which featured some of my Basque family recipes as well as entries from a microlit competition they ran, as part of the publicity for my book.

Right now, I’m working on another adult novel in which food—and especially the creation of dishes and meals–is absolutely central, indeed a crucial part of the characters’ emotional journey. That’s a challenge in itself: because of course you can overdo it. You can cook up too rich a stew, you can overwhelm the senses with too many smells and tastes, you can nauseate the reader with too much indigestible detail. You can’t be too self-indulgent; but equally, you can’t be too restrained. It’s a fine line to tread.

I’d read recently a number of contemporary novels which featured food as a central theme—ranging from Jenny Colgan’s Meet Me at The Cupcake Café, to Erica Bauermeister’s The School of Essential Ingredients to Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, and others, all of which handled the food theme adeptly and enjoyably and with great diversity too. They all showed something important to me as a writer: in a time when people watch cooking shows for fun and cookbooks sell like, well, hotcakes, at the same time there’s less time for many around the actual stove or table. Getting the balance of ingredients right in a food-themed novel is more important than ever. Sure, they’re about dreams, escape, pleasure: but also about being grounded, about rediscovering simple things, about the basic human joy of creating something delicious that for the enchanted space of a good meal might unite us all.

Publication week for new edition of The Green Prince and The Firebird

Absolutely delighted to announce that this week marks the publication of the new print editions of two of my earlier fairytale novels, The Green Prince and The Firebird, published by Brio Books in the Untapped Australian Classics list. The Green Prince was originally published in 2000, was shortlisted in the Aurealis Awards, and also turned into a stage play. It was chosen to be republished as an ebook in the wonderful Untapped Australian Literary Heritage Project, and from there was selected for inclusion in the print republication by Brio Books. The Firebird was first published in 2001, and was produced as an audio book in 2005. It also was chosen to be republished as an ebook by the Untapped project, and from there selected for inclusion for a new print edition by Brio Books. Aren’t both covers gorgeous!

It’s so wonderful to see these books back in circulation, both as print and e-editions, and hopefully they will find their way into the hands of a new generation of readers, as well as earlier fans whose previous copies might have worn out :-)Thank you so much to Untapped and to Brio Books for keeping the books alive, available and accessible!

Later, in late October, will come the new print edition of Cold Iron. Watch this space!