How Does Your Garden Grow?

So it looks like spring is slowly beginning to arrive in Newfoundland. Technically spring doesn’t really happen here, winter is just slowly overtaken by summer at some point in June, but there are crocuses blooming and the snowfall is definitely lessening, so I have decided that spring is definitely now arriving, albeit with frequent delays and setbacks!

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Our crocuses have now survived two dumping of snow:)

When we moved in to our current abode, I was thrilled to note that there were two raised beds already set up in the garden – one of which was full of strawberry plants. I have been desperate to try my hand at properly growing stuff for a while now and this place seemed ideal. We even have a raspberry patch that we share with our neighbour – it’s on the narrow strip of grass and hedge that divides the two houses.

Up until now, we haven’t had much chance to do anything, because of the snow and so forth, but the last couple of days have been fairly bright and sunny, so I decided to seize the opportunity and get out in the garden. I enthusiastically bought some seeds at the dollar store a few months ago and had completely forgotten what I had purchased, so it was a pleasant surprise to discover I had carrot seeds and spring onion seeds, both of which were apparently suitable for sowing in early spring. I may be optimistic in sowing them now, but this is really all experimental – even if we don’t get any veg from them at all this year, it will be interesting to see when and how – or even if – they start to grow.

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Carrots on the left, spring onions on the right!

I discovered to my dismay that the strawberry plants had already started regrowing – this was a problem because I had not thought to remove the dead parts of the strawberry plants from last year, so now the new baby plants are fighting to get through the older, dead plants and there isn’t enough space. Unfortunately, the plants are all matted together, so it’s impossible to just rip up the old ones without dislodging the new plants – in fact, they seem to be joined at the roots, so I will need to buy a pair of secateurs or something and carefully cut away all the dead vegetation – according to strawberry plants.org, anyway.

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Entangled strawberry plants.

I am entirely new to this growing business – apart from an ill-fated attempt to grow carrots in a container during my undergrad years in Liverpool – they grew, but were extremely thin and spindly, so we didn’t get anything edible from them at all! Thankfully, Google is my friend and I’m fairly certain I can find the answers to most queries I might have through a quick search online. However, if anyone reading this has any advice or suggestions, do let me know!

In addition to outdoor plants, I also have a couple of basil plants that were given to me by a friend of a friend – we had our first ‘harvest’ from them a few days ago and they were delicious, so I am very keen for the leaves to grow back so we can use them again! I particularly want to try one of the basil buttercream recipes I’ve just found online – I can’t really imagine what basil buttercream even tastes like, but am deeply curious to try it!

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Basil. My fish (George) is on the left.

 

What else? Oh yes, another friend has given me four sweet pepper plants – unfortunately one is already looking a bit far gone, because I hadn’t realised they needed frequent watering (oops!) but the other three are doing well, so I can hopefully transplant them to a larger container soon.

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Sweet pepper plants. Not sure if the front right one will make it!

Finally, my girlfriend has started growing beansprouts from a tub of mung beans, so we have those to eat too.

Why the sudden fascination with growing our own food? Well for me it isn’t really that sudden – I grew up on a farm and we always had our own fruit and vegetables available, os that just seems natural to me. Plus – and I know this is such a cliche – I really do believe that our homegrown fruit, in particular, tasted better than anything I’ve since bought at a supermarket. The supermarket practice of chilling things like strawberries and raspberries ruins the flavour, in my opinion. Strawberries should be sun-warmed when you eat them, not cold. This may be partly to do with nostalgia, but anyway, fresh fruit and veg is bloody expensive here in Newfoundland (we mainly buy frozen veg for this reason), so anything we can grow ourselves will definitely help both our diets and our grocery bill!

I will post regular garden updates with photos, but I don’t expect anyone else to be particularly interested – there are a bajillion other blogs doing exactly the same thing as this already, and they are probably much better organised and more engaging – I think this will mainly be for my own benefit, so I can keep track of our progress over the next few months.

I will of course still be posting my usual blogposts about various topics of interest, so this definitely won’t turn into a gardening-only blog!

Thanks for reading:) If you have any tips or advice, or just want to share your own stories about growing food/flowers etc, I would love to hear from you, so please do comment or message me!

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Thoughts on Life Dissatisfaction & the Desire to Trade Places with Someone Else

I don’t have time to write a full blogpost this month, as I have several BIG deadlines to meet in the next week, but I wanted to post something, even if it was fairly short.

So I hereby present you with one of my absolute favourite poems.(I saw James Fenton read this poem at a live event a few years ago and it was wonderful to hear it being read by the actual author).  I love the subtle humour, especially the embarrassed-yet-defiant description of drunkenness and the author’s outrage at someone having stolen his life, despite the fact that he himself no longer wanted it! There’s something very human about his reaction there, with which I think pretty much all of us can identify.

 

“The Skip” by James Fenton

I took my life and threw it on the skip,
Reckoning the next-door neighbours wouldn’t mind
If my life hitched a lift to the council tip
With their dry rot and rubble. What you find

With skips is – the whole community joins in
Old mattresses appear, doors kind of drift
Along with all that won’t fit in the bin
And what the bin-men can’t be fished to shift

I threw away my life, and there it lay
And grew quite sodden. ‘What a dreadful shame, ‘
Clucked some old bag and sucked her teeth. ‘The way
The young these days…. no values……. me, I blame….. ‘

But I blamed no-one. Quality control
Had loused it up, and that was that. ‘Nough said
I couldn’t stick at home, I took a stroll
And passed the skip, and left my life for dead.

Without my life, the beer was just as foul,
The landlord still as filthy as his wife,
The chicken in the basket was an owl,
And no one said: ‘Ee, Jim-lad, whur’s thee life? ‘

Well, I got back that night the worse for wear,
But still just capable of single vision;
Looked in the skip, my life- it wasn’t there!
Some bugger’d nicked it – WITHOUT my permission.

Okay, so I got angry and began
To shout, and woke the street. Okay, OKAY,
AND I was sick all down the neighbour’s van
AND I disgraced myself on the par-kay

And then…. you know how if you’ve had a few
You’ll wake at dawn, all healthy, like sea breezes,
Raring to go, and thinking: ‘Clever you!
You’ve got away with it’ and then, Oh Jesus,

It hits you. Well, that morning, just at six
I woke, got up and looked down at the skip.
There lay my life, still sodden, on the bricks,
There lay my poor old life, arse over tip.

Or was it mine? Still dressed, I went downstairs
And took a long cool look. The truth was dawning.
Someone had just exchanged my life for theirs.
Poor fool, I thought – I should have left a warning.

Some bastard saw my life and thought it nicer
Than what he had. Yet what he’d had seemed fine.
He’d never caught his fingers in the slicer
The way I’d managed in that life of mine.

His life lay glistening in the rain, neglected,
Yet still a decent, an authentic life.
Some people I can think of, I reflected
Would take that thing as soon as you’d say Knife.

It seemed a shame to miss a chance like that
I brought the life in, dried it by the stove.
It looked so fetching, stretched out on the mat
I tried it on. It fitted, like a glove.

And now, when some local bat drops off the twig
And new folk take the house, and pull up floors
And knock down walls and hire some kind of big
Container (say, a skip) for their old doors.

I’ll watch it like a hawk, and every day
I’ll make at least – oh – half a dozen trips.
I’ve furnished an existence in this way.
You’d not believe the things you’d find on skips.

 

Actually, this idea of trading lives with someone else has reminded me of this gem from Jerome K Jerome’s “Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow”, which always makes me smile:

One wonders that fancy dress balls are not more popular in this grey age of ours.  The childish instinct to “dress up,” to “make believe,” is with us all.  We grow so tired of being always ourselves.  A tea-table discussion, at which I once assisted, fell into this:—Would any one of us, when it came to the point, change with anybody else, the poor man with the millionaire, the governess with the princess—change not only outward circumstances and surroundings, but health and temperament, heart, brain, and soul; so that not one mental or physical particle of one’s original self one would retain, save only memory?  The general opinion was that we would not, but one lady maintained the affirmative.

“Oh no, you wouldn’t really, dear,” argued a friend; “you think you would.”

“Yes, I would,” persisted the first lady; “I am tired of myself.  I’d even be you, for a change.”

 

Hopefully I’ll be back with a ‘proper’ post next month.

Thanks for reading!

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Overcoming Boggarts, Dementors & Roderick Spode: The Transformation of Emotion as a Coping Strategy

I have been meaning to write a new blogpost for months now, but due to the demands of my clinical psychology course I have been struggling to find the time. The evidence for my plea that this course seems to have taken over my life is clearly illustrated by the fact that even this blogpost has a psychology-related theme to it. It also, however, mentions Harry Potter and Wodehouse, so all is not lost just yet.

In case any of you have eyed the title of this post with scepticism and are concerned that it will in some way be celebrating the “power” of positive thinking, let me reassure you that this is absolutely not the case. I am a confirmed cynic when it comes to affirmations, mantras and “inspirational” quotes – and feel vindicated by studies like this, which demonstrate that positive thinking can actually be harmful rather than beneficial. But why should positive thinking be harmful? Why can’t we just wish our negative thoughts and feelings away? If it doesn’t work, how do we know if we’re just not wishing hard enough?

Having recently learned about emotion-focused therapy in one of my clinical psychology classes, I became interested in the concept of emotion transformation. This is the idea that in order to overcome a maladaptive emotion, it must be replaced with a more adaptive one. “Maladaptive” in this sense means unhelpful or not useful. Examples of maladaptive emotions: fear, shame, guilt etc. These emotions can lead to us feeling stuck and unable to move forward with our lives. Adaptive emotions, on the other hand, are those that help you to process the experience and move on: joy, humour, forgiveness – even anger, in certain cases. Leslie Greenberg (one of the founders of emotion-focused therapy) says that the philosopher Spinoza was the first person to point out that in order to change an emotion, it must be replaced with another emotion (Greenberg, 2002). In other words, all the rationalization and positive thinking in the world will not help you change your maladaptive emotion unless there is a stronger, more powerful emotion to take its place. Thoughts cannot change our emotions – only emotions have the power to transform other emotions.

Greenberg incorporates this idea into the theoretical orientation behind emotion-focused therapy. I won’t go into detail about this here because I don’t suppose it would be particularly interesting to anyone who isn’t studying psychology, but if you want to learn more about emotion-focused therapy and how it works, check out the article in the references section at the end of this post.

While transforming negative emotions may seem at first a purely psychological concept, it occurred to me, even as I read the article, that I had seen examples of this kind of emotional transformation before, in literature. Any of my readers who are Wodehouse fans will no doubt have spotted the Spinoza reference above. I have no idea whether Wodehouse actually read any Spinoza, so the fact that Jeeves uses the theory of emotional transformation to help out Bertie and his friends on several occasions may be a complete coincidence – I suspect it is.

Let me use a quote from Greenberg’s article and a quote from Wodehouse (“The Code of the Woosters”) to illustrate my thoughts on this.

“Thus in therapy, maladaptive fear, once aroused, can be changed by the more boundary-establishing emotions of adaptive anger or disgust, or by evoking the softer feelings of compassion or forgiveness.” ~ Greenberg

 

“Well, as I say, I went to Jeeves, and put the facts before him… He approached the problem from the psychological angle. In the final analysis, he said, disinclination to speak in public is due to fear of one’s audience…We do not, he said, fear those whom we despise. The thing to do therefore, is to cultivate a lofty contempt for those who will be listening to one…You fill your minds with scornful thoughts about them.”  ~ The Code of the Woosters

And there you have it. Gussie Fink-Nottle’s fear of Roderick Spode and Sir Watkyn Bassett is turned into contempt and dislike and he is able to view the prospect of making a speech in front of them with no qualms whatsoever. Jeeves really does know all about the psychology of the individual!

For those among you who have not yet read Wodehouse, I set forth another example – well, two, in fact, from a book series that is so popular, I have no doubt that everyone will be familiar with it. In the third Harry Potter book, Harry has to cope with several new challenges that are of a somewhat darker nature than those he has encountered in his first two years at Hogwarts. As well as trying to solve the usual mystery and intrigue, Harry also has to try to overcome his own fear, as illustrated by his encounters with Boggarts and Dementors. In the first case, Professor Lupin shows Harry and the rest of his class how to beat a Boggart – a creature that turns into the object or person that you most fear and can only be defeated by laughter. This is a perfect example of transforming the maladaptive emotion of fear into a more adaptive one – humour.

“Nobody knows what a boggart looks like when he is alone, but when I let him out, he will immediately become whatever each of us most fears…The charm that repels a boggart is simple, but in requires force of mind. You see, the thing that really finishes a boggart is laughter. What you need to do is to force it to assume a shape that you find amusing.” ~ Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Of course, when Neville Longbottom is forced to confront his greatest fear (Professor Snape), he manages to overcome his terror by imagining Snape wearing his grandmother’s eccentric and old-fashioned clothes, thus providing considerable amusement for the rest of the class, as well as himself.

The final example I shall mention is also taken from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In this book, Harry encounters Dementors for the first time – dark, soulless creatures who prey on human emotions by sucking all the happiness and hope out of anyone that comes near them. The negative emotions associated with them are fear and despair – both of which are obviously maladaptive. As with the Boggart, the way to defeat a Dementor is to summon up the opposite of despair – a powerful, happy memory:

“‘The Patronus is a kind of positive force, a projection of the very things that the Dementor feeds upon – hope, happiness, the desire to survive – but it cannot feel despair, as real humans can, so the Dementors can’t hurt it….’

…‘And how do you conjure it?’

‘With an incantation, which will work only if you are concentrating, with all your might, on a single, very happy memory.’” ~Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Here again, we see that a powerful, positive emotion is used to displace a negative, maladaptive one. Even though Harry has to think of a memory in order to overcome his fear, it is the emotion attached to that memory, rather than the thought itself, that is the key to his success.

The musings that prompted this post have definitely helped me understand the theory of emotion-focused therapy a little better and I hope it might have entertained you as well. As much as I like studying psychology, it definitely adds to that enjoyment when I can also link it to my favourite books!

 

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References

Greenberg, L. (2002). Integrating an Emotion-Focused Approach to Treatment Into Psychotherapy Integration. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 12(2), 154-189.

Rowling, J. K. (1999). Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Wodehouse, P. G. (1938). The Code of the Woosters.

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My Top Five Wodehouse Books

Greetings, dear readers! I have been away for almost the whole of August visiting family and friends back in the UK, so unfortunately I didn’t manage my usual monthly blogpost last month. Hopefully I can now get back on track with two posts in September.

I was thinking recently about my favourite Wodehouse books and decided to try and narrow my favourites down into a Top Five list. This includes two Jeeves books, one stand-alone, one Psmith book and the only full-length Ukridge book. I have not listed them in order of preference – that process would be too drawn-out and agonising – but I have composed a small summary for each one, detailing why I like that particular story and some of the stand-out moments in each book. I know this post will probably be much more interesting for my readers who also happen to be Wodehouse fans, however, I am also secretly hoping that some of you who have not yet read Wodehouse may be intrigued and try one of his books. I am issuing a SPOILER ALERT for all of these because I talk about most of the plots in some detail. 

  1. The Adventures of Sally

Sally

Many people who read Wodehouse do not go beyond the Jeeves and Blandings stories. This, in my opinion, is a mistake. PGW wrote several excellent stand-alone stories and this one is my absolute favourite. It features a superb heroine, the eponymous Sally, who is bright, friendly, smart and very kind, as well as being fiercely independent. You can’t help cheering for her right the way through the story. The hero, Ginger, starts off seeming somewhat diffident and a bit shy, but soon shows himself to be courageous, charming and, of course, hopelessly in love with Sally. Wodehouse stories generally feature one of two main types of love affair. Either there is love at first sight for both parties, or the boy loves the girl, but she isn’t interested in him – at least, not at first. This particular story falls into the latter category. It is unusual in that there are a couple of genuinely sad moments in the book – the most notable being when Sally realises that her previous boyfriend has been messing her about and she suffers real emotional torment over it, before finally being able to move on.

The story also contains some fabulously comic moments (the dog fight scene in particular is very good) and a thoroughly satisfying ending. What more could you want from a book?

  1. Love Among the Chickens

Chickens

This is the only full-length Ukridge story, the rest all being short stories. It is also the first one that Wodehouse wrote, which seems odd when you realise that Ukridge introduces his new wife Millie in the first few pages, but she is never mentioned in any of the other stories. I rather like Millie – she is so utterly trusting and supportive of her husband, in spite of his glaring faults and madcap schemes! In this particular story, Ukridge has decided to make his fortune by starting a chicken farm on the south west coast of England and inveigling his long-suffering friend Jeremy Garnet into helping him set up this new enterprise. Unsurprisingly, chaos ensues. The chickens cause far more trouble than one would have imagined, Jeremy falls in love with the neighbour’s daughter, their diets become increasingly restricted to seemingly endless variations on the theme of chickens and Ukridge manages to enrage all of the local tradesmen.

I took a while to warm to the short stories featuring Ukridge, but I have always loved this book. I am not quite sure why this should be the case – perhaps because there is more to this story than Ukridge’s usual bungling approach to money-making – for example, Jeremy’s romance with Phyllis, and minor characters such as Phyllis’ father, the peppery old professor who boils over at the least mention of his home country of Ireland. Lastly, there are (how could there not be?) some superbly funny scenes – including almost any that involve the chickens, particularly the supercilious Aunt Elizabeth, Millie’s cat Edwin getting stuck in the chimney and saving the professor from drowning to name just a few. It’s one of Wodehouse’s oldest works (first published in 1906 and later revised in 1921) but that just shows what a wonderful storyteller he was, even right at the beginning of his career.

  1. The Mating Season

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I have recently finished listening to the audiobook of The Mating Season for the umpteenth time. It is my favourite Jeeves book for many reasons, but primarily because of the village concert scene, which features the appalling Kegley Bassington posse, Gussie & Catsmeat’s tragic cross-talk act and Esmond Haddock’s smash-hit performance of “A-Hunting We Will Go”. Everything about this scenario is fabulously funny. If you have never read this particular Jeeves book, I urge you to go out and find a copy immediately. You will not be disappointed.

As well as the village concert, the book also features some outstanding supporting characters, including the aforementioned E. Haddock, Corky & Catsmeat Pirbright, Constable Dobbs, Sam Goldwyn and, of course, the ‘surging sea’ of aunts who reside at Deverill Hall, led by the magnificent Dame Daphne Winkworth.

There are no fewer than four active romances going on in this book, along with the ridiculous situation involving Gussie Fink-Nottle and Bertie having to impersonate each other for most of the story. I have absolutely no idea how PGW not only manages to come up with such a screwball plot, but keeps it all together perfectly and maintains such a high level of hilarity throughout the whole book. It really is staggeringly good. If I was forced to choose just one Wodehouse novel to take on a desert island, this would probably be it.

  1. Psmith in the City

Psmith

I think I am probably right in saying that the majority of Wodehouse fans rate “Leave it to Psmith” highest of all the stories featuring Psmith. I’m not entirely sure why I prefer this book to LitP, but it probably has something to do with the fact that the story is semi-autobiographical. I love getting a more direct insight into an author’s mind and that usually only occurs when a story is wholly or partly based on a phase of their own life. Wodehouse was not able to go to university after finishing school, so he had to go and work in a bank. He was not suited to the work and it was almost certainly a relief for both him and the bank when he finally left to become a full-time writer. The start of this book sees Mike being told by his father that he cannot go to university like his brothers, but must go and work in a bank. There is a rather beautiful, melancholy moment when Mike, having just moved to his rather depressing new lodgings in the city, sits on a bench and gazes longingly at the playing fields of a local school, wishing he was back there again. It is not difficult to imagine the young Wodehouse having a similar experience during the first few days of his new career. The story follows Mike and his friend Psmith as they settle in to their new lives as bank clerks. Mike muddles along fairly well most of the time, but Psmith – a person for whom the word effulgent might have been invented – is on his finest form here, as he gently torments their boss (the irascible Mr Bickersdyke) and cunningly befriends the jittery Mr Rossiter, so he will not report any of their minor indiscretions to Mr Bickersdyke. Anyone reading this book who works or has worked in a office job must surely have longed for their own, real-life version of Psmith, to help brighten up the dull monotony of office life and bring the sunshine back into their souls. The ending is everything it should be and Mike and Psmith’s final escape is positively heroic!

  1. The Inimitable Jeeves

Jeeves

I had serious trouble choosing the fifth book for this list. The first four were very easy, but this one was more of a challenge. I wanted to make sure I picked something that I would be happy to read/listen to over and over again, like the first four. But nothing immediately sprang to mind, unlike the first four, which were very easy to select. I had thought about choosing a Blandings novel, but (apart from Leave it to Psmith), none of the Blandings stories stand out for me. Then I realised that The Inimitable Jeeves was one that I had re-read on numerous occasions and contained several of my very favourite Jeeves stories, so this book won out.This Jeeves book is really a collection of short stories, which are all connected by Bingo Little’s seemingly hopeless romantic pursuits, finally terminating in his joyful union with the popular novelist Rosie M. Banks. My favourite story within this book is probably “Comrade Bingo”, in which Bingo pretends to be a communist in order to further his romantic cause with the ghastly Charlotte Corday Rowbotham. The exquisitely funny scene when Bingo, Charlotte, her father and Comrade Butt come to Bertie’s flat for tea is just superb.

Bingo’s uncle Lord Bittlesham is also a splendid supporting character – and he is wonderfully voiced by Jonathan Cecil in the audiobook. As most Wodehouse fans know, Bingo does finally find his soulmate and settles down to a life of married bliss.

So there you have my top five Wodehouse books. Do you agree with my choices? Which ones would you choose to go in your top five? Should we even attempt to single out favourites at all? Do let me know your thoughts!

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An Interview with M. Negrijn: Author of the “Pure Red Sand” Trilogy

Ahoy-hoy, blog-readers! For this month’s blogpost, I thought I would try something a little bit different. I’ve recently become interested in supporting self-published authors, so I was very excited to find out that one of my new friends here in Newfoundland was self-publishing her first novel – a thrilling tale of survival against the odds on an extraterrestrial colony. I read her book and to my delight, I enjoyed it very much. So I decided to ask her to do an interview with me and use it for this month’s blogpost. Here is the result – I hope you enjoy hearing some of her thoughts and if you also decide to buy a copy of her book, I promise you won’t be disappointed!

So, welcome to my blog Meghan! I’ve known you for a while now of course, but my readers have never met you. Could you start off by telling us a little about yourself and how you became a writer?

Thanks so much for the lovely compliments on my book and for interviewing me. I’m a bit of a reluctant nomad with a love for the written word. I think we communicate our lives through story. Whether it’s a grand epic or what we did last weekend, it’s a powerful medium.

I started writing poetry when I was nine. I didn’t really take it seriously until I was 14 and a teacher encouraged me to enter a contest. About a year after that I met a good friend, Jonathan, who is also a writer. Our discussions about writing and plot were invaluable.

I wrote short stories in junior high and high school and then when I was 21, I accidentally wrote my first novel. While I still enjoy short stories and poetry as a medium, I focus on novels. I write in the genres I enjoy for the most part (except horror) and I’m most interested in people, so that’s really my current focus.

Your author profile on Facebook states that you write science fiction, historical fiction, romance and horror – quite a range! Since your writing covers several genres, I’m curious to know, which authors inspire you the most?

I think the authors that inspire me depend on the genre. My favourites are Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen. I guess they would be my inspiration for romance, tension and character development. As for science fiction, definitely Lois McMaster Bujold and Elizabeth Moon. Historical fiction is a wide range. I have enjoyed some of Diana Gabaldon’s works, Sara Donati, Coleen McCullough, Bernard Cornwell. I could go on.

Okay, so now we know a bit more about you, let’s move on to talk about your novel. An Expensive Retreat (the first in the Pure Red Sand trilogy) is not the only book you’ve written. Why did you decide to publish this one first?

The first novel I wrote was a bit of an accident. It started out as a short story and kept growing. Since it grew so organically, it’s a little unwieldy at times. It’s a beautiful story and I’m currently working on a rewrite to tighten up the story arc. An Expensive Retreat was my second book and always intended to be a novel. While each book is a learning experience, it wasn’t the same. It was a more strongly written piece, easier to edit and rewrite when necessary. The other two books I have completed are the rest of the trilogy. There’s a romance nearing the finished stage as well.

An Expensive Retreat is unusual for a sci-fi novel in that it doesn’t feature any aliens or fancy futuristic technology, aside from spaceships. What made you decide to make this a sci-fi novel and why did you choose Mars as the main setting?

I’m not sure that I planned it to be set on Mars. The story just took place there. The trilogy is very loosely based on short stories I wrote as a teenager. As for technology, I think it becomes a part of life, something taken for granted. I wanted it to be that way for Nadine. Technology is the background, not the main character. Nadine doesn’t think about it because she’s grown up with it. The other side to this is that I write people. I’m more interested in relationships and development than I am the structure of spacecraft or the tools they use. Regardless of the ways we use technology, we’re still human. I think that’s the one connecting fact in all of the genres I write. It’s about the people and their stories.

The main character in An Expensive Retreat is Nadine Cloutier, a strong, resourceful, independent woman, who is also somewhat vulnerable and can find it hard to communicate with others. Is she based on anyone that you know? In fact, are any of your characters consciously drawn from life, or are they purely imaginary?

No one is ever directly based on another person. I borrow elements of people I know. Maybe it’s the way a smile made me feel or how someone reacted in a situation. I am inspired by those small gestures and they influence the creation of my characters. I think a big inspiration for Nadine’s strength was my friend Lucinda, although they’re definitely not the same person. Lucinda is a much better communicator. Nadine is her own person completely. She definitely doesn’t communicate well but that’s a product of her upbringing. It’s something that is hinted at throughout the books. She grows as a result of events of this book and that development continues throughout the trilogy. I’m excited about what people will think by the end.

The story is principally set on Mars (although some of the background events take place on Earth), where the only settlement on the planet is a relatively new colony that is very isolated and somewhat neglected by the government on Earth. Was this an intentional reference to your own province of Newfoundland and Labrador, which is also slightly cut off from the mainland and has to import a lot of resources, or is it mere coincidence?

Since I published the book, several people have asked me that or made the same comparison. It was never intended to be a reflection of Newfoundland and Labrador culture. That said; no one grows up in a bubble. It’s an interesting interpretation.

How do you know Laura Sou (the person who did the beautiful minimalist cover art for the front of the book)? Will she be collaborating with you in any of your self-published works in the future?

I met Laura when I lived in Alberta. She’s a brilliant artist and photographer. We spent a good bit of time together and when she found out I was a writer, she asked if she could create my cover art. I agreed, quite honoured. I’m amazed at the result. It feels as if she brought the images inside my head to visual life. I hope we can continue to collaborate for future works.

And finally, I know that the ending of the book was a shock for many readers (including myself!), who may have been expecting a slightly different conclusion to the story! When will the next instalment be published?

I find it so funny that people were surprised by the ending, as I thought it was quite expected. But then, I know where the story goes. The next instalment will be published sometime this fall, definitely before Christmas. The third and final book will come out in 2016.

Thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed, Meghan! It was lovely to learn more about you as a writer – and I am now even more excited to read your future works!

Thanks so much for interviewing me. It was a real pleasure. You can keep up to date on my writing through my Facebook page!

You can download Meghan’s first novel from the following websites, as well as all amazon sites worldwide.

In Canada:

http://www.amazon.ca/Pure-Red-Sand-Expensive-Retreat-ebook/dp/B010IMLCV0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1435490457&sr=8-1&keywords=m+negrijn

In the US:

http://www.amazon.com/Pure-Red-Sand-Expensive-Retreat-ebook/dp/B010IMLCV0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1437067637&sr=8-1&keywords=pure+red+sand

In the UK:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Pure-Red-Sand-Expensive-Retreat-ebook/dp/B010IMLCV0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1437067743&sr=8-1&keywords=an+expensive+retreat

And you can find out more about An Expensive Retreat – and about Meghan herself – by visiting the websites below.

Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/mnegrijn

Goodreads:

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25850350-pure-red-sand-an-expensive-retreat?fb_action_ids=10155797042615319&fb_action_types=og.likes

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World Refugee Week: 15-21 June

The organisation that I volunteer for (the Refugee & Immigrant Advisory Council) is marking World Refugee Week on 15-21 June with a range of activities and events designed to highlight the plight of refugees across the globe. In view of this, and the fact that there has been an upsurge in the number of refugee-related news stories recently, I felt that this would be a good opportunity to write a piece on refugees. I will first focus on how we define a ‘refugee’, then talk about why it is so important to listen to the stories of refugees and finish with a couple of links to TEDx Talks by and about refugees. These talks all featured as part of RIAC’s Monday event for World Refugee Week (we watched the videos and had a short discussion session after each one). They each illustrate a slightly different side of the refugee story. I’m giving the one by Carina Hoang a trigger warning for rape – however, for those who can, please do listen to it, because her story is a great example of what I talk about below regarding the importance of believing people’s stories even when they sound too horrific to be true. This post was originally going to be a lot longer and more in-depth, but in the end I thought that it would be more effective to focus on one theme, which is the importance of giving refugees a voice and recognising that even if we can’t understand what it’s like to go through such experiences, it is important for us to show compassion and respect by listening to their stories.

First of all, how do we define which people are classed as refugees? Here is the UNHCR’s official definition of a refugee, as per the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees:

…someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

There are two main types of refugees. The first group are refugees who have fled their home country and are applying for asylum in a different country. They are also known as asylum seekers. The second group are those who are displaced within their home country, or living in refugee camps in neighbouring countries. The basic idea is that refugees are people who are leaving their countries because they fear for their lives. This is where refugees differ from immigrants – the latter group have chosen to leave their home countries in order to make a better life for themselves. The key word here is ‘choice’. One could argue, of course, that refugees technically also have a choice, since they could choose to stay in their home countries and risk death, but clearly this is not the same as deciding whether to move abroad in order to gain a better lifestyle for you and your family.

It is interesting to note that our views on certain groups of refugees can depend on how their situation is portrayed by the media, as well as how it has been viewed historically. For example, during WWII, hundreds of thousands of Jewish people fled Nazi Germany to escape the Holocaust. Because this genocide is so well-documented, almost everyone acknowledges that the Jews were at serious risk of death if they remained in their home country, so their flight now seems completely natural and justified. However, attitudes at the time were very different. Many people in France, for instance, described the 25,000 Jews who fled to that country as “economic parasites and undesirables” (Lamey, 2011), a phrase that seems shocking now, considering what sort of treatment they were fleeing from. After another wave of Jews arrived in France following Hitler’s invasion of Austria, laws were introduced that made it increasingly difficult for refugees to enter the country. In addition, Jewish refugees were barred from certain jobs and some were even sent back to Germany. Once France was officially at war with Germany in 1939, men of ‘suspicious’ political backgrounds – even those who had just fled from Nazi persecution – were interned and the Vichy government later handed over many of these prisoners to the Nazis for execution.

It seems absolutely incredible now that Jewish refugees, a group of people who had suffered so much persecution and discrimination at the hands of one government, should flee to a neighbouring country for sanctuary and encounter a similar level of hostility and ill-treatment. But this did not just occur in France. In Newfoundland, which was then a British colony, there were ambitious plans to settle several thousand Jewish refugees, but for some reason (it has been suggested the motivating factor may have been anti-semitism), these plans never came to fruition. Between 1934 and 1941, thousands of refugees applied for asylum in Newfoundland and Labrador. Only 11 of these applications were accepted. In addition, Canada only took in 4,000 refugees by the end of 1939. This record has been described as “the worst of all possible refugee-receiving states”. Several smaller, poorer countries took in large numbers of refugees during the WWII period – the Dominican Republic alone offered asylum to 100,000 and the city of Shanghai accepted 20,000 people (due it being under the control of three different factions in 1938-9, visas and travel documents were not required to gain entry to Shanghai, making it an ideal sanctuary for refugees). The generosity of these countries only serves to highlight the appalling actions of Canada, Newfoundland and several other countries who made it extremely difficult for those fleeing Nazi persecution to find sanctuary.

I have used the example of Jewish refugees to highlight two different points. The first is the fact that so many countries apparently failed to recognise (or simply chose to ignore) the real danger that the Jewish people were facing during WWII. Refugees are often reluctant to talk about their stories, partly because it is so painful to re-live traumatic experiences, but also because their accounts are so often met with scepticism. When people describe instances of torture, rape, abuse and murder, it can sometimes seem so horrific as to be unbelievable. We simply cannot grasp that such horrendous things can happen to a person, let alone an entire group of people. Our imaginations often do not stretch far enough to encompass such wickedness.

The second point is that, as I pointed out earlier on, the history of the Holocaust is extremely well-known and therefore largely accepted as true. This therefore makes it considerably easier for us to believe Holocaust survivors when they describe their experiences of concentration camps. But of course, the Holocaust is not the only example of genocide and persecution – or indeed the worst. There are many such horrors being inflicted on people around the world at this very moment and it is therefore imperative that we believe people when they tell us their stories of persecution and trauma. The Holocaust is presumed by many people to be the worst example of man’s inhumanity to man in history, but this is not necessarily the case – and even if it has been the worst so far, there is no guarantee that it will remain so. Human rights abuses are being inflicted every single day, in numerous countries throughout the world – and people fleeing that abuse are in vital need of shelter and protection. It is of course not possible to simply let everyone in regardless of whether they have a convincing story of persecution or not, but I would argue that it is better to have a bit more credulity and risk appearing too lenient, then to be overly sceptical and thus responsible for returning vulnerable people to violent situations.

If you are not otherwise marking World Refugee Week and you have been affected by the issues raised in this blogpost, I would ask you to please watch at least one of the videos below and listen to a refugee’s story. When a person leaves their home country, they lose all of their rights as a citizen of that country and have no status in the world until they are accepted by another country. There are currently 51 million refugees across the world and for the most part, they are a silent and, in many cases, an invisible group. If you listen to even one of their stories, you are helping to make all of their voices heard.

TEDx Talks

Being a refugee is not a choice” by Carina Hoang: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwkVk16xecw

Promise and opportunity” by Parweez Koehestanie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gT8TQN-UHqc

Refugees starting over” by Kathryn Stam: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gn3WhquBDBI

Breaking the mould for refugees” by Menes LaPlume: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-7nKdX3KtE

References

  • Lamey, A. (2011). Frontier Justice: The Global Refugee Crisis and What To Do About It. DoubleDay Canada.
  • UNHCR, (2015). Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. [online] Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html [Accessed 19 Jun. 2015].
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Recipe: Banana, Cranberry & Sultana Loaf

Last Christmas, a friend of mine gave me a blank recipe book, so I could write in my favourite recipes that I’ve collected from blogs, books, food packaging etc. It was a brilliant present and I am now slowly filling it with the recipes that I use on a regular basis, as well as ones that I have recently discovered. This year, I made a resolution to try and write at least one blogpost every month. So far I have kept more or less to this promise, but I knew from the start that there would probably be one or two months where I was simply too busy to read and research for my usual long and detailed posts. I decided that if and when I found myself at the end of the month with no major blogposts ready to publish, I would post one of the tried and tested recipes from my book – on the basis that food is great and most people enjoying reading, watching and doing food-related things.

Of all the recipes in my book, this is the one I use the most often, partly because it’s so tasty, also because it uses up old bananas (which would otherwise be chucked, because I hate eating over-ripe, squashy bananas) and finally because you can shove all sorts of extra bits in it to make it more or less exciting, depending on your preference. It’s based on this one that I found online a while ago, with a couple of minor changes.

Here is my version:

Ingredients

1/2 cup margarine

3/4 cup sugar

1 & 1/2 cups of flour

1 tsp baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)

1/4 tsp salt

3 over-ripe bananas (the browner and squashier they are, the better)

Miscellaneous bits added in for extra flavour – I usually use a handful of frozen cranberries and another handful of sultanas, but you can also add things like desiccated coconut or chocolate chips.

Method

Turn oven temperature to 180 degrees and grease a loaf tin (I think mine is a 2lb one).

Mix margarine and sugar in a bowl until texture is creamy.

Then add sifted flour, salt and baking soda and mix well.

Peel and mush the bananas (this could be done at the start if you’re more organised) and stir these in too.

Add the miscellaneous bits and mix until everything is thoroughly combined.

Bake in oven for approximately 1 hour.

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You may have noticed, if you looked at the ingredients closely, that this banana bread is actually vegan, if made with margarine. I am not vegan myself, but any recipes that don’t require butter – which is even more expensive here in NL than it is in the UK – and also happen to be suitable for my few vegan friends are always winners with me – provided, of course, that they taste as good as this one.

Let me know if you have a go at making it – and of course, if you have your own banana bread recipes, I’d love to hear those as well!

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