Monday, 29 August 2016

THE FINNIGAN EFFECT: A Guest Post by Mary T. Wagner

Writing has been an essential part of my life for as long as I’ve been an adult. I’ve written for newspapers, magazines, and courts of law. Who knew that now—as both a grownup and a grandmother—writing about a kitten would let me channel my “inner child” with such total abandon?!

I can’t claim to have been one of those writers who “just knew” from the time they could read that they wanted to write and to create their own stories. 

To the contrary, I buried myself in books as a child and was quite content to immerse myself in the stories that others created—first all books I could find about horses; then mysteries featuring the teenaged American sleuth Nancy Drew; and finally “regency romances” which usually featured a very difficult hero and a plucky damsel who won his heart by the last chapter. Quite often carriages and castles were involved. I grew up with a great vocabulary…and very little to show in the way of my own imagination!

However, after drifting through my first year in college as an “undeclared liberal arts major,” I took a stab at newspaper journalism, relying on the occasional praise of others that I wrote well in my earlier school assignments to crack open the door. After sitting through my first reporting class, I was hooked. “That’s it, I’m home,” I thought, and I eagerly rolled up my sleeves to practice writing snappy leads and funneling facts into an “inverted pyramid style” of news writing.

I wrote for two major daily newspapers in succession, keeping my prose short and clear, aiming to explain things at a fourth-grade reading level. After I married and started a family, I switched to freelance magazine writing, indulging in more complicated sentences and words with three or four syllables. At the age of forty, I switched careers completely and went to law school, where my early newspaper training served me well in simplifying legal issues. And when I began my career as a prosecuting attorney for the state, I quickly found that putting my legal arguments on paper could be an advantage.

At every step of the way, writing had been a tool to wield, to explain, to persuade, to illustrate. And then friends talked me into starting to write a blog, “Running with Stilettos,” where I finally began to write just for me…and to write for fun!!

And then Finnigan showed up.

Every book starts with a small idea, but Finnigan the Circus Cat started with an even smaller kitten. My youngest son and his wife called from school shortly before they came home for the Christmas holiday. They’d just adopted a kitten from a shelter. Given that my ex-husband was deathly allergic to cats, could they park the wee little Finnigan at my house for a few weeks?

I jumped at the chance! My household already held two adult cats and a large dog, but there’s nothing cuter than a kitten as the saying goes, and that window of “tiny and cute” only lasts so long. 

 Finnigan was the tiniest kitten I’d ever seen away from his mother’s side. So tiny, in fact, that I quickly realized that the standard kitten chow the kids had brought home was too large for him to eat with his tiny teeth and I raced to the nearest pet store for special food that was almost as finely granulated as sugar. 

For the next few weeks, my kitchen resembled a circus act…literally. I had fenced off the kitchen to keep the dog in there so that he didn’t bother—or step on—Finnigan. And so when it was time to give the bigger animals their nightly treats, I stood in the kitchen like a ringmaster and pointed to the far side of the gate. The cats soared over the divider like lions jumping hurdles, while Finnigan perched on my shoulder like a pirate’s parrot. Dog treats and cat treats dispensed, Finnigan and I could retreat to the living room sofa for some quality time.

Inevitably, the new semester began and the kids went back to school, taking Finnigan with them. But in another year, he was back at my house for a half year while my son and his wife studied in Ireland. By this time he had grown into a sleek young feline, with a narrow face, legs that seemed a little too long for his body, and a long tail that draped like a rope behind him. There was something about his coloring—smudges beneath his nose like a mustache; grey and black stripes that resembled a leotard—and his natural swagger that reminded me again and again of a circus performer strutting around a ring.

The “circus” theme was naturally never far from my thoughts, since one of my daughters is in fact a contemporary circus aerialist, and somehow the thought of a foundling kitten in a circus setting just stayed in my imagination. Eventually, in the swirl of selling my house, moving to another, and hitting my marks in court, I began to write “Finnigan the Circus Cat.” Writing the story was just the start of the project, however, as it developed that I also drew the pictures inside the book that start every chapter. Call it a confluence of poor timing, looming deadlines, and pure cussedness, but yes, I rolled up my sleeves and summoned the vestiges of the sketching I did as a child, and drew the pictures too!!!

What I DID NOT expect, however, after getting this first book into print, was just how much the fictional Finnigan would stay in my head as a constant source of happy thoughts! 

I confess to doing “double duty” as my print deadline for the first book loomed. I brought my drawing pad and pencils and photographs of the real Finnigan with me to a law conference as time was running out, and sketched pictures of kittens and mice to my heart’s content as I trained my ear toward lectures on grim subjects such as “lethality assessments” and “drug treatment courts.” I dutifully listened to presentations about evidence and witnesses…while Googling pictures of mice in cute poses. Who says you can’t multitask?

Back in “the real world,” there are any number of sobering subjects to ponder from the time I get out of bed. Bills, car maintenance, yard work. And let’s face it, on the job, the subject matter for a criminal prosecutor is rarely the stuff of laughter. 

But I find to my delight that as I drive around town (or—gasp--as I sit in court waiting for the next case to be called!), there’s a part of my brain that’s engaged with wondering what Finnigan and his friends are going to be doing next. Just how are they going to convince a pair of con men that a circus wagon is haunted? How exactly will Leroy, the larger of the two mice (and a gentle soul quite sensitive about his size,) impersonate a rat in the next book? Which of Aesop’s fables will I work into the conversation in the third book, and how will I stage a faceoff between a circus lion and one of the villainous neighborhood cats? 

I could go on and on…and in my head, I certainly do! But for me it’s not just academic. Because as I feel the “Finnigan Effect,” it’s always with the blissful memory of just how soft that real  kitten was, sleeping in my lap, when he was absolutely, totally brand new. 

Mary T. Wagner
Award-winning author of When the Shoe Fits (Essays of Love, Life and Second Chances), Heck on Heels, and more...


Update October 2016

Mary T Wagner awarded First place finishes for Finnigan The Circus Cat and her essay R.I.P. The Meatball at the Royal Palm Literary Awards, Florida.

Mary T Wagner at the Royal Palm Literary Awards

Congratulations Mary I am thrilled for you,  Barbara.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Back through the Prickle Hedge

As an ex-bookseller, one of the things I miss is helping to reconnect people with “long lost” books. I still get the occasional request for help, and always enjoy the buzz of pointing someone in the direction of a book that has eluded them for years. This request from a couple of years ago was a little different;

When I was little my Mother used to read me a poem called "Through the Prickle Hedge" I found out after much searching that it was written by a lady called, Marion St. John Webb and that you are listed as someone who stocks her books so my question is this "How can I find the words to this poem" as I have forgotten all but the first line.

The Littlest One Marion St John Adcock Webb
Luckily, I recognised the poem and had the very book in stock. It’s from The Littlest-One by Marion St. John Adcock (Webb). It took but a minute to photocopy the words and send them by return mail. I wrote a blog post about it (here) and quickly received more requests for copies of the words. I was happy to oblige and continued copying and sharing until…disaster struck…the book sold. 

In hindsight, I should have shared the entire poem on my blog while I had the chance, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. Having found the book again, I can now do what I should have done then. I don’t sell books any more, but that doesn't mean I can’t share some of those in my collection. I hope you enjoy these words as much as I do. Some of the spelling might seem a little odd, but it is exactly as it appears in the book. 

Through the prickle hedge by Marion St. John Adcock (Webb)

While all the grown-up people sat an’ talked upon the lawn, we scrambled through the prickle hedge – and one of us got torn. 

And out into the lane we went, an’ passed the willow tree, Aunt Matilda’s child’en, Mr Peter Dog, an’ me.

Sue, Barbara and Tony Flitney with Peggy the dog
Me (the Littlest One), my sister Sue, brother Tony and Peggy our dog. 

We’d played about the garden all the kind of games we could, and so we went along the lane an’ down into the wood. But jus’ as we had got inside an’ one of us looked round – a little girl we didn't know had followed us, we found. 

Her hair was black an’ straggly, an’ her dress was old and worn, and she on’y had one stocking on, and that was very torn. 
And who she was, and where she came from, none of us could tell; and when we stopped and stared at her, she stopped and stared as well.

And one of Aunt Matilda's child'en shouted "Hullo, Kid" but she never answered anything, but stood and stared, she did. 
And Aunt Matilda's child'en said "perhaps she is a witch. Let's make a fire and burn her, like they used to, in this ditch!"

And they laughed and started picking sticks, an' threw them in a pile, and kept on singing, "Burn old Witch!" an' shouting all the while. I whispered, "Not a really fire? Of course it's on'y play?" But they shouted, "Yes, a really fire! Don't let her run away".

Sue and Barbara Flitney
My sister is the tall girl in the centre. I'm on her left-hand side (right of the photo as you look at it). Sadly, I can’t recall the names of our two playmates. 

Then she pulled a nugly face at us, and said "You'd better 'ad. My mother is a Gypsy, and she'd be most awful mad. And if I call, she'll her me - she lives inside this wood."  

Aunt Matilda's child'en whispered "let us run away. We mustn't talk to Gipsies they'll steal you if you stay." But the little girl was watchin', and she said "Oh no, you won't or else I'll call, now what you going to give me if I don't?"

And all of us were quiet again. Then some thing made a squeak so we gave her someone's brooch. An' then we heard the bushes creak and so she took a coat, a hat, an' Mr Peter's collar. "And now," she said, "You mustn't tell you promise - or I'll ollar." Then Aunt Matilda's child'en cried "It isn't fair a bit!" And snatched their things away an' said "Come on, let's run for it."

An' all of us began to run as quickly as we could. And as we ran she started shouting, shouting through the wood. And some of us fell over - scrambled up, and on again. And the wood was full of creaking's - but at last we found the lane. On'y some of us were crying', and we kept on looking round; But the Gypsies didn't follow, and we couldn't hear a sound.

Back through the prickle hedge
Me with my Grandad and Aunt Gladys. Could that be the Prickle Hedge?

Till nearly home - we heard the grown-ups talking on the lawn, so we scrambled through the prickle hedge - and two of us got torn. And out into the garden jus' as quickly as could be, Aunt Matilda's child'en, Mr. Peter Dog, an' me. 

Disclaimer!  The photographs in this post are from my own childhood. I have no connection to Marion St John Adcock (Webb). The photographs are simply for decoration. I’m happy to say my sister, brother and I were not involved in any of the incidents in the poem, although we often got ‘torn’ while climbing through hedges. Furthermore, burning of witches is not something we recommend!  Have a fun week...

Monday, 15 August 2016

Books from my Bookshelf - About Us by May Gibbs

About Us by May Gibbs Published in 1912
About Us, by May Gibbs, London: Ernest Nister and New York: E. P. Dutton, 1912.

I’ve been looking for a copy of this since I saw it in Collecting Children's Books in 2007. My nine-year search came to an end when I walked into a second-hand bookshop in *Salisbury. I had no intention of looking for books or anything else that day. I had a hair appointment, and was anxious to get it done and get home. For once my train arrived on time thus I had ten minutes to spare before my appointment. What were the chances? I could hardly believe my eyes when I walked through the door and there was the book of my dreams. I had to stop myself hugging it to my chest! The bookseller looked slightly surprised by my reaction, but honestly it felt like winning a gold medal. My heart dropped a bit when I opened the cover and found someone’s ‘little darling’ had been busy with the crayons. In hindsight, it was a good thing because it was priced to take account of the damage. Actually, it was ridiculously inexpensive, which meant I could still afford to give the hairdresser a tip. I do like a happy ending!

Collecting children's books About us May Gibbs
Collecting Children's Books published in 2007 with black-and-white image of About Us.

About Us began life as Mimie and Wog their adventures in Australia. Written by May Gibbs under the pseudonym Silvia Hood the story followed the exploits of a girl, a flying kangaroo and a little black dog. British publishers, however, rejected the Australian setting believing it lacked audience appeal. Unperturbed May Gibbs tried again this time changing the setting to Edwardian London. In this new setting, Mimie renamed Mamie, and her dog encountered the Chimney Pot People and a group of flying bat like creatures called Smuts. This was more to the liking of the publishers, and the book came out in 1912. 

The following quote and accompanying image are from the original unpublished version of Mimie and Wog held by The State Library of New South Wales.

Hoppy called out 'Open your eyes', and there they were in a wonderful strange country – very wild with lovely flowers and such a blue sky.
 This is the new and "improved" version now called About Us.

About Us Mimie and Wog May Gibbs

Image from About Us written by May Gibbs

About Us written by May Gibbs

As they walked along crowds of pigeons flew around them. 
About Us written by May Gibbs

"We won't hurt you," cooed the pigeons. "Come with us to Chimney Pot Land," and without waiting for Mamie to answer they lifted her up and flew away.

About Us written by May Gibbs

All around were the funniest little people Mamie had ever seen. She though of poor Wog all by himself, and began to cry. The Chimney Pot King asked, "What's the matter?" "Oh, never mind that," he said, "I'll send my Smuts to find him."

About Us written by May Gibbs

About Us written by May Gibbs

About Us by May Gibbs Published in 1912

About Us written by May Gibbs

About Us by May Gibbs Published in 1912

Books from my Bookshelf - About Us written by May Gibbs


I don’t know about you, but I found the story rather odd and wonder if I might have preferred the original version. The illustrations are dramatic and interesting, and I’m thrilled to add it to my collection and to share it with you but it left me wanting more. If you are ever in *Salisbury, Wiltshire (UK), you should pop into The History Bookshop on Fisherton Street, you never know what you might find.  

Although this was May Gibbs’ first published book, it remains largely unknown to Australian readers who are more familiar with her Gumnut babies.

The Gumnut babies. Image credit Australian Children’s Literature

May Gibbs (1877-1969), author, illustrator and cartoonist, captured the hearts and imaginations of generations of Australians with her lovable bush characters and fanciful landscapes. Her iconic children's literature and folklore is still as popular as ever, holding a special place in the Australian consciousness. Best known for The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, she also wrote and illustrated many other children's books, produced long-running cartoon strips and a variety of commercial work. A fiercely determined woman, she was Australia's first full-time, professionally trained children's book illustrator, developing an uniquely Australian fantasy vernacular which is relevant now as it was then. In 1955, May Gibbs was appointed Member of the British Empire (MBE) in acknowledgement of her important contribution to children’s literature. [Source - State Library, New South Wales]

What do you think of the story / images?

Sunday, 7 August 2016

There are two places that are home to me: A Guest Post by Dagny McKinley

There are two places that are home to me: my writing and nature. Writing has been with me since I can remember. My parents read stories to me growing up and from a young age I loved the imagination necessary to create. The first story I remember writing was How the Leprechauns Got Their Name. Today, creating stories fills me with peace inside. When I sit down to write I become absorbed in the worlds and images I’m trying to create and the rest of me disappears. I become the story.

My second home and the place I feel whole is in nature. When my family and I lived in Dogmersfield, Hants we went for family walks along the canal. I complained on every walk about how my feet hurt and how I wanted to go home but they kept making me go. When I was nine my sister and I were sent to camp in Canada on an island with no phones, no electricity and no hot water. We learned to bathe in the lake, how to make fires and pitch a tent, how to shoot a bow and arrow, how to canoe and more. Those months at camp taught me a love of nature and of being outdoors. I remember being woken up on the night of the full moon at camp. Our counselor walked us down a path to the end of the island where a large cauldron bubbled with hot chocolate. We were each given a cup to sip as we sang songs facing the full moon watching its reflection on the lake surrounding us. Later in life the wilderness became my home, a place of refuge, of growth and of healing for me. I spent three seasons as a volunteer backcountry ranger in Yosemite National Park where the world opened up to me. I learned to take care of myself and began photographing the places that meant so much to me.

Eleven years ago I worked for a dog sledding tour company. I fell in love with the sled dogs. I began to photograph them trying to capture their personalities, their unconditional love and their strength. Those photographs led to my first book Wild Hearts: Dog Sledding the Rockies. From that job I brought home an Alaskan Husky puppy, Alma Rose. She is my best friend and has accompanied me on more adventures than I can count. We hike together for several hours every day. She has taught me to appreciate the smallest moments in life. My adventures with her led me to write The Adventures of a Girl & Her Dog, a book series that celebrates the bond between a girl and her dog as they explore the natural world around them. Getting to know the wilderness as well as the town I live in was the inspiration for writing The Springs of Steamboat: healing waters, mysterious caves and sparkling soda. This book tells the history of the small town I live in. Writing the book gave me a much greater appreciation for the town I live in and the wonders it offers.

Today I have settled into the places that I call home. I wake up grateful for the life I live, for every sunrise and sunset and the wild animals I have had the privilege of encountering. When I come home, most days I write, looking for ways to express the inspirational world around me. 

Dear Dagny, thank you for sharing such a delightful post. I just know readers of this blog will enjoy it as much as I did. Barbara

Dagny McKinley has lived many places, but found a home in the expansive granite landscape of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. She is as comfortable in the city as she is in the wilderness, but prefers the challenges of big mountains and surviving outdoors. Dagny stays current on environmental issues, women’s issues and is an avid animal rights supporter. She believes all lives are interconnected and each person, landscape and insect has something to offer and teach. Writing has been a part of Dagny's life since she was a small child. She found healing through writing and nature and continues to immerse herself in those passions today.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Krakow the beautiful

Parts of our trip to Poland were indeed harrowing (see previous post here), but much of it was hugely enjoyable. Named one of the most beautiful cities in Europe by Conde Nast, Krakow is a delight. The picture-perfect Old Town has a medieval market square, a castle overlooking the river, quaint courtyards and cobbled thoroughfares. Oh yes, and just about everyone under the age of fifty speaks English, which was very helpful because neither of us speak Polish. Plus the food is wonderful, and the majority of menus are written in Polish and English. 

Preparations for World Youth Day and a visit from Pope Francis were in full swing when we arrived. A countdown clock in the city centre was counting down the days and hours until the event and Cracovians were gearing up for a large influx of visitors. By the time you read this World Youth Day will be over and no doubt the cleaning up will be well underway. 

Krakow Main Market Square Hejnalica Tower

Evening in Main Market Square, to the left is St. Mary's Church with its towers of different types and appearances and beside it St. Adalbert's Church. 

The loftier Hejnalica tower is 81 m tall, while its companion bell tower rises to 69 m. Every hour on the hour, a bugler sounds the “Hejnal” bugle-call from the west window just below the spire of the higher tower. Next the same bugle call is played towards the east, the south and the north but each time the melody ends abruptly.

Krakow Main Market Square Henjalica Tower

The Henjal, dates back to the Middle Ages when it was played to announce the opening and closing of the city gates. The bugler also played to alarm his fellow citizens whenever he saw a fire or an enemy approaching. The abrupt ending is said to commemorate a trumpeter from Krakow who was shot through the throat by a Tatar archer in 1241 when the Mongols besieged the city. 
The imposing interior of St. Mary's with its nave and two aisles; in the background is the pentaptych alter by Veit Stoss.

The market square and the streets around it are always busy;

Krakow Main Market Square

Krakow Main Market Square

We didn't take many photos of ourselves, but these two should make you smile. I’m not sure why this chap decided to dress me up in his hat and sword, but I got off lightly compared to Terry!

I’ve done lots of reading over the last few weeks, mostly thanks to recommendations from other book bloggers and my local Waterstones.  If you want to find out more about any of these, please follow the links.

In a dark dark wood a wonderful debut novel from author Ruth Ware: Review by Curious Ginger Cat

Bloom of youth by Rachel Anderson: This was a spur-of-the-moment charity shop buy which I love. It's funny and yet melancholic and very much of my era set as it is in the 1950s. Ruth and her older sister Mary struggle with the chaos of their parents' attempts to support five children by renting a rambling country house and running it as a holiday home for children. When their father dies, their increasingly desperate mother turns her efforts to the two hapless girls. Eager to marry them off, she plunges them into dancing classes and presentation at Buckingham Palace as phoney under-age debutantes. There are two more books in the series, both now added to my must-read list.

Black eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin a dazzling psychological thriller, shocking, intense and utterly original. Lit Lovers

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff:  A series of letters sent by Helene Hanff to the staff at Marks & Co, Booksellers in London and their replies to her. I loved it! Reviews at Goodreads

The shepherd's life by James Rebanks: My favourite book of the year so far recommended by my local Waterstones and reviewed by Mark Avery

The Chosen by Kristina Ohlsson: Review by All the books I can read


Thanks for your company. Just one more holiday snap before I go...

Wisla (Vistula) river.

This photograph only came about because I was fascinated by what appeared to be a tiny house dwarfed by a factory or office complex. The larger building is constructed in such a way that it straddles the smaller one. Even odder is the upside-down pig in the centre of the Wisla (Vistula) river. A local tour guide had no idea of its meaning, but an online search revealed the following;

"Mateusz Okonski, a Krakow-based artist, issued a challenge to his city's inhabitants - instead of following the local "tradition" and putting up another horrid monument, he offered a realistic sculpture presenting a dead boar at the stake. He located it in a place full of various meanings: in the vicinity of national sanctities - St. Stanislaus Church at Skalka and the church at Wawel, between two former abodes of the Jewish population - Kazimierz and Podgórze, in the area of the former municipal slaughter-house, which is currently a shopping gallery, on the water that purifies both literally and metaphorically and evokes the topic of passing and change and, finally, on the concrete pillar of the Wanda well, which was a water intake for the formerly existing power plant".

That last piece of information answered the question about the origin of the building, and this confirmed it;

Situated on the banks of the Vistula‚ just above the embankment wall‚ Cricoteka does not try to blend in with its neighbourhood nor gently catch the eye of passers-by. Indeed‚ it stands out like a strange theatrical prop that’s landed on the riverbank as part of a performance. One prerequisite of the original architectural competition was that an existing power station on the site should be adapted and integrated with the new structure. So the architects designed their new building to stretch over the old‚ like a table on two legs‚ with a hole cut through it for the latter’s chimney to poke through. This design was inspired by artist Tadeusz Kantor’s drawing of a bent man carrying a table on his back and his idea of an object or work of art integrated with a human body. via  Uncube Magazine Blog

So there you have it!

Next week I will be sharing a delightful guest post by Dagny McKinley. 

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