My sequel to ‘Fa-La-Llama-La: Christmas at the Little French Llama Farm’ will soon be ready.

‘Deck the Halles: Next Christmas at the Little French Llama’ sees our heroine Noelle called on at the last minute to help organise a national llama show in the local agricultural halles, so her partner, famous Australian author Nick, decides to profit from this by launching his latest book there. With just days to go, a stream of visitors turn up on their doorstep with assorted tales of woe and all needing somewhere to stay.

Here’s the latest arrival, an early morning one. (Ivy and Franklin, referred to here, turned up yesterday and are staying in the tiny guest cottage, which Noelle’s mum was in but has vacated for a couple of days. She’ll be coming back, though. Truffle is the stray dog Nick and Noelle have given a home to.)

 

We decided we deserved a half-hour lie-in this morning. But ten minutes in there was a knock on the door. Truffle, who’d slept on a rug I’d put down for him just outside our bedroom door, gave a little growl. So did Nick.

“I thought we’d given Ivy and Franklin everything they needed for breakfast,” he grumbled.

“We did,” I confirmed. “But I think Franklin’s still asleep.”

“How on earth can you know that?” asked Nick.

“I can hear him snoring.” It was true. Even though the cottage was a good ten metres from the house, and both buildings had thick stone walls and double-glazed windows, we could hear an intermittent rumbling sound. I’d been aware it during the night at odd moments when I’d been awake. “Or maybe that’s Ivy?”

“Nah, she’s not big enough to make that colossal racket. Streuth, how can the poor woman sleep through that?”

“It’s probably her at the door then,” I deduced. “Wanting earmuffs, or refuge.” I reluctantly sat up, pushed back the covers and swung my legs out of bed. “I did tell them just to come on into the house any time they needed to. I said we didn’t lock the door.”

“Maybe they’re a bit wary of Truffle. Or me,” grinned Nick.

I grinned back. “Yes, they might be worried you’d think they were intruders and batter them with a boomerang.” There was a conveniently-placed, oversized one hanging in our hallway. “Time to get up anyway.”

I shrugged into my dressing gown and stuffed my feet into my slippers and shuffled off, closely followed by Truffle. He overtook me on the stairs, but waited dutifully until I was head of him again in the hallway. I don’t think he was convinced this was officially his territory yet, or maybe he was a bit of a coward and preferred me to confront strangers on the doorstep. That was fine, as I didn’t want an aggressive animal, all bared teeth and raised hackles. I was perfectly capable of playing that part if necessary.

I plastered a smile on my face and pulled the door open to let Ivy and Franklin in. Only it wasn’t them. Two very tall men were on my doorstep, in matching Tommy Hilfiger skiing jackets that oozed class. They also sported those fur-lined earflap hats, and scarves. It therefore took my as yet uncaffeinated brain a few seconds to crank into gear. Then, from the few facial features I could discern, I worked out this overdressed pair was my cousin Joe and his partner Caspar. Talk about surprise. I thought they were at home in New York city.

I launched myself at Joe and hugged him as best I could through all his bulky layers. Truffle took upon himself to be welcome committee to Caspar and looked up at him adoringly, wagging his tail. Any friend of my new family is a friend of mine, he was saying.

“Come on in,” I invited, after hugging Caspar too. “But what on earth are you guys doing here?”

“Long story short, rats,” summarised Joe, peeling off his jacket, and, after looking around the hallway and not seeing anywhere to hang it up since all hooks on the coat rack were already occupied, handing it to me to deal with as appropriate. And the hat.

“Yes, rats,” agreed Caspar, doing the same with his hat and coat.

I saw now that the boys were wearing matching stylish, as in designer label, yet tasteless Christmas jumpers with lurid designs in garish colours.

“Rats?” I echoed, slightly muffled by the heap of tog rating now filling my arms.

“Hundreds of them. No, more like thousands,” declared Caspar.

“Thousands?” That was me. Being a parrot was all I could do until I could make sense of what was going on. I dumped the jackets and hats on Nick’s chair as we entered the kitchen.

“Definitely thousands,” confirmed Joe, plonking himself down at the table. Caspar followed suit.

“Definitely?”

Both men nodded, so I nodded too.

“But where?” I demanded, still none the wiser.

“Paris,” Joe informed me.

“Ghastly place,” added Caspar.

Well, I could have told them that. True, it had the world’s most stunning architecture, but it was just a city – noisy, polluted, frantic, expensive, full of sour faces, lonely souls, pickpockets and, distressingly, every other phone box sheltering homeless, hopeless people.

At this point Nick padded into the room. Three pairs of eyes regarded him appreciatively; unshaved and with tousled, bedroom hair he did look gorgeous. The still-lingering, post-flu pallor brought his dark hair and eyes into sharper focus and gave him the air of a tragic, unsuccessful poet or starving artist.

“G’day gents,” he said genially, unaware he was being openly ogled by everyone else in the room, apart from Truffle, and managing not to wince at the overdose of Christmas jumper that assailed him. “You must be Noelle’s cousin Joe.” He identified him from the many photos of Joe I’d shown him on Facebook. He duly shook his hand. “And you’re Caspar. Good to finally meet you. Coffee?”

Joe and Caspar nodded eagerly.

“Oh my goodness, you’re probably starving too!” I realised, jumping up. “Breakfast?”

More eager nodding. “Oh, yes please. We were going to stop at a café somewhere for coffee and croissant, but nowhere was open,” said Joe mournfully.

Given the hour, that wasn’t surprising. It was barely eight o’clock now.

I busied myself shoving slices of bread into the toaster. “So, what happened exactly?” I asked.

Nick placed coffees in front of everyone, moved the jackets onto the sofa and sat down in his place, all ears.

“Well,” began Caspar dramatically, “this was meant to be our fairytale Christmas.”

“Fairytale,” verified Joe.

“A week in the City of Light, walking along the Champs Élysées, visiting Versailles, Notre Dame, Montmatre, all those iconic places.”

“Iconic,” agreed Joe.

“So we booked what we thought was a nice hotel, but oh my gosh.” Caspar pulled a face. “It was terrible.”

Nick and I couldn’t stop ourselves glancing at Joe for the inevitable “Terrible.”

“Rats everywhere.”

“Everywhere.”

“Everywhere? Streuth.” That was Nick, if you hadn’t guessed.

“Well, outside, but still everywhere,” clarified Caspar.

“We saw at least three,” nodded Joe.

I frowned. Only moments ago it had been ‘thousands’.

“The fact we spotted some means there are actually loads and loads and loads, even though you can’t see them all,” explained Joe quickly, seeing my scepticism.

“Thousands?” I suggested.

“Probably,” he said darkly.

I’d heard that the floods the city had experienced in the spring had caused a surge in rat sightings and that lots was being done to get the numbers down. But rats are resourceful and people are dirty, discarding litter all over the place, a lot of it with edible scraps attached. Of course they’ll move in if there’s a food source.

“We’ve got rats in our barn,” said Nick brightly but not massively helpfully.

“That’s different,” said Caspar dismissively, to my astonishment. “You expect that on a farm. And they’re not running down the drive or over your garden, are they?”

“No, they’re not,” I said firmly. “Our cats would be too ashamed to allow that to happen.”

“Well, we couldn’t stay at that hotel,” Joe went on. “Not with rats so close by.”

“No. I mean, one might have come up the toilet or something,” added Caspar, and shuddered.

Nick caught my eye and raised an eyebrow. I managed not to smile.

“I’d have thought that would be pretty unlikely,” I said carefully, “but it wouldn’t have been much of a fairytale holiday if you were constantly worrying about it.”

Nick was more direct. “Yup, getting bitten on the butt while sitting on the crapper would really suck.”

Joe and Caspar nodded seriously.

“Didn’t you think of going to a different hotel?” I asked.

“Oh no, not after that. We’ve gone right off Paris,” said Caspar.

“Yes, right off.”

“Not only the rats, but people there said horrible things,” Caspar went on.

“Horrible,” ratified Joe.

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” I exclaimed, genuinely upset. Why couldn’t people just live and let live? My cousin had been at the receiving end of a lot of ignorant hatred over the years simply because of his sexuality.

“Oh, I don’t mean gay bashing,” Joe explained quickly.

“Worse than that.” Caspar looked mortally offended. “I overhead some snooty couple saying our jackets were cheap knock-offs.”

“So cruel,” tutted Joe.

I just sat there.

“So I suggested we pop here, to see my favourite cousin,” Joe smiled sycophantically. “Can you squeeze us in somewhere?”

“We-ell,” I replied cautiously. “Mum’s here for Christmas.”

“Oh, how is Aunt Mary?” gushed Joe.

“She’s…” I couldn’t go blabbing about her having ditched Dad. “She’s dyed her hair,” I said evasively.

“Good for her,” approved Joe.

Dying their hair clearly meant someone was in good form.

“She’s popped over to see Eve for a couple of days,” I continued.

“Oh, is your sister living in France too?” asked Joe. “Goodness, I’m out of touch.”

“She’s on holiday here at the moment, that’s all,” I explained concisely. “And some friends of ours, Ivy and Franklin, turned up out of the blue last night. They plan to be here at least a few days.” I hoped the boys would get the hint, but no.

“Not Ivy of the pet-sitting booking?” exclaimed Joe, referring to the events of last Christmas. My wily cousin had led me to believe I’d be minding guinea-pigs, not eleven normal llamas and one hugely pregnant one. Good job he had, though, as I might not have taken on the job and thus never met Nick. But you’ll know all this if you’ve read ‘Fa-La-Llama-La’.

“My goodness, what a houseful!” enthused Caspar. “I love big gatherings, don’t you?”

Not when we didn’t have enough space for everyone.

Or enough food. We’d done what we thought was our final Christmas food shop a week ago, before it started getting crazily busy at the supermarket. With all these extra mouths to feed that kept materialising, we’d have to make another trip, today or tomorrow. That was the last thing we needed on top of all the llama show and book launch-related activities already scheduled in.

I responded to Caspar with a non-committal, strangled sort of noise.

“So, what are your plans between now and Christmas?” asked Joe.

I stared at him. I was sure I’d told him about the forthcoming camelid show and my key involvement in it, but maybe not. So I quickly filled him in.

“Oh, how marvellous!” cried Caspar. “I know I shall love every minute. Do you need any extra judges or anything?”

I was touched by his enthusiasm, especially as I wasn’t sure if he knew the front end from the back end of a llama.

“That’s all covered by the association running the show,” I assured him. “But an extra pair of hands will be useful here in the preparations. Sir Winter will need lots of grooming.”

“I’ll be brilliant at that,” promised Caspar, unhampered as ever by modesty.

“Brilliant,” nodded Joe.

“Help yourself to more coffee and food,” I told them, getting up. “I need to go and get dressed.”

“Me too,” smiled Nick. “See you in a few.”

We hurried upstairs. I shut the bedroom door behind us then leant against it and groaned.

“What are we going to do?”

Help yourselves to a festive feel-good freebie from me!

Anna is house-sitting for family friends in a very cold cottage in the middle of snowy France. She’ll be there for a fortnight over Christmas. It’s all rather quiet and unexciting until, on Boxing Day, a pheasant gets tangled in the pear tree in the garden. Anna can’t possibly leave it there but her rescue attempt goes wrong, leaving her the stuck one. All she can do is wait for a knight in shining armour, or at least a passing Frenchman…

Anna Partridge in a Pear Tree is available in a variety of ebook formats for free from Smashwords here. And please spread the word!

I was pretty certain I was going to like this book even before I started reading it. First up, it’s a Christmassy romcom that manages not to have ‘little’ in the title! The author could have jumped on the bandwagon with ‘Christmas at the Little Village Pub’ or similar, but thank goodness she doesn’t! ‘Little’ is currently one of the most overused words in book titles, or at least I think so. Instead we have ‘Christmas at the Dog & Duck’, and the novel is as unpretentious and down to earth as the pub’s name, although we get our magic sprinkling of festive happiness at the end which we and the protagonists all deserve.

As well as the title, the book cover is also distinctive. There’s a definite craze for Christmas romcom covers to be shades of blue with a snowy house in the centre. At the bottom of this review you’ll see four such covers that I found within a few minutes of searching! Christmas at the Dog and Dog bucks this trend. We have a striking, unique look for this book, and it’s equally as Christmassy as all those snow scenes.

The book turns out to be equally as impressive. The story is beautifully and intelligently written. I notice some reviewers have grumbled about this not being a very Christmassy book as a lot of the action takes place during the months preceding the festive season. The plot of this novel is such that this needs to be the case, and quite frankly it doesn’t disqualify it from being a seasonal story at all. We see characters and their relationships develop over time, and a chain of events unfold. The action culminates on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in a superbly warm and cosy way. This is most definitely a Christmas romantic comedy.

Heroine Ellie is smart and sensible, and taking time after a redundancy to sort herself out. She’s returned to the village she grew up in to housesit for her absent parents and sets up a dog walking business to tide her over. She also works at the Dog and Duck, and the pub is central to the story. The main love interest comes in the form of Max, a local landowner. They first bump into each other in less than flattering circumstances, at least for Ellie, and we get our share of mishaps and misunderstandings that are crucial to the romantic comedy. There are some endearing animals in cameo roles, but we stay well clear of the mawkish cutesiness that’s all too rampant in this genre.

This a measured, classy and immensely enjoyable novel. Three cheers for Jill Steeples, and five stars for her book.

 

Here are those other covers I mentioned earlier:

Nasty Nick was delighted. It was Christmas Eve and at last his robot was finished. It was no ordinary robot — it was a robot Santa. Nasty Nick called it the Santabot.

Nasty Nick’s plan was simple. Tonight he would programme the Santabot to follow the real Santa around. But unlike the real Santa, who would leave presents, the Santabot would take them! No-one would ever suspect the Santabot in its Santa disguise!

Evening came. Lots of excited children hung their Christmas stockings up. Nasty Nick chuckled at the thought of how they would find them still empty in the morning.

Jingling sleigh bells announced Santa’s arrival. Nasty Nick flicked the switch on the control panel in his workshop and the Santabot jerked into action. Keeping a safe distance, it called at each house after Santa left and took all the presents he had just left.

“Perfect!” cackled Nasty Nick, rubbing his hands with glee. “Nothing can possibly go wrong!”

But he reckoned without Peter! Try as he could, Peter couldn’t get to sleep. When he heard Santa creep into his room, he shut his eyes tightly and snored. He listened with delight to the rustle of wrapped presents. Santa crept out and Peter peered in wonder at his bulging stocking.

“Wow!” he exclaimed, then “Yikes!” as the bedroom door opened again. He dived back under the covers but decided to peep out this time. He saw what looked like Santa enter very stiffly, march to his Christmas stocking and then suddenly swing round — and take presents out of it! Peter was horrified.

“Hey!” he thought. “What’s going on? Santa shouldn’t be doing that! Something’s up!”

As soon as the Santabot had gone, Peter leapt out of bed and slipped out of the house behind the Santabot. He began to follow but then spotted the real Santa in his sleigh next door.

“Two Santas?” gasped Peter. He looked more closely at the Santabot walking jerkily along in front of him. This Santa didn’t seem very jolly. This Santa didn’t have a sleigh. There was definitely something odd about this Santa.

“I’d better tell the proper Santa at once!” thought Peter. Keeping out of sight of the Santabot, he sneaked up to Santa. Santa was surprised to see him.

“Hello Peter!” boomed Santa. “I’ve just left your presents!”

“I know!” gabbled Peter. “But then the other Santa took them!”

“Other Santa?” echoed Santa.

“Yes, he looks just like you but walks all funny, like a robot,” explained Peter. “He’s following you around and taking the presents back out of the sacks.”

“Goodness gracious! We’ll have to stop that!” cried Santa.

“Yes!  Let’s trap him,” suggested Peter. “Next time you climb out of a chimney, hide behind it. Then when the other Santa comes, I’ll help you grab him!”

“Great idea!” agreed Santa. “Hop on my sleigh and we’ll go to the next rooftop.”

Peter jumped on at once. The sleigh, pulled by Rudolph of course, shot into the air. It was a magical moment for Peter.

“Right!” said Santa when they stopped by the chimney. “Duck behind and wait for me.”

Santa hopped nimbly down the chimney with his sack. He was back up again in no time. He squatted next to Peter.

They waited. then they heard a faint clang … clang … clang as the Santabot walked up the side of the house. Clump … clump … clump, it plodded along the roof. Then creak … squeak , it lifted its left leg all ready to climb down the chimney.

“Now!” roared Santa and he and Peter leapt out and nabbed the Santabot. It kept on trying to get down the chimney so Peter grabbed its beard. To his horror, it came off in his hand, revealing a big red button with STOP on it.

“Press it!” gasped Santa, struggling with the Santabot.

Peter whacked it hard. The Santabot stopped.

“Phew!” panted Santa. “Now, what have we here?” He pulled out his spectacles and inspected the Santabot. He prodded it. He poked it. Then he said: “Well, it’s a mechanical me!”

Back in Nasty Nick’s workshop, the control panel registered that the Santabot had stopped.

“Bother!” grumbled Nasty Nick. “Now I’ve got to go out in the cold and fix it.”

He packed his tools and set off. Meanwhile, Santa and Peter were examining the Santabot.

“We need to reprogram it,” explained Peter who knew a bit about robots. “We must make it take the presents back and then get it to take us to the person that made it!”

“Absolutely!” agreed Santa. “But how?”

Peter didn’t know.

Just then, Peter caught sight of Nasty Nick approaching.

“Look!” he hissed. “Someone’s coming. And he’s carrying a toolbox — I bet he made the Santabot!”

“You’re right!” exclaimed Santa. “Quick, let’s hide again. We’ll grab this fellow too!”

Santa ordered the reindeer out of sight and Peter shoved the Santabot’s beard back into place. Then they dived behind the chimney pot.

They heard Nasty Nick muttering crossly as climbed the drainpipe to the roof. They peeped out and watched him open his toolbox. Then he paused. He looked into the Santabot’s sack.

“I’ll just open a couple of presents before I fix you,” he said to the robot.

“Oh no, you don’t!” bellowed Santa leaping out and grabbing Nasty Nick. “How dare you build a robot me and steal the children’s presents, you miserable wormy thing, you!”

Santa was furious. His face was as red as his coat. Nasty Nick trembled in fright.

“I’m sorry!” he stammered. “I only wanted a few presents. You see, no one ever gives me any!”

“Huh! You wanted all the presents,” retorted Santa. “And no one ever gives you presents because you’re so nasty!”

“I really am sorry!” sobbed Nasty Nick. “I promise not to be nasty any more.”

“Do you really and truly promise?” asked Santa, not so cross now.

“Yes, yes, yes!” nodded Nasty Nick.

“Very well, Not-So-Nasty Nick,” said Santa, letting go of him. “Make this thing of yours take the presents back at once — and then destroy it. I shall pick up the bits on my way home. Now, Peter, do you think you could give me a hand delivering the presents? I’m running late.”

Would Peter mind? Of course not — there was nothing he would rather do! The rest of the night was a whirl. Up and down chimneys Peter raced (Santa taught him how.)

Then at last they were finished. They called at Not-So-Nasty Nick’s. He handed them a box of nuts and bolts and bits and pieces. It was all that was left of the Santabot. Then Not-So-Nasty Nick gave Santa and Peter a present.

Santa smiled. “Thank you, Nick. I hope you will keep your promise to be good. Now, here’s a present for you.” Santa delved into his sack and pulled out a huge orange teddy bear.

Not-So-Nasty Nick’s mouth dropped open.

“Is this for me?” he gasped. “A present? I’ve never had a present before!” He hugged the teddy in delight.

Santa smiled again. Peter yawned.

“Come on, young man!” chuckled Santa. “Time you were back in bed!”

The dawn was just tinting the sky as Peter crept back into bed. He was delighted to see his stocking bulging with presents again. Santa tucked him in, hugged him and then disappeared into the cold winter sky.

“This,” thought Peter sleepily, “has to be the best Christmas ever — especially for Not-So-Nasty-Nick!”

And, not so very far away, Not-So-Nasty-Nick was thinking exactly the same thing!

 

I’ve always enjoyed writing poems, usually silly ones, but occasionally I’ve come out with some serious poetry. I rather like this one about Christmas, and hope you will too. Enjoy!

 

 

Baby Jesus and the Fox

for Janet Lane

 

The fox stood at the top of the hill

In the freezing snow, so deep and still.

Then he began to travel down,

Something was calling him into town.

 

Normally he stayed well clear

But tonight he overcame his fear.

He knew exactly where to go

So he crept through the shadows, keeping low.

 

He found the stable fairly soon

And hid in a corner, in the gloom.

He watched with glowing amber eyes

And heard a tiny baby’s cries.

 

Soon Mary and Joseph fell asleep.

Now was the fox’s chance to peep!

He cautiously left his hiding place

And gazed at Baby Jesus’s face.

 

A chilly wind began to blow

Bringing another flurry of snow.

The cold made the fox’s whiskers quiver

And Baby Jesus began to shiver.

 

And so without a thought of danger

The fox jumped up into the manger.

He laid his golden, bushy tail

Over the baby, cold and pale.

 

The fox lay there for quite a while

Till Jesus warmed up, and began to smile.

He tickled the fox’s furry head,

Then surprised him when he suddenly said:

 

“Both you and I will be hunted down,

Your fate hounds’ teeth, mine a thorny crown.

Men hate us though we do no wrong,

And hatred is cruel, fierce and strong,

 

But love, like the love you’ve just shown me,

Will save us all eventually.”

Then Baby Jesus began to doze,

Still gently stroking the fox’s nose.

 

The pink of dawn began to glow.

The fox knew that he had to go.

He was puzzled by the baby’s words

But he knew it was goodness that he’d heard.

 

He quietly got up and slunk away,

To struggle through another day.

But when he got back to his wood

He found a pile of tempting food –

 

Bread and cheese, and meat and fish,

Everything a fox could wish!

As he ate he smiled in a foxy way:

Today was a truly magical day.