International Kittens of Mystery

Hedge Slog

Our Spring hedging offensive has just finished - five days of hard toil and another 50 metres of hedge coppiced and replanted. With the emphasis on replanted. Most of our roadside hedge had been overrun with brambles and fern so we had to dig out the roots and replant with trees from our nursery*. Then we had to untangle the old barbed wire fence, uproot the old rotten fence posts and replace with new chestnut posts and sheep fencing.

I am now knackered.

*We have a tree nursery where we put any tree seedlings we find during the year. Beech from the fields which get trodden on or eaten by our big-footed animals otherwise; hazel, ash and hawthorn which birds insist on planting in our vegetable garden; and chestnut and holly which we grow from seed.

Holly is especially difficult to grow from seed. You have to simulate the passage of the seed through a bird's digestive tract. Not wanting to volunteer my digestive tract, we soaked the berries in water for a fortnight instead, changing the water every other day until the seed coat disintegrated. Then we scarified the seeds between two granite stones, planted them in a seed tray and waited two winters. The result: 200+ holly seedlings this spring. Next year's spring hedge offensive is going to see a large swathe of holly hedge planted.
International Kittens of Mystery

CSI: Felix - The Night of the Long Claws

As cat slaves we know the joys of waking up to body parts strewn all over the house. But this morning...

Three rabbits and a startled toad. And to judge by the size of our cats stomachs - think cartoon cats with bunny sized bulges - that was just the leftovers. For the first time ever neither cat required breakfast.

Both cats are now sleeping and the startled toad - Toadus Inedibilis - is in therapy.

We may join him.
International Kittens of Mystery

Spellspam Interview: a Cat's Perspective

This week the International Kittens of Mystery invite Laptop and Boboko, without whom (as all cats know) Alma Alexander would not have been able to write the latest Worldweaver's book - Spellspam - which is out today.

Because of the premature end to last week's interview (following the tuna incident) Xena has decided to assist Kai this week.

Kai: How do you most help your human with her writing? Do you warm her keyboard? Help her with the typing? Or do you translate her text into Polish with some clever paw strokes?

Xena: You asked that last week.

Kai: So? It's my best question. (flicks tail pointedly and turns to Laptop)

Laptop: I find that pathetic meows from the middle of the office where I am just too far to reach REALLY help her concentration. it helps her focus in the right place - which is, of course, me.

Boboko: Well, there are times I want lovings. Like, NOW. And there are times I want her to clean the litter box. Like, NOW. And there are times that I want her to... oh, wait... you mean she was doing something else?

Kai: Humans ALWAYS think they're doing something else. (climbs onto back of chair, tries to turn, teeters precariously, overbalances, digs in claws and swings precariously from front paws whilst trying to pass off entire incident as pre-planned) Thea's a double seventh - seventh child of two seventh child parents. Those are pretty big litters for humans. So, I'm guessing Thea's really a kitten, isn't she? It's one of those allegorical stories where the heroine has to be a human for marketing purposes but we all know she's really a kitten.

Boboko: Yes but how long are her whiskers?

Laptop: Pah. Humans just get carried away sometimes. Doesn't mean they can aspire to be cats.

Xena: (watching the tempting target of Kai's fluffy tail swing in front of her nose for one too many times) thwap!

Kai: Ow! Are ... are there any magical kittens in this book?

Laptop: There are no such things as NON-magical kittens. In this book or anywhere else. Yes, there's a cat - I'm told that SHE has committed the atrocity of amalgamating me and my silly brother into one creature for her character's cat, but we can both forgive her that. She probably didn't want to hurt our feelings by choosing one over the other. And I fully realise that she couldn't have a cat called Laptop in a book which has to do with cyber magic - humans are easily confused - hence the name she gave the cat in the book.

Boboko: There's a cat in the book?

Kai: (trying to read the autocue while hanging upside down) Yawny raft ot kooq...

Xena (rolls eyes) How would you suggest a cat sells this book to their human? What would your pitch be?

Laptop: We cats, we have known for a long time there is more to the world that you know than just what you can smell or paw or hear, that there are other creatures out there (some of them ARE food, arguably) and that you need to open your mind to the possibilities. And that once you become aware of yourself and what you are and what your place is in all the worlds that you can walk in, anything is possible, really.

Boboko: You DO know that neither of us can read...? But this book was written by She Who Doles Out Treats and Kibble. We like treats and kibble, Lap and I. So buy the book, and help her keep the kibble coming...

Kai: (falls down, shocked) Kibble can be stopped? What about the Kibble Fairy?

Xena: Thwap! (turns to Laptop) Any plans to talk your human into writing some cat-centric mythology. I'm thinking Bast the Egyptian cat goddess.

Laptop: ALL HAIL TO BAST - and don't think we haven't been trying. With the help of the Cat Headed One, we will prevail. And if she doesn't there's always the option of wandering across her keyboard on our own and doing it ourselves. In Polish.

Boboko: Well how was I supposed to know that the pile of treats you wouldn't eat was an offering to Bast and not just something I could finish off?... Sorry, folks. I messed up the sacrifice. I guess the Cat Headed One will have to wait just a little longer for her story... ooooh... SQUIRRELS...

Kai: Squirrels? Where?

Xena: Come back! We haven't finished...

Well, if it's not tuna it's squirrels.

Here's Laptop and Boboko behaving themselves:

And here's Kai and Xena having an animated discussion about third person narrative:

If you'd like to know more about Laptop and Boboko click here
International Kittens of Mystery

Storm Stops Play

Due to the storm, the promised interview will be up tomorrow not today.

So far the damage hasn't been too bad. We've lost part of our stable roof ridge and a number of slates, our Kiwi supports are leaning over at a jaunty angle and corrugated iron is covering parts of the garden it shouldn't be.

I'm patching what I can while the eye of the storm passes over. It looks like we've got another couple of inches of rain to come and more severe gales. Fingers crossed for the stable roof.
International Kittens of Mystery

Four Cats and a Goblin (plus some Tuna)

As heralded last week, our international kitten of mystery (the kitten formerly know as Kai) is conducting a series of feline interviews to prove the old adage - 'Behind every successful author there's a cat - and there's another one over there and one's got the manuscript and one's on the keyboard and Noooo!'

Today, Kai welcomes Flop, Pod and Flit who's pet human, Jim Hines, has a book coming out today. The book is called Goblin War and makes an ideal gift for pet humans of all ages.

Kai: (balancing precariously on arm of chair while trying to read autocue) How do you most help your human with his writing? Do you warm his keyboard? Help him with the typing? Or do you translate his text into Polish with some clever paw strokes?

Flop: Some humans need more help than others. Jim requires a three-cat team. Flit over there helps keep him on schedule, making sure he doesn't sleep in too late. Pod provides financial incentive for Jim's work by shredding the occasional curtain. As for me, I keep the other two in line.

Pod: What's that supposed to mean? You think just because I'm missing a leg, you can--

Flop: *thwapthwapthwap*

Pod: Hey, I was just asking.

Flit: Huh? What was the question?

Kai: (falls off chair, almost lands on feet, swishes tail and blames last week's earthquake in Market Rasen) Are there any magical kittens in his book?

Flop: No magical kittens, but there are tunnel-cats, the fiercest beasts in the whole trilogy. Jig the goblin might be able to fight humans and wizards and even a dragon, but he never messes with the tunnel-cats.

Pod: What about that short story where the tunnel-cat gets--

Flop: I don't want to talk about that. I'm pretty sure the dogs wrote that scene when we weren't looking. They'll pay for that one of these days.

Flit: Wait, what's going on? Who are we talking to now?

Kai: (sharpening claws on chair legs) With your human writing all these books about goblins, when's he going to produce a cookery book? There must be some good goblin recipes - maybe with a little tuna...

Flit: Tuna! (bounds away)

Flop: You had to say the T-word, didn't you.

Pod: Most goblin recipes sound pretty good to me, actually. But humans don't seem to appreciate them. Don't ask me why. The barbequed elf with rock serpent gravy is especially tempting.

Kai: (mouth open, head back, glazed look while doing a passing imitation of Snowball imitating Homer Simpson) Rock serpent gravy... (gurgle, wretch - unexpected hairball) How would you suggest a cat sells this book to their monkey? What would your pitch be?

Flit: He lied. There wasn't any tuna. Go sneeze on him, Pod!

Flop: Jig the goblin takes a very feline approach to adventures and quests: he wants nothing to do with them. He'd rather curl up and nap, or at least hide somewhere that the warrior goblins don't pick on him. Instead, he gets dragged off on some silly human adventure, and has to survive with his wits and his fangs. Also with his pet spider who sets things on fire a lot.

Pod: I had a pet spider, but I eated him.

Flop: Anyway, it's an entertaining book, particularly for anyone who's familiar with the tropes of the genre. Jig's a very loveable character, for a biped.

Flit: What's a trope?

Kai: (acting knowledgeable)It's French for mole. Not as nice as mouse but better than spider. Do you think any of the characters in your human's books are based upon you?

Flop: Well, the elves who appear in the first and third books are highly graceful, like myself.

Pod: Didn't you fall off the DVD player again last night?

Flop: *thwap* Some of the goblins are a little dense in the head. I'll leave it to you to decide which of us inspired them.

Flit: Wait, maybe there's tuna now! (Bounds off again)

Kai (bounding in pursuit) Tuna? Wait for me!

And there - a little sooner than planned but we are talking tuna - the interview ended.

Here's Flop, Pod and Flit in the Green Room interviewing the tuna.

And here's Kai resting after a heavy meal.

International Kittens of Mystery

Author Interviews - The Feline Perspective

One of the problems of being an International Kitten of Mystery is maintaining a successful cover. Dogs have learnt how to Google and tax humans get suspicious when unemployed kittens claim helicopter expenses.

So, for international security and tax purposes, Kai has decided to become an interviewer.

On March 4th he'll be posting an interview with Flop, Pod and Flit - three cats who ghost write under the human name of Jim Hines.

And on March 10th he'll be interviewing Laptop and Boboko who write under the human name of Alma Alexander.
International Kittens of Mystery

SF Signal Post

I'm still on a limited dial-up internet access (c 40 mins/day) until we get our broadband back (hopefully by the end of the month - flying pigs willing:) so posting will be short.

A few days back SF Signal asked a number of SF authors - including me - for their definition of 'What is SF?' The result can be viewed here. I thought about this for a while and decided - as is my wont - to come up with something a little different.

So, here's my definition:

Thinking musically, science fiction is what you get when fiction goes electric. You plug ideas into an effects box and play with all the settings - adding distortion, harmonics, sustain, feedback and maybe a little echo. Then you turn all the amplifiers up to eleven.
International Kittens of Mystery


If anyone has been trying to contact me this month and wondered why I've been so silent - the terrible truth can now be revealed.

On Monday December 3rd our broadband connection died. No internet, no email, no telephone for four weeks - everything was routed through our Alice Box ADSL modem which, no doubt in sympathy with the French train drivers, decided to go on indefinite strike.

Out came the manuals and instruction leaflets. I located the problem - no ADSL signal was being received. I followed the recommended instructions - switching the box off, checking all the connections, moving the box through to the lounge and trying the phone socket there. Nothing worked. I tried again after lunch - same result - then phoned the Alice service line on our mobile. And hit automated switchboard hell.

Maybe it was because I'd just finished writing a story in which an automated switchboard played a prominent part. Or maybe it's my magnetic attraction to disaster but I'd just entered the telephone twilight zone.

First I had to get a signal - which living behind a rock in the in the middle of nowhere is not easy. I tried inside the house. Nothing. Then walked outside and stood on said large rock. A signal. I phoned 1033 and entered round one. Which of the many exciting Alice packages did I want? I waited for the automated advert to get to the option where I could report a fault and pressed option 2. And was then asked to input my 10 digit telephone number. I typed in all ten numbers and waited. And waited. It began to rain. Silence from the phone. And no signal.

We drove to the public telephone in the village. 1033 calls were free from a fixed line so at least I didn't have to pay for the call. But that was the only good news. I entered option two, I entered all ten digits of my telephone number, I reached level three - another set of options - I pressed 2, another set of options, I pressed three. Then it went silent. Had I scored so high I'd won a replay? No, I received a message that for security reasons this telephone call might be recorded.

Fat chance. First came the obligatory music then minutes later ... an actual human voice! I rushed into my prepared script, "Nous avons une probleme avec notre Alice Box."

"Allo?" said the voice on the other end of the line.

I repeated my opening sentence. Another 'Allo?' I spoke louder. I said 'allo' back. Again and again. Nothing worked. They couldn't hear me.

I put the phone down and redialled. Another ten minutes and another spate of puzzled 'Allo's. By now everyone in the village knew I had a problem with my Alice Box - I was shouting loud enough - but not the person hiding behind the automated switchboard.

We gave up, drove home and ... found one of our horses rolling on the ground in distress. The onset of colic. Which meant a phone call to the vet. Shelagh did the honours, setting up a base camp on the lawn before ascending the rock to make the phone call. The vet answered immediately, wisely eschewing the buffer of an automated switchboard with several levels of - press one for a biped, press two if your pet's called Polly...

And drove out to see us. Several injections later our horse began to recover. Which was more than could be said for us. Disasters come in threes and we'd only had two so far.

The next day we tried phoning Alice again. No signal. And it was raining so I couldn't stand on the rock. So, I roamed the house in search of a signal. And found one - if I stood on a chair with my head out of the loft window. I braved the wind, rain and the automated switchboard and found someone who understood me. I told him what was wrong and he said a technician would call back.

No one did. The next afternoon I tried again. It wasn't raining so I climbed onto the rock. And spent five minutes pressing buttons to navigate my way to talk to a human who then picked up his script and asked me a further set of questions to identify who I was. I could have told him I was the man standing on a rock in the freezing cold but at that stage I was polite and desperate. I gave him the same telephone number I'd already typed into their system, my name, address and ... now he wanted my mobile number. Which I didn't have. We only use it for emergencies and I've never had the need to call it. So I had to leave my rock to fetch the number and with it went the signal.

Start again. Another ten minutes to get back to the stage I'd left fifteen minutes ago, then I told him what the problem was and struggled to understand his answer. The line was breaking up and he was having difficulty hearing me. After another ten minutes I gave up. We'd try a fixed line from a neighbour's.

Shelagh volunteered and returned a half hour later. She'd been told by Alice technical support that she had to ring back from the same room that our computer was in. She'd explained that we couldn't get a signal there but he'd been adamant. This was to be a recurring theme. The call centre people had a script to follow and any attempt to move them off that script or to miss out steps we'd already covered in previous phone calls was met by a restatement of the party line. We have a script and you are going to follow it.

We rang from our house. We were cut off. We tried again. They told us to do all the things the manual suggested - all the things I'd tried on Monday - checking the connections, trying other sockets etc. We told them again and again that we'd already done that. The problem's with the line. Can't you check it?

Now, I've seen life on the other side. I've worked in tech support and, yes, I know that users often say they've done things when they haven't. But this was way beyond that. And every time we called we got a different person and had to start again from scratch.

But eventually I was put through to someone who appeared to know what they were doing and he agreed to test the line.

Another day dawned. We'd reached Thursday - three days without emails or the internet. I was suffering withdrawal symptoms. And Shelagh was worried about our phone bill. We must have spent two hours calling Alice from our mobile at half a euro per minute. Which is when we hit upon a cunning plan. The mega supermarket chain, Leclerc, had just started their own mobile phone service. Cheap phones, cheap calls and there was a special offer if we took out a subscription this week. We drove into town, bought a new mobile phone, typed in 1033 to call Alice and ... nous sommes desolé, said a recorded voice. We cannot connect your call as it's coming from an unauthorised source. Our new phone could not call special numbers.

Surprise, shock and minor hair-tearing. Why? How? A quick consult of the small print on our Leclerc contract confirmed the news. You can phone anywhere in the world - except those pesky emergency numbers.

Looking on the bright side - a lifelong pursuit of mine - I realised that this made disaster number three. I could now rest easy.

Until I tried to call Alice. All I wanted to know was had they tested our line. All they wanted to know was my name, address, the numbers of all my phones, how many phone sockets I had and then take me through the same prepared script I'd railed at for the previous two days.

Even my declaration that 'Je suis tres proche to a breakdown nerveuse' didn't deflect their curiosity. Have you confirmed that your Alice Box is plugged in? I was about to tell them exactly where I intended to plug the Alice Box next when the signal died.

Shelagh tried next and failed. Could we ring back from a better line, they asked? We went back to our neighbours and played the same switchboard roulette until we were told to return to our house because we needed to be close to our computer. That's where we've just come from! The phone keeps cutting out! Please return to your house.

We asked if they had someone who could come out to our house and sort the problem out but ... they changed the subject. It wasn't in their script. It began to look that, although Alice were responsible for our phone connection, they didn't actually maintain the phone lines. France Telecom did that. But, naturally, FT were more interested in their own customers and would get around to other provider's requests when it suited. All Alice had was a call centre and a script.

We rang FT to find out if they'd received a request to work on our line. They wouldn't say. Ring Alice, they said.

More calls , more frustration. Can you find someone who speaks French? Can you find someone who can fix a phone line? Impasse. We returned to our neighbour and she had a go. Put the phone down and return to your house, you need to be near your computer. No, we don't! Yes, you do!

We fetched a French speaking friend and ferried her to our house. Twenty-five minutes later and without any need to access our computer she was told that our line would be tested. When? Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week. If you haven't heard in seven days time, ring back.

Time ticked on. I thought that being weaned off the internet might give me more writing time but, no, I was too busy working out scenarios as to what to do or say next. Were they actually testing our line or just saying anything to get us off the phone?

And then I embraced the dark side - conspiracy theories. Our bank statement arrived the following Monday and there was no monthly payment to Alice. We'd switched to them from France Telecom on April 3rd and every month since then a direct debit had been paid to them on the 24th of each month. Except last month. There was no payment at all. And we'd lost our phone line on December 3rd the eight month anniversary of the contract. Dots began to join and form the words - they cancelled our account by mistake! It would explain everything and maybe make it easier to get everything working again. There was no line to fix just a clerical error.

I prepared a new script and climbed onto my rock. Je suis Sherlock Dolley and I think I've solved the problem. Twenty minutes later I was put on hold and ... the signal went dead. I redialled, I restated, I waited and ... no, your account has never been cancelled.

Or so they said. I was wondering how far the conspiracy stretched. Should I ring Mohammed Al Fayed and swap notes on Prince Phillip's whereabouts last Monday morning?

I decided to wait. MI5 are always thorough and Prince Phillip never leaves loose ends.

On the Thursday - having heard nothing from Alice for the obligatory week - Shelagh rang them from our bemused neighbours (who, by then, had built a small grandstand by their phone so crowds could gather to watch and buy popcorn)

Alice said they'd found the fault. It was in the line at their end and it would take three days to fix. So everything will be back and usable on Monday? Yes, they replied. Shelagh asked them to repeat it three times. And let them know she had a gun.

Monday arrived and still no line so I wrestled the gun away from Shelagh and drove into town, found a phone that worked and called Alice. The fault hadn't been fixed because ... there was no fault. Could I go back to the house so that the modem could be verified? I remonstrated, explaining that we'd been doing little else for two weeks. Someone needed to come out. No, you need to go home and call us again.

I went home, called them again, tried to explain and ... was ignored. Out came the same script - switch the modem off, unplug the line, switch it all back on again. I jumped through all the hoops until they said they were going to get a technician to test the line. Ring back in a day or so. I exploded and was told to be patient. Patient? Moi? I was a man standing on a rock in the freezing cold, snow falling all around him. I'd been nothing but patient for two weeks!

I cut the call. And vowed I'd never speak to Alice again except through a solicitor.

The next day we got up early and drove, cap in hand, to France Telecom who had a shop where you could talk to real live human beings and employed engineers who could actually fix telephone lines. 'Take us back!' we begged. 'We didn't mean to leave!'

They took us back but ... we'd have to change our telephone number as Alice insisted on keeping the old one. And wait four days for the new number to be switched on. By then we'd have agreed to anything. The old phone line was useless - no one could even leave a message for us - anyone trying was met by an automated voice telling them we couldn't take their call.

Four days passed and - you guessed it - nothing. I rang 1013 (the France Telecom fault line) and was told that the line should have been connected but it hadn't. Try ringing 1014 (their office line) to find out why. I rang 1014 and was told there was a problem but it should be fixed soon.

Two days passed. On the three week anniversary of The Day the Telephone Died and with Christmas only a day away I rang 1014 again and was asked if I could go to their shop in Flers. I drove to Flers, braved the Christmas Eve shoppers who were queuing out the door of the France Telecom store and waited. But at least I got to speak to a person and watch as they phoned the engineers and confirmed that there was a problem and it was being worked on.

Not over Christmas though. More silent days passed and on the Friday I drove into the village for my obligatory call to a service desk and was told that the work had been completed. But my phone doesn't work! Doesn't it? It looks fine from this end. He then told us to return to our home - not to be close to our computer (they pine for human company, you know) - but so he could test the line for us. We gave him our mobile number, rushed home and waited. He rang us on the mobile and took us through a couple of tests - testing our errant line first with a phone connected then without. Two minutes later he pronounced our line as dead. An engineer would come out on Monday to fix it.

Bliss. A real person was coming to our house. Something we'd asked for right at the beginning. And it had only taken France Telecom a couple of minutes to test our line. Our sojourn in the mind numbing alternative world of automated call centre hell was coming to an end.

New Year's Eve arrived on time and so did the engineers. They found the fault in ten minutes - the line between our house and the road was dead - and then re-cabled us.

We no longer have broadband but at least we have something.


International Kittens of Mystery

Say It Ain't So, PO

It would appear that the International Reply Coupon, after one hundred years of service to overseas authors everywhere, is no more. It has pined for the fjords and posted itself - without an enclosed SASE - into the great PO Box in the sky.

And no one told me!

I only found our last month when I went to our local post office in Normandy to send a short story to F&SF. I asked for a coupon international de reponse and was met with a glazed expression. And, for once, it was not because of my pronunciation.

"Je suis baffled," she said - I translate approximately. She knew what an IRC was. She'd sold them. In the past. But ... it had been such a long time ago and Mr. Verne hadn't been in for a while...

So, off she went and searched the shelves, the back room, her coat pockets. Then checked her computer and asked a colleague. Gallic shrugs all round. "Nous sommes tres baffled."

Perhaps Alencon might have one? Or Paris?

I drove home and toured the net, checking the web sites of the French Post Office, the Royal Mail, USPS. No mention of IRCs anywhere. And then I found someone's blog. Apparently IRCs were discontinued a year or so back as they were costly to administer and only used by authors submitting work overseas.

And yet they're still mentioned in magazine submission guidelines. I know, I looked.

Never one to give up until a hospital is involved, I tried option two: buying US stamps online. This looked a winner. For a while. There were several companies offering 'print your own US stamps' services at reasonable prices. But half an hour of screens and fine print later I found the only way I could subscribe was by pretending I lived in the US. Which is undoubtedly illegal. Of course, being extradited to the US for mail fraud would be a good opportunity to buy US stamps but...

Option three also looked a winner for a while. I could buy stamps online from USPS. If I bought at least 20. All I wanted was one 90 cent stamp! And the postage and packing for twenty 90 cent stamps was $6. So one SASE was going to cost me $24.

Now, if I intended to make a habit of sending stories to the US, fine. But I'm not. So, I plumped for option four. I emailed my nephew at Yale and explained the situation. Extradition on mail fraud imminent - send 90 cent stamp immediately.

It worked.