Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Please welcome, friend and author...

... Alice Castle to my blog today. Hi Alice, thanks for being here and I believe you have a new book to tell me about.  So over to you...

Thanks so much to Angela for hosting me today.  It’s lovely to be able to talk about my second novel, The Girl in the Gallery.  Like my first cozy crime whodunit, Death in Dulwich, the story owes a lot to its setting.  I’ve always loved Dulwich Picture Gallery and, when I realised it was celebrating 200 years as a public gallery this year, I was determined to use this extraordinary building as a backdrop to the latest crime that my amateur sleuth, Beth Haldane, sets about solving.  I started the book this April and have just managed to get it out before the year is over – it is being published on 19th December by Crooked Cat.

about the book... It’s a perfect summer’s morning in the plush south London suburb, and thirty-something Beth Haldane has sneaked off to visit one of her favourite places, the world-famous Picture Gallery.  She’s enjoying a few moments’ respite from juggling her job at prestigious private school Wyatt’s and her role as single mum to little boy Ben, when she stumbles across a shocking new exhibit on display.  Before she knows it, she’s in the thick of a fresh, and deeply chilling, investigation.  Who is The Girl in the Gallery?  Join Beth in adventure #2 of the London Murder Mystery series as she tries to discover the truth about a secret eating away at the very heart of Dulwich.

Dulwich Gallery
Those who know Dulwich Picture Gallery will either love or hate its cool, neo-Classical façade and strange internal layout.  The building was designed by architect Sir John Soane and he was quite clear that it was his favourite creation.  It broke a lot of rules at the time and its use of light from above, provided by enormous glass lanterns set into the roof, was considered revolutionary.  One of the effects of this technique, as well as providing plenty of natural light flooding the gallery, was to give a huge quantity of wall space to hang paintings, as there are no windows to break up the long gallery vistas.  It is this which gives the gallery a rather odd, blank look from the outside, which Soane dealt with by creating false arches in the brickwork.  Beth imagines these are looking at her quizzically as she approaches the Gallery on page 1, when she is just about to make a horrible discovery in the mausoleum which lies at the heart of the building.

As you can imagine, the mausoleum gets quite a lot of attention in my mystery, so I won’t say any more about it here, except to say that you definitely won’t find anything like it in any other art gallery.

Cards carrying the portrait of Mrs Moody
available from the gallery
I have as much difficulty as Beth in deciding which of the art treasures displayed at the Picture Gallery is my favourite but, like her, I have a particular soft spot for the portrait of Mrs Elizabeth Moody by Gainsborough.  As you’ll read in the book, there is a very sad tale behind this glorious picture.  Another canvas with a moving backstory is the portrait of Venetia, Lady Digby.  Though she looks as though she is peacefully asleep, the rose shedding its petals on the corner of her coverlet is the clue – Lady Digby was in fact painted by Van Dyck the day after her death.  Her widower, Sir Kenelm Digby, was inconsolable and took the canvas with him wherever he went.  It was a tragic ending to a great love affair; the couple had married in secret, against the wishes of his family, as she had a rackety past and he was a straight-laced poet and scientist. 

Dulwich Picture Gallery is full of stories.  I’m very proud to have added one of my own to the list.  If you’d like to read The Girl in the Gallery, you can find it on Amazon, or at Village Books, Dulwich Books, Herne Hill Books or Clapham Books in south London.  It’s the sequel to Death in Dulwich, but both books can be read as stand alone stories.  My next book in the series is Calamity in Catford, due to be published by Crooked Cat in 2018, with Peril in Peckham to follow shortly. 

Thanks again to Angela for hosting me and if you’d like to find out more about Beth or my series, do visit me at www.alicecastleauthor.com. I’m also on Facebook and on Twitter at @DDsDiary.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

I'm reviewing Christmas at the Lucky Parrot Garden Centre...

I've always been a bit sniffy about books written through collaboration as I've always thought that I would be able to see the 'joins'.  Whilst this may be true of some of the other books I've read, it most certainly is not the case for this story.  Romantic comedy is not exactly my bag either.  So why did I read this book and review it?  Good question!  It was suggested to me that I might enjoy this story just because it was completely outside my usual reading matter - and I most certainly did.

Set in Whitby in the run up to Christmas, with a heroine who is a no-nonsense Yorkshire lass (Hannah) and a hero to die for (Daniel) - I was hooked from page one.  Whitby is a lovely seaside town and not so very far that I can not visit every so often.  Add to that the timing of Christmas along with snow and you have a perfect location for a warming and heartfelt story.

The writing style is a bit quirky - but I can do quirky - and I found it a refreshing change.  That quirkiness fits really well with the nature of the story, the characters and the setting.

The romance between Hannah, (a welly-wearing down-to-earth land-scape gardener who got my vote from the outset) and movie-man Daniel, unfolds very cleverly as the two of them deal with their own differences, insecurities and pressures from their work.  Add to this the dynamics between the supporting characters at the Garden Centre where Hannah works, her neighbours and the people from Daniel's past and you have a really great read.  I found the characters to be really well drawn and believable and the story drew me in relentlessly.  Once I'd started reading, I could not put this book down.

Despite my initial reservations about this story, I thoroughly enjoyed it and have no hesitation in recommending it as an excellent book.  I also think it will make a perfect Christmas present for the reader on your present list!

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Come stroll with me...

Fortress Montbazon
… through Montbazon for my last post from this little town on the Indre.  Regrettably my time here has come to an end but I still have some interesting things about the place to share.

Camped beside the river Indre means that it’s a short walk from the site to the heart of the town.  It is also impossible to miss the remains of the fortress that sits on the high ground overlooking the plain.  The fortress was built by Foulque Nerra – The Black Falcon – who in reality was Fulk III and son of Geoffrey I, Count of Anjou. He was born around 970 and died in 1040 in Metz, eastern France.  His life’s work was to defend, maintain and extend his territories in and around the Loire.  As a result, he is best remembered as one the great builders of the medieval age with the fortress at Montbazon being only one of the many similar structures, abbey’s and other buildings that he had constructed around Tours during his lifetime.  It is possible to visit the castle and see demonstrations of medieval baking, tile making and calligraphy.  You can even practice your archery and your sword fighting if you wish.  I decided to give the latter two a miss.

Old Mill, Montbazon
Taking the steep path down from the fortress brings you right to the last vestiges of the original city walls and the remains of one of the gates.  Here I take a right and visit the old mill which sits on a branch of the Indre.  There has been a mill here since the 14th century.  In the 16th century it became the property of the Ducs de Montbazon who rented out its use to local milling families who formed a consortium and could then control the price of flour - and their own income, of course! - within the area.  A plaque on the wall denotes that in November 1770 a devastating flood engulfed the town and had I been standing in that spot then, the water would have reached a good two feet above my head!  In 1798, following bankruptcy, the mill was put under administration until it was sold to a merchant in Tours as a result of an act of the revolutionary government.  Numerous changes and improvements later, the building is now privately owned, but is still worth the short walk to see it.

As we stroll along Rue de Moulin, take in the facades of the ancient houses and, don’t miss the
detail on the eaves of the house at number 37.  And just here on the right is the ruelle des Anges.  And there’s a little picture for those who are unsure of the translation!  As I look down the narrow covered walkway I'm reminded of a conversation I had at a wedding a few years ago.  An elderly gentleman, once I'd told my name, remarked that Angela was derived form the anciet greeek and that it meant 'messenger of the gods.'  I remember smiling politely and thinking to myself, if my first name means that and my second name is that of a bird, what happened to my wings?  I guess I'll never know, so I wander a little further down the street and on the right is the church of Notre-Dame de la Bonne Aide.  I stop to read the notice on the open door which gives the history of the building of the church and tells me that the original church from 1550 was replaced by the current building. neo-roman in style, between 1851 and 1862.  But I can not get further than the fourth sentence before Madame encourages me to come in.  ‘We have a special exhibition,’ she says.  ‘Patience please,’ I say and, after a further encouragement she eventually leaves me to read the rest of the historical notes.  

Vestments froming part of the exhibition, Montbazon
The outside of the building does not prepare me for the interior.  Apart from all the VIP’s, the Maire and numerous other people being lectured about the exhibits and the church, there are some of the most exquisitely embroidered vestments that I have ever seen.  All beautifully displayed in the central aisle and surrounded by walls and a ceiling that are painted with not a single scrap of bare plaster to be seen anywhere.  The interior was.  The interior of the church, painted in 10863 by Henri Grandin, is a marvel.  By the alter I come across the most important item in the exhibition.  A chasuble, stole and various other pieces embroidered by Marie, the Duchess of Montbazon and dating from 1642.

This is a town with a fascinating history, a marvellous community spirit and a zest for survival that I doubt will ever be diminished by its proximity to Tours.  And, if after your walking tour of the town you are feeling a little peckish then I can thoroughly recommend the Milles Feuilles from the pâtisserie in Place André Delaunay.  It’s just by the Hotel de Ville, you can’t miss it.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

I'm reviewing The Last Dance...

... and other stories by Victoria Hislop

Whilst I write short stories myself and enjoy the discipline, I don't usually read anthologies. That being said, this my third colection of stories in almost as many weeks!   As a reader I often find that a short story is just too short and I'm at the end almost before I've started.  And, unfortunately, there are a lot of short stories out there that have no substance at all.

But that is not the case with this selection of ten tales.  All set in Greece, the stories revolve around the people and the place.  Hislop's novels - The Thread and The Island - demonstrate her understanding of the country, its history and the people.  Her stunning prose does not hinder the pace of the stories nor does it impede the readers ability to see her characters and their locations clearly as she spins her tales.  From Stavros, the priest in the first story right through to Theodoris, the groom in the final story, each of the central protagonists is clearly and carefully drawn.  Establishing a character so clearly when the word count is automatically limited is difficult, but this author has mastered that skill.

Similarly with the setting for each story.  You can feel the wind and see the darkness in the corners of the streets.  You can feel the tension between battling brothers and enjoy the openness of the airy village squares shaded in summer by the trees.  These fabulous bitter-sweet tales focus on love, separation and loss, friendship and confusion and missed chances along with choices that are not always desired.  Each is a perfect and complete little nugget of emotion and it is this quality that makes this particular collection of stories one to treasure and return to again and again.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Kermesse, Creepy Crawlies and Camping Companions...

Montbazon from the bridge over the Indre
In Montbazon in September I had the great pleasure of visiting the Kermesse (village fair), an event that lasted the whole weekend.  It was fascinating, and wonderful, to see a whole community working together towards a common goal.  The principle celebrations were for the Sapeurs-Pompiers, the local fire and rescue service.

Saturday was all about demonstrating the value that these essential services bring to the area.  There were any number of tents filled with all sorts of exhibits about the history of the service, the work undertaken and the lives saved.  There was also a tent that had a vast collection of fire service memorabilia from across the world, including a UK fire service Chief's helmet!  In addition, there was a display of fire trucks - both old and in current use - from across the region.  And... there was the compulsory fireman's lift reaching up above the tree-tops.  I left that to the professionals!

As I wandered around the various tents I came across one that had glass cases on a table.  Curious, I moved a few steps closer and beat hasty a retreat within seconds, much to the amusement of the fireman who was manning that piece of the exhibition.  He tried to entice me in - but I was having
Some of the old vehicles
nothing to do with the occupants of those glass cases!  You see, I have a very precise and exact definition of creepy crawlies and I exercise a 5 kilometre exclusion zone for them all.  Anything, absolutely anything that has more than 4 legs, does not live in the sea, or slithers along the ground qualifies for the title of creepy crawly.  Naturally, as with all rules, there are exceptions - butterflies who are too pretty to be included, honey bees who are too industrious to be included and ladybirds who are to be rescued at all times whenever out of their natural habitat.  As for the occupants of those glass cases - all living snakes - I quickly moved on to the next tent!

Sunday was all about celebrating the bravery of the people in the service and remembering lost colleagues.  There were medals to be awarded, wreaths to be laid, speeches and there was a fantastic procession through the town accompanied by a marching band.  The Gendarmes, some local, some from Tour and further a-field, directed the traffic onto alternative routes whilst the whole centre of the town was given over to the event.

Blanc and Gris, my camping companions
The afternoon and evening was about eating, dancing and music.  I retired to my quieter spot by the river Indre with a book and glass of wine and the last of the sunshine.  I was visited by my camping companions, Blanc et Gris.  Thus far, they had both steadfastly ignored me, only stopping mid-river to look me over and then swimming on.  That afternoon I had clearly passed muster and they decided to investigate.  Keeping absolutely still, I let them come so close they could have nibbled my toes.  Luckily for me, they didn't.  And most evenings after that, at around 6.00ish, they paid me a visit.  Not that they had much to say, but they were beautiful to watch and observe.

If anyone can identify what kind of swan these two are, I'd love to hear from you.  Just leave a message at the bottom of this post.  Thanks.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Happy Birthday Robert Louis Stevenson…

On this day in 1850, one of our greatest writers, Robert Louis Stevenson, was born at 8 Howard Place, Edinburgh.  The address still exists and, if you’re a RLS-groupie, like me, you can walk down the street and gaze in wonder at the house!
Today, up in his home-city, there are all kinds of events happening to celebrate what would have been his 167th birthday.  Regrettably I can’t be there, so I thought I’d have my own little celebration here on my blog.
Stevenson is most famous for his children’s books, Treasure Island and Kidnapped.  But he wrote much more than that.  He was also a poet, an essayist, and a travel-writer.  Regular readers of this blog will already know that I followed in his footsteps through the Cévennes in a series of posts last year, supplemented with photos of the places I visited as they are now.
Today, in honour of his birth, I wanted to introduce you to a couple of my favourite pieces of poetry from his book 'A Child's Garden of Verses'.  First published 1895, my copy was printed in 1934 and originally belonged to my dad, who was also a browser in second-hand bookshops!

The Gardener

The gardener does not love to talk,
He makes me keep to the gravel walk;
And when he puts his tools away,
He locks the door and takes the key.

Away behind the currant row

Where no-one else but cook may go,
Far in the plots, I see him dig,
Old and serious, brown and big.

He digs the flowers, green, red and blue,
Nor wishes to be spoken to.
He digs the flowers and cuts the hay,
And never seems to want to play.

Silly gardener!  Summer goes,
And winter comes with pinching toes,
When in the garden bare and brown
You must lay your barrow down.

Well now, and while the summer stays,
To profit by these garden days,
O how much wiser you would be
To play at Indian wars with me!

At the very end of the book is a little known piece, that I have always loved, addressed...

To Any Reader

As from the house your mother sees
You playing round the garden trees,
So you may see, if you will look
Through the windows of this book,
Another child, far, far away,
And in another garden, play.
But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you.  He intent
Is all on his play-business bent.
He does not hear; he will not look,
Nor yet be lured out of this book.
For, long ago, the truth to say,
He has grown up and gone away,
And it is but a child of air
That lingers in the garden there.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Friend and author, Vanessa Couchman returns...

... to tell me all about her latest venture...
AW  I understand you have a new anthology that is to be published this week, Vanessa.  Can you tell me a little about it?
VC  First, thank you very much for hosting me on your blog again, Angela.
French Collection: Twelve Short Stories will be published on Thursday, 9th November.  The stories are all set in France.  My husband and I moved to southwest France 20 years ago.  When I took up writing fiction, it seemed natural to set many of my short stories here.  French history, culture and art have provided a lot of inspiration.
AW  I know exactly what you mean.  For me it was the fabulous scenery that I could not leave out my own books.
VC  Most of the stories are historical fiction.  So, for example, one is about a 17th-century pedlar who is chased out of an Aveyron village for greatly inflating the death toll from the plague in the town of Villefranche-de-Rouergue.  Another concerns a young woman near Cahors who finds herself pregnant by her lover who is fighting in the WWI trenches.   

Market day in Villefranche
AW  Villefranche... a fabulous old bastide town that is a favourite of mine!  But back to the book.  Hardy, Dickens, Joyce, Dahl and M R James are just a few of my favourite short story writers, which means that this type of writing has a long and well established history.  With the advent of e-books, novels seem to me to be getting longer rather than shorter.  Is short-story writing for adults a bit old hat now, do you think?
VC  To paraphrase Mark Twain, “Reports of the short story’s death are premature.”  I don’t think it’s an advantage that novels are getting longer.  At the risk of being unpopular, I have found some recently-published novels in need of an additional pruning.
However, I think publishers generally find novels more commercially attractive than short story collections.  That said, many modern novelists come to mind who have published anthologies.  Also, last year I was involved in a collection of short stories set around the time of Pearl Harbour in December 1941.  That has been very successful, especially in the States. 
The advantage of shorts is that they are complete stories that can be read at one sitting.  So if you don’t feel like getting immersed in a much longer work, or don’t have the time, short stories provide a satisfying alternative.  They also give you a chance to enjoy new genres that you might not otherwise read.

AW  Easier or more difficult?  You have a number of full-length books to your name, so how do the two very different forms compare?
VC  I cut my writing teeth on short stories but I think they are more difficult to write well than novels.  In a novel you have some leeway for additional description or to elaborate on a scene.  In a short story, every single word has to count.  There is no room at all for extraneous material.  You need to grip the reader’s attention immediately.  And you have to get the main character from A to Z (problem to resolution) in a very short space.  That said, I enjoy writing short stories and use them to hone my writing skills.

AW   Lastly, Vanessa, with yet another book about to hit the streets, what would your eight-year-old self, make of you today?
VC  When I was eight, I enjoyed writing stories.  You think you can do anything at that age, so I would have felt it a natural progression to become a published author later.  In reality, education and a career stifled my creativity and I didn’t take up writing fiction again until 10 years ago.  I would have been disappointed if I had known that at eight years old.  But I am trying to make up for lost time!

...about the author  Vanessa Couchman is a British novelist and short story writer who has lived in southwest France since 1997. She has written two novels, The House at Zaronza and The Corsican Widow, and is working on a third. Her short stories have been placed in competitions and published in anthologies.

You can fiollow Vanessa on her  Website  FacebookPage   French Life Blog  or on Twitter

French Collection: Twelve Short Stories is available in paperback and e-book formats from Amazon. http://mybook.to/FrenchCollection 

Thank you Vanessa and there will be more about Villefranche from yours truly in the next few weeks... watch this space!