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 CĂ©vennes 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.

Belcastel
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!