Wednesday, 28 December 2022

Just because it's Twixmas...

... and here is the second half of the story...

Rudolf Saves Christmas - Part 2

Just before midnight on Christmas eve Rudolf and two teams of reindeer were ready to fly.
    Rudolf stood tall, antlers casting a long shadow in the starlight. “Mrs C are you ready?”
    The elderly lady straightened her shoulders. “For anything,” she said.
    “Dasher you’re in the lead and you leave four minutes after us.” He eyed each of the trainees in their harnesses. “Keep pace with your partners and follow Dasher’s lead. And concentrate.”
    Rudolf strolled across to his own place at the front of the team leading Santa’s vehicle. Harness on, he turned to his team. “Prancer, Cupid, Vixen keep an eye on each of your trainees and keep pace with me.” Lastly, he looked to his right. “Are you ready for this, son?”
    “Yes, Pa.”
    Rudolf looked ahead and stomped a front hoof into the snow. “Mr Claus, let’s away!”
   In a second and with a flurry of soft snow the sleigh was slicing through the freezing air at the speed of the world. It took less than a few moments of human time to be circling above Moscow.
    “Steady down, Rudolf,” shouted Mr C.
    Rudolf lessened his pace as he spotted Gorky Park just ahead. He circled once again and brought the sleigh to a smooth landing just as the clocks began to strike midnight. A few more steps and the sleigh halted on the snow-covered grass.
    Rudolf looked up to the bright star, second on the right.
    “Blitzen, are you there?” He pushed his thought through the air to his colleague on the Communications Desk. “Blitzen?”
    “Yes, I’m here,” came an irritated response. “I’m running this desk and this keyboard single-hoofed you know!”
    “OK, calm down? Any sighting of the Jo-Jo Boys?”
    There was a pause. “Got yeah! Just north, northeast of you. They’ve been hiding in the grounds of the Church of St John the Warrior. Heading your way right now.”
    Rudolf glanced back to his team. “Brace yourselves. Elves make ready.”
    Suddenly, from behind the trees, three leering faces appeared. In the next instance, the Jo-Jo Boys were clambering all over the sleigh and trying to drag the heavy parcel sack off the back.
    Rudolf glanced at his son. “Hold still,” he whispered.
    A trio of wild screeches came from behind. Rudolf turned and watched. Thirty elves were clambering out of the parcel sack and swarming the three boys. In seconds they had each of the attackers on the ground. The excited screams were gradually replaced with the sound of hammers on strong metal tacks as the Jo-Jo boys were systematically pinned to the ground.
    Rudolf grinned, but he still couldn’t remember where he had read about overcoming an assailant using this method. Nevertheless, it worked. He released himself from his harness. The next bit was just too good to let anyone else have the task.
    He strolled around to where the Jo-Jo Boys were pinned to the ground, immovable.
    “So, you really think you can steal Christmas from the world?”
  The response from the three wrinkled and aged choir boys was a chorus of defiant whimpers.
    Rudolf shook his head. “Christmas lives in hearts and minds, the presents are just a human manifestation of that. Take as many of these empty boxes as you want, but you can’t steal thoughts and feelings.”
    He pulled from his collar a tiny scroll and as it unfurled it became a large fluffy blanket, big enough to cover the three boys. Attached to one corner was a note addressed to the Moscow Police which read :

    Please escort these naughty children back to Myrna where they belong.

    Rudolf strolled back towards his harness. “Job done, Mr C,” he said as he nodded to Santa Claus.
    “Thank you, Rudolf.”
    Back in harness, Rudolf lifted his head towards the stars. “Blitzen, where’s Mrs C with the real present sack?”
    “Straight ahead and two stars to the left. She’s running a little behind, but take that route and you’ll meet her there.”
    Rudolf stomped his right hoof into the snow. “Get a message to the city police, Blitzen.”
    Santa tightened his grip on the reins. “Rudolf, let’s away.”

The blog will be back with weekly articles as usual on January 10th.  Until then, enjoy this holiday season.

Tuesday, 27 December 2022

Just because it's Twixmas...

...I have the opening part of a little Christmas story for you.  This first appeared on the Facebook page of the UK Crime Book Club on December 20th.  Enjoy...

Rudolf Saves Christmas - Part 1

’Twas the night before, the night before Christmas, and all through the barn a studied silence reigned. Rudolf held his cards close to his chest as he glanced around the table at his opponents.
    “I’ll raise you five,” he said, his left hoof pushing a pile of carrot slices towards the already substantial pot.
    “I’m out,” said Prancer.
    “Me too,” groaned Cupid.
  “Hey! Mister Cardsharp, we’ve got work to do,” shouted Vixen as she sidled up to Rudolf and placed her right hoof on his shoulder. “Serious work,” she said, winking seductively.
    Rudolf grinned.
    “Not that kind of work,” trilled Dancer as she pirouetted the length of the floor, her Fuschia-pink tutu quivering as she moved. She halted at the table and struck a pose. “Donner and Blitzen have just returned from the annual trial run with a damaged sleigh.”
    “That’s right,” added Vixen. “Blitzen thinks they hit some sort of forcefield above Moscow. Mr C suddenly lost control of the sleigh, it tipped, he fell out and the wrench of the shift did for Blitzen. He’s dislocated his right shoulder. Donner’s exhausted. She had to take the full weight of Mr C, the dragging sled, and support Blitzen all the way back.”
    Rudolf threw his cards on the table.
    Cupid flipped his competitor's hand face-up. “Typical! Bluffing again Rudi,” he said.
    “Never mind that,” said Rudolf. “What about the Boss, is he OK?”
    “Slight concussion and a bloody nose,” said Dancer as Mr Claus ambled up to the table and plumped down onto the only available seat.
    “We crash-landed in Gorky Park and when I came too…” Mr Claus dabbed at his still bleeding nose with a much-blooded handkerchief. “It’s the Jo-Jo boys,” he said as he fished out a scrap of paper from his pocket and handed it to Rudolf.
    “It’s a long time since we’ve heard from those three,” said Rudolf as he flattened out the note. His gaze followed the lines of text. “They want all the world’s presents,” he said looking up at Mr C. “Delivered to Gorky Park and if they don’t get them, they’re coming for you.” He turned the note so that Mr Claus could read it for himself.
    “That dratted Bishop from Myra! Why couldn’t he just keep his miracles to himself?” Mr Claus frowned and dabbed at his nose.
    Rudolf shrugged. “We are where we are,” he announced sagely. “We’re smarter than those three pickled Choir Boys and we will beat them.”
    “And how do you propose we do that?” Dancer supplemented her question with a twirl.
    “We give them what they want, but we set a trap.” Rudolf grinned. “Dancer, I want you at the communications station. Get looking at the footage from the Star Cameras. Vixen rally the elves. Boys, you’re all with me. We need to examine the damaged sleigh and get the spare one ready to fly tonight.” Rudolf started to make his way to the entrance to the barn.
    Dancer nodded and smiled. In a moment she had shimmied across to the large bank of monitors. Headphones on, she set to work.
    “And what do I tell the elves?” Vixen demanded. Her left hoof tapping the cold stone floor.
    Rudolf paused for a moment and then turned to Vixen. “To get every single empty box we have and wrap it. And if there aren’t enough, tell them to make some more and wrap those. Prancer, Dasher, and Cupid, you’re with me.” Rudolf led his colleagues out of the barn and into the freezing night air to look at the sleighs.

    In the infirmary, Donner and Comet were tending to a stricken Blitzen writhing in agony in his stall.
    “Stop whinging,” shouted Donner above the noise. “OK. Comet, hold on and pull!” Blitzen let out a terrifying scream of pain as his shoulder clicked back into place.
    Donner stood up and shook her head. “OMG. Boys! What wimps they are.”
    “Good job they don’t have to birth a calf,” added Comet. “Then they’d really know what pain is!”
    Blitzen groaned and turned his head away.
    Donner collapsed down on the straw.
    “You look all in,” said Comet. “Any injuries I need to take care of?”
    “No, just a few bruises where I hit the ground, but that’s all, I think.”
    “Get some rest and I’ll bring you some food in a couple of hours.”
    Donner managed a fleeting smile and a nod...

There is more from Rudolf and his team Here

Tuesday, 13 December 2022

It's December, it's getting cold outside and...

...I will be taking a break from blogging and most things bookish.  Christmas is just a couple of weeks away and this is my most favourite part of the year.  I love to spend time with family and friends sharing presents, meals, and conversation.

So, before I disappear, I would just like to thank everyone who has visited my blog this year.  Thank you for your continued support, your comments and your precious time.

A big thank you also goes to the readers of my books.  I hope you have enjoyed them and your support is greatly appreciated.

Lastly, may I wish you all the very best for this time of year and, if you also celebrate Christmas, have a happy and healthy one.



Tuesday, 6 December 2022

The story behind my story...

 Allan Hudson, Monique Thébeau, Chuck Bowie
Yours truly, S C Eston, Angella Cormier
Pierre C Arseneault, Sandra Bunting, Jeremy Thomas Gilmer the thrilling new collection, Winter Paths...

In September, I was able to reveal the cover of a fabulous new anthology, Winter Paths.  You can read that post Here.
Today, I'm delighted to say that the book is now available in both print and e-format.
My tale this time is historical, but it tells the story of Marguerite, her family and her son, Eric.  And if you've read The Bookseller's Secret Octavo from the Autumn Paths collection, published last year, you'll recognise that last name.  Eric is the bar/restaurant owner in the village of Beauregard in central France.  
It is Eric who tells Alice, the central character in The Bookseller's Secret Octavo, that her father is renovating an old house at the edge of the village… And that story develops from there.
When we - The Seasonal Collective - decided to create the follow-up anthology Winter Paths, I knew there had to be a link back to the first story.
To begin with, I needed to figure out how I could do that.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that in small villages in rural France, the bar or local restaurant is always central to the life of the community.  That realisation accepted, it took a couple of hours to work out who Eric was, when he was born, where and who his parents were.  As the decisions were made, more questions floated to the front of my mind and were answered.  By the end of the afternoon, I had a whole family tree, some intrigue, the historical backdrop, and what I hoped were an interesting set of villagers.  Come and meet Marguerite, mother of Eric and the central character in my story in the Winter Paths anthology…


The village of Beauregard, 1981


IN THE MIDST OF A FIELD OF GRAY OSTENTATION, a single, plain gravestone stood sentinel, the recently carved and silvered characters gleaming in the cold winter sunshine. Marguerite stared at the words and numbers that would, henceforward, define the life of the most recent person to be laid to rest in that place.
        “So, there you are, Maman. Just a name, some dates and eighty years of memories in the minds of others.” She wiped away a tear with her gloved hand but remained transfixed as if some inescapable, transparent bond were keeping her shackled to the spot. Marguerite put the dark red rose that she was carrying close to her face and, taking a deep breath, inhaled the heady, sweet scent.
        “It’s time to tell the truth, Maman,” she said. She gazed up at the sky, the glare from the sun causing her to squint. “All of the lies have to stop. And they will. Today. I will make sure of that,” she whispered as she finally tore herself away.
        In the stark cold of that December morning, Marguerite made her way along the central path to a smaller, darker corner of the cemetery. The place was quiet, as always, and the sun provided no warmth against the barely zero temperature. In the shade, the hoarfrost clung to the grass and the bare branches of the trees – a fragile protective skin.

about the book…
Nine writers – Seasonal Collective - from both sides of the Atlantic, including best-selling and award-winning authors, have created a second miscellany of stories.

From the frozen north, across continents, space and time, these stories will mystify, enlighten, intrigue and perhaps bring a tear to the eye. With a linking theme of winter - in all its guises - experience the warmth of friendly hearts, find companionship and place, encounter battles, uncover secrets, meet ghosts and witness the strength of maternal love.

There’s a story for everyone in this thrilling new collection.

You can get the book using the link below

You can read more about the other authors and their stories in the series of books Here Here  Here and Here

Tuesday, 29 November 2022

The art behind the story...

... in Mazargues, Book six in the JacquesForêt mystery series set in the Cévennes.  Read on...

I’ve always been interested in art.   I actually grew up in a household with artists.  Both my brothers could draw and paint and so could my dad.  Me?   I have a keen eye for colour and design but that’s about it.  I don’t seem to have the required gene.  So, I’ve made up for the deficit by visiting art galleries whenever I could.  My particular interests are the Renaissance - because that period saw the then revolutionary introduction of perspective - and the Impressionists and some more modern artists such as Georgia O’Keefe.
About five years ago, when I realised I had more than just the first four Jacques Forêt stories to tell, I came across an article in the newspaper about the theft, over one weekend, of some precious artworks.  That set me thinking.  How did the theives do that?  How did they get around the alarm system?  For weeks afterwards my brain just would not stop circling that issue.  The customary notes were made in a number of my many notebooks and, although I had no idea of what the story would be, I knew there was a book in there somewhere.
Come forward to 2020 and the pandemic hits.  Being confined, as we all were, gave me the opportunity to indulge in my love of art from the comfort of my own library/home office.  I signed up for all sorts of lectures online.  And I was so glad I did.
Mazargues is not just a crime story involving art it’s also about the life and work of an artist. Yes, my story is something that developed in my imagination, but creating the life and body of work of my imaginary artist really stretched the brain.  How could I have my central character Jacques discuss the case with his colleague Didier, if I didn’t have any clear idea of the actual picture that they had been commissioned to find?
That meant research.  A lot of it, but it was a fascinating journey.  I looked up the Impressionnists. Monet, Renoir, Matisse I already had some books about, but others, Pissarro, Morisot, Caillebotte, Singer Sargent, Hopper, Merrit Chase and Sisley, were complete strangers to me.  Whilst not all of those artists get a mention in the text, examination of their work enabled me to invent some works of art that I hope come across to the reader as credible.
So, it is William Merrit Chase’s work Child on a Garden Path that provided the inspiration for one of the pictures that comes up during the investigation.  Similarly, the missing painting of the investigation is based on At the Seaside also by Chase.
For the portraiture mentioned in my story I used some of John Singer Sargent’s work as my models.  The monochrome portrait that Jacques spends time gazing at is actually an amalgam of two of Sargent’s paintings - Madame Pailleron and Madame Gautreau.  I took specific elements from each actual portrait in order to create in my imagination the one that Jacques comes across in his research.
Similarly with the other pictures that are mentioned.  They are either amalgams of real land- or seascapes or they are complete fictions based on an actual sketch or panel by one of the artists mentioned.
It would have been wonderful to be able to illustrate this post with the works that are named in the book.  Sadly, the best I can do is to tell you to click the link behind the title of each of the paintings above.  It won’t take you on the amazing journey of research that I encountered, but it might give you a hint about how enjoyable my search was.

You can read more about the book Here  Here and  Here

You can read about my visits to the Georgia O'Keefe exhibition Here or the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters exhibition Here

Tuesday, 22 November 2022

Publication Day is almost here...

 ... and I have a special offer for you.  Read on...

Mazargues, the sixth book in the Jacques Forêt mystery series set in the Cévennes in south central France is about to hit the streets.  Way back in 2007, when I first had an idea about a murder taking place in one of my favourite places, I never envisaged I would be sitting here typing this blogpost.  Although I had the idea, I had no clear understanding of how to write a book, let alone consider whether I had a stand-alone story or the beginning if a series.
And yet - here I am, with my weekly blog, six books to my name, along with a number of short stories in various other publcations.
If you've been following the news and updates on my website, (, you'll be aware that Mazargues has taken me quite a while to write.  There were a number of reasons for that, but one of the most important was the background research that was required.
The story is about a missing painting.  Although I have a long-held interest in art, I quickly realised the my knowledge was not detailed enough and I needed to enhance it significantly in order to properly create some of the scenes in the book.  So, I spent quite a lot of time attending on-line lectures about art and artists.  Did I perhaps spend too much time on the research because it was so fascinating?  Very probably.  Do I regret doing so?  Not in the slightest.  It was an amazing journey and you can find out more about that here on the blog hext week.

For now, the blurb for the new book is below, along with details of a special offer that I hope you will agree is an opportunity not to be missed!.

With his private investigation business in a slump, Jacques Forêt rashly accepts a commission to find a missing painting.The mysterious owner of the artwork remains in the background, and Jacques and his partner, Didier Duclos, are left to piece together the life of the artist and the provenance of the painting.
Jacques’ unrelenting search leads him to discover a network of secrecy and lies – and a dead body.  Who is the victim?  And who is the killer?
A difficult case that takes Jacques into the dark, and sometimes money-laundered, world of art.

Today, I am also very pleased and proud to be able to say that, in support of the publication of Mazargues, for the weekend of November 25th - 27th inclusive, the e-versions of the first four books in the series will be at the reduced price of 99p/c or international equivalent.   

I hope you will take advantage of this offer and check out the books Here

If you want to read more about Mazargues and the real locations used in the book, check out my previous blog posts Here  Here  and  Here 

Tuesday, 15 November 2022

Come stroll with me...

…through the streets of the city of Mende as I follow in the footsteps of my character, Jacques Forêt…

In my post last month I left you in place Chaptal, which sits to one side of the cathedral in the old heart of the city.  Today I'm picking up from there and taking you inside the cathedral.
Although there are traces of habitation here dating from 200 BC, Mende as we know and see it today, mostly dates from the Middle Ages.  As early as the 3rd Century, Mende was a village in the shadow of Mont Mimat where Saint Privat had taken refuge and lived as a hermit.  The invading Alamans tortured the Saint and left him for dead.  The Mendois recovered his body and built the first church/monument to him on the site of his death on Mont Mimat.
It wasn't until the 14th century that the cathedral was commissioned by Pope Urbain V and construction began in 1368.  The original bell towers were matched, but during the Religious Wars, when Capitaine Matthieu Merle marched through with his Huguenot soldiers and took the city, one of the towers was destroyed.  The bell that it contained - forged in Villefort and reputed to be the largest of it's time - was melted down to create ammunition by the invaders. The replacement mismatched tower dates from the late 16th century.
But let's step inside.  Photographs really can't do this fabulous edifice justice, and without a Cherry Picker, it's almost impossible to capture the beauty of the 18th century Aubusson tapestries that adorn the walls of the nave.  However, you can take a virtual tour of the catherdral Here
Out on the street again and I'm going to circle around the back of the basilica into rue du Soubeyran.  Jacques' route from place Chaptal takes him a short distance along this street and into rue de la Jarretière.  This is one of the narrowest streets in the city, it is also one of the oldest.  The name means street of the Garter as in the Royal Order of the Garter in the UK.  In the mid-fourteenth century a garter was a male item of clothing and perhaps some or most of the establishments originally on this street manufactured such items for the gentlemen of the town to wear.
What I want to show you is one of the magnificent ancient doorways that you can find at various points throughout the city.  This a 17th century gate to an Ursuline convent.  The convent was founded in 1635 with the stated purpose to provide education for the daughters of the wealthy nobleman living in and around the city.  The original building was destroyed by fire in 1905, but the gateway has been preserved.  And a good job too, because there is something quite unique about this entrance.  Just check out the stone balustrade that sits above the doorway and separates the pediment from the lintel.  I always thought balustrades were meant for leaning or sitting on whilst one admired the garden or the view beyond, so, this doorway begs a question.  Four hundred years ago, when the average height of a 17th century man was around 1.6m (5 foot 6), who would have been tall enough to lean on that particular balustrade???  Perhaps it was just a passing fashionable fad!  However, if doors are your thing, then the Tourist Office has a leaflet with a guided route to walk if you wish to meander through the streets in the hope of finding more oddities.
For Jacques, history is not on his mind when he visits this street.  He has a rogue market trader that he is determined to track down.

You can follow Jacques around other parts of the city of Mende and the surrounding countryside Here and Here

You can read more about his new case next week and on November 29th. 

Tuesday, 8 November 2022

I'm celebrating the life and work of Rumer Godden…

… an author of more than sixty books.  Read on…

Born in 1907 on December 10th in Eastbourne, Sussex, Godden grew up with her three sisters in Narayangangj - the sixth largest city in Bangladesh. Her father worked for the Brahmaputra Steam Navigation Company.
Initially sent to School in England, her parents brought her back to the sub-continent at the outbreak of the first war in 1914. Rumer and her sisters did not return to England until 1920 to resume their education in Eastbourne.
Godden trained as a dance teacher and travelled to Calcutta in 1925 to open a school for dance. With the help of her sister Nancy, Rumer ran the school for twenty years. But she was also writing during this time, and in 1939 she published her first best-selling novel, Black Narcissus. An iconic tale of life in a remote convent that has been serialised for TV and adapted for film.
But it wasn't that book that brought Godden to my notice. As a teenager, I remember sitting in the school playground with a friend, talking about books, and one of them was The Greengage Summer. On my next trip to the library, I sought it out and read it in one weekend. I was so taken with the central character of Joss Grey - a sixteen-year-old English girl who is required to look after her siblings when her mother is taken ill on holiday in France - that I spent far too much of my spare time day-dreaming that I could have been Joss. Luckily I did grow out of that silly little phase, but I also began working my way through Godden's other books.
As an imperious fourteen-year-old, of course, her children's books were instantly dismissed. But I remember the library assistant giving me a very old-fashioned look when she saw I was borrowing Black Narcissus!
Of all of Godden's books, I think I would have to say that In this House of Brede is the one to which I will always return. Set primarily in a convent here in England, it charts the life of Philippa, a businesswoman. She gives up everything to join the cloistered world of a group of Benedictine nuns at an abbey in Sussex. The book examines the dynamics between the characters and the minutiae of convent life. The day-to-day stresses and strains within the hierarchy of the convent are set against the gradually revealed background of Philippa's former life - a carefully mapped revelation of a terrible personal tragedy. This comes up in the very last quarter of the book as some new Japanese postulants arrive at the abbey. The writing is so intense, the death so poignant that I defy any reader not to be moved to tears. I was the first time I read the book, and each re-reading never fails to bring tears to my eyes. Although the language is of its time, the book is a masterclass in plotting and demonstrates the elegance of Godden's literary exposition.
Over the years, I have been gradually collecting her books, and I've obtained quite a shelf-full. But novels were not her only form of writing. She created almost thirty books for children, a dozen books of non-fiction, five books of poetry, numerous short stories and some translations.
After a long life, a happy second marriage, and a stunning career, Rumer died on this day in 1998 at the age of ninety.

If you enjoyed this post you may like to read about the life and work of A. A. Milne or my visit to Greenaway, the home of Agatha Christie

Tuesday, 1 November 2022

Come stroll with me...

The dense forest of the Col
… along the Col de la Tourette, an upland route through the peaks of the Cévennes.  There’s an important piece of history to be discovered here…

If you look at a map, you’ll see that the col sits on the upland between some higher peaks of the Cévennes.  As the RN88 follows the col through to the city of Mende, you are overlooked by the heights of Pelgeires at about 900 metres (around 2,950 feet) to your right.  On your left in a high valley is the village of Nojaret (birthplace of Jean-Antoine Chaptal), which sits at around 786 metres (2,770 feet) above sea level.  Whichever way you look, you will see dense forest.
As you make your way to Mende, just before you reach the village of Badaroux, you will find a small aire de repos.  And it is worth stopping to discover what happened here.
The Parc national des Cévennes covers 937 square kilometres (362 square miles) of mountains, dense forests, rivers and sparsely populated remote villages.  So, it probably isn’t surprising that this vast area became a haven for cells of resistance during the occupation of France.  Being on the southern and eastern edge of the Massif Central, the forests and the isolated villages became the perfect cover for the maquisards of the Bir-Hakeim.  Formed in 1942, they mainly operated in the Aveyron, Hérault and Pyrénées-Atlantiques.
Led by Commander Barot – a charismatic and decisive leader although he was not a career soldier – the Bir-Hakeim group undertook many acts of sabotage.  In mid-March 1944, when the scrutiny from the occupiers became unbearable, Barot negotiated with the existing maquis in the Cévennes to move his army (around 200 hundred men at that time) into the hills and valleys of Lozère.  Once there, Barot made concerted efforts to unite the disparate groups of the maquis within the area into his force.  On April 7th and 8th, 1944, the ‘biraquins’ as they were referred to locally, ambushed and annihilated a patrol of Feldgendarmerie.  This action triggered a massive response from the Waffen SS.  The maquisards managed to escape the encirclement and dispersed into the mountains.
Needing to regroup, Barot sets a rallying point on the Causse Méjean and puts plans in place to move his army towards Mende.  The trucks of the convoy were seen, warning messages were sent to Mende, and the occupying forces mobilised a counter-offensive.  On Sunday, May 28th (Whit Sunday), the attack by the occupiers surprised the maquisards.
Commander Barot was killed along with 34 of his men.  The others fled or surrendered and were taken prisoner.  The Gestapo had a dedicated interest in the men of Bir-Hakeim, and the 27 captured men were taken to Mende for interrogation.  On the morning of Monday, May 29th, the prisoners were loaded onto a truck and brought out to Col de la Tourette and executed.
As a reminder of that tragedy, all that remains is a stela beside the RN 88.  The front of the tall stone faces the road, but as I stand here watching the traffic, I wonder how many people actually know what it says or why it is here.  The translation is below.

so that you can live freely, in this ravine on the 29th of May, 1944, 27 maquisards from the group Bir Hakeim were tortured and shot after 33 of their comrades had been killed in battle at La Parade

It was late September when I visited, the workers at the oil refineries were on strike, garages had their forecourts closed off and the roads were quiet because fuel was so hard to come by.  Standing there on the Col, in the silence seemed the only appropriate thing to do...

There will be more about the locations in and around Mende that are used in my books in a couple of weeks.  In the meantime if you want to read more about the history of the city and the area, click Here

Tuesday, 25 October 2022

I'm Off My Beaten Track in Beni Hassan...

A nobleman on his boat, Beni Hassan
...and I'm picking up from where I left off in my last post.  I'm taking you to Beni Hassan...

Our boat, MS Nefertari, left the moorings during breakfast and continued upstream to Beni Hassan, sand banks permitting.  A leisurely morning with a leisurely breakfast, my book, and the passing scenery with fishermen and children to wave to as we floated past.
The tombs at Beni Hassan are hewn from the bedrock of the plateau that flanks each side of the river.  The boat moored on the western bank as the wind was too strong to tie up at the usual point.  This meant a trip across the river on the local ferry organised by the tour guide.  At 2.15 pm, the ferry pulled alongside and waited for everyone to board.
Some locals were already on the ferry, and the Ferryman spoke to them harshly and banished them to the back of his vessel.  Hardly the way to treat one's fellow compatriots and customers, I thought.  Moreover, I was sure we weren't really that important!
On reaching the other bank, it was a short walk to the face of the plateau and then a climb to the tombs.  I wasn't prepared for the walk.  The path took us through a tiny village with houses half mud brick and half red brick.  The children bombarded us with vigorous waves, some shouting their names and other little phrases in English that they had learned.  In this area, the schools are very poorly equipped, with even the most basic requirements challenging to obtain.
The Nile is the lifeblood of this country in more ways than one.  It irrigates the land and provides electricity for those that can afford it.  The river provides water for drinking and washing, and it brings us - decadent westerners and our foreign currency...

...again, we are guarded.  Local men from the village, who are caretakers for the tombs, escort us with rifles slung over their shoulders.
Beni Hassan is named after an Arab tribe that settled in the area in the ninth century AD.  Numerous ancient tombs are cut from the rock and date from around the 11th Dynasty.  In the second and third centuries, the burial chambers were lived in by the early Christians, and the original artwork suffered considerable damage.  Some of the tombs had survived and contained some beautiful frescoes: the militia training, making wine and bread and other scenes from everyday life.  One wall shows a nobleman in his chariot, protected by the hands of the sun god Ra, going into battle.  Most of the tombs are those of noblemen who governed the area about 4000 years ago.
After the warm, still air of the tombs, we venture out into the afternoon sun.  I can feel it burning into the skin of my arms, but the wind is a welcome relief, if only temporarily.  We return to the ferry for our trip across the river to the Nefertari...

... a rumour of a shipboard romance is going about, I learn over dinner.  I'm told that T— and C— have 'got together' on the cruise.  I look across at their table and think about my conversations with them.  Shipboard romance.  What rubbish!  It was painfully obvious to me that T— and C— have known each other for centuries!  One little surprise was the cake - made by the ship's chef - for T—'s birthday.  And each slice may have been small, but it was delicious!

This is the last post from my Egyptian journal for this year.  If you've enjoyed this post then you might like to read the earlier ones about Cairo  Giza  Solar Sailing and Egypt generally - just click the links.

Tuesday, 18 October 2022

Come stroll with me…

…through the city of Mende. Today I’m following in the footsteps of Jacques as he walks the streets of his home town to investigate his latest case, Mazargues...

The city of Mende, in the département of Lozère (48), has a long and varied history.  The city sits on the banks of the river Lot, and the earliest traces of habitation date from around 200 BC.  Although sparsely populated – around 12,000 inhabitants – the city is one of the five ‘gateways’ that lead into the vast causses of the Cévennes, a UNESCO world heritage site of more than 360 square miles.

The ancient heart of the city is dominated by the basilica, but if you look at a map, you will see the remnants of the ancient walls that once surrounded this old bastide town.  And that’s where I want to take you today.  These narrow streets wind through the city and intersect each other in tiny little squares.  Like, place Chaptal, for example, where I have Jacques mounting a one-man surveillance operation in search of a rogue market trader.
Place Chaptal sits to one side of the church, and until market days on Wednesday and Saturday, is just used for parking.  But there’s more to it than that.  At the back of the square is a monument to Jean-Antoine Chaptal.  Born in Nojaret (48) in 1756, he was the youngest son of local landowners.  He also had a rich uncle who was a prominent physician in Montpellier.  Chaptal did so well in his studies in Mende that his uncle was encouraged to finance his studies at the Medical School of the University of Montpellier.  Having achieved his medical degree, Jean-Antione asked his uncle to support him through a further four and a half years of study in medicine and chemistry in Paris.  His studies finally complete, Chaptal took up a salaried chair at Montpellier university in 1780.
He became a leading chemist and was instrumental in establishing in Montpellier one of the first modern chemical factories in the whole country.  By 1787, Montpellier had become a national centre for innovation in the production of chemicals.
In 1789, when the Revolution swept through Paris and across the country, Chaptal was initially supportive.  By 1793 he had changed his mind and stood in opposition.  He was arrested and imprisoned, but his value to the nation as an industrial chemist saved his head!
Following Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’état in November 1799 and the establishment of the Consulate, Chaptal found himself a new career as a statesman.  He was well-known and very well-connected.  After ten years of revolution and war, Chaptal’s skills and abilities in using science to make advancements in industry, agriculture, and commerce became invaluable to Bonaparte.  He was appointed to Bonaparte’s Council of State and then became his Minister of the Interior.  He remained in office until 1804.
Throughout his life, he wrote numerous books on science, the arts, and chemistry.  He is one of the 72 famous French scientists who have their names engraved on the Tour Eiffel in Paris, and he is remembered in various other locations as well as here in Mende.  He died in Paris in July 1832 and is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery.

And if you want to find out if Jacques finds his rogue market trader, then check out #Mazargues.  The sixth #JacquesForêt mystery is available to pre-order Here

Tuesday, 11 October 2022

I'm reviewing The Betrayal of Anne Frank...

... by Rosemary Sullivan

I picked up this book because I wanted it to sit with my other books about Anne, her diary, and the revised version of her diary.  To me, this young girl and her family, those they were in hiding with and those that helped and supported them, lived through some of the worst times in our recent history.
I was sceptical, at first, about how reliable or complete any information might be after eighty years and by the time I had got to the end of the book, I realised I was right to be so.
The team searching for the answer to the question the book poses were multi-skilled, multi-national and absolutely meticulous in undertaking their research.  That much is clear from the documents and archives accessed and referenced in the lengthy text.  But does the book answer the actual question on the cover? By the time I’d got to the end, I had to conclude that it only did so in part.
I believe it was Conan Doyle who gave to his most famous character, Sherlock Holmes, the tenet that ‘when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.’  The team working on this issue did look at everyone who might be the possible betrayer and, through research and evidence gathering from records, books, archives etc, eliminated them.  What remained then was not the truth, in my view, because the evidence did not support it. What remained was a conclusion that was based on a fair amount of supposition.
As I sit here and write this review, I’m in the shade of a substantial tree in one of my favourite places to visit in France.  I’m also accompanied by some of my friends from Holland, so I’ve had the chance to question their thoughts on the book, too.  It is interesting to note that in Holland, Anne and those who surrounded her are as well known there as they are in the UK.  It is also interesting to note that this book was withdrawn from sale in Holland because of a backlash of public opinion.
As an exposé of what life under the occupation was like in Holland, it is a fascinating examination of the documentary history, made even more interesting when it is set against the background of Holland’s neutrality at the outbreak of war.  The prose is beautifully written and reads more like a novel than an essay examining a particular piece of history.  On those points alone, I have to say that the book is to be recommended.
But does it answer the prime question?  In my view, not really.  Will we ever know the real answer to this question?  Very probably not.  Are we entitled to know the answer to this question?  This is a hard one to answer, but for me, I think that there are some things that are perhaps best left alone.  Whoever betrayed Anne and the others must have had a reason for doing so, but would you like to discover that it was your father or grandfather who did that?  Or someone else connected with your family or one of your ancestors?  I think there are times when sleeping dogs should be left to rest, and perhaps this was one of those very rare instances.

Tuesday, 4 October 2022

Albania: A Peaceful Country with a Troubled Past

I am delighted to welcome author and friend Helen Matthews to the blog today.  Helen, your book, Girl Out of Sight, is published today, and I believe this is the second edition of your prize-winning suspense thriller, After Leaving the Village, which was first published in 2017. The book was also endorsed by anti-slavery charity, Unseen UK, and won first prize in the opening pages of a novel category at Winchester Writers’ Festival.  It's set in Albania, so tell me more...

According to Border Force statistics, in summer 2022, a majority of economic migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats were found to be Albanians, lured by social media videos promising riches could be made in the UK.
My suspense thriller Girl Out of Sight, set some years earlier in 2016, tells the story of seventeen-year-old Odeta, who leaves her remote village in Albania with a man she believes is her boyfriend, dreaming of a new career in London. At the time I was researching the book, Albania was the top country of origin of trafficking victims to the UK (18% of all cases).
Albania isn’t prosperous, but it’s a peaceful country. Why would people want to leave? I can’t answer this because the society and culture are unknowable for an outsider. Could one of the clues be in Albania’s turbulent past when people were cut off from the modern world for many decades?
For my research, I visited Albania with my son, and the city of Berat was a highlight. Here’s what I discovered:

Berat ‘the city of a thousand windows’ could stand as a metaphor for Albania. Windows can be open or closed like the country’s recent history. Glass can be smashed, churches and monuments torn down – or they can be preserved. Berat’s cultural importance led to the city’s medieval churches, frescoes and historic mosques being largely spared from the atheism campaign under Albania’s communist leader, Enver Hoxha, who died in 1985.

A fortified castle dominates the hilltop, overlooking the modern town. Around two hundred people still live in stone houses enclosed by the citadel’s snaking walls. Eight churches have survived, some hard to detect as their simple facades blend in with surrounding houses, keeping them hidden in plain sight. One church has a mosaic floor and sixteenth century frescoes by Nikola Onufri, son of Albania’s greatest icon painter.
Completing a circuit of the walls and citadel means treading on layers of history – an eighteenth century church built on the foundations of a tenth century one. We visit the Onufri museum to see precious icons and frescoes, but our viewing is cut short by the arrival of the US ambassador. Burly guards take up surveillance positions and order us to shuffle along faster. No hard feelings, though - later on, we bump into the ambassador, leaving the Mangalemi restaurant as we arrive, and he courteously wishes us a good meal.
Berat earned its UNESCO world heritage listing for stunning, preserved Ottoman buildings in the Mangalem quarter. Clustered in rows on the hillside, they gleam white in the sunshine and sparkle when illuminated at night. Café terraces near the river overflow with customers, mainly men, sipping coffee, beer or raki. Families and couples stroll along the promenade. People seem relaxed and at ease.
It wasn’t always so. Back in the late twentieth century, Albania’s people were forced to withdraw from the world. Their communist leader, Enver Hoxha espoused an extreme form of Stalinism where religion was outlawed and people forbidden to travel abroad. Many scars from those times remain: a visible one scored into the side of Mount Shpirag overlooking Berat where, in 1968, the name ENVER was spelled out in rocks and painted white. Citizens couldn’t escape the sight of their leader’s name. When democracy was established in the 1990s, efforts were made to destroy the sign but the rocks proved resistant, even to dynamite. An attempt to burn off the lettering with a flame thrower killed two soldiers. The project was abandoned, waiting for nature to take its course, until a local man hit on the novel solution of switching the first two letters. Now the sign on the mountainside reads NEVER.
As I type these words, my spellchecker suggests I do the same: change ‘Enver’ to ‘never’. If only life were that simple!

about the book… Odeta’s life has shrunk to a daily round of drudgery, running her father’s grocery store in a remote Albanian village. One day, an enigmatic stranger from Tirana turns up, promising her an exciting career in London. Odeta’s life is about to change, but not in the way she expected.
Kate, a journalist, lives on a quiet London street, but her seemingly perfect life is filled with anxiety for her son, Ben. The boy is obsessed with online gaming but struggles to make friends. Kate sets out to create a simpler life for her family, disconnects them from the internet, and tries to build a community on her street.
On a visit to her home village in Wales, Kate is forced to confront a secret from her past. But even greater danger lies where she lives. Perhaps her neighbours are not the friendly community they seem at first glance…

about the author… Helen Matthews writes page-turning psychological suspense novels and is fascinated by the darker side of human nature and how a life can change in an instant. Suspense thriller Girl Out of Sight, a second edition of Winchester prize-winning novel After Leaving the Village comes out this October from Darkstroke Books. Recent novels published by Darkstroke Books are The Girl in the Van, finalist in the 2022 Pageturner Book Award, and Façade (family noir). Her other books include Lies Behind the Ruin and a collection of short stories Brief Encounters.
Born in Cardiff, Helen read English at the University of Liverpool and worked in international development, consultancy, human resources and pensions management. She fled corporate life to work freelance while studying for a Creative Writing MA at Oxford Brookes University. Her stories and flash fiction have been shortlisted and published by Flash 500, 1000K Story, Reflex Press, Artificium and Love Sunday magazine.
She is a keen cyclist, covering long distances if there aren’t any hills, sings in a choir and once appeared on stage at Carnegie Hall, New York in a multi-choir performance. She loves spending time in France. Helen is an Ambassador for the charity, Unseen, which works towards a world without slavery and donates her author talk fees, and a percentage of royalties, to the charity.

You can get the book Here

You can follow Helen on Amazon on her Website on Facebook Instagram and on Twitter

Tuesday, 27 September 2022

I'm Off My Beaten Track in Egypt...

Nile Valley from Beni Hassan
... and wandering through some of the villages close to the monuments.  I was more than halfway through my journey down the Nile when I took time to reflect on the sights and sounds of the places we'd been travelling through...


We left the temple, and a short walk back through the village took us to the coach. In some respects, this was almost as fascinating as the temples.  The village was a single road of no specific definition with other similar roads or tracks off it as was convenient.  On either side of the road were houses built of mud brick.  

Some were painted on the outside, some remained their original dark grey colour.  They were crammed together without any concern for level or height.  The roofs were draped with the drying leaves of cane, palm or maize.  On some houses, there were rugs and blankets hung over the edge, and in some instances, washing was strung across from one wall to another.  The chickens and geese were kept up on the roof.  It was in this space that the women worked grinding the maize and tending their hens and other livestock.

The windows of the houses were tiny and contained no glass.  The doors were old and seemed barely able to swing on their hinges.  As we walked past, children called to us, and women came to their windows to look out.  Then a camel laden with cotton plants appeared on the road in front of us.  It towered above me.  As I and the others stood aside, I realised that there was some order to the building after all.  The road was sufficiently wide enough for a fully laden camel and no more.

We all stood back to let the imperious creature through.  As I did so, I became aware of a door opening behind me.  I turned, and a woman peeked out from behind.  She smiled instantly.  I returned her smile and looked past her into the house.  It was dark and appeared to be completely empty, with the exception of a long bench that could have come from the Cairo museum.  Its design was so similar to those on display from the tombs.  She spoke.  I couldn't understand.  I smiled again and looked away to find everyone else had moved on.
Farmer and oxen at work

I turned back and waved goodbye.  She nodded, smiled and closed her door.  Despite her obvious poverty, she wanted nothing and offered only her welcome and sincerity.  Or at least that was how it appeared to me.

The camel gone, and the moment lost, I continued along the winding street to catch up with the others.  Girls were carrying water, children played, and men went about their business on donkeys whilst others stood on the street corners deep in conversation...

Later, back at the boat, I received a very polite 'telling off' from our guide.  It was made quite clear to me that I had to keep up with the whole group.  The reasons?  I was a tourist, but more importantly, as a single straggler, I suddenly became an unaccompanied female...

You can read more about my time in Egypt Cairo Giza and the Solar Boathouse by clicking the links.  There will be more from my Egyptian Journal next month...