Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Come stroll with me...

The town from within the cathedral
... through le Puy-en-Velay...

Le Puy is the préfecture city of the département of Haute-Loire (43).  With around 20,000 inhabitants and an area of just over 6 square miles, it is densely populated, but by UK standards, a relatively small city.  Sitting at an altitude of between 600 and 890m which is the equivalent of standing at the top of Esk Pike in the Lake District, the city overlooks the Loire which rises on Mont Gerbier de Jonc some 50 or 60 kilometres to the south-east.

Today, we're going to start with the cathedral Notre-Dame du Puy and the rue des Tables will take you to the foot of the steps leading up.  It's a steep climb on cobbles so you will need your four-wheel drive for feet!  Romanesque in style, there has been a church on this spot from as early as the 10th century, and it has been, and still is, an important site to pilgrims making their way on foot to Santiago de Compostela at a distance of 1600Km.  The church has some beautiful frescoes and paintings but it also contains a statue referred to as The Black Virgin.  Regrettably, this isn't the original which was destroyed during the revolution.  And before you make your way down into the old town, just check out the interesting geomorphology of the town.

Old Shop fronts
Famous for it's lace, since 1974 there has been a centre here in Le Puy to ensure that the practice of lace-making will never be lost.  There are some fabulous examples of old and modern lace in a number of exhibition rooms and you can find the museum just down from Place des Tables on rue Raphaël.  But I'm heading elsewhere, to the Tour Panessac which stands opposite the statue of the Marquis de Lafayette in the centre of boulevard Saint Louis.  What little remains of the 14th century tower was once the royal entrance to the city.  Partially demolished in 1850 to widen the street, this tower has welcomed Emperor Charlemagne and numerous other French kings making the pilgrimage to Santiago.  The last royal visit was that of Francis I in 1533.  If you continue along the boulevard, keeping the tower on your left you will be surprised, I hope, just as I was on my very first visit!

Pagès Distillery
Continue on the boulevard and past place de Breuil until you come to the old distillery of Pagès.  You can't miss the style and decoration on the building which is now a museum celebrating the history of Verveine, a liqueur that is flavoured with verbena and you can try some whilst you are there.  When you leave Pagès, make sure you take rue de Faurbourg and keeping the museum on your right continue along the street a little until you pass rue Sainte Claire on your left.  Then stop and look behind you.  There's yet another little surprise waiting for you!

Those are just a few of my favourite sites in this wonderful city.  Perhaps, with this tiny glimpse of Le Puy, you can understand why I chose to use it as a location in Merle.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

I'm reviewing 'The Unfree French'...

... by Richard Vinen

I came across this book by accident.  I was looking for something else but Amazon decided to tell me about it - this is something that usually annoys the hell out of me.  However, on this occasion, I am so glad the book giant did bring this tome to my attention.
Richard Vinen,  according to the acknowledgements at the front of the book, took a 'disgracefully long time' to create this treatise on France during the 39/45 war.  I'm very glad that he did.  Rather than rehashing and re-examining well known military history and strategies, he searched archives, scrutinised reports and read memoirs both published and unpublished.  As a result the source notes and bibliography are extensive.
This is not exactly a history book, in the usually accepted sense of the word, but it is a fascinating document that showcases how ordinary people lived and worked during the occupation of the northern half of France and the period of the Vichy government in the south.  The narrative voice is gentle and flows well and the detail keeps you turning the page. 
Beginning with the defeat of France in 1940 and the subsequent partition into occupied territory and Vichy, Vinen presents some startling statistics - startling to me anyway!  Two million French soldiers were taken prisoner and 6 million civilians left their homes and joined convoys of people and refugees trying to escape their own homeland.
Set against the enormity of that, the author brings to life the agonising choices ordinary people had to make.  He explores what it was like to live in towns and villages that had been emptied of young men who were either Prisoners of War or who had been conscripted to work for the Reich in Germany.  He then zeros in on individuals.  For example, Louis Althusser, POW, who claimed that after 'altering his papers' he was able to make himself available for repatriation.  Léo Malet used his experiences as a POW to create a fictional detective who began his career in a camp that closely resembled the Stalag where the author had been incarcerated.  And then there are the stories of the women left behind and in particular, the actions of some Parisian gentiles who wore yellow stars.
What I found especially interesting was the way Vinen was able to chart the changes in attitude and opinion of the ordinary people of France during an especially difficult time in their history along with the detail of lives lived, judgements that were constantly questioned and decisions that were agonised over.  The introduction I found a little tedious but the opportunity to look at, almost spy upon, that period of French history far outweighed my initial and very short-lived discomfort.  A fascinating read that I feel sure I will come back to again and again.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Come stroll with me

Basilica in Place Urbain V
...through the city of Mende.  But, before we set off, I probably need to supply a few facts and a bit of history.

Sitting on the southern edge of the Massif Central, Mende is the préfecture – principal administrative city - for the département of Lozère in the recently-formed Occitanie region of France.  With a population of around 12,000 and an area of 14 square miles, the town sits in the high valley of the Lot about 30k due west of Mont Goulet and the source of the river.  At an altitude of 700m, living here is bit like living near the top of Cross Fell in the Pennines, but with better weather.

There has been habitation on this spot for over 2,000 years and the history is varied and complex.  Raided and sacked on numerous occasions – not least during the Religious Wars - Mende has survived to be the prominent town that it is, centred around it’s old medieval foundations with the modern city surrounding it.  In the middle ages, Mende became a centre of culture and civilisation, a focal point for trade, art and craftsmen with a notoriety that stretched as far north as the cities of Moulins and Vichy.

We begin our visit in Place Urbain V with a look at the cathedral.  The Basilica of Notre-Dame-et-St-Privat is striking because of its mismatched towers.  Begun in the 14th Century, under the auspices of the then Pope Urbain V, the cathedral was partially destroyed during the Religious Wars of the 16th Century – hence the odd towers.  The original bell ‘Non Pareille’, then the largest bell ever to have been cast, was melted down for bullets so that Capitaine Mathieu Merle and his Huguenot soldiers could continue the fight.  With more than 10 interior chapels, Aubusson tapestries in rainbow colours and the detailed vaulting, this is a truly magnificent example of the changing architecture over the centuries.

Old streets of Mende
Out in the sunshine again and we are going to take a right, past the préfecture building – more of that later – into the narrow streets of the old medieval town.  With houses of three and four stories high, so close that neighbours could almost shake hands above the cobbles as they reach out of their open windows, the shade is welcome and necessary in the mid-day heat.  This part of the city became the home to hundreds of Jewish traders and remained their domain right up until the 20th century.  And it is one of these streets that I will be using as the location for a business for one of my characters in my next novel.

Tour des Pénitents
If you follow me into the bright white heat of Place au Blé you will see one of the vestiges of the old fortifications of the town – Tour des Pénitents.  Originally constructed in the 12th century and then rebuilt after the Hundred Year’s War, it survived the deliberate destruction of all of the ramparts in 1768.  In 1721, the plague moved rapidly north from Marseille to Mende and took the lives of over 1,000 people in little more than a year.  The subsequent tearing down of the city walls was instituted as a health measure to enable fresh air to blow into the town.

From here it’s a short walk along rue de l’Abbaye to the préfecture building, which stands magnificently beside the cathedral.  It was in this building, during the 1939/45 war that the Mayor at the time, Henri Bourrillon, defied the Vichy regime.  Bourrillon objected to the internment camp that was built close to the town and, his words, actions and further objections caused him to be removed from his position of authority in 1941.  Henri took this in his stride and joined the Resistance and Mende, and some of its bravest people, took on a new role in support of the Jewish community within the city.

And the city of Mende features in both of my books, Messandrierre and Merle

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Merle, released today...

I will be signing books at 
Doncaster Little Theatre from 2.00pm 
and Cast in Doncaster from 7.00pm
I will be joined by Stephanie Cage and Sheila North.
Come and meet us and listen to some snippets from our books, enjoy some treats from France and toast the birth of book 2 in my Jacques Forêt series of mystery stories.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

I'm celebrating American Independence Day...

... with one of my favourite authors, Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Born on this day in 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, he is mostly remembered for his novel The Scarlet Letter, but he wrote so much more than that.  Just for today, here are a few extracts from some of my favourite books and stories of his.

So, said Hester Prynne, and glanced her sad eyes downward at the scarlet letter.  And, after many, many years a new grave was delved, near an old and sunken one, in that burial-ground beside which King's Chapel has since been built.  It was near that old sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle.  Yet one tombstone served for both.  All around, there were monuments carved with armorial bearings; and on this simple slab of slate - as the curious investigator may still discern, and perplex himself with the purport - appeared the semblance of an engraved escutcheon.  It bore a device, a herald's wording of which might serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so sombre is it, and relieved only by one ever-growing point of light gloomier than the shadow :

On a field, sable
The letter A, gules
The Scarlet Letter.

"Why, if you will believe me, there was a small figure of a girl , dressed all in white, with rose-tinged cheeks and ringlets of golden hue, playing about the garden with the two children."
A stranger though she was, the child seemed to be on as familiar terms with Violet and Peony, and they with her, as if all the three had been playmates during the whole of their little lives.... There was certainly something very singular in the aspect of the little stranger.  Of all the children in the neighbourhood, the lady could remember no such face, with its pure white, and delicate rose colour, and the golden ringlets tossing about the forehead and cheeks.  And as for her dress, which was entirely of white, and fluttering in the breeze, it was such as no reasonable woman would put upon a little girl, when sending her out to play, in the depth of winter. It made this kind and careful mother shiver only to look at those small feet, with nothing in the world on them, except a very thin  pair of white slippers. Nevertheless, airily as she was clad, the child seemed to feel not the slightest inconvenience from the cold, but danced so lightly over the snow that the tips of her toes left hardly a print in its surface... 
The Snow Image, published in Philadelphia, 1907

I'm a collector of books and when they have a history, they are all the more interesting!  Published in 1899 in New York, my copy of 'The Blithedale Romance' moved from the hands of Mr and Mrs F H Russell with their compliments to an unknown owner on February 22nd, 1902. Subsequently it found its way into 'The  W. G. Library' in 1949, and from there it moved to the ownership of an Erwin B Carter of Orr, Minnesota.  Somewhere between Minnesota and my bookshelf it languished in a bookstore in the US until I rescued it.  And here's a favourite little piece from that story...

... I perceive, moreover, that the confession, brief as it shall be, will throw a gleam of light over my behaviour throughout the foregoing incidents, and is, indeed, essential to the full understanding of my story.  The reader, therefore, since I have disclosed so much, is entitled to this one word more.  As I write it, he will charitably suppose me to blush, and turn away my face : -
I-I myself-was in love...

Miles Coverdale's confession 
The Blithedale Romance

Friday, 23 June 2017

I'm reviewing 'Letting Go' ...

... by Maria Thompson Corley

I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria earlier in the year and you can read the resulting post here.  As a result of that interview, Maria sent me a free copy of her story in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Letting Go is essentially a romance – which is not my usual choice of book to read.  However, I’m always open to reading outside my usual genres.  The story is primarily told from Cecile’s point of view, the female lead character.  I really liked her.  She’s driven, ambitious, and where her feelings are concerned, like most of us, confused at times.  I liked her sense of humour and humour is something that can be difficult to put across – but not in this case.  She’s a really well drawn character and I found I was able to identify with her from the outset.

Langston, the male lead character, is also fascinating.  Unfortunately, he is from the ‘wrong part of town’.  So, the well-run conflict of different class is here to be explored, and Maria pulls this off.  It’s hard to bring new life and energy to an issue that we are all familiar with, but Maria has done just that and at no time did I find myself thinking that I’d heard it all before.

During the course of the story there are other familiar issues that are explored, racism, family loyalty, personal ambitions.  All of which are handled sensitively and the points being well, and subtly made.  At no time did I feel lectured and there were moments when I did put the book down so that I could consider the issue raised.  And in my view, that’s a bonus if an author can cause you to do that with a book.

Overall, I enjoyed the story immensely.  The chemistry between the central characters is there and fair sizzles on the page!  The narrative voice is easy and carries you along throughout.  However, Maria also uses diary entries, letters and emails to tell the story.  At first, I found that this caused the pace of the novel to drop, but further into the story I had stopped noticing that – my interest in the individual points of view became much more paramount.  There are musical references throughout, which I found interesting but, when I got to the end I did wonder if it might have been a bit too much.  My only other misgiving on reaching the end, was that I thought the book was overly long. 

Despite the minor gripes above, I think this is great book, entertaining, thought-provoking and a thoroughly enjoyable read and it has certainly earned its star rating.

You can find Maria's book on Amazon

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Please welcome, friend and author...

...Eli Carros.  Thanks for taking time out from your busy schedule to be on my blog today, Eli. Book launches are intensive, to say the least! So, let's get to the questions and what is your current release?
EC   The Watcher, my debut crime thriller, releases on June 21st by Crooked Cat Books.  It’s a dark, twisted, psychological thriller that takes you right into the mind of a psychopath, and shows how he became the way he became. 
It’s a novel about sexual obsession, emotional abuse, and vengeance, and if you like a book that keeps you guessing right until the end, you might enjoy this one.  When I was writing this book I attempted to answer a question that I had often wondered about, which is, are psychopaths born or are they made?

AW   What first got you into writing and why?
EC   I’ve always told stories, even before I actually started writing anything down.  My English teacher at High School was absolutely fantastic, he really made books come alive whenever we used to discuss and dissect them.
The way he read ‘Lord of The Flies’ was magnificent, and even to this day, it’s one of my favourite books.  I wish I could have the insight and the perception of writer’s like William Golding.
AW   Me too! I really love his work and my collection of first editions of his books sits right where I can reach them from my desk so I can have a quick fix of Golding prose wherever I need one.
EC   If I had to pick a tipping point, where I absolutely knew I had to write, it was probably when I was studying Journalism, and got my first taste as a professional writer, as an intern at the Daily Mirror.  Though I wasn’t writing fiction, the experience really convinced me that I wanted to make a job out of this profession of words, so I became a professional copywriter, then, a couple of years later, after dabbling a bit, decided to write a novel.
I procrastinated for ages first though, and wish I hadn’t waited so long. 

AW  You write crime thrillers.  Is it all imagination or do you also undertake research?
EC   I do undertake some research yes, for certain little details pertaining to correct police procedure etc…  However, my book is not a standard police procedural by any means, more a psychological exploration of a deviant and malignant mind, so I gave myself a hefty dose of artistic license with it too.
I did do another kind of research too, because I actually lived in London while writing ‘The Watcher’, and the book is set there.  So I went to a lot of the places that inspired scenes in the book, to get a real feel for the atmosphere.  One of the café scenes in the novel was actually written in Patisserie Valerie in Old Compton Street, Soho.
AW  I know it well!
EC   I find London very inspiring in general, some people don’t like it I know, but I love all the bustle and life. 

Cover Art for Eli's book
AW  And what about other types of writing?  Have you ever dabbled with short stories, for instance, or other genres?
EC   I wrote short stories and novellas before I ever wrote a full-length novel actually, I have quite a few of them now, sitting on my computer, unpublished.  I never tried to publish any of them, I don’t really know why, I suppose I didn’t really know what to do with them.  They are in all kinds of genres, as short form is a great way to experiment, isn’t it?
AW   Absolutely!
EC   I have post-apocalyptic, horror, crime, all sorts.  Readers can try three of my darker shorts if they like as I’m giving them away if you’d like to join my mailing list.

AW  Famous authors, such as Roald Dahl and Dylan Thomas, had a special space for writing.  Do you have a writing ‘shed’ of your own?
EC   Honestly, no, I usually do it wherever I can find the time in the nearest comfortable place.  I do like a glass of wine to get me into the zone while I write, though I have to be careful how much, as contrary to the popular myth that writers are all gin soaked, becoming too inebriated actually really impairs your work.

AW  Finally, if you had a whole afternoon to yourself and could choose to spend it with any one individual, living or dead or a character from a book, who would it be, and what would you want to discuss?
EC   It would have to be Kurt Cobain, the late front man of the rock group Nirvana, to ask him what inspired his music and to find out what truly happened, was it murder, or suicide?

A mysterious Eli Carros!
...about the author... Eli Carros is a crime fiction and thriller author from London, England.  His debut novel, 'The Watcher', was inspired by London, and by what can happen when sexual obsession, violence, emotional neglect, and madness collide.  It takes you behind the eyes of a murderous stalker with a secret past, and into the mind of the harried detective who must stop him. 
Eli loves reading crime, fantasy, and mystery suspense, and is an ardent admirer of authors Steven King, Mark Billingham, Harlan Coben, and Patricia Cornwell.
A strong supporter of causes that promote equality for all, in his spare time Eli loves sailing, camping, hiking, and sketching, and detests getting up in the morning without a strong percolated coffee.
Stay updated on Eli Carros’s latest author news, release info, and promotions on his website or on Facebook and link up with him on Twitter