Friday Fun: It’s Those Chateaux Again!

Yes, I know I said there were some beautiful palaces all over Europe (and I haven’t even gone to other continents – that’s a thought for future posts!). But I still dream of that perfect little chateau somewhere in France… Perhaps because there are so many of them to choose from, something for every taste.

Chateau in Bergerac, of modest proportions. From Angloinfo Property website.
Chateau in Bergerac, of modest proportions. From Angloinfo Property website.
I can never resist a beautiful staircase, such as in this chateau in Aveyron.
I can never resist a beautiful staircase, such as in this chateau in Aveyron.
Another chateau in the same area, this one for doer-uppers, from excellentissimmo.com
Another chateau in the same area, this one for doer-uppers, from excellentissimmo.com
In the heart of Cognac country, from groupemercure.fr
In the heart of Cognac country, from groupemercure.fr
Another one ripe for renovation, Chateau de la Rochette, from Chateaux en France website.
Another one ripe for renovation, Chateau de la Rochette, from Chateaux en France website.
This one in Normandy seems to have an endless variety of wings, from Vitruve Associes website.
This one in Normandy reminds me of Windsor Castle, from Vitruve Associes website.
Nothing like a large conservatory for reading, like in this chateau near Tours, from masterhomes.net
Nothing like a large conservatory for reading, like in this chateau near Tours, from masterhomes.net

 

Emma Kavanagh: The Missing Hours – Review

missinghoursThis was a very good companion on a sleepless night. It’s a police procedural (a nice change to psychological thrillers, which seem to be mushrooming all over the crime fiction landscape at the moment). Yet it also introduces  readers to the lesser known world of K&R (kidnap and ransom) specialists, a growth industry in various parts of the world. People are kidnapped for profit, the insurance brokers and corporates step in and hire experts who will negotiate a good price and a speedy (sometimes not all that speedy) release.

Selena Cole and her husband own such a boutique business, but after her husband’s death in a bomb blast in Brazil a year ago, she has stepped back a little from the helm, leaving her sister-in-law and her husband to take care of affairs. But then one day she simply disappears from the playground, leaving her young daughters to fend for themselves. Very uncharacteristic of her, so friends and family fear the worst. She is found twenty hours later, but has no memory of what happened during those ‘missing hours’. A murder occurred during this period: is it possible that Selena was involved in any way?

Another innovation in this novel is that the investigating team feature a brother and sister couple of detectives, which allows us to see events and the people involved from two distinct but sympathetic points of view. Leah Mackay, mother of twin girls, identifies almost too much with Selena and starts to see links to the case everywhere she goes. Meanwhile, her younger brother Finn is more interested in the murder case, but sometimes allows his own emotions and judgements to take over. The interaction between the two siblings was fun and realistic: it was refreshing to see two partners who are supportive rather than antagonistic, but still able to laugh at each other, without a trace of forelock-tugging.

The author is a trained psychologist, but she does not drown the reader in excessive detail. Instead, she has developed an elegant, pared down way of describing thought processes and reactions, telescoping them over a long period of time.

And then life moved on, and somehow, without me knowing it, I got whipped into pregnancy and babies and a family and home, and yet still I am held hostage, there on that cold kitchen floor, holding a bottle of Rioja, wanting to die.

Some readers have objected to the introduction of the kidnap and ransom case files which are interspersed throughout the book. They felt that they interrupted the flow of the story. I actually quite liked them, it felt a bit more experimental and a nice change from the ‘perspective of the serial killer’ chapter so prevalent in many recent books. They introduced a matter of fact, non-emotional reporting element, which upped the ante, making us aware of the globalisation of crime.

 

Poetry Immersion in Geneva

What a delight it was to be back in Geneva this past weekend and plunge into the refreshing, healing power of poetry!

Lac Leman on a typical November day...
Lac Leman on a typical November day…

I attended a poetry workshop and masterclass organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group, with guest instructor Laura Kasischke. I’d read and admired Laura’s poetry and novels and was very keen to hear her in person. The workshop was everything I had hoped for and more and you can see some of my initial impressions of it on the GWG blog.

Prose can not quite do it justice, so instead I will attempt a confetti of poetic impressions, like petals gathered from the quotations, ideas and timed writing exercises we listened to over the course of these two days.

Laura Kasischke at Payot Rive.
Laura Kasischke at Payot Rive.

You can’t create compassion with compassion, or emotion with emotion
where is the body, where are your senses?
I have no way to express this in words
so I just sit down with a pen and try to find the words
it’s the very essence of being
but it has to use the language of shared experience

The recipe for writing a poem?
It’s simple.
Nothing to do with subject matter.
It comes from somewhere else, as if your mind
and pen is seized by someone
the poem was coming to him
although he had yet to hear the words
he knew it was already written

wp_20161120_12_55_16_proSharp edges she slices to
control the slopes
feel the reassuring bite
and crunch of bones and dreams beneath her

poetic and creative insights come not haphazardly
but only in those areas in which we are intensively
committed
on which we concentrate our waking, conscious experience

wp_20161120_16_55_21_proa writer who means to outlive the useful rages
and despairs of youth
must somehow learn to endure
the desert of writer’s block

Nothing was in the mind that was not first in the senses.
When our mind is actively thinking about one thing,
we can be writing about something far more interesting
unawares
I throw a lot of stuff away
better start from scratch then spend too many years
on a mediocre poem

wp_20161122_12_51_49_proThere’s plenty more where that came from

The time-maker, the eye-maker, the voice-maker, the maker
of stars, of space, of comic surprises
bent together
over the future

I’d rather be a restaurant that is not to everyone’s liking
than the lowest common denominator
of McDonald’s.

wp_20161121_15_21_29_pro

Friday Fun: Not Only Chateau in France

There are other countries that have beautiful chateaux, you know, even though they may call them Schloss, vár, palat, hrad and so on. Here are a few lesser-known favourites, some of which may even be for sale.

Austrian Schloss in Kärnten for sale, from immowelt.at
Austrian Schloss in Kärnten for sale, from immowelt.at
Or this Baroque splendour in Bavaria, from Schlossburgverkauf.de
Or you might prefer to fork out for this Baroque splendour in Bavaria, from Schlossburgverkauf.de
This Schloss near Dresden has been largely renovated already. Ready to move into! From schlossburgverkauf.de
This Schloss near Dresden has been largely renovated already. Ready to move into! From schlossburgverkauf.de
This Hungarian property is a bit of a doer-upper - you can really put your mark on it! From casa-mia.at
This Hungarian property is a bit of a doer-upper – you can really put your mark on it! From casa-mia.at
This beauty in Slovakia is not for sale - perhaps because it is rumoured to have ghosts? From allwomenstalk.com
This beauty in Slovakia is not for sale – perhaps because it is rumoured to have ghosts? From allwomenstalk.com
You may want to go further back in history and get a medieval Tuscan tower in Pienza, from romoliniimobiliare.com
You may want to go further back in history and get a medieval Tuscan tower in Pienza, from romoliniimobiliare.com
Although, if you like towers, this Thuringian castle is also worth considering. From Schlossburgverkauf.de
Although, if you like towers, this Thuringian castle is also worth considering. From Schlossburgverkauf.de
Palatul Mogosoaia- a more modest affair just outside Bucharest - you can only have your wedding here, not buy it. From zambetsisanatate.ro
Palatul Mogosoaia- a more modest affair just outside Bucharest – you can only have your wedding here, not buy it. From zambetsisanatate.ro
Pakatul Cotroceni is the White House I prefer - official residence of the Romanian president, formerly a royal palace (and a monastery before that). From presidency.ro
Pakatul Cotroceni is the White House I prefer – official residence of the Romanian president, formerly a royal palace (and a monastery before that). From presidency.ro

More Memories of Provence, with Inspirational Quotes

I’m still milking all those lovely pictures that I took during my five days in Provence. I was going to say that this is because ‘I don’t get out much’, but I think I may have complained in the past about my work involving too much travel, so it won’t be plausible. Also, I seem to be attending an awful lot of cultural events since moving back to the UK.

So my only excuse is: it’s the misery of November, we’ve got to compensate somehow. You can see why artists are so attracted to that region – the lights and colours are unbelievable (all are taken without any filters, simply with my phone, which sometimes suffers in poor light conditions).

A welcoming front door...
A welcoming front door…
A house gleaming in the afternoon sun...
A house gleaming in the afternoon sun…
A room with an autumnal view...
A room with an autumnal view…

I didn’t mind the gloomy weather – besides, the Luberon needed some rain after an exceptionally dry summer. I just curled up in my cosy room and read and wrote. One of the books I stumbled across was Hugh Prather’s Notes to Myself. The author was a counsellor and lay minister, who wrote this slim volume of New Age/Christian wisdom, aphorisms, inspirational thoughts, which became a huge hit in the 1970s. It perfectly captured the spirit of the time.

I cannot ‘make my mark’ for all time. Nothing will have meaning ultimately. Nothing will even mean tomorrow what it did today. Meaning changes with the context. It is enough that I am of value to someone today. It is enough that I make a difference now.

A place for the weary of heart to rest and write both indoors...
A place for the weary of heart to rest and write…

Why do I judge my day by how much I have ‘accomplished’? I am holding this cat in my arms so it can sleep, and what more is there. [This consoled me as I realised that I would not finish my first draft.]

... and read tons of poetry, both indoors...
… and read tons of poetry, both indoors.

Perfectionism is slow death, If everything were to turn out just like I would want it to, just like I would plan for it to, then I would never experience anything new; my life would be an endless repetition of stale successes. When I make a mistake, I experience something unexpected.

... and outdoors.
… and outdoors.
A faithful friend to keep you company...
A faithful friend to keep you company…

A sure way for me to have a disastrous experience is to do something because ‘it will be good for me.’

... a fellow creative in her atelier to inspire you...
… a fellow creative in her atelier to inspire you…

There may be a natural, healthy kind of fear, but the fear I don’t like and want not the obey is the fear that urges me to act contrary to my own feelings or to act before I know what my feeling are. It is usually a fear of displeasing other people.

Interesting little houses to explore...
Interesting little houses to explore…
Lavender fields (subdued in their winter sleep)
Lavender fields (subdued in their winter sleep)

If the desire to write is not accompanied by actual writing, then the desire is not to write. Standing before the refrigerator. If I have to ask myself if I’m hungry, I’m not. [Ouch! This one stung a little!]

Quirky window decorations...
Quirky window decorations…

If someone criticizes me I am not any less because of that. It is not a criticism of me but critical thinking from him.. He is expressing his thoughts and feelings, not my being. Before, I thought I was actually fighting for my own self-worth, that is why I so desperately wanted people to like me. I thought their liking me was a comment on me, but it was a comment on them.

Another door, another paradise awaits
Another door, another paradise awaits

 

 

Escapist Reading Mini Reviews – and One That’s Not

I’m never going to catch up on all of my reviewing, so here is a brave and brief snapshot of some recent reading. All of the below are quite engrossing and make for good escapist literature (entertaining but not ‘light and cosy’ reading). Except the last one, as you’ll see.

magpieAnthony Horowitz: Magpie Murders

Horowitz is amazingly prolific (he cites Charles Dickens as an influence, so it’s not surprising), but in this book he gives us a bit of a bargain: two mysteries for the price of one. We start out with a classic Golden Age-type mystery written by recently deceased author Alan Conway but set in sleepy 1950s English villages, featuring his much-loved detective Atticus Pund. Any similarities to a certain Belgian detective with a moustache and hyperactive grey cells are entirely deliberate and Horowitz is clearly having enormous fun playing around with the tropes of the genre (and also showing us the weaknesses of Conway’s writing). However, just as Pund is about to assemble all the suspects and tell them who the murderer is, the manuscript ends and Conway’s editor Susan Ryeland has to find the rest of the story. And of course uncovers much more in the course of things, because it appears that this last manuscript contains many secret codes and messages and point to a real-life murderer. Much mocking of the publishing world and literary egos ensues.

For sheer unadulterated fun, great imagination and verve of storytelling, few can match Horowitz. He’s a great favourite with my boys, of course, but I’ve also enjoyed his versatility as a scriptwriter (Foyle’s War is a particular favourite). I’ve not read his Sherlock Holmes series yet, but I know he can echo and then subvert existing crime fiction styles and themes: James Bond in Alex Rider, Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett in The Diamond Brothers, and now Agatha Christie.

schollAnja Reich-Osang: The Scholl Case (transl. Imogen Taylor)

For anyone familiar with German history, the name Scholl evokes the brother and sister Scholl who dared to confront Nazi ideology back in the 1930s and were executed for their efforts. This book has nothing to do with them, but it’s what made me request it from Netgalley. Long live misunderstandings and serendipity!

What it does instead is present the real-life case of the 2011 murder of a 67-year-old woman in Ludwigsfelde, a small town just outside Berlin. The victim was Brigitte Scholl, wife of former mayor Heinrich Scholl, regarded as one of the most successful local politicians of East Germany after the reunification. At first, there were rumours that Brigitte was raped and killed by a serial killer, but a few weeks later her husband was arrested, pronounced guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. To this day, he pleads not guilty and German journalist Anja Reich-Osang examines the evidence in this factual recount of events.

There is no miscarriage of justice here, no spectacular revelations, just a chronological examination of two egocentric main characters and a thorough analysis of a long and difficult marriage. Despite the rather dry style and the often conflicting statements from friends and relatives, the events themselves are sensational enough to make this a compelling read. It’s also impossible not to see the sudden rush to a free market economy as a contributing factor in this domestic tragedy.

essexSarah Perry: The Essex Serpent

I’ve been keen to read this one ever since it came out and I heard so many reviewers raving about it. I’m not all that keen on historical fiction nowadays, but I was sucked into the story and atmosphere right from the beginning. There is something so beguiling about settling down with a proper, old-fashioned tale of wonder, mystery and subverting of clichés about Victorian life. There are also some great characters to sink your teeth into, each one of them interesting in its own right, none of them two-dimensional, even if they only have the briefest of  appearances. I didn’t personally warm too much to Cora and Will, the traumatised widow and the questioning vicar, although I appreciated the complex relationship between them, a marriage of true minds rather than lust. However, I was intrigued by Cora’s son, Will’s wife and the surgeon Luke Garrett. The atmosphere of menace, the sense of doom and waiting for the curse of the serpent to strike the village is so well conveyed.

It felt like a rich medieval tapestry to me (very much in keeping with the beautiful cover): flamboyant, easy on the eye (readable), full of poetry and grace, but not quite providing enough insulation for the bare stone walls. The ending felt as if the author had run out of ideas, rushed and yet repetitive. So, a wonderful premise and world-building in the first half of the book, but a bit of a drag and a disappointment in the last few chapters.

publiclibraryAli Smith: Public Library and Other Stories

Not really a collection of stories (although it does contain some fiction), more of a love ode to the power of reading and of public libraries. Certainly something with which all book lovers will concur, and she talks with authors and librarians about what reading means to them and why libraries are important. So it does have the feel of a specially commissioned work. Yet the stories are wacky, dream-like, written in an off-kilter tone which will surprise you, interspersed with personal anecdotes. There is the story of a man who can simply not understand his ex-wife’s love of books, until he too falls under the spell of Katherine Mansfield. The life story of an obscure Scottish poet Olive Fraser. What happened to the ashes of DH Lawrence. The woman who starts growing a tree out of her chest. Uneven, odd, but a great book to dip in and out of, and allow oneself to be surprised – much like in a library.

suspiciousLaura Kasischke: Suspicious River

This was the book I was reading the night I was following the results of the American election and I wouldn’t recommend it as the best escapist fiction. In fact, it shows depressed, hopeless small-town America (a town called Suspicious River) in all its grey drabness, male sexual predatory behaviour and women’s collusion to it in grimly plausible detail. At any other time, perhaps, I would have appreciated the disturbing poetic style (which contrasts so much with the bleak storyline), but on this occasion it went over my head. Admittedly, the poetic descriptions and metaphors did try a bit too hard on occasion, but it’s worth remembering that this was the debut novel by a confirmed poet.

Leila is a young married woman, working as a motel receptionist and dabbling in prostitution with the male clients checking in. Flashbacks to her childhood, her glamorous mother carrying on with her father’s brother behind his back, her mother’s sudden death and all the neglect which followed, explain to a certain extent Leila’s strange apathy and seeking out of painful experiences. A very troubling book, because of its subject matter and the cold way in which Leila seems to depersonalise her experiences and almost invite bad things into her life. So save this one for when you have a very strong stomach, or when you have got over the pain of the American election results.

Still, I enjoy Kasischke’s poetry and was really impressed by her more recent novel Mind of Winter, so I will continue to seek out her work. I will also be attending a poetry masterclass with her this coming weekend, so wish me luck!

 

Poem about understanding other cultures

Or real curiosity and sympathy and trying to listen to other cultures, subcultures, minorities, humans who have different opinions to us. I still remember with a shudder the businessman I met at a networking meeting in 2009 or so, who said: ‘What’s the need for any cross-cultural awareness training? We all travel nowadays!’

Romanian tradition to welcome your guests with bread and salt. From doxologia.ro
Romanian tradition to welcome your guests with bread and salt. From doxologia.ro

Let Me Help

Your hands pick up, put down, in gestures trained,

your lip curls where a dimple was once placed.

You ignore the salt, the braided bread my family

hands out on a platter.

You wash down their fulsome questions with

my uncles’s plum brandy,

solemnly incline your head, so we can

appreciate your importance

your Western ways.

Let me help you move that suitcase

out of my life

but not too far

not next door

with their political leanings

and teeth of alabaster.