Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Post India

My apologies for not having posted last Wednesday for reasons related to travel. I was on my way to India, from where I returned last night to Iceland only to leave home this morning for Oslo. I now sit there in a hotel room, my body in some time zone that does not exist - at least not in India, Iceland or Norway.

The affair in India was a crime fiction seminar called "body of Evidence" organised by St. Steven's College of the University of Delhi. It was very well done and the academic speakers were all much smarter and more eloquent than yours truly.

India is an amazing country, the ads on CNN promoting "Incredible India" (do you hear the accompanying jingle?) are 100% true. It is so unlike Europe or the States that it is hard to come up with a society that would be more different unless one imagined a country underwater. On this trip I did not venture out of Delhi but some years ago we did the golden triangle tour which gives you a better glimpse of the beauty and variety the country has to offer.

There are so many people in Delhi that the whole population of Iceland often passed us by on one single bus. How the system works is beyond me and I would assume this is the closest resemblance to anarchy that one would be able to find among functioning nations. It is probably only due to the wonderful attitude and outlook of the Indian people that the system or lack thereof does not bring everything crumbling down.

The only annoying thing were the rickshaw (small three wheel taxis) drivers that never took you where you wanted to go, instead driving tourists to stores run by their relatives or places that paid them a percentage of what you purchased. Very, very annoying and me and my husband once ended up walking after three failed attempts to be driven to a government controlled bazar that paid no one any bonus for sending buyers their way.

But the food is wonderful, the history amazing and the people both beautiful and kind. Poverty is however very prominent and if there had been a remote possibility I could get away with it I would have stolen or purchased a small little girl that sat with her mother on the side of the road, tiny tears leaving clean streaks on her otherwise dusty cheeks. But there are other ways of helping aside from stealing children.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

those Knight Templar Towers and German air shelters

Can you guess what these photos have in common?
A remnant of a Knights Templar tower tucked in a courtyard in the Marais

The worn Latin inscription on the stone floor of the Conservatoire d'Arts et Metiers

A leftover air raid shelter exit for the German army under a hotel in the Marais.
What do they all have in common besides being in the Marais?
They're each in a scene in my new book. I worked some considerable charm making painstaking revisits to obtain permission, sometimes, to get into these places. Some angry Polish workman and aloof hotel clerks might not agree. My apologies but voilà
they appear in

which comes out a week from today on March 6!
Cara - Tuesday

Monday, February 27, 2012

Guest Author Junying Kirk

Our guest author this week is Junying Kirk.

She grew up in the turbulent times of the Cultural Revolution and came from China to Britain in 1982, on a scholarship, to study English Language Teaching at Warwick University.

Later, she took postgraduate degrees at Glasgow and Leeds. She has worked as an academic, administrator, researcher, teacher and cultural consultant. When she is not travelling to Courts & Police stations as a professional interpreter, she loves spending her time reading & writing books.

The first two novels of her 'Journey to the West' trilogy, 'The Same Moon' and 'Trials of Life' have been published on Amazon Kindle, and on Smashwords. She is now writing her third,scheduled to be released later this year. She lives in Birmingham, England, with her husband.

Here's Junying:

Heavenly Kingdom Sichuan 天府之国四川

I’m a spice girl.
No, not one of those Spice Girls, one of whom married David Beckham.

I’m one of the original spice girls, one of the millions of women from Sichuan (川妹子 in Chinese. Spell it Szechuan, if you like) who are natives of the province, and who, in China, are called by that nickname.

We’re considered to be virtuous, hardworking and tough.
And not only in China, where we’re famous.
See, here, what Bertolt Brecht had to say: 

Whenever my husband boasts that he married a spice girl, Chinese people tend to give him a slap on the back and a compliment, because my home province has a great deal more to offer than just its women.

Mount Emei (峨嵋山), for example. At 3099 metres, it’s the highest of the four Buddhist Mountains in China,  and now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I first paid my homage to the mountain when I was a student in China, back in 1982, and again in the spring 2011.

 The mountain remained the same but I have changed :)

Sichuan means, literally, Four Rivers.
But the province has much, much more: lakes and springs, waterfalls and limestone caves, mountains and valleys. The landscape is, in fact, so attractive, and so varied, that it’s credited for inspiring literary giants like Sima Xiangru and Yang Xiong from the Han Dynasty, Li Bai and Su Shi, the most eminent poets of the Tang and Song Dynasties, and a unique style of opera that features changing face masks and the spitting of fire.

Before 1997, when Greater Chongqing split from the rest to become an independent metropolis, Sichuan was the largest province in China, a region the size of France with a population that exceeded 100 million people. And, even now, it exceeds the land area, and the population, of many countries in Europe.

Mankind’s presence in the region goes back for a long, long time, perhaps as much as 200,000 years.

And the Kingdom of Shu, as Sichuan was once called, was one of the early cradles of Chinese civilization, having arisen some 25,000 years ago.

During the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD) , Chengdu became the capital of the Kingdom of Shu, and it’s been a cultural and economic hub in the Southwest of China ever since.
This long history has left the province with an abundant historical heritage, including  the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project, the oldest and only surviving no-dam irrigation system in the world ( )  and...

...the Leshan Giant Buddha, completed well-before the end of the first millennium of the Christian era ( ).
We’re also amazingly diverse, a home to more than 15 minority groups like the the Yi, the Hui, and the Miao; each with its own culture, language, styles of dress and unique customs.
Another popular tourist site is Jiuzhaigou, “Nine Village Valley” (九寨沟), home to nine Tibetan villages:

It is a national park located in the Minshan Mountain range in Northern Sichuan, where more than 220 rare bird species, endangered animals and plants live, including...

... the Giant Panda, golden monkey and many different varieties of orchids and rhododendrons.

Spectacular waterfalls and lakes abound, all in different colours of blue and green, the result of colouration by natural minerals.

And then there’s the food, laced with the hot and spicy ingredients that made me an original spice girl. J

Check the menu of your Chinese restaurant. The odds are you’re going to find something like “Sichuan Gong Bao Chicken” or “Beef Sichuan Style”.

If you are a vegetarian, you might well have tried making “Mapo Tofu” (beancurd with Sichuan Peppers and Hot chillies).

Other famous Sichuan dishes include the mouth-watering Hot Pot, Tea Smoked Duck, Twice Cooked Pork, Husband and Wife Cold Beef Tripe, Water-Cooked Meat or Dan Dan Noodles.

If I’ve piqued your interest (and your appetite) and you’d like to learn more about the province (and the food) I invite you to drop into my blog.

There, you’ll be able to follow video instructions for preparing some recipes at home, learn about other tourist attractions and even read about the devastating earthquake that struck us when my husband and I were visiting my family back in May of 2008.

This is the link to that particular post: ( ).

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Writers and Movie Stars

One of the problems with being a movie star is that your perfect, 20-something face is always with you.  Most of us, as we age, glance into the mirror with varying degrees of dismay, locate the remnants of the face we most fondly remember having, and think (at least most of the time), "Not so bad."   But for a movie star, that long-lost face has been frozen in time, in all its flawless symmetry.  

Writers, on the other hand, are for all intents and purposes faceless, which is probably a good thing.  Our readers, if we're lucky enough to have any, don't really care if our jawline has begun to sag or our hair is receding.  So why, you might be asking, am I pairing movie stars and writers, only to say we're not alike?  Even those who love reading most, I think, are in little danger of confusing, say, Lauren Bacall and Lawrence Block.

But actors and writers do share a somewhat similar problem.  Just as movie stars always have their youthful faces stalking them, writers are haunted by their early prose.  It's out there, unchanged and unchangeable, just waiting to sandbag us.

My first published novel came out in 1990, which is longer back than I care to remember.  I went for almost two decades without ever glancing back at that book or the five that followed it in the 1990s because there was no reason for me to do so.  

When I did look back, beginning about two years ago, I hoped that I would have what I think of as the ideal relationship with my earlier work, which is to say (a) that it's not embarrassing, and (b) that it's not as good as my current work.

(There are few more complicated expressions than the one on the face of a writer who has just been told by an enthusiastic fan, "But you know, I really like your first book best.")

The reason I had to reread the early books was to decide whether to put them on sale as ebooks after the rights reverted to me.  There were six titles in the series, three of which I remembered liking, one of which I was neutral about, and two of which I actively (at least in memory) disliked.

Quelle surprise.  I liked different ones this time around.  And the one I disliked most, way back then, may well be (at least to my present taste) the best of the bunch.

The Bone Polisher is the book I thought I probably wouldn't put up.  It was the next-to-last in the series, so I didn't have to look at it until the end of the process, and I almost didn't look at it at all.  When I did, I was fairly startled.

I had completely forgotten most of it.  There's a twist at the end that I had no memory of, and when Simeon Grist, the series' hero, went into a certain house in the last chapter, I thought, "What the hell is he doing?"

The writing is pretty good, too.  I can say that without feeling like a blowhard now that I no longer remember writing it.  In places it's material I'd have to go way on tiptoe to write today, which is not altogether a comfortable feeling.

We all like to think we've gotten better, but here I am, confronting a 17-year-old book and not entirely certain I could write it today.

Once I read it, I had another reason for possibly not making it available.  I'm kind of dreading having people tell me they prefer my old stuff.  But it's online now, for sale for $2.99 on Amazon, with a terrific new cover by the redoubtable Allen Chiu.

Tim -- Sundays

Saturday, February 25, 2012

My Visit With the Gods

I’ve often wished there were a way to journey back to the heyday of the ancient Greek gods.  Just to drop in, say “Hi,” and ask what they think of our current times.  These days I’d likely have to make the trip alone, because my Greek buddies—make that all of Greece’s eleven million souls—have more than enough all-knowing, all-powerful forces to contend with in the form of the EU-IMF-ECB troika, plus a hundred-fold that number of homegrown politicians governing their country as if immor(t)als.

This, though, isn’t about current events; it’s about my interest in visiting Olympian deities and, in particular, one called “father of gods and men, ruler and preserver of the world, and everlasting god.”  In other words (courtesy of Alexander S. Murray’s Who’s Who in Mythology), I’m talking about the boss man himself: Zeus. 

But before I wave goodbye and click those ruby slippers together (couldn’t find a reasonably priced pair of Hermes sandals), let me share a little background on how Zeus got to be Numero Uno.  And for you Wizard of Oz aficionados out there, don’t worry about Dorothy’s shoes whisking me off to Kansas instead.  I have it on the highest authority they’ve been re-programmed to route me to the otherwise inaccessible, cloud-shrouded Olympos of Thessaly.

Zeus’ upbringing certainly wasn’t what most normal folk would call traditional, unless of course you happen to be a fan of the Dr. Phil sort of stuff inhabiting weekday afternoon American TV. 

Uranos and Gaea
Kronos and Rhea
To begin with, his daddy (Kronos) and mommy (Rhea) were brother and sister.  But since his grandparents were the original paired begator (Uranos) and begatee (Gaea) of what love, via Eros (Cupid), had fashioned out of Chaos (the great shapeless mass at the beginning of the world) to prepare the world to receive mankind—that might be considered an extenuating circumstance under modern consanguinity laws. 

Eros and Chaos (by Treijim)
Besides, it was a substantial improvement over his grandparents’ marital arrangement.  Uranos, the husband of Gaea, was not her brother.  He was her son.  And when Uranos “mistreated” their children, Gaea sided with her son/grandson (Kronos) to destroy her husband/son (Uranos).  Got that?

But it gets better.  Zeus’ father (Kronos), alert to how children could treat their fathers, swallowed his first five children as they were born.  Zeus, the sixth child, only escaped because his mother (Rhea) deceived her husband/brother (Kronos) into thinking Zeus, too, had been swallowed. 

Kronos (Saturn) by Francisco De Goya
When Zeus reached manhood he enlisted the aid of his grandmother (Gaea) to convince his father (Gaea’s son/grandson) to yield up Zeus’ siblings, which Kronos did.  One was Zeus’ sister, Hera (Juno), the love of Zeus’ life … and later his wife.  Like father like son, I suppose.

Zeus and Hera
Zeus had many affairs and fathered many children, at times in rather unorthodox fashion, but Hera was his only wife, as was the way in Greece.  Some say Zeus didn’t gallivant around as much as people liked to think, but gained his reputation innocently through an historical accommodation. When the disparate tribes of Greece came together as one race, each brought with them their own Zeus stories, and all those separate tales were incorporated into one mythology that multiplied Zeus’ fathering experiences far beyond what any individual tribe had believed on its own.

If Zeus got Hera to buy that story, it’s good enough for me.  

By the way, let’s not forget that all this played out for Zeus against the time of man on earth. 

At the beginning of Zeus’ rule it was the Silver Age of the human race.  Men were rich, but grew overbearing, were never satisfied, and in their arrogance forgot the source to which their prosperity was owed.  As punishment, Zeus swept the offenders away to live as demons beneath the earth.

Then came the Bronze Age, one of quarreling and violence, where might made right, and cultivated lands and peaceful occupations faded away.  Ultimately even the all-powerful grew tired of it all and disappeared without a trace.

The Iron Age followed with a weakened and downtrodden mankind using their bare hands to toil for food, thinking all the while only of themselves, and dealing unscrupulously with each other. 

Zeus had seen enough.

He brought on a flood that destroyed all but two members of the human race.  A husband, Deukalion, and his wife, Pyrrha, were spared and commanded by the gods to propagate a new human race upon the earth. 

Pyrrha and Deukalion by Andrea di Mariotto del Minga
That, folks, is supposed to be us. 

If I recall correctly, Zeus didn’t think much more of the new batch than he did of the ones he’d wiped off the face of the earth. 

But this is 2012, and the human race is so much different now than it was in Zeus’ day that we have absolutely nothing to fear from the big guy for the way we live our lives today. 


Hmmm.  I really can’t wait to get going.  Honest.  But time travel these days isn’t as predictable as it once was (what with all those amateurs clogging up the astral planes) and I’d sure hate to pop in on Zeus on a bad day.  God(s) knows where/how I’d end up. 

On reflection, I think I’ll put those slippers away for now—at least until after the elections. Which elections, you ask?  Good question.  I’ll wait for a sign from the gods on high and let you know.


Friday, February 24, 2012

Blessed are the Insomniacs

A few years ago, if I was ever asked what skill or physical attribute I wished I had, rather than aiming for something grand, like the ability to speak five languages, or play the piano, or change a plug, my answer was the same: the ability to fall asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. We all know people like that. They're always really annoying. 'When I'm tired I just sleep,' they say, as if it's that simple. They're like weirdos who enjoy fishing. How calm, at peace with yourself, how untroubled by thought, how boring must you be to switch off like that, or stand by a pond for 11 hours. But I envy that serenity. Or I did.

I've had bouts of insomnia all my adult life. If I have to get up early, I never get to sleep because I know I have to get up. I don't think I've ever slept on an aeroplane in my life. In hotels, or on holiday, anywhere away from my bed, I always sleep terribly, unless I've had too much to drink, which hardly counts as quality rest.

It used to bother me a great deal. I would toss and turn, cursing the passing hours, and the certain knowledge I would be exhausted the next day. All manner of terrible thoughts can creep up on you in the long hours before dawn.  It got so that I dreaded going to bed. So I wouldn't. But then kids came along, and the need to be alert and functioning became more important, and I would lie there wondering how the hell I could get to sleep and not be an irritable mess the next day.

But then it changed. I don't when or how but insomnia no longer bothered me. I learned to accept it, to relax. I was never so tired the next day that I couldn't function, and if I was, because I work at home, I'd just have a short nap. Soon, because I accepted it, I slept better. It still takes me some time to go to sleep, and I always wake in the night, but it's enough. I just accepted I wasn't the sort of person who ever slept for more than four or five hours at a stretch.

Then, this week, I listened to this radio programme on the BBC World Service. It addresses the myth behind the eight hour sleep. In a nutshell, it claims that adult humans have never slept for large swathes of time and to do so is unnatural. In the pre-electric, pre-streetlight era it was common for people to go to bed earlier, sleep for a few hours and wake. Then, unlike most of us now who get in a state about how tired they'll be the next day, or list all their worries and doubts, they would get up, light a candle perhaps, read, think about their dreams, pray, or make love (A doctor's manual from 16th Century France - where else eh? - even advised that the best time to conceive was not at the end of a long day's labour but "after the first sleep", when "they have more enjoyment" and "do it better"). Then they would go back to sleep, feeling fit and refreshed in the morning. The programme's makers found all kinds of evidence of this pattern, and many references to what was known as 'the second sleep.'

This, of course, is tremendous news for insomniacs everywhere. Some scientists even believe that broken sleep is better for you than one long tranche of sleep. Blessed are the insomniacs. Or insomniac writers at least. I can't count how many times an idea has come to me in the time between turning off the light and falling asleep. Or at 4am when I've woken and can't drop back off. Whole plots would never have existed had I been someone who falls straight to sleep. Now armed with this knowledge that it's natural, I may even start writing in those moments. Praying is out, and as for making love, my wife is an out-for-the-count-for-eight-hours merchant, the poor woman, and I'm likely to get my face punched. And we have enough kids anyway.

Anyway, I raise a mug of cocoa to the sleepless.


Dan - Friday

Thursday, February 23, 2012

With this cow I do thee wed

It is traditional custom in southern Africa for a prospective husband to honor his future wife’s family with a gift of cows.  The practice is called lobola.  The cows themselves and the process leading to the exchange are designed to bring the bridal couple’s families closer together, so that as a unit they will be supportive of the newlyweds, and later of their offspring.
Indigenous African nduni cow

The process itself is akin to what happens in a corporate merger or acquisition.  The bridegroom-to-be’s family appoints negotiating representatives, often the father and uncles, who approach the family of the bride-to-be to negotiate a fair price.  From what I understand, these negotiations can often take several sessions and involve a haggling over the value of the cattle themselves, as well as the attributes of the young lady.
As Owethu Kheli wrote recently in the Mail&Guardian Online ( (I’ve omitted a few paragraphs):
Indigenous African nduni cow
I was not allowed into the house where my fiancée's family and my "lawyers" discussed this "out-of-court settlement". Being present is like contempt of court.
I drove my team to her parents' house. It took three meetings for the two families to finally sign the deal. The first meeting, according to the briefing my "lawyers" gave me afterwards, was a good one. "It's a smooth process," said my dad's cousin. Okay, tell me more, I said.
Her family had accepted our merger of equals proposition. But? They had not done due diligence and could not put cattle or a monetary value on the daughter.
I wanted an easy deal: a reasonable lobola, then my family and I would pay for the wedding. Well, my lawyers claimed that they suggested that to her family. Either my darling's family was not too keen, or did not realise how sweet that deal would be for them.
But they played hard to get over those three meetings, according to my team. At some stage I thought that I would go to the house next door to find a wife. Or I would marry a white woman, whose dad would have the pain of funding a lavish wedding, all without lobola.
Finally, after three meetings, my deal was sealed in the most welcome and fulfilling of ways.
I sneaked into the final meeting. My lawyers are rebels -- they break tradition, generally. They said I should walk in with them this time round to experience the process for myself. The other parties probed skillfully as though they did not know.
One of them asked of my legal team: "Gentlemen, how come there are four of you, when in the past meetings there were only three?" My dad's cousin, knowing we would all be fined for this transgression, introduced me as their driver.
Everybody laughed.”
In this case, the negotiations went well.
However, as you would expect, traditions like this are under pressure.
First, there are logistical pressures.  It is hard to imagine an urban couple driving a small herd of cattle through the streets of Johannesburg or Cape Town from one family to another, let alone keeping the cattle on an apartment’s veranda or a house’s small garden.  This inconvenience has been addressed by exchanging the cash value of the cattle - hence the need for the negotiators to reach agreement on the cows’ values.  This can cost the bridegroom a lot of money – which means that the couple can start life together with a large hole in their bank balance.
Second, the switch from cows to cash has caused some families to focus more on the money and less on the tradition underlying lobola.  Some women whose lobola has been paid in cash wonder what agreements were reached.  Some feel that their negotiators negotiated their lives away, giving the man the right to tell the woman what to do and where to live – that, in fact, lobola now symbolizes a purchase, not the joining of families.
Third, many proponents of lobola argue that the divorce rates amongst groups that seal a union with lobola are lower than typical western rates.  However, more and more young men now say that the price to pay, in cattle or money, is too great.  More than half of young men today believe that lobola discourages marriage.  And guess what?  Single mothers and absentee fathers are becoming the norm.  And the likely ones to suffer are the children.
Michael and I are fortunate that our Detective Kubu’s father, Wilmon, was an astute negotiator.  The lobola Kubu paid for Joy was fair, and the two are a couple of equals.  Sort of.
Stan - Thursday

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Not about accordions

I wanted to write about accordions - that instrument so evocative in French songs (and in many cultures) - and looked for my photo of the bright yellow accordion shop and studio below Montparnasse. But I couldn't find it. Instead a thread in the photos I discovered suggested vestiges of the past, lives lived and the architecture that remains.

A photo taken after a bombing during the London Blitz

The Grand Palais built for a World Exposition and used today for exhibitions

In the limestone tunnels of the old quarries under the Paris Observatoire - notice the graffitti 1671

remnants of stables that became workshops and garages

a Belle Epoque hotel by the artist's academy

the train track left of 'le petit ceinture' the train beltway that encircled Paris

outside a sculptors atelier
and this because it's the real reason I couldn't write about accordions

Cara - Tuesday

Monday, February 20, 2012

Gretna Green

Graham Smith, our first guest blogger of 2012, is the author of two books of short stories, "11 The Hard Way" and the "Harry Charters Chronicles"... 

...both available as Kindle Books on Amazon.
Graham is also a reviewer and, because no budding author should ever give up his day job...

...continues to work as the manager of a busy wedding venue near Gretna Green, in Scotland, a place he thought you might enjoy hearing about.

Here's Graham:

Gretna Green first became popular for weddings in 1754, when couples learned of the different laws in Scotland which permitted people to marry at the age of 16 without parental consent. English couples then “ran away” to Scotland to be married.

With Gretna Green being the southernmost town in Scotland, it was the first port of call for the eloping couples. The ceremonies which took place were performed by the local blacksmiths who were held in high regard by the local community as they made most of the daily wares used in that era.

Often the ceremonies would take place in the blacksmiths' workshops over their anvils.

That way, their work wouldn't be interrupted for too long.

Many angry fathers gave chase to the couples, and tales abound of ceremonies delayed while the bride and groom hid until the father had left.

In some cases the young lovers would leap into the blacksmith’s bed in the room next door, prompting the apoplectic father to think he was too late and storm off. After a suitable wait the proceedings would recommence.

A change in the law came in 1857, when Lord Brougham’s bill stated that the bride and groom must take a three week “cooling off” period prior to the wedding. While this reduced the number of elopements, the more determined lovers came anyway and sought work on the local farms for the three weeks.

In 1977, the next change in the law was that the three week “cooling off” period was abolished. A new system was introduced whereby the couples must give a minimum of 14 days written notice to Gretna Registration Office of their intent to marry within the parish.

And that put a dampener on the whole business.

But Gretna Green weddings started to become popular again in 1994, when local ministers began to conduct ceremonies over the anvil for visiting couples.

In 2002, the law changed yet again, this time allowing registrars to come out of the registration office to perform civil ceremonies. The first civil ceremony to take place in Scotland outside a registration office took place at The Mill Forge.

Today there are a number of different wedding venues and wedding tourism has become the town’s main industry. Weddings are estimated to bring the local economy a whopping £21 million per annum, and each year, over three thousand couples come to Gretna Green to be married.

Gretna Green’s other claim to fame is sadly much less joyous.

In 1915, within half-a-mile of the town. a railroad signalman forgot to advise the engineer of a troop train, that a local train had stopped ahead of him on the same track.

The error had deadly results. The resulting collision caused the troop train to catch fire.

The troop train was packed with soldiers bound for Gallipoli, and the carriages were locked to prevent desertion. Then, to make things worse, a third train hauling empty coal carriages collided with the wreckage of the first two.

Anecdotal reports say the soldiers who escaped from the train turned their rifles on their trapped comrades in an effort to spare them from further suffering.

The event went down in history as the Quintinshill rail disaster.

In total 226 people lost their lives on that fateful morning. To date no other UK rail disaster has claimed more lives.

World War I had another impact on the area as well. The nearby township of Gretna grew up to house workers at a munitions factory  built to service the needs of the British troops.

It grew to be the largest in the world, and its rapid expansion, coupled with a need to house all of the workers, caused Gretna to become the first town in the UK to receive formal town planning.

Quite a lot of history, don't you think, for a little town along the border between England and Scotland?