Saturday, June 25, 2022

Revisiting the Magic of Greece



Today, I want us to return to a magical place that represents the sort of inspirational magic that perpetually draws me home to Greece.   I sadly haven't visited Hosios Loukas Monastery in a half-dozen years, a common admission in these how-quickly-time-flies years.

It’s perched on a western foothill of Mount Helicon, twenty miles east of Delphi, a mile and a half from any sign of modern times—aside from the narrow paved road that winds through hillsides covered in fir, cedar, myrtle, arbutus and pine; high above a broad green valley filled with cultivated olives, almonds, and patches of grape, all running off toward distant limestone mountain slopes.

Mythology describes this place as a favorite haunt of antiquities’ Muses, and from the way it still looks today, who am I to disagree?

1743 Woodcut of Monastery

Hosios Loukas
But the history that drew me to this place is of more recent vintage, only eleven centuries ago.  In the early 10th Century, a holy and pious hermit (osios in Greek) Loukas (896-953), born in what is today modern Delphi, endured a life marked by raids by Slavs, Arabs, Saracens, and Bulgarians, before finding his way into this valley of awe-inspiring natural beauty.  There he began construction of the only church built on mainland Greece in the tenth-century. That Church of Panaghia (the Virgin Mary) still stands today within the walls of Greece’s largest extant monastery from Byzantium’s second golden age, and adjacent to Greece’s oldest existing dome-octagon church, the Katholikon (big church) of Hosios Loukas.

Courtyard with front of Church and Katholikon to right

Front (west side) Katholikon

Rear (east side) Katholion (left) and Church

Beneath the Katholicon is the Crypt of Saint Barbara, the monastery’s oldest church and a place of massive stone pillars erected to support the domes of the Katholikon above—and to which it is said monks once chained psychopaths until cured of their madness [Ed Note:  Please refrain from suggesting there's a modern day Saint Barbara confronting her own live-in madman.]  

Here, too, lay the tomb of Hosios Loukas (sainted as Luke of Steiris) beneath an oil lamp kept burning for ten centuries by monks devoted to him.  But don’t take for granted the answer to, “Who’s buried in Hosios Loukas’ tomb?” for in 1011 his remains were removed, and now reside in a glass-enclosed reliquary beneath its own perpetually burning oil lamp in a place of honor off a passageway between the naves of the Church and Katholikon. 

Crypt of Saint Barbara

Crypt of Saint Barbara and Tomb of Hosios Loukas

Saint Barbara
In keeping with the teachings of Greece’s ancient temple builders, the monastery sits in harmony with its natural surroundings. Terra cotta roof tiles, above classical Byzantine cloisonné-style masonry walls of marble, brick, and limestone, enclosed frescos and mosaic masterpieces set upon backgrounds of gold.  But only a fraction of the monastery’s legendary lavish decoration remains, the balance of the place’s precious gold and silver plate, murals, icons, and furnishings lost to time and plunderers.

Come here at sunset, when shadows are long and light practices its magic upon the monastery’s rusty earth-tone architectural jags and juts, contours and edges.  You’ll soon lose track not only of time, but of centuries.  A thousand years old, the Monastery of Hosios Loukas remains an isolated sanctuary of tranquility, one of the Mediterranean’s most impressive monuments, and a World Heritage Site.

A wave from another saintly Barbara

Perhaps because I’m a mystery writer, each time I visit places of such sustaining great beauty, I can’t help but think of what haunting secret intrigues, betrayals, bloodshed, and accommodations to the times through which they passed allowed them to flourish while others vanished from the earth.  Sure, there’s a bit of luck involved in averting disaster, for in 1943 Nazi planes tried to destroy the monastery but failed. Or maybe it was answered prayers.

But to me, Hosios Loukas brings a very specific memory of unanswered prayers to mind, one that I and many Greeks will never forget.  To reach the Monastery, you first pass through the farming villages of Distomo and Steiri.  Distomo is a name known to every Greek of a certain age.  A place of execution, of massacre, where for two hours on June 10, 1944, Nazi SS troops went door-to-door, murdering 214 civilians, bayonetting babies in their cribs, beheading the local priest.  Slaughter haunted this place…and is remembered—as it should be—so that no one forgets how brutal can be the results of unchecked political myopic madness. 

And so, permit me to close on a more upbeat note...and great deal for you.  I'm pleased to announce that through Tuesday, June 28th, my 11th Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis novel, A DEADLY TWIST, is available across all e-book formats for US$2.99. Just click on this link and voila, you can buy it. It's the unexpurgated version of the novel Reader's Digest included in its January 2022 Select Editions volume 383.


Friday, June 24, 2022




I’m not actually sure what a varmint is, but from cartoons they seem to be pesky, annoying and small.

While the world is getting rid of plagues, the Scottish plague at the moment is biblical. There are creatures in Scotland that will hunt you down, they will find you, they will make your life a misery until you leave.

I’m talking about the humble midge.

In my second book, Singing to the Dead, one of the characters is a cartoonist who invented the character Squidgy McMidge. For the launch, we had t-shirts made, fridge magnets, bookmarks, we even had a song. Maybe at Bouchercon I’ll sing it for you. If you pay me a couple of dollars I won’t.

He’s Squidgy McMidge

He’s Squidgy McMidge

You can stick him up your chimney

You can stick him on your fridge

He’s Squiddgy, Squiddgy McMidge


I’m on a research trip at the moment but we’re unable to go in to the great outdoors without being eaten alive. All the vents are closed, all windows are closed, the midge nets are down, the curtains are closed and we’re burning citronella. Hanging on the door are midgy nets to wear when the dog needs to go out. The dog takes her chances.

The second fortnight in June, with this slightly warm weather and no breeze, the little shi....varmints are everywhere.

I was following this story on social media when googling about the subject

Person 1 is running across some Scottish mountains. After pitching his tent, he left the campsite thinking he would leave the midges behind as he needed to perform some natural functions (not specified). He ran a mile into the woods and convinced himself he was midge free. Within half a minute they were on him and bit him somewhere sore (not specified) He was asking the question if midges find you by the pheramones of the other midge that got there first, then how does the first midge find you? 

Person 2 replies, they detect the CO2 in the breath, so to be free of them, you’ve got to stop breathing. Then he said there are 34 species of midges but only the female bites. In a low lying glen, near still water there can be 25 million per hectare. That's quite a lot.

Person 3 offers the advice that spray on lotions etc only work for the initial swarm, so are okay if you keep moving. The minute you stop, they’re on you and they will be up your nose and in your ears. And anywhere else they can get.  The good news is that while they are very persistent, they are also very fragile. They can’t cope with wind, bright sunshine and the months from August to early June.

Person 4  says the best way to deal with them is to find a tastier friend. Some people do attract them more than others so, hang about with someone midgies really like and they’ll probably attack them instead of you.   (I remember once, my cousin Craig – a midge magnet - leaving the tent to go to the toilet in the campsite. When he came back his yellow t-shirt was black with a swarm.)

Person 5 offers the advice re an  US ex army cream with 37% diEToluimide, and its rumoured that you can buy this on Ebay, mixing it with black pudding and water and smear it on to any exposed body parts is an effective deterrent and probably quite a good way to ensure that you have the entire campsite to yourself.

For the purposes of the blog I decided to find out what the midge was about. 

Culicoides impunctatus, known as the midge is found across the paleartic regions. There was a very cold winter in 2010 and the Scottish tourist board looked forward to a reduction in the midge population. The midge population rocketed because of the reduction in natural preditors – bats and birds. For some reason that nobody knows they do not go into houses or farm buildings, but they love going into tents and caravans. Queen Victoria was so annoyed by them she permitted smoking at Balmoral just to keep the wee varmints at bay.

The Tourist board does produce midge maps so you can plan your journey and avoid the worst excesses. And there’s also the Scottish Midge forecast which tracks the varmints by satellite and will give you a 5 day forecast.

I’ve just looked at the map today, a 4 means pretty substantial midge activity, and guess where we are? Right  under a 4.  4 is pest level, 5 is intolerable.

I may not survive. Or I may right a locked room mystery where nobody could get out because of the midgies.....and the murderer was the one covered in bites.



Thursday, June 23, 2022

Certainty and uncertainty

Michael - Thursday

When I was at high school and later at university, I was attracted to science and mathematics because of the beauty of the theories, their elegant structures, and their certainty. I was very naïve.

As I learned more, I began to understand that science is about theories that have to be tested, and possibly rejected, on the basis of experimental evidence. Crudely put, that’s the scientific method. A theory is as good as the evidence that doesn’t contradict it, and preferably supports it. Newton tested his theories of mechanics and gravity against astronomical observations. They held up. Tick. Move on. Until Einstein comes along with a better theory. It doesn’t contradict Newton’s theory, it just says that it is a really good approximation under the sort of conditions we deal with every day – when things are beetling along well below the speed of light. So far Einstein’s theories don’t contradict any evidence – in fact experiments and observations unavailable in his time support them – black holes, for example. Are his theories Truth? Almost certainly not. It’s the current theory.

To make it more confusing, Heisenberg came up with his Uncertainty Principle which implies that position and velocity can't both be measured exactly at the same time. Hmm.

It seems that in the political sphere these days, it’s not necessary to test theories against observed evidence. If one does so, many just fall apart at once. I won’t even try to list them. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to shake people’s belief in them at all.

I was in search of certainty. Religion offers that, but requires belief. I didn’t have that, so I turned to mathematics. Here at last, I felt, was an endeavour that had beautiful constructions, deep theories and implications, and certainty. Each step could be proved to follow the previous one. Nothing was guessed. Nothing had to be tested against evidence. The evidence had to fit or the evidence was wrong. I was very naïve.

The foundations of mathematics lie with logic and set theory. At the end of the nineteenth century, Georg Cantor – a very famous mathematician considered the father of modern set theory – published a book explaining the area and building the theory from obvious axioms. Before the book was published, he sent a copy to British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell. Russell was a brilliant man and thought deeply about many things, so he thought about Cantor’s constructions.  Sets are nothing more than collections of things or numbers or anything you like. The set of all fruits. The set of all even numbers. Even the set of all sets. So that means a set can contain itself, since the set of all sets must contain itself. But most sets do not contain themselves. The set of fruits or the set of all even numbers, for example. Okay, thought Russell, what about the set of all sets that do not contain themselves? Think about that set. Does it contain itself? Well, if it does, then it doesn’t meet the definition, so it can not contain itself. That’s false then. So then it does not contain itself. But in that case, it is in itself by the definition. So neither of the two possible options can be true.

BR had a few logic issues also...

This is a bit like submitting your new murder mystery and your editor pointing out that early in the book the murderer was on stage with a group of people at the time of the murder, and worse that that scene is essential to the rest of the novel.

Known as Russell’s paradox, it collapsed the set theory of the day. Now there had to be things called classes and various work-arounds. And were those “obvious axioms” so obvious after all? Was it possible that they also led to a contradiction like Russell’s paradox? No one has ever been able to answer that question.

But worse was to come. To the original “obvious” axioms of set theory, a new one needed to be added called the Axiom of Choice. (If you are interested in what it is, and probably you are not, you can find out at It also seems obvious, but it isn’t. In fact it’s been proved that set theory works (or indeed doesn’t work) whether or not you include it. But almost all of mathematics turns out to require it. All those beautiful proofs. All those important implications. All that certainty.

Okay. I admit this one is for maths geeks.
There's a hint in the labels at the end...

I still love mathematics, and I now understand that it is a science like the others. The evidence supports all its implications. Nothing has ever implied that anything about it is wrong. Maybe it's based on faith, but it remains an incredibly powerful tool, and an elegant one.

So forget the certainty. We don’t find it in life and we don’t find it in science and we don’t find it in mathematics. Uncertainty is the nature of things. Live with it.


Wednesday, June 22, 2022



Chapter Two 


John cleaned and dressed my head wound on the way to Happenstance General. As John and his partner unloaded me from the ambulance, I felt lost and strange. Was I in a dream? This HGH wasn’t what I’d known growing up. Was this a different one? It was massive, with a lot of glass and fancy windows. To my right was a huge parking lot with scores of parked vehicles. 

            “This a new hospital?” I asked John, as the wheeled me into a rear entrance.

            “Yeah, pretty much--built it about two years ago.”

            Had I been away during that time?

            Inside, John and his partner pushed me down a short, brightly lit corridor to the emergency room. We stopped at a registration desk where a woman took down my particulars. Looking around, I was impressed by how large the place was. Among the staff bustling back and forth, who were the nurses and who were the doctors? What confused me was that women weren’t wearing skirts or dresses. Like the men, they were clad in the kinds of scrubs only surgeons used to wear in the operating room. And the scrubs weren’t the normal green—I saw, pink, blue, even black. Was it a new fashion? And everyone was wearing a mask that covered their mouth and nose. Why?

            “Do you have any form of ID?” the receptionist asked me. She was black, and from what I could see of her masked face, she was quite beautiful.

            “No, sorry,” I responded, staring at her. Reflected in her glasses was the bright screen she was looking at, but it wasn’t anything like the CRT displays I was used to seeing. She tapped out my information on a flat keyboard.

            “What about medical insurance, sir?”

            “Excuse me?”

            “Medical insurance.”

            I frowned and shook my head. “Never had no medical insurance.”

            “Your occupation?”

            “Well,” I said hesitantly, “I just help my father on his farm.”

            “Okay,” the receptionist said. “Can we use him as an emergency contact?”

            I recited the seven-digit number.

            “Area code?” she asked.

            I gave it to her, unclear why she needed it. HGH had always been in the same 216 area as home, and there were only four area codes in the whole state of Ohio.

            When the receptionist was done with me, John and his partner took me into one of the treatment rooms, where they handed me over to a woman doctor—at least, that’s what I thought until she said, “Hi, Marcus, I’m Melissa, one of the ER nurses. I’ll be taking care of you.”

            She put on that special kind of blood pressure cuff again, and pressed a button on the connected instrument. As the cuff tightened, my pressure appeared on the screen, and the cuff deflated automatically.

            “Is that a new kind of blood pressure taker?” I asked.

            “Not really,” Melissa said. “We’ve had it for a couple of years now. Why do you ask?”

            I didn’t answer, because I didn’t want to seem stupid by telling her I’d never seen one of those before.

            “The doctor will be in soon,” she said, getting ready to depart, “and then you’ll be getting a head CT scan.”

            “Oh, yeah—I think I’ve heard of those,” I said. “It’s like a new, special kind of x-ray, right?”

            Melissa smiled at me and laughed. “That’s a good one.” 

She left, shutting the door behind her. I waited another hour or so, feeling drowsy and experiencing another episode of vertigo.

“Mr. Price?”

I lifted my head at the voice. A young, blond woman in scrubs and a white jacket had entered. “Hi, I’m Dr. Sipalone. How are you feeling?”

After I’d told her what my symptoms were, she examined me. At the last part, she tested my reflexes, which were all sharp, and then she checked my pupils.

“You know where you are now?” Sipalone asked.

“HGH—in Happenstance.”

“Right. And what year are we in?”

I hesitated. “Well, as far as I know, it’s 1980.”

She considered me for a moment. “You said 1980.”

“Yes.” I paused. “But on the way here in the ambulance, there was a calendar that said it was 2022.”

“Well, it is. You said you were born in 1960?”

“Yes. December 24th.”

“You should be 62, then,” Sipalone said. “Clearly, you are not."

I was flummoxed. “What’s happening to me?” I whispered, pressing my palms against my eyes to stop tears from flowing. “Something's wrong.”

Sipalone placed a kind hand on my shoulder. “It’s fine—let’s not worry about that for now, okay? We’ll just get you to CT and circle back to this later.”

She left rather hurriedly without pulling the door all the way shut. I heard her call out to Melissa, “He needs to get that CT stat. He could have a space-occupying bleed that’s got him thinking he was born in 1960 and that it’s 1980 now. Never seen that before in a twenty-year-old. It could be serious. And alert Neurosurgery upstairs in case they have to do an evacuation.”

I heard a man’s voice ask, “Any chance I could talk to the patient, now, Doctor?”

“Not more than a couple minutes, Detective,” Sipalone responded sternly. 

The door opened again and a black man walked in. “Good afternoon, Mr. Price. I’m Detective Lamar Ferguson with HPD. How you doing today?”

“Okay,” I said warily. “What’s going on?”

“Just a couple of questions before they send you off to your tests.”

I nodded.

Ferguson stood at my bedside. He was in his forties, bearded, and a little overweight. “You remember how you happened to fall into that well?” he asked. “Or how you got down there?”

“No, I’m sorry, I don’t.”

He was watching me intently.

“The body in the well with you—do you know who that is?”

I shook my head. “No. Who is he?”

“We’ve identified him as a man reported missing five days ago, and he had disappeared three days before that. His name is Slate Thomas. Mean anything to you? Know anything about him?”

“I’m really sorry, Detective,” I said. “I just don’t know what’s happening.”

“C’mon, brother,” Ferguson said, dropping his voice. “Look, I know what’s up in this town. We’re a minority here, big time, and it ain’t easy. Not a lot of black folk around. Maybe you had to defend yourself against Thomas? He’s a known white supremacist. Was he targeting you? Did he attack you and you had to defend yourself and y’all were fighting near the well, or what?”

I drew a blank. 

“Your last name’s Price. Like in the Price Monument?”

“What monument?”

“Way back when, around the area where that well is, there was a farm, and--”

“I know,” I interrupted. “I helped my father on the farm.”

“Your father’s name?”

“Clement. Clement Price.”

Ferguson’s eyes lit up. “Wow, so you’re Clement Price’s son? I’ve never seen you around town, though. You must have been away in college or something?”

“Never went to college.”

“Okay.” Ferguson took a deep, unsettled breath. “Anyway, I’m sorry for the loss of your father.”

I scowled. “What do you mean? My father’s still alive.”

Ferguson scratched his head. “A different Clement Price from the name inscribed on the monument? In 1992, white nationalists burned the Price farm down and killed your—I mean, Clement Price. Took about fifteen years for the board of supervisors to allow a statue to be erected in his honor. White folks didn’t want any of that.”

“I hope you’re not lumping me in with white supremacists,” I said peevishly. "I may be white, but I wasn’t brought up to look down at black people.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Ferguson said, pulling up a chair from the corner. “What are you saying? That you're white?”

“Why do people keep asking me that?” I said, irritated. “I am white.”

“Mr. Price . . .” Ferguson said, sounding exasperated. “Let’s stop the games. You’re as black as I am.”

I held my arm out to him. “You call this skin black? I’m white--and a redhead at that.”

Ferguson shook his head and pulled out an object from his pocket, like the one I saw John use in the ambulance. After he fiddled with it a little bit, he pointed the back of the device to me and a camera shutter sounded. 

I craned forward. “Did you take a picture? What is that thing?”

“Yeah, I took a pic of you. Take a look.”

I took the thing in my hands, handling it gingerly.

“Wow!” I exclaimed. “The photo is so clear.” There I was on the screen with my flaming red hair and cinnamon freckles. 

“So,” Ferguson said with finality, “as you can see, you are definitely black.”

“No--“ I began, but the device suddenly vibrated and I jumped. It was ringing.

Gotta get that,” Ferguson said, taking the thing back. He started talking with someone, just like a regular, real phone. 

When he was done, I asked, “Is that a telephone? How does it take pictures?”

Before Ferguson could answer, Melissa came in with a wheelchair. “Marcus? Time to go for your CT. Sorry, Detective, we need to skedaddle.”

Ferguson grunted, and rose. He watched as Melissa helped me up and into the chair. He was scrutinizing me, and I sensed both puzzlement and suspicion. A sudden chill swept through me as a terrible notion wormed its way into my head for the first time. Could I have killed the man in the well?


What do you mean, "I’m black?"












Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Comfort Zoning

 Ovidia--every other Tuesday

I'm thinking about Comfort Zones because there's been almost too much good stuff going on around here right now. A second run of my play, Hitting (On) Women, just closed after a sold out run and another, Kwa Geok Choo is opens on 8th July. Plus my next history mystery, The Mushroom Tree Mystery, lands on Kindle Today (21 June) and as actual books in July.   

So, given everything that's going on, I stay home in my Comfort Zone whenever I can. 

This is a photo of some of the comfort books that live within my comfort shelf! The books on the carpet here being re-shelved belong to the 'books I once loved so much I can't bear to give them away even though I've probably outgrown them' category. 

They're comforting because I can open any of them at random and know pretty much what's happening in them. And they're in my office because I need to feel them nearby, next to the table where my TBR and duty reads get staged.

But I suspect the real reason I hang on to them is picking them up brings me back to who I was when I was reading and loving them. This is probably true of all the books I deep read. But some others didn't leave me with any 'comfort'. 

I remember feeling gas bloated full of hard, brilliant, angry energy when I surfaced from books like The Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar and The Orton Diaries, and fancying myself a misunderstood genius teen feeding on JD Salinger's Glass Family stories.

But I realised that wasn't a state I wanted to live in. 

Neither there nor in the cookbooks that I also have far too many of, and that I'm probably never going to cook my way through! But I realise I read food writers like other people read romance. And food writing was my gateway drug to traditional mysteries, via Agatha Christie (Lucy Eyelesbarrow's smashing roast beef and treacle tart) and Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe.

Just a few of my too many cookbooks! The Larousse Gastronomique at the far right is a volume that comforts everything that might ail you, from angst through convalescence and insomnia to writer's block.  

And this sweet, tattered volume that's been with us since the bedsitter days in No. 10 St. John's Rd, Cambridge. 

I suspect I could be happy reading nothing but mysteries and food books but I think many of us (in my generation at least!) are conditioned to believe it's not enough to stay in our comfort zones and be comfortable. I still believe it's kind of true (see? conditioning works!) because if we never stretch/ push/ challenge ourselves we lose our ability to grow. 

Over the last week three people (two friends on separate occasions and one Grab driver) complained about how 'today's youngsters' only want the 'easy life', applying it to how often they change jobs and romantic partners and how they 'can't' read books.

Naturally I was the most interested in the last category. 

'I thought your daughter wants to write? What do you mean she can't read books?'

'Nowadays all she writes is Instagram lah, Tiktok lah, whole day staring at that tiny little screen sharing-sharing-sharing!'

'Maybe try passing her something you've enjoyed reading and ask her if she can write something like that?'

'No lah. I don't have time to read nowadays,'

[note: this is a woman who was just lamenting over lunch the emptiness of her life now Top Chef is over for the year and she's finished binging all seasons of Bosch, Bosch Legacy and Lincoln Lawyer. Yes I offered to lend her my Michael Connellys and MFK Fishers. No, she didn't accept. And no, she's not read any of my books either. Yes, we're still friends!]

Trying to venture out of my own comfort zones recently, I tried watching Love, Death + Robots (represented in emoji form as ❤️❌🤖) on Netflix. These are short animations that are wry, clever, entertaining, but it felt like the underlying message there is: life is dangerous, hope is an illusion. Why try at all? You're doomed before you start. 

It seems like a lot of energy put into saying things are pointless. Maybe it's a phase the creators or humankind needs to go through, but while I thought them clever, they made me want to retreat away from them to my comfort zone. 

Don't worry, I'm not going to stagnate in here. I'll go on trying to read unfamiliar stuff and going to unfamiliar places and expanding my comfort zone little by little. 

Monday, June 20, 2022

Announcing Invisible Country: New Edition

Annamaria on Monday


I had intended to take a long-awaited turn at BSP (Blatant Self-Promotion) in this post.  But then, this past Friday, Caro began her blog with these words, "The publishing world is a total confusion to me." She went on to say that she didn't understand it and didn't really want to.  I share Caro's bewilderment!  She asked if the rest of us have any thoughts.  I have lots to share on that subject. I promise I won't say them all here today.  Today, I will bring up only one.  I will take up the a larger discussion some other Monday soon.

I had intended for Invisible Country to be my first novel.  But then a visit to the ancient city of Potosi, now in Bolivia, got me so intrigued that it pushed aside Paraguay and City of Silver launched first.

As my "second child," Invisible Country did not make as big a splash as its older sister.  My publisher - with the introduction of eBooks - had stopped publishing paperbacks.  In their business model, the place of paperback editions was taken by the eBook, thanks to its much lower production costs.  Bookstore owners, however, told me repeatedly, that I needed to be in paperback, that there were lots of readers who would want my stuff at the lower paperback price.  Alas, there was nothing I could do about that.  Thanks to contractual obligations, the paperback had to wait until now.

Once I had the rights back, my agent arranged for the current paperback version. The book is the same.  Here is all about it:

Inivisble Country

Paraguay, 1868
A war against Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay has devastated Paraguay. Ninety percent of the males between the ages of eight and eighty have died. Food is scarce. In the small village of Santa Caterina, Padre Gregorio advises the women of his congregation to abandon the laws of the church and get pregnant by what men are available. As he leaves the pulpit, he discovers the murdered body of Ricardo Yotté, one of the most powerful men in the country, at the bottom of the belfry.

Suspects abound; Eliza Lynch, a former Parisian courtesan now the consort of the brutal dictator Francisco Solano López. She had entrusted to Yotté the country's now-missing treasury of gold and jewels. López himself, who may have suspected Yotté of an affair with the beautiful Eliza. Comandante Luis Menenez, local representative of the dictator, who competed with Yotté for López's favor. And a Brazilian soldier who has secretly taken up with a village girl.

To avoid having an innocent person dragged off to torture and death, a band of villagers undertakes to solve the crime. Each carries secrets they seek to protect from the others, while they pursue their quest for the truth.

Lyrical, complex, and meticulously researched, Annamaria Alfieri's Invisible Country is an ingenious cross between Isabel Allende and Agatha Christie.

Critical Acclaim for Invisible Country

"An engrossing, fast-paced mystery packed full of historical fact that illuminates
 the story but never overshadows it; a great read, highly recommended."
- Historical Novel Society

"(Alfieri's) excellent historical mystery has...heartache and sorrow, but it also has romance and humor...The mystery is the icing on an already delicious cake....people with whom I fell in love...Invisible Country is a mystery that will nearly impossible to forget."
- Gumshoe Review

"Alfieri has written an antiwar mystery that compares with the notable novels of Charles Todd."
- Kirkus Review

"The author's recreation of Paraguay in the 1860s is perfectly entwined with the plot and never comes off like a travelogue or historical research. Fans of historical mysteries should not pass this one up."
- Mystery Scene Magazine

If you want an escape to an exotic place at a dramatic moment, I hope you will choose my time machine!  Ticket price: $12.99 for first class.  $6.99 in coach.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Celebrating the Rainy Season - and the Ajisai - in Japan

 -- Susan, every other Sunday

The rainy season is officially upon us here in Tokyo (and will last for another 5 weeks, after which the oppressive heat and humidity of summer will make us wish for these damp but somewhat-less-sweltering early summer days). I actually enjoy the rainy season, both for the rain itself (which is usually warm and gentle, with a few thunderstorms here and there, for good measure) and for the spectacular blossoms the June rain brings.

The flowers most associated with this part of the rainy season are ajisai (hydrangeas). Their giant, colorful blooms are everywhere in central and eastern Japan at this time of year; they thrive in acidic, volcanic soil and since they're sensitive to too much sun, the rainy season suits them perfectly.

Hydrangeas just beginning to bloom in Bunkyo Ward

The characteristics of the soil influence the color of the blooms, which range from brilliant fuchsia to deep, rich blue, delicate lavender, spotless white, and just about every color in between.

One of my favorites.

The annual ajisai festival at Hakusan Jinja in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward has been on hold for the last few years, but was held again this year - another sign of normalcy returning. 

Another favorite. (Who am I kidding. They're all my favorites.)

The Ajisai Festival at Hakusan Jinja (photo from 2019)

Another shot from the 2019 festival

The celebration of all-things-ajisai doesn't stop with festivals and flowers, either. At this time of year, the rain-loving blossoms adorn everything from handkerchiefs to senbei (rice crackers), like the hand-painted beauty shown below. The "paint" is actually colored sugar, and the airy, crispy cracker was delicious.  

Ajisai senbei

I didn't make it to the ajisai festival this weekend, because I'd already made plans to visit Hakone with a friend - but I'm happy to report that even the Hakone ropeway is getting into the ajisai spirit. After riding the Hakone Ropeway across the crater to Owakudani (an active crater atop the mountain whose name translates "large boiling valley"):

Riding over the crater. The restaurant is the building on the crater rim, upper right.

We found this seasonal display on the window of the restaurant where we stopped for lunch:

Ajisai, umbrellas, and snails (?) to celebrate the rainy season.

The menu also featured a seasonal drink called the ajisai soda, which turned out to be a glass of sparkling lemonade served with a side of lightly sweetened, floral syrup made from butterfly pea flowers. 

The Ajisai soda...before

Butterfly pea flower syrup (or tea) starts out blue, but turns purple in the presence of citric acid. (Hello, lemonade...).

After tasting the lemonade, you pour the syrup in, and the drink transforms to the purple of ajisai.

After the transformation, the drink became a floral lemonade - I'm not sure it tasted like ajisai, but then again, I'm not sure I'd want it to. 

Partially transformed...

In any case, it was delicious, and seasonal, and delightfully purple. 

A perfect way to celebrate the beautiful blooms. When life gives you rain (and lemons), make ajisai lemonade.

I hope you all have a happy and healthy rainy season, and a lovely summer filled with fun surprises!