Friday Night Drinks with… Heather Martin

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Tonight I am delighted to be joined for Friday Night Drinks by an author whose authorised biography of Lee Child has just been published in paperback, so we are enjoying a big celebration tonight. Please welcome to the blog… Heather Martin.

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Heather, welcome to the Little Book Problem  virtual bar and thank you for joining me for drinks this evening. First things first, what are you drinking?

Thank you for the invitation! Since we are celebrating the launch of The Reacher Guy in paperback, I thought I’d crack open something bubbly, but a rosé, because when not drinking coffee, black, my biographical subject Lee Child has a sneaking preference for pink drinks. If he’s eating a hamburger he’ll wash it down with strawberry milkshake.

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If we weren’t here in my virtual bar tonight, but were meeting in real life, where would you be taking me for a night out?

I think I would whisk you off to Balthazar on Spring Street in downtown Manhattan. I lived just round the corner from there for a year while I was working on the biography, in a New York University complex on Bleecker Street known as Silver Towers. Weirdly and by complete coincidence, my apartment number was the same as Lee’s on the Upper West Side. It’s noisy at Balthazar, but irresistibly glamorous – full of beautiful people and gleaming with brass and mirrors. On our way out we might pick up a loaf from the bakery, or stop by the deli counter at Dean and DeLuca on Broadway. Except I fear it may be a casualty of COVID …

If you could invite two famous people, one male and one female, alive or dead, along on our night out, who would we be drinking with?

I think immediately of my all-time literary hero the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who already inhabits my head, but I doubt I’d be able to lure him out of the library. So I’ll probably go for Pep Guardiola or Arsène Wenger: they’ve never heard of me, so they don’t realise how much we have in common, but I think we’d hit it off. And then Toni Morrison. I was supposed to meet her at a literary gala in New York, but sadly she was unwell on the night. The intensity of writing in Beloved rivals that of Nina Simone live at the Montreux Jazz Festival.  

So, now we’re settled, tell me what you are up to at the moment. How and why did you start it and where do you want it to go?

In some ways it started a year ago, when The Reacher Guy was first published in hardback. But really it started five years before that, when I first met Lee Child over dinner at the old Union Square Café in New York. Or maybe even earlier, when I picked up my first Reacher book and couldn’t put it down. Or when I learned to speak Spanish in London last century, since it was when I read Reacher in Spanish that Lee and I first started talking seriously about his work. Origins are always mysterious: who knows where things begin? Right now I’m exploring some of the more literary angles of my subject, themes I couldn’t pursue in the original book. I’m not looking too far ahead.

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What has been your proudest moment since you started writing and what has been your biggest challenge?

Many proud moments, but I think I’ll go for the time Lee Child interviewed me for The Big Thrill, which is the monthly magazine of the International Thriller Writers organisation. That was pretty cool, and is all thanks to the lovely Kimberley Howe and editor Dawn Ius. The hardest thing has been signing books: I always worry I’ll spoil them. And overcoming the multiple disappointments of releasing my book during (virtual) lockdown.  

What is the one big thing you’d like to achieve in your chosen arena? Be as ambitious as you like, it’s just us talking after all!

I’m happy with what I’ve achieved. And I’m not sure I have an arena. But bearing in mind my answer to your last question, I suppose I still dream of doing just one big live event with Lee, so we can celebrate my story of his life in the same room, and so I can finally rise to the challenge of signing books for people in person! I’ve had so many heartwarming messages from readers: I’d love a chance to meet them. Otherwise my biggest personal ambition is to help my two musician sons buy a place they can convert into a rehearsal and performance space …

Two great things to aim for there, and not unrealistic! What do you have planned that you are really excited about?

I think many of us have got out of the habit of making plans. I’m looking forward to seeing my first short story in Everyday Kindness, an anthology edited by the amazing L. J. Ross in aid of Shelter – that’s coming out in November, and my story, inspired by an act of compassion within a local community, is called ‘Goodbye, Wendy’. And I’m excited about the first ever Lee Child Symposium at the University of East Anglia next spring and the official opening of his archive at the British Archive for Contemporary Writing. That should be pretty special. 

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Everyday Kindness is a charity anthology of short, fictional stories of kindness, edited by LJ Ross. These uplifting tales of hope and of small, everyday kindnesses are intended to support wider, positive mental health goals and foster wellbeing through the act of reading tales of goodwill inspired by others. Featuring authors across the spectrum of literature, some international bestsellers and award-winning writers amongst them, this is a unique collection of words.

All proceeds from the book will be donated to Shelter, a charity that helps millions of people a year struggling with bad housing or homelessness.

Authors include: LJ Ross, Adam Hamdy, Alex Smith, Alexander Gordon Smith, Alison Stockham, Anne O’Leary, Barbara Copperthwaite, JD Kirk, CL Taylor, Caroline Mitchell, Chris McDonald, CK McDonnell, Claire Sheehy, Clare Flynn, Darren O’Sullivan, David Leadbeater, Debbie Young, Deborah Carr, Emma Robinson, Graham Brack, Hannah Lynn, Heather Martin, Holly Martin, Ian Sainsbury, Imogen Clark, James Gilbert, Jane Corry, Jean Gill, JJ Marsh, Judith O’Reilly, Kelly Clayton, Kim Nash, Leah Mercer, Liz Fenwick, Louise Beech, Lousie Jensen, Louise Mumford, Malcolm Hollingdrake, Marcia Woolf, Mark Stay, Marcie Steele, Natasha Bache, Nick Jackson, Nick Quantrill, Nicky Black, Patricia Gibney, Rachel Sargeant, Rob Parker, Rob Scragg, SE Lynes, Shelley Day, Casey Kelleher, Sophie Hannah, Victoria Connelly, Victoria Cooke, Will Dean.

I love to travel, and I’m currently drawing up a bucket list of things I’d like to do in the future. Where is your favourite place that you’ve been and what do you have at the top of your bucket list?

I always find favourites tricky, as I’ve been fortunate to experience many wonderful things. I’ll always have a soft spot for Aix-en-Provence in France, where I spent two seemingly blissful years as a very young child, and more than once I’ve dreamed of going to live in Sevilla, in Andalusia. I love Hawaii’s Waimea Bay, especially if I can stay again at the house on the point and watch pods of dolphins at play from my garden. But right now I’d love just to go home to Perth, and sit on Cottesloe Beach listening to the rainbow lorikeets as the sun sets over the Indian Ocean, and fall asleep to the sound of the waves, then maybe drive 250 miles north up the coast to Geraldton to visit the place where I was born. It could be a round trip, come to think of it: Oahu to West Australia via a stopover in New Zealand … 

Tell me one interesting/surprising/secret fact about yourself.

As a young teenager I was a member of the West Australian Junior Ballet Company. But then I gave up ballet for music and spent a year in Paris taking lessons with two famous Latin American guitarists, the Brazilian Turibio Santos and the Uruguayan Óscar Cáceres. I had a guitar made for me by legendary Paris luthier Daniel Friederich. I still have it today – a true collectors’ item.

Wow, that sounds like a fascinating period of your life. Books are my big passion and central to my blog and I’m always looking for recommendations. What one book would you give me and recommend as a ‘must-read’?

Right now my big recommendation is The Sound Mirror, by Heidi James, the exquisitely interwoven tale of the wounded Tamara and her two grandmothers, one a first-generation immigrant from India and the other of Italian descent. It’s a long time since I read a book that blew me away from the opening page, the opening sentence, even. This story is both instructive and deeply moving, accommodating not just one but three distinctive voices, each of equal authenticity. It’s a true tour de force and a reading experience of almost violent intensity. After that you’ll probably want to read her previous one, So the Doves, also published by Bluemoose Books, which is an equally gripping read and was featured as a Sunday Times Crime Book of the Month.

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Tamara is going to kill her mother but she isn’t the villain. Tamara just has to finish what began before her, and put an end to the damage encoded in her blood.

So, we’ve been drinking all evening. What is your failsafe plan to avoid a hangover and your go-to cure if you do end up with one?

Hey, the conversation has been so enjoyable, and I’ve been nibbling on these delicious canapés from the menu I had planned for my 2020 launch party at the Groucho Club, so I think a hangover is the least of my worries. 

Great news. After our fabulous night out, what would be your ideal way to spend the rest of a perfect weekend?

I think you’ve set the tone, so there will be books, and chat about them, and music. A bit of sunshine if I’m lucky. Maybe I’ll walk across London Fields to All Saints in Haggerston to hear my son play the organ on Sunday morning; perhaps the younger one will cook lunch or dinner. Is Endeavour still showing on television? 

Haether, I have had an absolute blast, you are a fascinating drinking companion and I only wish we could have done this for real. Thank you so much for joining me tonight.

Heather’s biography of Lee Child, The Reacher Guy, is out now in all formats, including paperback, and you can buy a copy here.

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Lee Child is the enigmatic powerhouse behind the bestselling Jack Reacher novels. With millions of devoted fans across the globe, and over a hundred million copies of his books sold in more than forty languages, he is that rarity, a writer who is lauded by critics and revered by readers. And yet curiously little has been written about the man himself.

The Reacher Guy is a compelling and authoritative portrait of the artist as a young man, refracted through the life of his fictional avatar, Jack Reacher. Through parallels drawn between Child and his literary creation, it tells the story of how a boy from Birmingham with a ferocious appetite for reading grew up to become a high-flying TV executive, before coming full circle and establishing himself as the strongest brand in publishing.

Heather Martin explores Child’s lifelong fascination with America, and shows how the Reacher novels fed and fuelled this obsession, shedding light on the opaque process of publishing a novel along the way. Drawing on her conversations and correspondence with Child over a number of years, as well as interviews with his friends, teachers and colleagues, she forensically pieces together his life, traversing back through the generations to Northern Ireland and County Durham, and following the trajectory of his extraordinary career via New York and Hollywood until the climactic moment when, in 2020, having written a continuous series of twenty-four books, he finally breaks free of his fictional creation.

Heather Martin is a lapsed guitarist, a linguist and literary critic, and the authorised biographer of legendary thriller writer Lee Child. She writes regularly for CrimeReads and her short story ‘Goodbye, Wendy’ will appear in Everyday Kindness edited by L. J. Ross and released on November 13 by Dark Skies Publishing. She lives in London and tweets @drheathermartin. 

The Reacher Guy was published in 2020 by Little, Brown UK and Pegasus Books (US) to critical acclaim from The Times, The Telegraph, The Irish Times and The Sydney Morning Herald, and is due out in paperback on October 21. Kenilworth Books have pristine first-edition hardbacks with double-signed bespoke book prints; Blackwell Books have the paperback with double-signed bookplates. Ian Rankin writes: ‘Here is a biography as gripping as one of Lee Child’s own bestsellers. Heather Martin digs deep to uncover nugget after nugget. Trust me, this is gold.’ 

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Friday Night Drinks with… Sverrir Sigurdsson

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Tonight, my guest for Friday Night Drinks is currently on a trip to his home country of Iceland. However, as these drinks are virtual, and thanks to the wonders of technology, he is still able to join me for our chat. Welcome to the blog, author… Sverrir Sigurdsson.

authorsSverrir Sigurdsson and his wife and coauthor, Veronica Li, in front of an Icelandic volcano

Sverrir, thank you for joining me for drinks this evening. First things first, what are you drinking?

I’m drinking red wine. It’s good for the heart. They say one glass of red wine is worth an hour at the gym. So now I’m having my hour at the gym.

If we weren’t here in my virtual bar tonight, but were meeting in real life, where would you be taking me for a night out?

I live in the Washington, DC area, but right now, I’m visiting Iceland. By the way, there’s no “night” out in the land of the midnight sun.

I’ll take you to a place called Perlan, which is on a hilltop in the capital, Reykjavik. This is a restaurant inside a glass dome that gives visitors a panoramic view of the city. Aside from being a tourist attraction, the site also serves a practical purpose. The glass dome sits on top of six hot water tanks. The geothermal water in these tanks is piped into homes for heating.

PerlanA trip to Iceland is high on my bucket list. If you could invite two famous people, one male and one female, alive or dead, along on our night out, who would we be drinking with?

I’d like to invite Winston Churchill, so I can ask him how he decided to invade Iceland back in 1941. What went on in his head?  Although Icelanders eventually welcomed the occupiers as their saviors from the Germans, it was a shock to the nation when British warships arrived in Reykjavik harbor without warning. British soldiers poured out of them and took over the country.

The second person is Hedy Lamar. Her gorgeous looks aside, I want to discuss her inventions with her. I, too, love to concoct new gadgets, though nothing as noteworthy as hers. During World War II, she and a coworker in the film industry invented a remote-control system for torpedoes. It’s still an important part of what we today call WiFi.

So, now we’re settled, tell me what you are up to at the moment. How and why did you start it and where do you want it to go?

I’m now in Iceland to promote my book, Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir. The English edition was published in the U.S. in November 2020. The Icelandic edition, which I translated myself, will be out in the fall of this year. 

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The book is my memoir and starts with my memories of growing up in Iceland. They say Iceland was discovered twice, the first time by Norwegian Vikings who settled on the island in 874 A.D., and the second time by the Allies during the Second World War. As German troops pushed west, Britain, Canada, and the U.S. realized the strategic importance of Iceland, located right in the middle of the North Atlantic. They invaded the country to pre-empt the Germans from using it as a stepping stone to North America.

As the Second World War raged on at my doorstep, I became very aware of a larger world out there. With my Viking heritage goading me on, my heart was set on traveling the world from a young age. At nineteen, I left Iceland to study architecture in Finland, and from thereon I set out to conquer the world. I pursued an international career that took me to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, North and South Americas, and Europe (including Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union).

What has been your proudest moment since you started writing and what has been your biggest challenge?

My proudest moment was holding a copy of my book in my hands. Since there wasn’t much else to do during the pandemic lockdown, I dedicated myself to finishing the book with my co-author and wife, Veronica. Advance copies arrived at our home in June 2020, and the quality of the layout and graphics was everything we’d hoped for. We were very happy to receive a prize from the Wishing Shelf Book Awards in January, 2021. 

The biggest challenge has been the pandemic. Our plan was to carry the advance copies to Iceland. A few days before our trip in July, 2020, Iceland closed its door to Americans. I had to put back in the closet the box of books I’d packed for the trip. The local public library canceled the book launch event it had scheduled for me. Instead of book-signing in person, I met readers online. My book tour went virtual.

But a crisis also creates opportunities. My adventures on the internet have yielded a number of book blogger friends, such as yourself, Julie. I’ve made friends with readers in places as far away as India and Australia. The literary world is truly borderless. 

That’s the great thing about books! What is the one big thing you’d like to achieve in your chosen arena? Be as ambitious as you like, it’s just us talking after all!

I’d love to see my Viking Voyager rise to bestseller rank!  I believe it has appeal to both the old and the young. My story is a reminder of how far the human race has progressed in the twentieth century. From the ashes of the Second World War, the world’s nations went through a period of reconstruction and renaissance. The advancements we enjoy today are fruits of the hard work and resilience of that era. This should instil present and future generations with hope that they too can deal with their challenges. 

I also hope my book will inspire young people to travel, not just as a tourist, but to live and work for a spell in a foreign country. They’ll be surprised what kind of opportunities they’ll find. Most of all, they’ll be surprised to find out who they are and what they’re capable of. 

What have you planned that you are really excited about? 

I’ve traveled to 60 countries during my international career, but my favorite place is still Iceland. 

As I said, I’m there right now. Assuming the volcanic eruption is still ongoing and open to the public in the next weeks, I hope to hike over and watch molten lava spew out and flow down the valley. Eruptions are usually dangerous, but this kind is what Icelanders call a “tourist eruption.”  Instead of explosions, this flare-up is as safe as fireworks and as dramatic. Spectators have been able to walk up to the sizzling lava and cook hot dogs in it.

I’m also excited about my trip to south Iceland, where I spent summers working on a farm from age nine to fourteen. This is part of the volcano belt that gave Iceland its nickname, “land of fire and ice.”  Here, glaciers lie atop volcanoes gurgling and biding their time to erupt. My book cover shows the scenery of this area: a mountain that was once an island, a cliff with a doorway carved by the sea, and in the background the volcano that erupted in 2010 and shut down trans-Atlantic flights for a week. 

The Icelandic landscape is the wild and wonderful creations of violent volcanic activity. Each of the outcroppings mentioned above once sat on a fissure and was formed when fire met ice or seawater, causing the rapidly cooling lava to turn into a rock formation called “tuff” or palagonite. Iceland is full of such fantastic landscape, and despite the many times I toured the country, I haven’t seen them all.

I love to travel, and I’m currently drawing up a bucket list of things I’d like to do in the future. Where is your favourite place that you’ve been and what do you have at the top of your bucket list?

The place I rave about (aside from Iceland) is the Chesapeake Bay in the U.S., about 120 miles from Washington, DC. This is the largest estuary in North America, where more than a hundred rivers and streams meet the tide of the Atlantic Ocean. The bay branches into hundreds of creeks. They’re like fingers gouging into the land and turning them into long and narrow strips, like chicken necks. On one of these necks sits my cottage, which I designed and built with my own two hands. This was my retirement project, a culmination of a lifetime of experience as an architect, builder, and carpenter. It’s a humble cottage designed to give people a comfortable place to enjoy the spectacular view of sky, water, and birdlife. I enjoy it so much I go there every weekend. 

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House on the Chesapeake Bay designed and built by Sverrir

High on my bucket list of places to visit is the Shetland Islands off the north coast of Great Britain. I’ve read about them in the sagas. About 1000 years ago, a Viking chief tended to his farm in Iceland during the summer, and in the fall, when his farm work was done, he and his men sailed to the Shetlands and on to Ireland to rape and plunder. They returned home as heroes. I’d love to see the archeological sites on the islands that show Viking dwellings and longboats, and meet the people who are my relatives. Genetically, Shetlanders and Icelanders have much in common.

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Tell me one interesting/surprising/secret fact about yourself.

Readers would be surprised that I didn’t become fluent in English until well into my twenties. I was well-versed in several Scandinavian languages—Icelandic, Danish, Swedish, and Finnish—and my German was passable. But I’d always viewed English as a scrappy, undisciplined language that jumbled bits and pieces from the Romance and Germanic schools, with neither the ardor of one nor the structure of the other. I didn’t take English seriously until my last years in Finland, when I realized English was the lingua franca of the twentieth century. To prepare for my travels around the world, I gave myself a crash course by consuming every Agatha Christie mystery. It worked!

Books are my big passion and central to my blog and I’m always looking for recommendations. What one book would you give me and recommend as a ‘must-read’?  

Since I’m in Iceland and can’t take my mind off it, I’d recommend Independent People by Halldór Laxness, the Icelandic Nobel Laureate for literature. Veronica says she never understood why I was so strange until she read the book. The main character, an Icelandic farmer, is so stubbornly self-sufficient that it’s comical. He’d rather let himself and his family starve than ask a neighboring farm for help. When he’s out in the frigid wilderness looking for a lost sheep, he pushes a boulder around until he warms up and catches a few hours of sleep. When he’s freezing again, he goes back to pushing the boulder. That about sums up the Icelandic character.

Laxness’s writing is concise, sharp witted, sometimes outright funny, and his characters are so vivid they remind me of people I know. His books have been translated into many languages.

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Bjartus is a sheep farmer determined to eke a living from a blighted patch of land. Nothing, not merciless weather, nor the First World War, nor his family will come between him and his goal of financial independence. Only Asta Solillja, the child he brings up as his daughter, can pierce his stubborn heart. As she grows up, keen to make her own way in the world, Bjartus’ obstinacy threatens to estrange them forever.

So, we’ve been drinking all evening. What is your failsafe plan to avoid a hangover and your go-to cure if you do end up with one?

Drink lots and lots of water! Stay hydrated. It works for me.

After our fabulous night out, what would be your ideal way to spend the rest of a perfect weekend?

My cousin Agnar has organized a family reunion for me. It would be like old times. We were six boys who terrorized the neighborhood: my brother and I and my uncle’s four sons. We lived in the same apartment building, played hide and seek in our neighbors’ yards, and held stone-throwing contests, sometimes with disastrous results. It’s most satisfying to see we’re all grandfathers now and comfortably retired. Except for me and one of my cousins who lives in Norway, they’ve all returned home after a stint studying and working overseas. That seems to be the Icelandic pattern since the old Viking days. 

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Sverrir is second from right

Sverrir, thank you for joining me, this has been an entertaining and informative chat and has increased my desire to visit Iceland soon.

 Sverrir’s book, Viking Voyager won a prize at the Wishing Shelf Book Awards. You can buy a copy here.

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This vivacious personal story captures the heart and soul of modern Iceland. Born in Reykjavik on the eve of the Second World War, Sverrir Sigurdsson watched Allied troops invade his country and turn it into a bulwark against Hitler’s advance toward North America. The country’s post-war transformation from an obscure, dirt-poor nation to a prosperous one became every Icelander’s success. Spurred by this favorable wind, Sverrir answered the call of his Viking forefathers, setting off on a voyage that took him around the world. Join him on his roaring adventures!

From Rosie Amber’s review site: “Until we are once again able to travel as freely as we did before the advent of Covid 19, we have the joy of books like Viking Voyager to entertain and inform us.”

Sverrir Sigurdsson grew up in Iceland and graduated as an architect from Finland in 1966. He pursued an international career that took him to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the U.S. His assignments focused on school construction and improving education in developing countries. He has worked for private companies, as well as UNESCO and the World Bank. He is now retired and lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and coauthor, Veronica.

You can connect with Sverrir via Facebook and Twitter.

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Guest Post: Viking Voyager by Sverrir Sigurdsson with Veronica Li

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This vivacious personal story captures the heart and soul of modern Iceland.

Born in Reykjavik on the eve of the Second World War, Sverrir Sigurdsson watched Allied troops invade his country and turn it into a bulwark against Hitler’s advance toward North America. The country’s post-war transformation from an obscure, dirt-poor nation to a prosperous one became every Icelander’s success.

Spurred by this favourable wind, Sverrir answered the call of his Viking forefathers, setting off on a voyage that took him around the world. Join him on his roaring adventures!

Today I am delighted to be hosting a guest post by Sverrir Sigurdsson on the process of co-writing his book, Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir with his wife, Veronica Li. Over to Sverrir to share his piece.

Husband-Wife Collaboration by Sverrir Sigurdsson

When I told stories of my travel adventures to friends, their reaction was often, “Why don’t you write your memoir?”  I never thought I was important enough to do that.  At the same time, I did have many fond and exciting memories of growing up in Iceland and later traveling the world for both work and pleasure.  So, I started jotting down memorable recollections and saving them in a folder called Episodes on my hard drive. 

In my retirement, after I’d done everything I ever wanted to do, including designing and building a house with my own hands, I got more serious about writing down my memories.  I now live in the U.S. and am watching my all-American grandson grow up with little knowledge of his heritage.  The desire to leave him a cultural legacy became more urgent.

I showed a few of my “episodes” to my wife for feedback.  Veronica is a former journalist and published author who had taken a “Glad he has something to occupy him in his retirement” attitude toward my project.  But one day, she looked up from reading one of my episodes and said, “Sverrir, you’ve really had an interesting life.”  From then on, my project became hers too.

The first step was to decide on a focus.  This was easy as we both knew what I was about.  The theme would be my life as a modern-day Viking, traveling the world like my forefathers.  The memoir would hark back to my childhood in Iceland, which shaped my outward-looking worldview.

We hit an impasse in chapter one.  Veronica wanted to start with the present and from thereon traverse a flexible timeline between past and present.  I wanted chronological order, beginning from my grandparents and working my way linearly to the present.  After several rounds of verbal fistfights, I threw in my knockout punch.  “This is my life.  I’ll write it the way I want.”  She lay down and surrendered, or more like played dead.

Thus I started my story with the tragedy that befell my maternal grandfather.  I believed this was the root of who I was and felt compelled to get it out on the first page.  I dumped it all out, everything I knew about the incident and the life of Icelandic fishermen.  Veronica and I worked and reworked the chapter several times, and the final product was, to our surprise, everything we both wanted.  In the middle of the distant past, she sneaked in time-traveling to the present and made me introduce myself as an old man writing to leave a legacy to future generations.  This became the blueprint for the rest of the book.  The chapters are chronological in order, but within the chapter, the story flashes backward and forward to other time zones, offering a rather kaleidoscopic dimension.

No two people can be more different than Veronica and I.  She’s a people person and calls me a “thing” person.  Being a passionate carpenter and a professional architect, I’m in tune with wood, brick, and mortar but a moron with regard to human emotions and signals. She, on the other hand, can sniff out emotions like a dog but is blind as a bat to the world of machines and hardware.  Her nagging question, “So how did you feel?” annoyed me to no end.  But as she pushed me to probe into myself, I unearthed emotions I didn’t know I had.  Such as the Christmas my father traveled to a London hospital to undergo life-saving treatment for his kidney disease.  As a ten-year-old, I said goodbye to Dad one bleak, cold morning.  The family doctor had warned my mother to be “prepared.”  I don’t remember feeling anything at that moment, but I do remember the sadness that spilled out when Mother brought out the previous year’s Christmas tree from the attic.  Because of Dad’s illness, my parents pinched every penny, including money for a tree.  The poor tree looked like a mangy animal, with its needles brown and half gone.  Writing about it seventy years later made me realize I had feelings after all!

Veronica’s ignorance in mechanical matters also forced me to a new level—hers.  I’d assumed everyone knew the mechanics of a car engine, a block and tackle pulley system, or a carbon arc lamp.  When I realized she had no clue, I had to draw it out in diagrams for her.  Once she understood, she popularized my techno-jargon into a flowing narrative for every audience.  She was happy for the new knowledge and I was happy to be saved from my geeky self.

Our disparate talents also came in handy in describing scenery.  Veronica drew from her poetic instincts, comparing rock pillars rising from the sea to “spikes on a dragon back,” and well-fed glaciers to “paunches of sleeping giants.”  My contribution was my knowledge of geology, something all Icelanders learn as children.  In a country where glaciers sit like lids on volcanos, the dramatic reaction of fire meeting ice causes fast-cooling lava to turn into a rock formation called tuff or palagonite.  This is the stuff that forms much of the spectacular landscapes Iceland is famous for.

I’d thought the gap between our personalities would cause contention, but it turned out to be our strength.  And when friends ask, we answer yes, we’re still happily married.

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Thank you for sharing that with us Sverrir, it sounds like each of you brought your strengths to the writing of the book and I’m looking forward to reading it soon.

Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir is out now and you can buy a copy here.

Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir is a prize winner of The Wishing Shelf Book Awards organized by a group of UK authors.
“Not only a well written memoir, but an interesting take on Icelandic history from post-World War Two until present day. A RED RIBBON WINNER and highly recommended.” The Wishing Shelf Book Awards

About the Authors

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Sverrir Sigurdsson grew up in Iceland and graduated as an architect from Finland in 1966. He pursued an international career that took him to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the U.S. His assignments focused on school construction and improving education in developing countries. He has worked for private companies as well as UNESCO and the World Bank. He is now retired and lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and coauthor, Veronica.

Veronica Li emigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong as a teenager. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and her masters degree in International Affairs from Johns Hopkins University. She has worked as a journalist and for the World Bank, and is currently a writer. Her three previously published titles are: Nightfall in Mogadishu, Journey across the Four Seas: A Chinese Woman’s Search for Home, and Confucius Says: A Novel.

Connect with the authors:

Facebook: Sverrir Sigurdsson

Twitter: @Sverrir_Sigurds

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Book Review: The Man in Black – Peter Moore: Wales’ Worst Serial Killer by Dylan Rhys Jones #BookReview

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The true story of former criminal defence lawyer Dylan Rhys Jones’ experience of defending Rhyl serial killer Peter Moore, found guilty in 1996 of murdering four men and seriously assaulting many more, and referred to by the judge when sentencing as as dangerous a man as it is possible to find.

I am happy to be posting my review today of The Man in Black by Dylan Rhys Jones. My thanks to the author for inviting me to review his book and providing me with a digital copy for that purpose. I have reviewed the book honestly and impartially.

I don’t read true crime books. It’s not something that interests me, reading about the depravity that some human beings are capable of and I’m not in the habit of celebrating or glamourising these criminals until they become some kind of twisted celebrity. However, when I was approached by Dylan to review his book, I agreed because this is a different type of true crime novel. It focuses on the experience of a solicitor who is called upon to represent a serial killer in his legal case. As a non-practising solicitor myself, I was really fascinated to read about this experience first hand in a non-fictional book. It is something that every law student imagines when they are studying criminal law at university, but very, very few ever experience.

I first decided I wanted to be a lawyer aged 13, because of the TV show, Crown Court. I don’t know how many of you will remember this programme (if you’ve never seen it, Google it), but I was obsessed with it. At the time, I was convinced it was real, I didn’t realise it was fictional, and I was determined I was going to become a criminal barrister. At university, I found the criminal law module of my degree fascinating but, as I studied and then began my training contract in a firm, it became clear that I was no advocate and that my talents lay in the non-contentious area of corporate law and mergers and acquisitions. The practice of criminal law is not much like the portrayals you see on TV. It is much darker, dirtier and depressing than you see, but so, so necessary for the justice system to operate fairly and I have nothing but admiration for the people who make this their vocation – because this is what it is. They are not in it for the fame or fortune, but because they are called to help people.

All of this becomes very clear when you read this book by Dylan Rhys Jones, as he describes to you his experience of being the solicitor charged with acting on behalf of serial killer, Peter Moore in the mid-1990s. The book focuses on his emotional reaction to dealing with this depraved man, the long term effects it had on him personally and his impressions of Peter Moore as an individual. It is absolutely riveting. Very, very few of us will ever have such close, personal contact with someone accused of such evil acts, and to read about how Dylan interacted with this man, accused of some totally heinous acts, what effect having to become so intimately acquainted with the horrendous crimes he committed, the long-lasting psychological effects it had on him – well, it will open the eyes of anyone who has ever wondered how criminal lawyers can represent such criminals and how it feels to be ‘taking their side.’

Despite the fact this is focused mostly on the legal side of the case and the solicitor, and does not portray things from the killer’s side or try to get in to his mind, there are still some graphic descriptions of the crimes and parts of it are deeply disturbing. For me, the toll that representing someone like Peter Moore takes on his legal team is possibly the most disturbing part and just confirmed to me what heroes these people are. Criminals need robust legal representation, regardless of what they are accused of, for our adversarial legal system to operate fairly, but criminal defence lawyers are regularly scorned and maligned. Anyone reading this book should come away with a much clearer and fairer understanding of why their job is vital and what they sacrifice in order to do it. If you don’t come away with massive sympathy for the author at the end of this book, I would be amazed.

This book is really honest, well-written and compelling. I was gripped from beginning to end by Dylan’s vivid descriptions of what he went through in representing this man, and I came away with so much admiration for him. I have never been more sure that I made the right decision not to become a criminal law solicitor, I would never have been robust enough to survive it, and also reminded me why I don’t read true crime books. This is a must read for anyone who wants to see the story of a serial killer from a unique and completely different angle.

The Man in Black is out now in paperback and ebook formats and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Former criminal defence lawyer Dylan Rhys Jones has also lectured on Ethics and the Law at medical conferences, and is a regular lecturer on Law and Criminology. He is not only a marker and moderator for the WJEC Criminology examination, but was also co-writer of the examination as well as contributing to the inception, writing and thereafter presenting of the Criminal Justice and Offender Management foundation degree course at Coleg Cambria and Chester University.

He is a regular contributor on radio news programmes and programmes about politics and the law and has also worked on numerous TV programmes. He is currently working on a TV documentary about the Peter Moore case.

Connect with Dylan:

Twitter: @drjdylan

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The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: Tall Tales and Wee Stories by Billy Connolly #BookReview

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In December 2018, after fifty years of belly-laughs, energy and outrage, Billy Connolly announced his retirement from live stand-up comedy. It had been an extraordinary career.

When he first started out in the late sixties, Billy played the banjo in the folk clubs of Scotland. Between songs, he would improvise a bit, telling anecdotes from the Clyde shipyard where he’d worked. In the process, he made all kinds of discoveries about what audiences found funny, from his own brilliant mimes to the power of speaking irreverently about politics or explicitly about sex. He began to understand the craft of great storytelling. Soon the songs became shorter and the monologues longer, and Billy quickly became recognised as one of the most exciting comedians of his generation.

Billy’s routines always felt spontaneous. He never wrote scripts, always creating his comedy freshly on stage in the presence of a live audience. A brilliant comic story might be subsequently discarded, adapted or embellished. A quick observation or short anecdote one night, could become a twenty-minute segment by the next night of a tour.

Billy always brought a beautiful sense of the absurd to his shows as he riffed on his family, hecklers, swimming in the North Sea or naked bungee jumping. But his comedy can be laced with anger too. He hates pretentiousness and calls out hypocrisy wherever he sees it. His insights about the human condition have shocked many people, while his unique talent and startling appearance on stage gave him license to say anything he damn well pleased about sex, politics or religion.

Billy got away with it because he has always had the popular touch. His comedy spans generations and different social tribes in a way that few others have ever managed.

Tall Tales and Wee Stories brings together the very best of Billy’s storytelling for the first time and includes his most famous routines including, The Last Supper, Jojoba Shampoo, Incontinence Pants and Shouting at Wildebeest. With an introduction and original illustrations by Billy throughout

The fourth category in the Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021 is ‘Read a book by an author you would like to meet.’ I could not choose between two authors for this challenge, so I decided to do one in paperback and one in audiobook format. The first book I have chosen is Tall Tales and Wee Stories by Billy Connolly. As an interesting aside, this was the last book I bought in an airport, on a trip to New York in February 2020. Remember the days of buying books in airports? I  wonder when they will come around again!

I’ve been a massive Billy Connolly fan for many years. I’ve got lots of DVDs featuring his standup and travelogues, and I was lucky enough to see him live twice. He never fails to make me laugh, even just on a chat show. So it was with great sadness I heard about his retirement, although entirely understandable in his circumstances.

I was looking forward to reading this book in which he has gathered many of his most famous stories for posterity. Billy never really told ‘jokes,’ they were always funny anecdotes and tales, often poking fun at himself or other absurdities he saw in every day life. He often talked about sex and bodily functions, and was very sweary and he makes no apology for that, so the book would not be for anyone who did not like this in his live shows because Billy is exactly the same in the book as when performing. If you did love his humour though, you will find many of your favourite stories within these pages.

The book is split in to chapters on different, loosely connected topics, but otherwise it is fairly randomly organised with just little anecdotes and longer ones interspersed with comments, thoughts and musings on his life and career. Some people won’t like it because it isn’t a particular linear format, but then Billy’s comedy was never like that. He would start on a topic and then wander off at a tangent when other things occurred to him before looping back round to the original story (or sometimes not!), so the book is a good reflection of his style and really brought him to life for me.

I could hear his voice telling these familiar, and some unfamiliar, stories very clearly. Parts of it made me laugh out loud and I had to keep stopping to read bits aloud to The Irishman who kept asking me what I was laughing at. It was a book that really cheered me up during this lockdown. However, it is not the same as watching Billy perform, and you realise how much his expressions and gestures and movements added to the comedy of his story-telling. The ‘Wildebeest’ example illustrates this best. It is many people’s favourite story of Billy’s, but it just isn’t as funny when you can’t see him doing the vacant expression of the wildebeest and the actions of the lions as they plan their attack.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this but it can’t replace Billy’s performances, and I for one will miss him terribly. I wish I could have met him in real life just once before Parkinson’s started to take effect. I’m sure it would have been great craic.

Tall Tales and Wee Stories is out now in all formats except audio and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Sir William Connolly, CBE is a much-loved Scottish comedian, musician, presenter and actor. He is the recipient of a BAFTA Lifetime Achievement Award and is regularly voted the nation’s favourite stand-up comedian. Billy was born and raised in Glasgow and now lives in America. He announced his retirement from live performance in December 2018.

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Friday Night Drinks with… Grae J. Wall

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Welcome to February! It’s feeling tentatively spring-like here in South Yorkshire today. The snow of the early week has melted and my crocus shoots are poking through the earth. All of this has brought with it s small tingle of optimism and, it is in this spirit I welcome tonight’s guest to the blog for Friday Night Drinks, poet… Grae J. Wall.

Welcome to the blog, Grae. Thank you for joining me for drinks this evening. First things first, what are you drinking?

Given the auspicious occasion it will have to be a fine Normandy Calvados – santé.

If we weren’t here in my virtual bar tonight, but were meeting in real life, where would you be taking me for a night out?

We’d have to also step back in time a couple of years as it’s sadly no longer there, but let’s head to Pastis Bar in Barcelona. It’s a tiny bar covered in weird and wonderful paintings and photos pertaining to its origin as a bar for French sailors arriving in Port.  The owner Angel is an enigmatic character who rarely smiles – one evening we set ourselves the challenge of eliciting a grin – a tough task but we got there in the end. The soundtrack is always Piaf, Brel or Aznavour, but also each night someone will take to what must literally be the smallest stage in the world – just room for one stool and a microphone. I have joyously performed there several times but perhaps my favourite evening there was when an accomplished Tango guitarist took to the stage. Part way through the evening a couple at the bar suddenly stood up and somehow in the limited space danced a suave passionate tango to the utter delight of all present. One of my favourite drinking spots on the planet – I think you’ll like it!

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If you could invite two famous people, one male and one female, alive or dead, along on our night out, who would we be drinking with?

Well I think Patti Smith for sure. I’ve always wanted to go drinking with Patti as she’s both a huge inspiration and a sterling raconteur. There’s so much I’d love to discuss – poetry, music, art and photography of course but also humanist politics and great coffee. We’d obviously talk about Jim Morrison and Arthur Rimbaud, CBGB’S and the beats. Perhaps we could even persuade her to take to that tiny stage for an impromptu reading of Piss Factory.

Shall we go with Leonard Cohen as our other guest? I love that despite all his writing and performing he somehow retained a certain air of mystery in life – perhaps one or two snippets might be revealed. From those days of trying to be an author on Hydra to accidentally becoming one of the finest poets and songwriters of his generation. That amazing return – having retired and then discovered himself to be in a dire financial situation – coming back with such panache and gusto. I love the poetry he wrote from his Mount Baldy retreat – seemingly wrestling and failing at becoming a good Buddhist – I can relate. Such a dark wit would be compelling company for sure – and of course another potential floor spot for the evening.

Can you imagine being present for that once only Patti and Leonard duet!

Wouldn’t that be an evening! So, now we’re settled, tell me what you are up to at the moment. How and why did you start it and where do you want it to go?

Well I have recently published a book of my poems (along with a few photos) – The Sound of Revolution. It was one of the positives to come out of the strange year that was 2020. Having been furloughed from my job as an Arts facilitator in March I was writing quite a lot but also found myself being asked to read and contribute to a variety of on-line festivals and events which I really enjoyed. I also decamped to my wife’s little summerhouse at the bottom of the garden and set about recording a little album mixing up poems and songs – mouseclubvirusblues – which I released on Bandcamp.  Following that I did a little interview with Andy N for his Spoken Label podcast and he asked if I was planning to publish a new book and that set me thinking that perhaps I should. The last little book I put together was probably 10 years ago now and was a very slim and limited edition so I figured it was about time. I have had a few individual poems published in various places and of course regularly post to The Poetry Underground – a Facebook group that I facilitate – but this just felt like the right moment to put together something a bit more substantial. Being furloughed allowed me the time to put it together (with the help of my daughter Emelia). For me live (or even virtually live) performance is hugely important, whether that be straight poetry gigs or mixing up poetry and music and it’s really nice to have that product that I feel proud of that I can offer to folks at the end of the show. Moving forward it’s just getting back to performing, touring and playing crazy little festivals – it was tough being a troubadour in 2020 and I’m relishing being able to re-engage with that soul.

What has been your proudest moment since you started writing and what has been your biggest challenge?

I have been asked to contribute to or perform poems at several Environmental events and publications including Extinction Rebellion. Being able to engage people on such an important platform is a real honour. It’s something my mum used to do – writing poems on local issues and submitting them to the local press – and I have a feeling she’d approve. I have had folks contacting me and thanking me for some of these posts and appearances which is very sweet. Similarly I have performed at events around issues of mental health and again received some very positive responses which have been gratifying.

My biggest challenge I guess was returning from my own worst moments of ill mental health, continuing to write, record, perform and tour – not allowing those darker impulses to dictate the person you are. Accepting those demons and channeling them creatively has actually proved a strength and inspiration.

What is the one big thing you’d like to achieve in your chosen arena? Be as ambitious as you like, its just us talking after all!

I’m not even sure I really know what that is – it’s not something I ponder on much. Maybe just being given Turbine Hall at Tate Modern to do with as I wish for some huge anarchic poetry, lomography and music installation. I guess the world tour would be nice too – but for now the Turbine Hall will suffice.

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What are have planned that you are really excited about?

It hasn’t been a great year for being able to make plans but I’m just excited at being able to perform in front of real audiences again. I can’t wait to get back on the road for new adventures. In my arts worker post we had a great project planned for 2020 – Odetoberfest – a month long celebration of poetry and spoken word. We had John Hegley booked and lots of great events planned and of course we had to cancel the whole thing which was a big disappointment so maybe we can return to that plan. I’m excited about collaborating again – working with my musical compadres but also just mixing things up more – refusing to be pigeonholed or sitting in a particular box – life’s too short.

I love to travel, and I’m currently drawing up a bucket list of things I’d like to do in the future. Where is your favourite place that you’ve been and what do you have at the top of your bucket list?

I’ve been so lucky to be able to tour a lot on the continent – especially Germany, France and Catalunya and I have favourite little corners of each. We got married though in Las Vegas and drove over to San Francisco stopping off in Bakersfield. That was a great road trip and I loved each part of it – channeling Hunter S. Thompson, Merle Haggard and Jack Kerouac. The morning of the wedding I went for a drive down the strip and found a doo wop station on the radio – one of the coolest moments in my life, just cruising through this mad town wearing a sharp suit singing along to Sam Cooke and The Coasters. Along with the cool and the crazy it was a real eye opener discovering Americas’s underbelly – the extreme poverty and this nation of the lost and lonely that you don’t really see in the movies. We thought we were gonna die in Bakersfield when a car slowed and the window came down but actually we just got egged. In San Francisco I had the finest breakfast of my life – pancakes with blueberries and maple syrup – perfect.

I’d like to return to the States but this time it would be a road trip to take in New Orleans, Nashville and Memphis, maybe Detroit too. I love country music, the blues, jazz, soul and rock ‘n’ roll so it would be something of a spiritual pilgrimage – like coming home. I want to do the Grand Ole Opry, Graceland and find those devilish cross roads, though my soul is emphatically not for sale. Say a prayer on the street Johnny Thunders died, drink hard bourbon on Beale Street and maybe even find a breakfast to rival San Francisco.

You’ve picked some of my favourite places there. Love the madness of Vegas. We did the Nashville- Memphis- New Orleans road trip about five years ago and it was possibly my favourite trip ever. All great cities. I’m definitely going to go back to Nashville but swing up to Pigeon Forge & pay homage to the great Dolly Parton next time. Tell me one interesting/surprising/secret fact about yourself.

I was the first and last Arts Council of England Contemporary and Community Music Officer. I was offered more drugs in that role than I ever have as a gigging poet and musician!

Books are my big passion and central to my blog and I’m always looking for recommendations. What one book would you give me and recommend as a ‘must-read’?

Wow – just one that’s tough! I’ll give a fleeting mention to Danny Sugerrman’s No One Here Gets Out Alive (Jim Morrison biography) which I genuinely have recommended to a few people over the years as being the finest rock ‘n’ roll biog of all time.

The book I’ll go with though is Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine. I think it’s one of the rawest and most honest autobiographies I have ever read (along with Patti’s Just Kids – better mention that as she’s here with us!). As a journey of self-discovery, life struggle and rebirth it’s beautifully written and genuinely compelling. From those stumbling, awkward, awakening days of punk through serious illness to Hastings housewife. Viv writes so naturally and seemingly without filter offering a very personal and sometimes surprising insight in to some much covered characters including The Pistols and The Clash. What followed those years though is no less dramatic or intriguing, cancer, IVF, a grown-up job and the sad breakdown of her marriage at times find you almost shouting ‘too much information’ – but like an ambulance chaser you somehow just can’t look away. Having read and loved the book I went along to Q&A and signing session at a record Shop in Letchworth and found her to be as thoughtful, funny, self-depreciating and candid as her writing would imply. As a debut book it is really quite astoundingly accomplished and whether you are a Slits fan or not I think anyone would find the telling of her story touching and accessible. When after 25 years she decides to go and perform at an open mic night the self doubt and first night nerves rekindled you are feeling each anxious moment with her and long to offer some words of reassurance – ‘it’s OK Viv – you’ll be fine’!

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In 1975, Viv Albertine was obsessed with music but it never occurred to her she could be in a band as she couldn’t play an instrument and she’d never seen a girl play electric guitar.

A year later, she was the guitarist in the hugely influential all-girl band the Slits, who fearlessly took on the male-dominated music scene and became part of a movement that changed music.

A raw, thrilling story of life on the frontiers and a candid account of Viv’s life post-punk – taking in a career in film, the pain of IVF, illness and divorce and the triumph of making music again – Clothes Music Boys is a remarkable memoir.

So, we’ve been drinking all evening. What is your failsafe plan to avoid a hangover and your go-to cure if you do end up with one?

I have reached an age where I do try to avoid hangovers as they just seem to last so long. I’m genuinely quite good at moderation and learnt years ago (you need to on tour) to order a glass of water each time you order a glass of wine so you have a steady intake of water throughout the evening. Never drink on an empty stomach. The other thing is stick to quality alcohol. Touring in Germany is a joy as the beer is just so good and I rarely feel hung-over there (unless we’ve finished the evening with copious schnapps which is lethal).  Always have a glass of water before sleeping and if you’ve really overdone it make that a Berocca! Should none of that work then take a late breakfast at an outdoor café – double espresso, large fresh juice and water with a large fresh croissant – sorted.

After our fabulous night out, what would be your ideal way to spend the rest of a perfect weekend?

I’m not one for regular shopping but I love mooching round a good flea market (good for vintage lomo-cameras) or alternatively a musty bookshop or geeky record store. Saturday night is for finding an off-track bar to discover that new favourite singer/band – something cool and dark and damaged. As we are in Barcelona then the Museum of Contemporary Art is a must – great building, great exhibitions, great gift store. This an ideal Sunday thing to do and after wandering the gallery it’s perfect to take a light lunch at one of the neighbouring cafes and watch the ever present skater kids manoeuvring the concrete plaza out front. Maybe a decent art-house cinema Sunday evening – a cold war thriller or some new scandi-noir.

Thank you for joining me tonight, Grae, it has been a refreshingly rock ‘n’ roll evening!

Grae’s latest book, The Sound of Revolution can be found at www.graejwall.com/books (also available in e-format from regular platforms). The mouseclubvirusblues album can be found at www.graejwall.bandcamp.com . Whether you want to contribute or just check out the posts come join https://www.facebook.com/groups/thepoetryunderground . For regular gig updates go to www.facebook.com/trashvilleUK .

Grae J. Wall is a poet, songwriter and lomographer from St Albans UK

As an eternal troubadour, Grae’s poems and songs are often inspired by his road trips, with narratives set in the motels of Bakersfield, the bar-rooms of Berlin and the back-streets of Paris. Grae has performed at Glastonbury, Boomtown, Bestival and many more intimate festivals and venues across Europe.

Recent (actual and virtual) gigs have included Paris Lit Up, The Poetry Cafe, The Festival of New Ideas and All in the Mind Festival. Grae’s work has appeared in and on many publications, radio shows and podcasts including recent contributions to Rebelzine (Extinction Rebellion), The Rising Sun Isolation Quilt, Invisible Folk Club and Artists Responding To.

Grae J. and Los Chicos Muertos have shared the stage with inspirational characters including TV Smith, Patrik Fitzgerald, John Cooper Clarke and Jowe Head as well as backing Ed Tudorpole a few times on live renditions of Swords of a Thousand Men. They have also collaborated on the production of the acclaimed Knoxville Boy album with Knox (The Vibrators) .

Grae runs both The Poetry Underground and Isolation Arts Cafe group pages on Facebook. He has been a regular promoter as well as performer over the years facilitating gigs in many back room bars as well as showcases at Glastonbury and Trafalgar Square.

You can find out more about Grae via his website, Twitter and Instagram.

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Guest Post: The Sifnos Chronicles by Sharon Blomfield

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Photo credit: Brian Richardson

Quirky and beguiling, often unwittingly funny, and always so utterly kind, the people of the Greek island of Sifnos charm and fascinate. They roar past on motorbikes with whole families squeezed on top, plus whatever earthly goods they can manage to hold on to. They live their lives in the open, their shouts, their squabbles, and their laughter in plain view of anyone who takes the time to notice. Open-hearted and spontaneous, they ply strangers with countless gifts… … and, impromptu, they invite a passing traveller to their wedding.

Filled with encounters and observation, gentle humour, and more than one unforeseeable twist, The Sifnos Chronicles is a narrative tale that takes readers along on this traveller’s journey through whitewashed alleys, into homey tavernas, across ancient marbled paths through the hills, and ultimately into the heart of this magical isle.

Today I am delighted to welcome to the blog Sharon Blomfield, who is going to tell us about the inspiration behind her travel memoir, The Sifnos Chronicles. Over to you, Sharon.

When The Muse Speaks by Sharon Blomfield

I still recall the exact moment, know precisely where I was sitting in that Greek island taverna. The taste of fresh herbs in the revithokeftedes, those chick pea fritters I’d polished off, still lingers on my tongue. My nose quivers still at thoughts of the hot olive oil that hung in the air. That tall man in the fisherman’s hat had just stuck his head through the front door and had started into another of those faux-Shakespearean soliloquies of his. It was at that very instant that the island itself grabbed me by the hand and gave a firm yank. There’s a book here, it said, and you are the one who must write it.

A book? A whole book? Not me. It was short articles I wrote, travel stories, not books. Plus, the ferry was about to arrive and in minutes would take me away. My time on Sifnos was finished.

The island, though, had other ideas about that.

When I’d arrived on Sifnos three weeks before, I’d found pretty much what I’d expected of a Cycladic Greek isle. Blue skies, marshmallow-white buildings, crimson bougainvillea spilling over it all. But almost right away I sensed something else, something quite curious, a sensation I’ve never felt anywhere else on my travels. It was as though I’d landed somehow in the middle of a story, one with a whole cast of characters carrying on around me, wandering through my days. Every morning the same ones would flock to the square to inspect the fishmongers’ wares, never to buy, merely to see who caught what last night. There was the family who thought nothing of squabbling in view of everyone in their taverna, the bossy mother-in-law  in the corner peeling potatoes, the kids who’d ignore their mother’s loud orders and run in from the street and back out at will, the husband who’d bury his head in the TV and ignore it all, who we watched once turn up the volume when there were too many customers and he couldn’t hear. The Happy Greek my own husband dubbed him. That tall man in the fisherman’s hat who pretended to be Italian and thus more sophisticated, but wasn’t either, who you’d see every day squish himself into the cab of his tiny three-wheeled truck and tootle off across the island in search of someone – anyone – who’d pay attention to his latest outlandish antics. For those weeks I threw myself into their midst, waited to see what would happen and wisely as it turned out, recorded everything I could recall in my journal at night, laughing at so much of what I’d observed once more.

I revelled too in the kindnesses I’d received. The kindnesses, oh my. The generosity. The hearts so wide open, so willing to embrace even a random traveller like me. There were sweet treats galore at the end of most meals. The man who, after we’d paid, would invent a different excuse every time to pour us an ouzo. “To fight off the cold,” it was one balmy night, then he’d sit with us and chat for another hour or so. There was Coffee Shop Lady whose warm hand on my shoulder one morning spoke the words our lack of a common language couldn’t. And the dear woman we called Grandma who cut a bouquet of roses from her garden for me once, but snipped off every single last thorn before she’d hand them over.

The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle, the book that muse of an island coaxed out of me, begins on that ferry two years later, this time in the moments before it lands on Sifnos again. Finished with this island, I was not. Hardly. Those characters and their faces were as real to me as though I’d seen them all yesterday.

I was under no illusions, though. We two Canadians were but tourists here, mere blips in the passing crowd that had surely numbered in the thousands in the two years since we’d been gone. Memories of us, if wisps of them remained at all, would have dimmed to almost nothing.

But once again, this island had its own opinion about that. As we walked down the alley on our way to dinner that first night, Grandma was exactly where I expected to see her and she rushed toward us with a smile and warm hugs once more. The Happy Greek was right where we’d left him and he spotted us right away as we crossed the square on our way toward his place. “You!” he exclaimed as we neared and his index finger practically jabbed my husband in the chest. “Two years,” he marvelled at how long we told him it was we’d been away. Inside, our usual table, the one with the best view of the goings-on, was still vacant and we sat down right where we’d left off. Ouzo man was soon back at it once more. Fisherman Hat guy too.

Over the next four weeks, there were more people to see again, and new ones as well, and twists of fate we never saw coming. A photograph my husband did on the first trip popped up again and in one heart-stopping moment cemented his connection forever with a family of fishermen and their tiny seaside village. A chance encounter netted us an impromptu invitation to one of those quintessentially Greek island weddings. High on a hill at the end of the island, the church was white and blue-domed, of course, and surrounded by the Aegean on almost four sides. The ceremony, bathed in the warmth of the late afternoon sun and presided over by two black-hatted priests, smashed forever my illusions about Greek Orthodox religious practice and how sombre it is.

That muse was right. A whole book was what I was living on Sifnos, and when at the end of a month we returned home, I began in earnest to write The Sifnos Chronicles, my tales from this Greek isle.

When a place calls to your heart as strongly as this one has to mine and says you must return, you must. As often as it insists you must. Nine more times to Sifnos since the events in that book and counting, in our case. And always, the island has made known its demands of me. There’s a second book now too. Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales, set six years later in that tiny fishing village, tells more of the fun, of the relationships with this island and its people and how they’ve grown. There is too my blog, The Sifnos Chronicler.

The message Sifnos had for me that day in that taverna was loud. I can’t wait to see this pandemic in the rear view mirror, to get back to my island again, to see what else it has in store.

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Thank you so much for sharing that with us, Sharon, it’s made me want to travel to Sifnos immediately. Let’s hope we are all able to visit our favourite destinations again soon.

If you would like to get your own copy of The Sifnos Chronicles  and do some armchair travelling whilst stuck at home, you can buy a copy hereThe Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales is also available here. But if you’re on Sifnos, drop into To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop, in Apollonia. (https://www.facebook.com/Το-Βιβλιοπωλείο-The-Bookshop-Sifnos-270568056317513) Independent book stores everywhere need our support now more than ever.

About the Author

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I am a writer and traveller who on my wanderings has found myself somehow invited to tour an odd hobbit-like house in the South Seas, to drink wine in the kitchen of a sunburned chalet in a high Alpine pasture, and to be a guest at a Greek island wedding. My stories and photographs have appeared in newspapers and magazines in Canada and abroad, among them The Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Boston Globe and France’s Courrier International. I live in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada with my photographer husband and fellow traveller, Jim Blomfield. 

The year 2006 brought us to Greece for the first time, to the island of Sifnos. It was meant to be a one-time visit but what I hadn’t counted on was how the kindness of its people and the unexpected adventures we encountered there would melt my heart and how we’d be drawn back almost every year after that, always for a month at a time. How Sifnos would turn me into a book author and a blogger. 

Connect with Sharon:

Website: http://www.sharonblomfield.com/home.html

Facebook: Sharon Blomfield

Twitter: @SharonBlomfield

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Book Review: More Than A Woman by Caitlin Moran

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A decade ago, Caitlin Moran thought she had it all figured out. Her instant bestseller How to Be a Woman was a game-changing take on feminism, the patriarchy, and the general ‘hoo-ha’ of becoming a woman. Back then, she firmly believed ‘the difficult bit’ was over, and her forties were going to be a doddle.

If only she had known: when middle age arrives, a whole new bunch of tough questions need answering. Why isn’t there such a thing as a ‘Mum Bod’? How did sex get boring? What are men really thinking? Where did all that stuff in the kitchen drawers come from? Can feminists have Botox? Why has wine turned against you? How can you tell the difference between a Teenage Micro-Breakdown, and The Real Thing? Has feminism gone too far? And, as always, WHO’S LOOKING AFTER THE CHILDREN?

Now with ageing parents, teenage daughters, a bigger bum and a To-Do list without end, Caitlin Moran is back with More Than A Woman: a guide to growing older, a manifesto for change, and a celebration of all those middle-aged women who keep the world turning.

It’s taken me ages to get round to writing this review, I finished the book weeks ago. I’m not sure why, I think I’ve been worried that I can’t do justice to how I feel about More Than A Woman within the confines of a blog post. I’d actually like to read it again and try and distill my thoughts a bit more but there isn’t time so I’m going in, for better or worse. Sometimes it’s harder to write a review of a book you loved passionately than it is a book you felt lukewarm about.

Caitlin’s previous book, How To Be A Woman, made me snort a copious quantity of hot tea down my nose on a crowded train back in 2011, which was both painful and embarrassing, so I approached this book with some caution. More Than A Woman has the same mixture of humour, brutal honesty, searing insight and pathos as the last one, but this time Caitlin has grown up, hit middle age and is sharing that experience with us, no holds barred and, just like last time, I recognised so much of my own life and experience between the pages.

Caitlin and I are of an age so, although much of our life experiences have been very different, the basic building blocks of being a forty-something woman in modern Britain are universal. Relationships, children, body issues, emotions – they work pretty much the same for all of us, and acknowledging this is a fundamental way of allowing us to empathise with and support our fellow women, and this is one of the great joys of this book. It’s like having a slightly drunken chat with your best mate, the one where you have imbibed just enough to bring down any nicety barriers, the woman is someone you have known so long that she is privy to all your embarrassing secrets and you can just lay it all out on the table for dissection. Catharsis for when you are struggling.

That’s what this book is. Catharsis. A sharing of pain and problems so that you don’t feel so alone, or abnormal, in the things that bother you from day to day. Caitlin is painfully blunt, she doesn’t hold back on telling it like it is, warts and all, and it is a beautiful thing to read. Every worry you ever had about your life is set out here and she shouts, ‘Look, me too, this is normal, YOU are normal!’ It is so comforting. It allows you to laugh at yourself, and put some things into perspective. It’s not the end of the world, we’re all going through it, and survive. Like the last book, she has such a skill in expressing things in a way that just make them hilarious, I found myself laughing out loud in many places. Luckily, I’ve learnt not to read her books in public any more. See, I’m growing and learning too, there are some benefits to ageing.

That’s not to say this book is all fun and jolly japes. She addresses some very serious issues too, the care of ageing parents, struggles with parenting. The chapters dealing with her daughter’s anorexia are heart-wrenching. There were points where I was in tears and my soul was cracking in sympathy with what she was going through, because I can all too clearly imagine how I would feel in that situation. That is the genius of this book, and Caitlin’s writing in particular. It is just so true, all of it, and she is not afraid to put it out there for us all to see. Her writing is really brave and insightful and comforting. I really, really loved this book and will be keeping it on the shelf next to How To Be A Woman, ready to dip into next time I need a friend. Especially important in this year when our real support network of friends have been out of reach in real life much of the time.

This is a book I would like to gift every woman of my age, because I want them all to read it and realise that we have much more in common that we have differences and it is really important for us to be there to support one another. You never know what the next woman is going through, and hiding under the cheerful and competent facade we often plaster on for the rest of the world. Maybe she needs a friend. A pat on the arm. A squeeze of understanding. That simple act can make the difference between surviving and going under. I know I couldn’t get through without the amazing female friends I have, this book is friendship between two shiny covers.

More Than A Woman is out now and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Caitlin Moran became a columnist at The Times at eighteen and has gone on to be named Columnist of the Year six times. At one point, she was also Interviewer and Critic of the Year – which is good going for someone who still regularly mistypes ‘the’ as ‘hte’.

Her multi-award winning bestseller How to Be a Woman has been published in 28 countries, and won the British Book Awards’ Book of the Year 2011. Her two volumes of collected journalism, Moranthology and Moranifesto, were Sunday Times bestsellers.

Her first novel, How to Build a Girl, debuted at Number One, and is currently being adapted as a film. Bloody hell, that’s actually quite impressive.

Connect with Caitlin:

Website: https://www.caitlinmoran.co.uk/

Twitter: @caitlinmoran

Instagram: @mscaitlinmoran

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Blog Tour: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell #BookReview

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TWO EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE. A LOVE THAT DRAWS THEM TOGETHER. A LOSS THAT THREATENS TO TEAR THEM APART.

On a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?

Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.

Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.

I am privileged today to be taking part in the blog tour for Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. The book has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and is one of the most eagerly anticipated books of the year. Huge thanks to Anne Cater for my place on the tour and to the publisher for my copy of the book, which I have reviewed honestly and impartially.

I’m always a little wary about reviewing books as hyped as this one has been, and by authors as revered as Maggie O’Farrell. One wonders if the books, and indeed the authors, can ever live up to the advance accolades they receive, and whether, when the literary establishment is so in love with a novel or novelist, any positive review will be accepted at face value or perceived as just another acolyte toeing the party line. On the converse, would anyone dare post a negative review whilst anticipating the backlash that might ensue? After all, this book has been long listed for the Women’s Prize, a lot of people have rated it very highly. It might make one seriously consider whether just to keep one’s opinion to oneself.

I have to admit that I am not a devotee on this author’s work, simply because I have never previously got around to reading it. I have two of her titles on my TBR, but in the past three years madding rush of blog tours, they have remained there, untouched. So maybe I am ideally positioned to come at this with an open mind and no preconceptions, which is exactly what I did. I also had no expectations with regard to how this would compare to her previous work, I could judge this book purely on its own merits.

The author could not have foreseen when writing this book, which is a book she has said she has wanted to write for over thirty years, that it would arrive on the shelves at a time the world was being touched by a deadly pandemic, arousing in us the kind of fear and panic that is the mirrored in the family at the centre of the book, as they are touched in the same way by the plague in the sixteenth century. In fact, the vividness with which the author recreates this in the novel may strike too close to home for some to bear at this terrifying moment in this history. For others of us, what it manages to do is draw us close across the centuries to those who went before us and show us that, although much in the world has altered beyond recognition in those long, intervening years, human emotions of love, loss, grief, kinship, fear and fortitude are constant and unchanging. It allows us to relate to these long-dead people in a way we might otherwise be unable to do.

Of course, this is largely down to the skill of the author in the writing. The everyday world of Stratford at this time is brought to life in such detail, and with such incisive and graphic description that complete immersion in the story in unavoidable. I was totally transported, living and breathing this experience along with the characters, completely caught up in the emotions and events to the point where I resented being pulled back out to face the everyday. I wanted to stay there, living and breathing and feeling this story until I finished it, harrowing and difficult as that was in parts, because it became so important to me to know how it ended.

This is a very detailed book, full of languorous language, indulgent pacing and descriptions of the minutiae of life at this time. This is going to frustrate some readers, I know. We are used to life at a frenetic pace, we have no patience in the modern day. People’s attention span has been accustomed to sixty second sound bites, memes, instant fixes, instant gratification. We always want to move on, move on to the next thing, never satisfied. But life as we know it has stopped for a while. We have been forced to slow down, take a break, sit back and pause. Use this time to take in a book like this, when enjoying the language and indulgence of expression in this book to take you back to a time when life was slower, more considered and possibly more appreciative of the smaller, lesser pleasures, will pay off in spades with a deeper understanding of how people lived and worked and loved at that time. Allow yourself the space and time to feel the emotion that flows from the pages of this book and seeps in to your bones if you let it.

Anyone coming to this book expecting the story of Shakespeare is going to be disappointed. In fact, the author never mentions his name once throughout. He is referred to as tutor, son, brother, father, husband, playwright, and this is very deliberate, because this is not his story. He is not centre stage, he is not the main protagonist, he is off in the wings, a bit player, the occasional character who wanders in and out of the scene, even to the end where is is the supporting role in his own play, not the titular character. This is the story of his wife.

Anne Hathaway, known in this book as Agnes, as her father referred to her in his will, is the driving force in this novel. It is through her eyes that we see life in Stratford at this time, that we learn about the roles of the womenfolk who held the homes and families together as the men were away working and making the decisions. The heart of the story is in Stratford, where all the action takes place while Shakespeare is in London, and it is she who drives the plot, from the very first time they meet. She is portrayed as a remarkable woman with many skills that were underestimated by her peers, even treated with suspicion in some cases, skills of healing and understanding and uncanny intuition. She is also shown as possessing unbelievable strength of character, allowing her husband to leave her with two small children to go to London because she understands he needs to get away from the constraints of his family, the same family she is left to live within his absence, even though they are not her own. Maggie’s admiration for this unusual woman as she envisages her is apparent on every page. She uses her to show us intimate aspects of small town life in the sixteenth century and, more particularly, what life was like for women at that time. As a historical exploration, it is absolutely fascinating.

The main thing that makes this book so special though, is the portrayal of parental grief on the loss of a child. This is something of which I have personal experience and the depth of understanding the author displays for the thoughts and emotions a parent experiences in these circumstances was profound. Her descriptions aroused in me memories that remain painfully vivid but oddly treasured, it is very difficult to explain how reading something this accurate both hurts and is deeply comforting at the same time. To be so understood, to have such pain acknowledged and explored, explained and transmitted to that fortunate part of society that has never felt it, is oddly consoling. There were scenes in this book that rang so completely true with me that it both broke my heart and gave me succour at the same time. The passage detailing the procession to the churchyard in particular was like reliving a scene from my own life, it made me cry but also provided solace in the form of understanding by another person of this pain. This is what great writing can do, it can make us feel understood, it can make us feel less alone in a confusing and frightening world. Many of us are going to need much more of this in days to come.

I have waxed on at length in this review, I know, but I hope you have come to understand at the end why it is that I am telling you I have immeasurable love and appreciation for this book. Regardless of the hype, it has given me so much on so many different levels that I cannot praise it highly enough. As a historical text, as a celebration of the strength and fortitude of women, as an exploration and acknowledgement of grief and pain, of relationships between man and woman and parent and child, I adored every single thing about it. Every word, every feeling rewarded me beyond measure. It has moved me more profoundly than anything I have read in recent memory and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Read it, not because of who the author is, or because it is being feted high and low, or because it has been listed for prizes, but because it is a work of wonder and you deserve to give yourself the opportunity to experience it for yourself.

Hamnet is out now in hardback, ebook and audio formats and you can get a copy here.

The books is taking a huge tour, and there are loads of amazing blogs taking part so do make sure you check out some of the other reviews:

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About the Author

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Maggie O’Farrell is the author of seven novels, AFTER YOU’D GONE, MY LOVER’S LOVER, THE DISTANCE BETWEEN US, which won a Somerset Maugham Award, THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX, THE HAND THAT FIRST HELD MINE, which won the 2010 Costa Novel Award, INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Novel Award, and THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award. Maggie has also written a memoir, I AM, I AM, I AM. She lives in Edinburgh.

Connect with Maggie:

Website: https://www.maggieofarrell.com

Facebook: Maggie O’Farrell Books

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Walking Back To Happiness by Penelope Swithinbank #BlogTour #Extract (@minstriesbydsgn) @malcolmdown @LoveBooksGroup #lovebookstours #WalkingBackToHappiness

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Two vicars, their marriage in tatters with wounds reaching far back into the past, set out on a journey to find healing and restoration. Their route will take them from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, but will it help them find their way home?

Along the 320-mile route across rural France, burdened by backpacks and blisters, Kim and Penelope stumble across fresh truths, some ordinary, others extraordinary. But will they be defeated by the road ahead or triumph over the pain of the past? Is there a chance they’ll find themselves in France and walk back to happiness?

In this simple but enchanting book, part travelogue and part pilgrimage, Penelope invites you to walk with her and her husband on their epic journey as they encounter new faces and new experiences, and reconnect with each other and with God. Every step of the way, you’ll discover more about yourself and what’s really important to you.

I am delighted to be taking part in the blog tour today for Walking Back To Happiness by Penelope Swithinbank by featuring a short extract from the book. My thanks to Kelly Lacey of Love Books Tours for inviting me to take part and to the author and publisher for allowing me to reproduce this extract for you.

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“Preparing to do a Great Walk focuses the mind wonderfully. And  makes me realise that gentle Sunday-afternoon strolls are one thing, but walking three hundred and thirty miles carrying a heavy backpack is something totally different.

A long hike once a week needs to become the norm – eight to ten miles might be a good rehearsal.

But things do not go according to plan.

Originally we had planned to retire in July and do The Great Walk Across France two months later; but the selling of the listed property we were using as a Christian retreat house took a further whole year, with new planning permissions imposed by the local conservation officer causing headaches and money and building work. The stress must have contributed to Kim having a stroke very unexpectedly, followed by ocular shingles. Fortunately the stroke left no physical impairment, but he suffered dyslexia-like symptoms and great tiredness. The Walk was put on hold.”

If this has whetted you appetite for the book, you can buy a copy of Walking Back To Happiness here.

If you would like to read some reviews and other content for the book, make sure you check out the other blogs taking part in the tour:

 

About the Author

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Penelope is an avid walker and spends a lot of her time stomping in the hills and valleys near her home outside Bath. She is a chaplain at Bath Abbey and a spiritual therapist and counsellor for clergy (and some normal people too). Since becoming a vicar nearly 20 years ago, she has worked in churches in the UK and the USA, and has led pilgrimages in the UK and in Europe.

She and her husband Kim have been married for more than 40 years and have three children and six grandchildren. Penelope rarely sits down, loathes gardening and relaxes by reading, going to the theatre or playing the piano. She is the author of two books, Women by Design and Walking Back to Happiness and is currently working on her third, due out in 2020: Scent of Water, a devotional for times of spiritual bewilderment and grief.

Connect with Penelope:

Website: https://penelopeswithinbank.com

Facebook: Ministries By Design

Twitter: @minstriesbydsgn

Instagram: @penelopeswithinbank

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