Posted in Reading, Travel

Travels with my Book #12: To Iceland with Bjorn Larssen

headshot of Bjørn Larsson in Iceland
Meet Bjørn Larsson, author of “Storytellers” and more

In a year when there have been so many constraints on travel, I’ve really enjoyed touring the world through the pages of good books and sharing some of my favourites with you on my blog. I’ve saved for my final post in this series, and of 2021, for an author who blew me away with his vivid debut novel set in Iceland, Storytellers. I’m delighted to welcome Bjørn Larssen – who describes himself as “writer, blacksmith, spiritual Icelander” – to tell us why he is so passionate about that country, and how it has inspired his writing.


Bjørn, welcome! Please would you kick off by describing the location of Storytellers.

I set Storytellers in Klettafjörður, a non-existent village on the Icelandic coast in the south-west. Originally I picked an actual village, but as the story continued to develop I realised its inhabitants might not be happy about it… and I’d like to make more friends there before I start on the enemies.

Please give us a brief description of Storytellers

In Storytellers, a historical suspense novel set in 1920, Gunnar, a hermit blacksmith, finds an unexpected guest on his farm one night… a guest with a broken ankle and a story to tell, one that might change Gunnar’s life by ending it – once the storyteller recovers enough to write the other characters’ final chapters.

I believe there’s also in the pipeline another, quite different book set in Iceland – what will that book be like?

My work-in-progress, currently called Untitled Romance because I’m very creative like that, will be an m/m sweet-with-heat romance (duh) set in Reykjavík and its surroundings.

The book is not just about the love between the characters, it’s my love letter to Iceland as well.

There is more coming. I’m unlikely to stop writing about Iceland.

What makes Iceland such a great setting for your stories?

I needed a location that could be simultaneously claustrophobic and far away from everything, and I specifically wanted some of the characters to be fishermen. As I was writing the first draft I didn’t have any particular place in mind. At the same time I was listening to Ásgeir’s debut album, Dýrð í dauðaþögn (Glory in the Silence) on a loop and suddenly it occurred to me that Iceland was an actual country. Until then I just sort of imagined it as some mythical spot with a Björk in it.

I bought a book about the relevant period in Icelandic history, Wasteland With Words: A Social History of Iceland by Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, and it turned out that Iceland had been created especially so that I could set my book there. Although maybe it was the other way round.

Typical Icelandic kitchen from the 1880s

What is your relationship with Iceland and how much of your life have you spent there?

I corresponded with a historian at the Reykjavík City Museum and the Árbæjarsafn open-air museum, who helped me a lot. Still, I had a lot of specific questions and wanted to get a feel for the place, and that open-air museum had buildings from the exact period I was writing about. It was supposed to be a four-day outing with some geysers, waterfalls, or whatever they had there. Instead I fell in love with the strange planet that Iceland is. The year after we went for an entire month, because I was hoping to get over the infatuation. It only got worse.

I intend to live there someday, my heart already does.

What is special about the people native to Iceland?

In the 19th century Iceland had the highest literacy rate in the world – and most of its inhabitants wrote (they still do) diaries and poems. In Halldór Laxness’ novel, Independent People, farmers who meet for a funeral first discuss deworming their sheep, then read the poems they have written since they’d last met. I thought that was dark comedy. It wasn’t.

Since Laxness won a Nobel prize for literature and Iceland only has 350 thousand inhabitants, that means they have the most Nobel prizes per non-existent million inhabitants, too!

Icelandic sitting room from the 1880s

What are your top tips for any readers planning to travel to the setting of your book?

Iceland is one of the most expensive places in the world. The Bónus supermarkets are your friends, but they don’t sell alcohol – no shops do, except for designated liquor stores. If you want to chat over a beer or two either stock up at the airport, or drive to a liquor store, or be prepared to pay one kidney per pint of beer. In the bars you’ll be able to chat with fellow tourists, because Icelanders socialise in the public pools.

For the love of Gods, don’t buy bottled water in a place where the tap water comes straight from the glacier. (That’s cold tap water. The hot water comes from the geothermal springs. You’ll get used to the rotten egg smell, but if you dyed your hair, do not wash it with this water. I found out the hard way.)

Cold tap water comes from glaciers, while the water in the hot tap comes from thermal springs

If you want to see the Northern Lights, go between October and March, in the beginning of April it never gets dark enough anymore. Which means you can go for a drive at 2am and have the normally crowded tourist spots mostly to yourself.

Heidmork

Icelandic national dishes are (whispers) horrible. Kjötsupa, the meat soup, and the baked goods are exceptions. Ethics aside, you really don’t need to try the shark or the whale, just buy any old rotten fish and dip it in vinegar mixed with salt. Instead, find the hot dog booth near the Saga museum, which is by the way incredibly disappointing – they sell the best hot dogs in the world. Literally. Award-winning. They taste like hot dogs.

And do NOT touch the moss. Just don’t.

“Only in Iceland” – name three things that could only exist/happen there.

  1. There is a dating app that allows you to check how close your relationship with the potential partner is – there are simply very few Icelanders and, well, it’s an island that’s been historically isolated for a very long time.
  2. No Icelander is going to say with 100% certainty that elves DEFINITELY do not exist.
  3. If you meet one, an elf, not an Icelander, don’t eat any food they give you. Say thank you, then dispose of it when the elf can’t see you any more.

Are there any other books set in Iceland that you’d like to recommend?

Halldór Laxness, obviously. I haven’t read Ragnar Jónasson’s books, because thriller is not my genre of choice, but I hear he’d murdered half of the country by now and did so rather interestingly. I still need to get to Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. And you can’t go wrong with Alda Sigmundsdóttir’s Little Book of Icelanders series, although those are technically non-fiction.

Where is your latest book set and where will the next one be set?

Children, a dark-but-funny re-telling of selected Norse myths, is set in the heathen Nine Worlds – and its sequel, Land, will add the tenth world, Earth. Land will be a re-telling of Hrafnaflóki’s discovery of Iceland, but with more Gods, magic… and the Hidden Folk, of course.


EXTRACT FROM

Storytellers by Bjørn Larssen

Cover of Storytellers by Bjørn Larsson
Available in ebook, paperback and hardback

“Sshh,” Arnar whispered. “Put on your coat and come outside.”

Where are we going, Juana wondered, half-asleep as she crawled through the small door. The cold night air roused her within seconds. It was cool inside the hut, but outside it was freezing, everything covered in a thin layer of ice, lit by moonlight, and, and…

“Look at the sky,” he whispered. Juana obediently raised her eyes, and her mind went blank as her mouth opened in shock.

Something that resembled green fire danced in the sky. The colours moved faster, then slower. They disappeared, then reappeared, regrouping stronger, covering the stars. Their shine was so powerful that the frozen grass appeared greener than during the day, a gleaming colour she had never seen before.

“There,” Arnar pointed, and Juana’s eyes followed. The flames painted the sky, slowing down, stopping as if teasing, then returning to their dance with renewed energy.

“Is this magic?” she whispered. “Is it mountains changing shape? Is the sky burning?”

“When the nights get longer and darker, this is what God sends us to let us know he hasn’t forgotten about us,” he whispered back. “It seems dark, aye, but there is light and always will be. When you think things are going bad, remember they will always turn out fine. This is what þetta reddast means. It will always turn out fine.”

Juana shivered from the cold, but she didn’t care, fascinated by the magical lights. If there was a pattern to their dance, she couldn’t understand it. The green colour was now being licked by a hint of purple, as if the flames themselves were set on fire again. But the fire she had known until now never looked or felt like this, it never obscured the stars or cast a greenish glow. “Are you sure this isn’t dark magic?” she whispered and made a sign of the cross.

“This is the fire that burned in my heart every day that I spent in America,” said Arnar, holding her hands tight and kissing her cheek. Juana didn’t pay him much attention, staring, trying to understand the impossible. Only God or Devil could create something like this, and the beauty convinced her it was God himself. He was giving them their blessing. “This is what happiness looks like,” whispered Arnar, and she believed him.

ORDER YOUR COPY OF STORYTELLERS HERE
(available in paperback, hardback, ebook and audio from a wide range of stores)

 


FIND OUT MORE ABOUT BJØRN LARSSON HERE

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PREVIEW OF MY NEW GUEST POST SERIES FOR 2022

cover of Mrs Morris Changes Lanes

My guest post series for 2022 will address travel from a completely different angle.

Under the series heading “Me and My Mini”, a diverse range of authors will share their passion for their Mini cars, past and present – a car that started to fascinate me when I was writing my new novella, Mrs Morris Changes Lanes, earlier this year.

Posts in this series will appear on the last Wednesday of each calendar month. Click here to read a test-drive I took with this idea a couple of months ago, when historical novelist Anita Davison took us for a spin.

In the meantime, if you haven’t already read Mrs Morris Changes Lanes, now would be a good time to try it! Order the paperback from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 978-1911223818 or online here, or download the Kindle ebook here. (If you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, you’ll be able to read the book for free!)

And if you have already read and enjoyed it, reviews are always welcome!

In the meantime, wishing you a very happy, healthy and peaceful 2022.

 

Posted in Personal life, Travel

O, Flower of Christmas!

When I was a child growing up in a London suburb, one of the highlights of our festive season was to sing carols around the huge Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square.

Although this may sound like a very English tradition, the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree is not British at all, on two counts.

  • Firstly, Christmas trees only caught on in Britain after Prince Albert introduced the concept from his German homeland in 1848. You may be surprised to realise that the quintessential portrait of the Victorian British Christmas, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, does not contain a single Christmas tree.
  • Secondly, the tree in Trafalgar Square is a gift from the people of Norway. They have sent one every year since 1947 to thank Britain for its support during the Second World War. (An interesting aside: the word “quisling”, meaning traitor, derives from the name of Norwegian Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling, who from 1942 until 1945 led the German-friendly government while the King of Norway took shelter in Britain.)
Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square
By Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1488315

Evergreens of other kinds, such as holly, ivy, and mistletoe, have been part of a British Christmas for centuries. Borrowed from pagan winter festivals, they symbolise the promise of new life, whether in the form of spring or the birth of Christ.

The poinsettia, however, is a relative newcomer to the traditional Christmas canon of plants. Until recently, I’d assumed the only reason it pops up in shops in December is because of its festive colours. Not so.

The connection comes from a sweet Mexican legend…

image of a poinsettia
By André Karwath aka Aka – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16584

A little Mexican girl was fretting because she was too poor to buy a birthday gift for Jesus, to lay at her local church’s manger scene, in keeping with village tradition. Suddenly an angel appeared, telling her to gather weeds from the roadside, because what mattered was not the cost of her gift, but what was in her heart. Her neighbours were scornful when she brought a bouquet of green weeds to the church, but in a heart-warming Christmas miracle, as she set them down on the altar, red flowers sprang up among the green leaves in the shape of the star of Bethlehem.

My first slightly frivolous thought on hearing the story was that it’s a Mexican take on my favourite carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter”: “What can I give him, poor as I am? I know, I’ll bring a poinsettia.”

As you probably know, the red parts of the poinsettia technically aren’t flowers at all, but leaves that have turned red. Its flowers are the tiny yellow buds at the centre of each cluster of red leaves. But modern botanical definitions don’t detract from the power of the legend.

While the name we use for the plant commemorates the American diplomat, Sir Joel Roberts Poinsett, who first imported cuttings from Mexico to the US in 1836, in Mexico, it’s known as flor de Navidad (Christmas flower) and flor de Nochebuena (flower of the Holy Night). The closest the Mexicans have to a Christmas tree is a decorated cactus.

Whatever greenery you choose to decorate your home this Christmas, I wish you joy and peace this festive season, and a New Year full of new life and hope.

This article first appeared in the Hawkesbury Parish News, December 2021


Further Festive Reading

Whether you are still Christmas shopping or you would some lighthearted and uplifting books to read during the holidays, you might like to take a look at these seasonal reads.

I’ve provided buying links in case you’d like to order them, but if you have any problems placing orders online, just let me know and I’ll arrange to send them to you myself.


cover of Murder in the Manger

Murder in the Manger – the third Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, a gentle, feel-good story that kicks off when the nativity play penned by Sophie goes somewhat off-script…

Order the paperback

Download the ebook


cover of Stranger at St Bride's

Stranger at St Bride’s As the staff and girls at St Bride’s prepare for their annual Christmas Fair,  stranger turns up to lay claim to the estate, and the fight to save the school is on!

Order the paperback

Download the ebook


cover of Stocking Fillers by Debbie Young

Stocking Fillers – the antidote to pre-Christmas stress, 12 funny stories about different aspects of the festive season, easy quick reads that make the perfect Secret Santa present or indeed a gift to self!

Order the paperback

Download the ebook


Cover of Lighting Up Time

Lighting Up Time – this short story is set at the winter solstice, available in a slim paperback the size of a picture postcard

Order the paperback

Download the ebook

Posted in Reading, Travel, Writing

Travels with my Book #11: To Birmingham with A A Abbott

photo of A A Abbott outside White Horse pub
A A Abbott at the White Horse pub, which features in “The Vodka Trail”

For the penultimate post in my Travels with my Book series of guest authors, I’m delighted to welcome my good friend A A Abbott, who is so enthusiastic about her chosen destination of Birmingham, England that I reckon they should recruit her for the city’s tourist board!

The Birmingham in her books is the British one, in the West Midlands of England – not to be confused with Birmingham, Michigan or Birmingham, Alabama!

London and Bristol also feature in her stories, but Birmingham holds a very special place in her heart. Over to A A Abbott to explain why…


Birmingham is a big city with many suburbs too. Which particular part of Birmingham do you most like to write about?

Its attractive Victorian Jewellery Quarter and the creative Digbeth area.

photo of the author with her book in the Jewellery Quarter
A A Abbott with her first in her Trail series, in the Jewellery Quarter

Please tell us a little about your latest book to be set in Birmingham.

My psychological thriller Bright Lies is about a teenage girl plunged into a nightmarish situation. She runs away and ends up homeless in Digbeth, because that’s where her one-way coach ticket takes her. It’s also a place with a thriving club scene, which proves to be her salvation.

Bright Lies is my darkest story ever. I’ve also written a mystery thriller series about a glamorous young woman determined to make the world’s best vodka. If only she hadn’t tangled with gangsters when she was down on her luck…

These fun, fast stories feature Birmingham too. There are five books: The Bride’s Trail, The Vodka Trail, The Grass Trail, The Revenge Trail and The Final Trail. Each reads well as a standalone story, but together, they’re a gripping riches to rags to riches saga.

line-up of all A A Abbott's novels
The complete A A Abbott collection

What makes Birmingham such a great setting for your stories?

Ever heard the saying that Birmingham has more canals than Venice?

It’s a city of contrasts: fascinating, friendly and fun. You’ll find canal-side cocktail bars, concrete towers and craftsmen making jewellery in Victorian workshops. There’s also an amazing sense of possibilities. The city is infused with a can-do attitude, so it’s the ideal place someone to turn their lives around. In Bright Lies, teenage Emily hits rock bottom and she needs to change in order to survive.

photo of canal boats at Gas Street Basin
Canal boats at Gas Street Basin

What is your relationship with Birmingham and how much of your life have you spent there?

I came to Birmingham as a student, adored the city and lived there for two decades. In Brum, as locals like to call it, I met the love of my life (we are still together), became a mum and forged a career. I also went to writing classes run by Barbara Joan Eyre. She wrote Mills & Boon romances to keep the wolf from the door, but darker stories were her guilty pleasure.

What is special about the people native to Birmingham?

You’re never alone in Birmingham. Brummies are the friendliest people you could meet, and strangers are welcomed. Perhaps that’s why, famously, the city is a melting-pot of cultures.

photo of Birmingham Skyline with Bull Ring
A fascinating mix of old and modern architecture

What challenges does your protagonist in Bright Lies face dealing with the local people?

Apart from the Brummie accent, there are dialect words to learn. Emily gets a cash-in-hand job at a nightclub called The Bobowlers. It is some weeks before she discovers that ‘bobowler’ is the local word for a moth. (As you probably guessed, Bright Lies is set just before the pandemic, in times when cash was more widely used.)

What are the distinguishing features of Birmingham in terms of geography, geology, flora, fauna or any other detail you care to mention?!

The city has an exciting mixture of architecture, with ornate Victorian red brick buildings as well as cutting-edge newbuilds like the Library of Birmingham.

My favourite time of year is the autumn, when mellow sunlight really makes the red bricks glow.

Rotunda and bridge
Birmingham’s famous Bull Ring

What are your top tips for any readers planning to travel to Birmingham?

Take time to explore the canals in the city centre, as Emily does in Bright Lies. See the colourful houseboats and upscale bars in Brindleyplace, then walk to the Jewellery Quarter and grab a coffee in lovely St Paul’s Square. You will see a slower pace of life than the frenetic buzz around New Street station. Also, if you like a beer, you will be pleasantly surprised by the prices. I especially recommend The Gunmakers Arms, which is the brewery tap for Two Towers Ales (named in homage to Brummie JRR Tolkien).

photo of The Gunmakers Arms
The iconic Gunmakers Arms

“Only in Birmingham” – name three things that could only exist/happen there.

  1. If you’re female and even remotely young, you’ll be called ‘Bab’. My other half tells me it happens to guys too…
  2. You’ll find a library with its own herb garden (the Library of Birmingham).
  3. You can walk across a canal bridge decorated with pictures of Black Sabbath. Yes, the infamous rock band hails from Brum!

Are there any other authors’ books with the same setting that you’d like to recommend?

There are too many to mention them all, so here are a few! Park Life by Katharine D’Souza is a book all women over the age of forty should read. It’s set in the trendy Moseley and Kings Heath area, where I used to live.

Also, try Tom Bryson’s gritty police procedural stories and Andy Conway’s Touchstone series of time travel tales.

Where will your next book be set?

In a departure from the norm, my next book will be a psychological thriller set wholly in Bristol, where I stayed during the pandemic. Of course, I missed Birmingham. I’m excited to be able to return!

What formats are your books available in?

Bright Lies is available in audiobook, ebook, Kindle Unlimited, paperback, large print paperback and dyslexia-friendly paperback.

(All photos by A A Abbott)


EXTRACT FROM

BRIGHT LIES by A A Abbott

Jack wanders through the dark, silent streets. He stops, stares at the vodka bottle, sets it down and picks it up again.  While desiring oblivion, he’s afraid of what might happen first.

He walks away from the city centre, finding himself outside a telecoms shop on Deritend High Street. The decorative red brick terrace was built when the English Midlands were the workshop of the world. Now it’s crumbling at the edges. A shabby black-painted door leads to the flats above. He is supposed to view one with Emily tomorrow, or should that be later today? It’s already Friday morning, although it will be several hours before the sun wheezes over the winter horizon. Until then, frost sparkles orange in the streetlights.

He won’t rent that flat. Without Emily, he can stay in a cheaper, smaller place. A studio is sufficient for his needs. He tells himself he doesn’t care what Emily does. It’s a lie. He cares about Emily a great deal.

At last, Jack unscrews the cap and takes a swig. The neat spirit burns his throat. He hadn’t expected that. Spluttering, he tries again, hoping to be rendered senseless and slumped in a gutter.

It hasn’t worked yet. He still feels stone-cold sober.

Can he believe a word she’s told him? He wants to, but most likely, she’s exactly what she first appeared to be. When they met, he was convinced she was a kid with a coke habit, on the run from dealers. Addicts are polished liars: they have to be.

His phone rings. Jack removes it from his pocket, sees it’s a call from Cassie, and swipes the red button. Who cares what she wants right now? He doesn’t need the hassle.

A moth beats its wings against the lit screen. Jack blows gently at it, sending it tumbling away on the cold air, and replaces the phone in his pocket. The club is well-named, for bobowlers are creatures of the night, seeking light and excitement. Emily has always reminded him of one: fragile, yet a survivor.


To find out more about A A Abbott and her excellent thrillers, visit her website:

www.aaabbott.co.uk

line-up of all A A Abbott's novels


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Posted in Reading, Travel, Writing

Travels with my Book #10: With Jean Gill to Wales

Jean in her native Wales with Mynydd in the background (Photo by Lesley Walters)

I’m delighted to welcome my prolific and versatile author friend, Jean Gill. Although she now lives in France, Jean is going to whisk us off to her adopted homeland of Wales.


Jean, living within sight of Wales myself, visibly on a clear day from my part of the Cotswolds, I know exactly where it is, but please tell us a little more about it as a setting for some of your books.  

In 1154, the medieval Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth was reduced by the Normans to a tiny part of what is now Carmarthenshire. Then Rhys Gryffydd, came to power and began the fight to reclaim his grandfather’s realm. Think ‘Uhtred, son of Uhtred’ in Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom and you’ll have some understanding of Lord Rhys.

Which of your many books have you set there?

Song Hereafter is the last book in The Troubadours Quartet ‘like Game of Thrones with real history’.

cover of Song Hereafter by Jean GillMy fictional French troubadour characters travel through twelfth century France, northern Spain and the Holy Land. I had no idea when their adventures began in Narbonne that they would end up in my homeland, Wales. Perhaps it was inevitable as I still love Wales, even after twenty years living in France and time and again I am drawn to both countries as settings.

I’ve published twenty-five books now, since my first poetry book in 1988, and eight of them are set all or partly in south Wales. The Love Heals duo, second chance love stories in a rural setting, are set in both Wales and France.

When I lived in Wales I wrote about France and now I live in France, I write about both countries.

What makes Wales such a great setting for your stories?

1154 was an exciting year in both Welsh and English history, and my troubadours, Dragonetz and Estela, are caught up in the intrigues of Eleanor of Aquitaine as her husband, Henri of Anjou, manoeuvres to become King of England. Who will the Welsh support?

To find out, the troubadours seek out the rulers of south Wales. They find a land and people of savage beauty and pagan customs, engaging in guerrilla warfare against the Norman barons.

What challenges do your characters face dealing with the local people?

Even in medieval times, Welsh sophistication in verse and song has much to teach the French troubadours. Dragonetz is an ex-crusader, accustomed to battle, but he has never seen archers as skilled as the southern Welshmen – nor armed bands as undisciplined.

The contrast between ‘civilised’ southern and ‘barbaric’ northern Europe creates the conflict at the heart of the story and was a dramatic way for me to show dangerous misunderstandings.

Estela had gained a reputation as a troubadour, graced the courts of queens, been rewarded for her performances with wealth and respect. As a woman in a Welsh military camp, she is once again a nobody, protected only by Dragonetz’ status.

Modern Wales is still mostly rural and the wild landscape hasn’t changed, with prehistoric stone circles, lethal marshes, sandy beaches and mud estuaries. And of course castles, stone reminders of tensions with neighbouring England that have still exist today. I love this land as an insider and even the ugliest industrial town in which I’ve ever worked, Port Talbot, has character, and features in my books (the Looking for Normal teen books).

What is your relationship with Wales and how much of your life have you spent there?

I moved to Wales when I was 22 and lived there for twenty-five years. I had a nomadic childhood so that was the longest I lived anywhere. So I adopted Wales as my home country.

You mentioned Welsh castles. Do you have a favourite?

I love them all! When I bred Birman cats, my prefix was ‘Drwslywyn’ so all my cats began with the name of a Welsh castle, also the name of my first house.

photo of Kidwelly Castle
Kidwelly Castle (PhotoL Jean Gill)

The ones that feature in Song Hereafter are Llansteffan, Carmarthen, Tenby and Kidwelly. I’ve just revisited Kidwelly, one of my special places. Lord Rhys’ mother was Gwenllian, the Warrior Princess (isn’t THAT a title and a half!). Rhys’ father had taken Kidwelly castle and Gwenllian was defending it while her husband was in North Wales when news came of an attack by the Norman, Maurice de Londres. She led her army to meet him, was betrayed, defeated and beheaded on the battlefield – unheard of as a punishment for any woman, let alone one nobly born. Rhys was only about four at the time, so he grew up with his mother’s legend to live up to. You’ll still see mention of Gwenllian all around Kidwelly and of course her ghost haunts the castle.

Rhys’ ambition was to build his own castle, better than the Norman castles built by the marcher barons along the southern Welsh coast to keep natives like Rhys in order. I love the fact that he did it! He built Dinefwr Castle, near Llandeilo, in the late twelfth century, later than my story is set or I would be in residence permanently.

What are your top tips for any readers planning to travel to Wales?

Take every waterproof item you possess, definitely an umbrella and plenty of rainy-day books to read. Then you can be sure of unbroken sunshine and the impression that nowhere is more beautiful than Wales. Which is true. If it’s not pouring with rain.

Are there any other authors’ books set in Wales that you’d like to recommend?

Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy; Susan Cooper The Dark is Rising series; Lloyd Alexander Black Cauldron series.

Wales is the perfect setting for fantasy!

Two recent crime novels come to mind as well: Clare Mackintosh I Let You Go and JJ Marsh Raw Material. And for contemporary rural family drama, Jan Ruth’s novels have a vivid sense of place and lifestyle.

photo of Llansteffan Castle
Llansteffan Castle (Photo: Jean Gill)

Where is your latest book set?

I’ve just finished a fantasy trilogy, Natural Forces, set in the sterile Citadel and the vibrant Forest. The settings symbolise the growing gulf between humans and ‘nature’, as if we can go to war with nature and not destroy ourselves.

Where will your next book be set?

I’m back in the twelfth century, in Viking Orkney, and enjoying every minute of the research and the writing. Did you know that Vikings of this period thought that trading travel and experience of other cultures broadened the mind and was an educational experience for young men? Not all pillage! The new series will be called The Midwinter Dragon.


promotional image for Song Hereafter

EXTRACT FROM

Song Hereafter: 1154 in Hispania and the Isles of Albion

‘Perfect,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing like being out at night in the pitch-black on the sort of river men drown in by daylight, with a man so jealous of you he’d let a tree accidentally knock you unconscious.’

That was exactly what Dragonetz was looking forward to – a challenge that could win hearts without sacking a castle, where the only risk was to himself. That, and the sheer enjoyment of learning something new in the company of young men as desperate for action as he was.

‘They’re placing high bets on the outcome. We’re the longest odds,’ he told her with satisfaction. Trying to sound responsible, he added, ‘The men need an outlet for their high spirits, after campaigning hard.’

She wasn’t fooled. ‘As do you,’ she said. ‘Well, if the odds are stacked against you, then you’d better win.’

He felt the rush of excitement coursing through him. ‘I intend to,’ he said.

Her lips tightened in a way that suggested the wise traveller’s disapproval but she said nothing more.

‘I’ll take care,’ he promised her and kissed her. ‘Sleep well.’

***

Within the hour, Maredudd and Dragonetz were at work, trailing a net between the two coracles, with Rhys and Halfpenny somewhere behind them. Going first should be an advantage thought Dragonetz. We’ll have first pickings and if the fish are disturbed by us, they’ll be wary. But then, perhaps disturbed fish would jump more readily into the net? He had no idea whatsoever, and no intention of asking Maredudd, who would probably bite his head off for making a noise.

Pitch-black overestimated the light provided by the obligatory seven stars but Dragonetz’ elation was only slightly dampened by the chill mist hanging over the water, which rolled endlessly before his fragile craft. His paddle dipped and rose, caught an awkward angle and made a scudding series of splashes. His partner hissed disapproval.

Although unseen, Maredudd was but a net’s length away in his identical one-man boat. The coracle reminded Dragonetz of half a walnut shell, magicked to giant size for some children’s tale of adventure. So light it bobbed and swung with each whim of the current, the coracle was more highly-strung than any horse Dragonetz had ever ridden. Through trial and error, he was learning to place and pace the paddle-stroke or the boat danced in a dizzy circle and tangled the net, earning more tsks through gritted teeth.

Dragonetz could see his end of the net but not where it reached the other coracle and his invisible partner. Maredudd’s skilled paddle made barely a splash above the gush of rills entering the main flow or splitting round drowned trees.

 Boulders near the bank broke the verses and the water music sang its journey in Dragonetz’ imagination until he could read the darkness. The east bank was more hazardous, whirls and stops, like a trumpet call then a flute, jarring; the west bank smoother, a consistent shake of tambour, an underlying rhythm. The coracles held to the middle and now Dragonetz could hear where the middle was, by listening to the banks either side. He could hear where Maredudd was by the noises the water made round the other coracle, the soft parting as men, boats and all creatures on and in the river, ran with the current.

All but the fish they sought. This was the season the salmon and sewin ran upriver, driven by an instinct stronger than any current, stronger even than waterfalls, the Welsh Lords had told Dragonetz. Hold your net until they come and they will rush into it like a man to a woman’s arms, for the same urge drives them and they can’t hold back or escape.

Could it really be so easy? Only if the fish came. An owl hooted and a small furry beast screamed. Night noises. And in the swirl of waters, Dragonetz heard something else, something he had only heard in his opium dreams. The river songs took different parts, played each its own melody and yet all harmonised in a beauty that brought tears.

Mists gathered, parted, streaked dragon’s breath across the waters, whispered legends. Caerfyrddin, Myrddin’s place, full of magic. On such a night, anything was possible. Dragonetz’ paddle dipped and rose. He was more alone than he’d ever been in his life yet he felt no fear. The mists thickened, confused the music of the banks but the angle of the net told him he was still heading true, if Maredudd knew his way.

The mist breathed in and out, a living being, and in it shapes formed and murmured to him in the language of another world. Beyond the dragon’s breath, he saw another vessel loom, a barque, one he’d seen before, the heart of the siren-song. He could even distinguish words, ‘Dragon, Dragonetz…’ then the vision wavered into white flames, shivered to wisps and disappeared, taking the ethereal music, leaving the slap of water.

‘You know I could kill you here,’ the voice whispered, disembodied. Dragonetz had been so lost in the night world, he took a minute to adjust, to realise the voice was all too human. ‘Coracles tip so easily and the water is deep and cold. You would not get back into the boat without help.’


FOR MORE INFORMATION

Visit Jean Gill’s website: www.jeangill.com


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Posted in Reading, Travel, Writing

Travels with my Books #9: With Helena Halme to the Aland Islands in the Baltic Sea

 

Meet Helena Halme, Finnish author

I’m delighted to welcome my Finnish author friend, Helena Halme, who although now living in London and married to “The Englishman” who inspired a series of novels, is here to talk to us about her Love on the Island series, set on the Åland Islands, situated in the middle of the Baltic Sea between Finland and Sweden.

This fast-growing series of romantic novels plunges us into Åland Island life, and so far four titles are available, with the fifth due out later this year. 

The Island Affair (Book 1)
An Island Christmas (Book 2)
The Island Daughter (Book 3)
An Island Summer (Book 4)
The Island Child (Book 5)

Over to Helena to tell us more about them…

All the books follow Alicia, whose teenage son, Stefan, dies in a motorcycle accident in London. After her marriage breaks up with the British surgeon Liam, returns to her native islands and has a passionate affair with the Swedish journalist Patrick. 

Alicia’s tumultuous relationship with both Patrick and Liam spans the series. We also meet Alicia’s mom, Hilda, her best friend Brit, and her late son’s girlfriend Frida. The four women’s relationships face difficulties as babies are born and elderly parents die. There are long-held family secrets, newly found love, as well dark mysteries on the islands which threaten to destroy both Alicia, her family, and friends.

Helena, what makes the Åland Islands such a great setting for your stories?

Islands have always fascinated me, mainly because they are such contained places, both physically and culturally.

There are no bridges between the mainland and the Åland Islands, so you have to either travel by sea or fly in order to reach the islands. They are also a huge tourist spot, with a small population tripling during the summer months. On top of all that, the islands lie closer to Sweden but are an autonomous part of Finland, where the official language is Swedish.

Is it any wonder that the islanders are very independent and don’t consider themselves either Swedish or Finnish.

There are all kinds of special rules attached to the islands. For example, you cannot own land unless you are a resident and you have to be able to speak Swedish to gain residency, which is a sore point to many Finns. 

The islands are a tax-free zone, which increases tourism but also encourages cruise liners to make briefest of stops to the islands when the passengers never even have time to set one foot on land. 

All this make the islanders quite insular and quirky. Perfect for a novelist!

landscape of island
Typical view of houses, sheds and boats on Aland islands

What is your relationship with Åland Islands and how much of your life have you spent there?

I have a very personal reason why I set my books on the Åland Islands. For the past thirty years, my mother has been living on the islands (she’s married to a local farmer) and I’ve become ‘a summer islander’ as the locals call me.

I’ve wanted to set a story on the islands for a long time, but it wasn’t until I dreamt up the characters that I was able to do it. Alicia, especially, didn’t really come to me until I had explored many kinds of stories set in Åland. 

In my imagination, there was always a locally brought up woman returning to the islands from the UK, because this is something I myself dreamt of doing. (I didn’t want to leave my Englishman, though, so it never happened!) 

When I discovered Alicia and the tragic story of the loss of a son, I knew I had an idea for a series. I don’t know any mother who doesn’t constantly fear that something like that happens to their children. Wouldn’t you want to go home where you felt safe in such an awful circumstance? And wouldn’t your marriage suffer? Especially if you blame your husband for the accident as Alicia does?

What challenges do your characters from beyond the island face dealing with the local people?

The person most at odds with the local islanders is Alicia’s ex, Liam. While their son was alive, the family would spend a couple of weeks each summer on the islands, which Liam resented.

Firstly, he didn’t like the food. There’s so much heavy rye bread and other stodgy, strange dishes. And who eats raw herring? 

He hated the daily ritual of the sauna. It’s too hot and, he’s certain, bad for your heart. He never learned the language, although the island folk don’t speak much in general, preferring silence to small talk. Which Liam also found odd, and, frankly, rude. On top of everything, Liam gets seasick and hates flying, the only two ways you can reach the islands.

What are your top tips for any readers planning to travel to the Åland Islands?

Definitely do arrive by sea, either via Finland or Sweden. The archipelago is stunning any time of the year. 

The summer is the best season to visit. During any other time of the year, the islands and their residents go into a kind of hibernation.

My children used to say that  during the last week of our holiday in August when the schools had already started on the mainland, there was tumbleweed rolling along the main shopping street of Mariehamn, the capital of the islands. 

image of islands across the water

Another top tip is to eat as much of the local food as possible. Liam is wrong: it’s all fresh and lovely and delicious. Try the local speciality, a clafoutis-like oven-baked pancake, Ålandspannkaka. It’s served with local plum preserve and whipped cream. Washed down with a cup of strong coffee, naturally. Unmissable! 

Where will your next book be set?

The next book in the series, The Island Child, is again set on the Åland Islands. The story centres around Brit, Alicia’s best friend who after travelling the world has settled on the islands with a local sea captain, Jukka. But her past comes knocking with an unpleasant character bringing a nasty surprise to the heavily pregnant Brit. To complicate things, just as Brit is about to give birth, Jukka’s ship runs aground outside Mariehamn. With Alicia’s mother Hilda onboard…

The story will also touch on Alicia’s continuing love triangle with her Swedish lover Patrick and her ex-husband, Liam. Alicia’s mother Hilda also has a new love interest!

The Island Child will be out before Christmas, but is now on pre-order.


EXTRACT from An Island Christmas

This is a short excerpt from the second book in the Love on the Island series, An Island Christmas. It’s a scene set on Christmas Eve, the main day of celebrations on the islands. It’s Alicia’s first Christmas back and she wants the day to be perfect, but her plans are disrupted by the unwelcome arrival of someone she’s decided to forget …

Patrick turns into the Ulsson’s drive and parks the car next to a VW Golf. He turns off his lights and stays in the car for a moment. On the passenger seat is a paper bag filled with Christmas presents wrapped up expertly by one of the assistants at the fashionable interior design shop in town. They are beautifully understated, in white paper with wide red ribbons. 

There’s also the large box containing a magnum of vintage champagne resting on the floor of the car. He wonders if that is overkill. Should he perhaps leave the bottle behind and fetch it later, if he gets a good reception from Alicia?

He gazes up to the house, shining brightly in the dark afternoon light, the downstairs windows decorated with large star lanterns. The freshly fallen snow has formed a blanket over the sloping roof and the landscape. With the large pine draped with white lights, the whole scene looks serene and festive, like a TV advert.

Damn it, be brave. 

Hilda will appreciate the champagne, he’s sure, so he picks up the box, takes hold of the paper bag, slams the door of his car, and makes his way up to the house.

‘Who’s that?’ Hilda asks.

Alicia cannot believe her eyes. She watches as Patrick gets out of the car, picking something up from the passenger seat. She has her phone against her ear, still talking to Frida. The baby is crying in the background.

‘Can I ring you later?’ Alicia says and ends the call.

‘Is that who I think it is?’ Hilda says, her mouth open, forming an ‘o.’

‘What the hell does he think he’s doing?’ Alicia says and hurries to the door. 

But Patrick is quicker than she is, and by the time she opens the door, he is already standing there, a wide grin filling his face. He’s carrying a bag full of presents and a large box.

‘Surprise!’ he says.

Alicia stands there, dumbfounded. She cannot speak.

‘Can I come in?’ Patrick asks. ‘It’s bloody cold out here.’

‘Patrick, what a lovely surprise!’ Hilda says. She’s standing behind Alicia, who’s unable to move or speak. At her mother’s words, she turns to scowl at Hilda. She widens her eyes at her daughter. ‘Come now, let the poor man in. He must be freezing.’

Patrick smiles at Hilda and steps past Alicia, who is still holding onto the door handle. Alicia gets a waft of his perfume and the smell of the crisp outside. She tries not to let his rousing presence affect her judgment. 

What is he playing at? He must know Liam is here?  

‘Alicia, close that door before we all catch our death,’ Hilda says.

God Jul!’ 

Patrick hugs Hilda. He hands her the box he’s holding and when she sees what it is, she exclaims, ‘Oh, my goodness. Thank you and Merry Christmas to you too!’

‘I’m sorry I’ve come unannounced, but I thought I’d drop my presents off. I didn’t get a chance to do it before today, but I won’t keep you.’ 

With that, he turns around and hands her the bag of presents.

‘Happy Christmas, Alicia.’ His voice is soft and he bends down to give her a kiss on the cheek while grabbing the door handle, ready to go back outside.

‘Patrick, you can’t leave without at least having a drink with us!’ Hilda exclaims.

‘I couldn’t possibly, it’s a family occasion,’ Patrick says.

Alicia rolls her eyes at him, but he either doesn’t see her or ignores her on purpose and, smiling at Hilda, continues, ‘If you’re sure?’


FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT HELENA HALME

Visit her website https://helenahalme.com/ and follow her lively Instagram account at www.instagram.com/helenahalme.


ANOTHER ISLAND STORY

If, like Helena Halme (and Agatha Christie!), you love stories set on islands, you can also take a trip to Ithace, Greece in the company of Sophie Sayers in my sixth novel about her, Murder Your Darlings.

Shortlisted for the Selfies Award 2021, given to the best independently-published adult novels in the UK

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