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.


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.


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.

(available in paperback, hardback, ebook and audio from a wide range of stores)



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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 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)



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:

line-up of all A A Abbott's novels


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


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.’


Visit Jean Gill’s website:


Posted in Reading, Travel

Travels with my Book #4: To Alexandria in Egypt with Carol Cooper

Today Carol Cooper tells us about her third novel, The Girls from Alexandria

Today I’m delighted to welcome Carol Cooper to tell us the story behind her wonderful new novel, The Girls from Alexandria, set in – you guessed it – Alexandria!

Just to be clear, this is the original Alexandria in Egypt, not any of the towns by the same name in the USA or elsewhere – named for its founder, Alexander the Great, once home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and now the largest city on the Mediterranean. It has long been a cosmopolitan melting pot of cultures, which Carol vividly describes in her novel.

That Carol is a past master at creating a sense of place is evidenced by her two previous novels, both set in London, One Night at the Jacaranda and Hampstead Fever.

I’m a Londoner myself, despite living in the Cotswolds for the last thirty years, and those two novels vividly evoke my native city. I was therefore looking forward to reading her latest novel celebrating the exotic setting of her childhood, and I snapped up the ebook as soon as it came out and really enjoyed it. The paperback and audio are also now available – find out how to order at the end of the interview. Now, let’s meet Carol…

Hello, Carol, and welcome! Can you please start off by telling us a little more about the setting of your  new novel. 

The Girls from Alexandria is set mostly in Alexandria – Egypt, that is, and not, as some Americans think, the one in Virginia. The novel has two timelines, and the present-day action mostly takes place in London.

Please briefly describe what kind of book it is.

It’s a hybrid between historical fiction and a modern mystery. Seventy-year-old Nadia’s brain is failing and she’s going to end up in a care home unless she can find her sister Simone who’s her last remaining relative. But Simone went missing from the family home in Alexandria 50 years ago. And all Nadia has to go on is a few old postcards and her own jumbled memories of Egypt.

What makes this place such a great setting for your story?

As I knew it, Alexandria was a vibrant hub of commerce, culture, and leisure. Many different nationalities and ethnicities contributed to its success, and all lived side by side in a peaceful patchwork. The city itself is very atmospheric. On the Corniche (the waterfront promenade), little boys sell necklaces threaded with jasmine and vendors grill corn over a makeshift charcoal grill, while a gentle breeze off the Mediterranean gives Alex a near-perfect climate – unlike Cairo which, as any Alexandrians will tell you, is inferior in every way.

Yet all was not well in the 1950s, and the era that was so comfortable for many was on the cliff edge of change.

All this made it the perfect backdrop for Nadia’s story.

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

photo of Carol Cooper on the beach at Alexandria
Carol Cooper spent her formative years in Alexandria

I was born in London and taken to Alexandria at the age of eight months. I lived there non-stop for eight years, then on and off for another couple of years. While it’s not a huge slice of my life, those are formative years. My mother’s side of the family is Arab. Our ancestors were Syrian and Lebanese, and came to settle in Alexandria about 100 years before I was born.

Egypt was a safe haven for many, so that was a common scenario in the Middle East. However, although we were Egyptian, some still considered us outsiders. It was an easy decision to give my principal character Nadia and her family exactly the same ethnicity, and for Nadia to search for the meaning of ‘home’ as much as for her missing sister.

What is special about the people native to Alexandria?

People from Alexandria may actually come from all over the world, so they might be, or have been at some point, Greek, Italian, Lebanese, French, British, Armenian, Turkish, Russian, Swiss, or any number of other nationalities, as well as a mix of creeds.

An Alexandrian is a citizen of the world, and everyone we knew spoke at least three languages.

You were hardly Alexandrian if you didn’t leap from one language to another, mid-sentence or not, use your hands to help make your point, and talk so softly that you could be heard in Peru.

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

Unfortunately many magnificent period buildings, including ornate French and Italianate splendours, are no more. To house a booming population, new blocks have sprouted everywhere, without regard for heritage or planning regulations. Some of them collapse into rubble just as quickly.

But there’s still a lot to see. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is a marvel. Completed in 2002, it is both a tribute to the old Library of Alexandria, and a spectacular new centre for culture and study.

Alexandria’s ancient catacombs are not to be missed

The catacombs at Kom el Shoqafa are definitely worth a visit.  These are tombs in Roman, Greek, and Egyptian styles. Some statues are Egyptian but have Roman clothes and hairdos. I like to think this embodies the city’s cosmopolitan spirit.

Pompey’s Pillar is also a must. It was really built to honour Roman emperor Diocletian, but legend has it that someone misread the inscription at the base of the pillar.

Anyone travelling to Egypt should stick to the tourist trail or they could get into serious trouble with the police. Visitors should also be careful what they take photos of – no government buildings, for a start.

However you can still walk along the Corniche and take in the view. At sunset, the sky turns every shade of pink, purple, and red. As the last slice of the sun sinks, you might catch sight of a green flash. That’s when you can make a wish, but be quick. There’s only a brief moment before the sun drops like a rock into the sea and the sky turns dark.

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

Anyone interested in Alexandria may already know Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. I can also recommend translations of Neguib Mahfouz’s novel Hotel Miramar, and Robert Solé’s Hôtel Mahrajane and The Alexandria Semaphore. Finally there’s a special place in my heart for André Aciman’s vivid memoir Out of Egypt.

Carol, thank you so much for taking us to Alexandria today – now let’s share an extract of your  new novel.

EXTRACT from The Girls from Alexandria

Alexandria, June 1953

Zouzou strolled up and down, chewing Chiclets and wiggling her bottom in yet another swimsuit. She was part Italian, part Egyptian, and maybe part French or Austrian. In Alex, it was normal for everyone to be part something, with all the parts jumbled up.

‘Don’t stare,’ Simone hissed.

It was impossible not to stare. Zouzou was unbelievably old, maybe thirty, and she chewed gum with a wide painted mouth like the film stars at the Rialto.

When I next looked up from my sandcastle, Mother was deep in conversation with her sisters and Father had nodded off. Simone’s sketch pad was still under the parasol, but she wasn’t. She wasn’t by the water’s edge either. Blood drained from my face. In fact, it drained from my entire body.

I jumped up and bellowed, ‘Simone!’

Several boys splashed in the water nearby, fighting over an inflatable mattress. Simone was nowhere to be seen. I felt sick.

‘What is it, chérie?’ Mother asked.

‘Simone’s gone. Simone!’ I yelled again.

Mother was up, spinning her head around. ‘When did you last see her?’

‘I don’t know. Just a moment ago. Simone!’ It was when Zouzou went by, wasn’t it? My heart was beating all over the place except, it seemed, in the one spot where it was meant to beat.

‘There’s a shaweesh up on the Corniche,’ Mother told Father. ‘We should ask him.’

Yes, I thought. A policeman might be able to find a missing girl. Unless she’d already drowned.

Father rushed off to find the shaweesh while Abdou hitched up his long galabeyya so he could race up and down the sand in search of Simone. I silently promised I would give St Anthony twenty piasters if we found my sister.


Visit Carol’s website at

I also recommend following her blog,, which is always well-written and entertaining, whether writing about issues of the day, medical matters (she is also a medical doctor and medical ournalist), or about her books and writing life. Her latest post is “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Alexandria“.


The Girls from Alexandria is now available in ebook, paperback, audiobook download for Audible, and audio CDs.

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Lucienne Boyce takes us from 18th century England to a mythical country far away in To the Fair Land


Or take a trip to the Cotswolds any time, through the pages of my own novels and novelettes



Posted in Reading, Travel, Writing

Introducing a New Series of Author Interviews: Travels with my Books #1 – To Fiji with BM Allsopp

Although I’ve lived in the same cottage in a quiet corner of the Cotswolds for thirty years, I’m better travelled than this statement might suggest.

  • By the age of 9, I’d made a road trip with my family across the USA from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, visiting more states than many US citizens.
  • Before I left school, I was a seasoned pan-European solo traveller by train and plane, flitting between Frankfurt, where I lived aged 14-18, to England and the Netherlands to visit family and friends.
  • By the time I was 40, my career in journalism and PR had paid me to travel to many European cities and to join conventions in Hong Kong and on a Caribbean cruise ship.
  • Since 2000, I’ve spent many holidays Greek island-hopping in the small sailing yacht in which we owned a small share (more affordable than it sounds – just £3k!) or  touring Scotland and northern mainland Europe in our camper van.

Reading to Travel

While my wanderlust has abated as I’ve got older and have fewer places left on my bucket list, I still like to “travel by book”, reading about distant lands, whether in fiction in the form of novels and short stories or in non-fiction via travelogues and memoirs.

I enjoy revisiting places I’ve been and which I love (eg to the Scottish Highlands and Islands in Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore), and I also welcome the chance to virtually visit countries I’m never likely to reach in person (eg to Iceland with Bjorn Larssen in Storytellers)- such as anywhere that is host to venomous snakes! While not a habitual reader of fantasy, I’ve also had some pleasurable trips to places that are the stuff of myth, from Homer’s Odyssey to Lucienne Boyce’s To the Fair Land.

While so many of us face continuing travel restrictions, I thought it would be fun this year to make the theme of the monthly guest posts on my blog “Travels with my Books”, interviewing author friends all around the world about the settings of their books.

First Stop: Fiji!

BM Allsopp. author of the Fiji Islands Mysteries

I’m delighted to begin the series with about as distant a destination as possible from my English village home: Fiji, in the company of B M Allsopp (Bernadette).

I first discovered her compelling and colourful Fiji Islands Mysteries when Bernadette emailed me out of the blue to offer a review copy, having discovered my English village mysteries on the internet. Despite the distance, and although we’re unlikely ever to meet in person, we have become firm friends. I so enjoyed the chance her first book, Death on Paradise Island, gave me to learn about Fiji through the first adventure of her Inspector Josefa Horseman and his sidekick Sergeant Singh that I’ve now read all of her books and eagerly anticipate new additions to her series.

I hope my conversation with Bernadette will encourage you to take a virtual trip to Fiji too. Join her mailing list at and you can even get two free books to sample her work!


The first in BM Allsopp’s Fiji Island Mysteries

Hi Bernardette and welcome to my blog. Can we please kick off by pinpointing your books’ setting on the globe?

Spin your globe to the vast blue segment of the Pacific Ocean. Trace down the 180-degree meridian to south of the equator and you’ll find Fiji above the Tropic of Capricorn.  You’ll notice the International Date Line diverts east from the meridian here, so that Fiji, some other islands, New Zealand and part of the Russian Far East are in the same time zone. The sun truly rises in Fiji first!

What a neat claim! Next, can you please give a nutshell summary of your books?

My Fiji Islands Mysteries are police procedurals featuring Inspector Joe Horseman, washed-up Fiji rugby star, and Sergeant Susila Singh, a driven woman defying the odds. Their partnership grows as they strive for justice in their fragile paradise.

What makes Fiji such a great setting for your stories?

My stories wouldn’t exist without Fiji because they have sprung from my own experiences there.  As a huge fan of exotic crime fiction, I aim to give readers the same sense of discovery that I enjoy with authors like Alexander McCall Smith (No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series set in Botswana).

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

I lived in the South Pacific islands for 14 years, including four in Fiji, where I taught at the University of the South Pacific in Suva. I love Fiji!

Fijians have an impressive seafaring heritage

What is special about the people native to Fiji?

The first settlers were unsurpassed navigators who arrived around 3,500 years ago from islands to the west, perhaps from as far as New Guinea. Indigenous Fijians now comprise 58% of the population and own most of the land through a traditional hierarchy of hereditary chiefs. Fijians are courteous and dignified while also vital, smiling and friendly. Renowned in the nineteenth century for the quality of their boats and houses, many traditional skills still thrive, as do elaborate ceremonials surrounding the chiefs.

Does your protagonist or other characters come from Fiji?

My main series characters are Fijians from different ethnic backgrounds. The only foreign series character is the Australian pathologist, Dr Matt Young, who has lived in Fiji for over 20 years. His late wife was Fijian and he considers Fiji his home.

The collared lory – one of the Fiji Islands’ many beautiful birds

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

Most of Fiji’s 320 or so islands are of volcanic origin and fringed by coral reefs. The biggest four islands have rugged mountains and support rainforest, grassland and wetland habitats for diverse plants and animal species. Although native mammals are restricted to just four kinds of bats, a number of beautiful birds, reptiles and plants are found only in Fiji. Of these, the red shining parrot and the crested iguana feature in my first book, Death on Paradise Island.

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

With over 320 islands, Fiji’s transport network includes seaplanes

As Fiji is economically dependent on tourism, the people are suffering terribly from the current Covid-19 travel restrictions. When the world opens up again, why not escape to these glorious islands? Here are my top tips for when you do!

  • Unless you thrive on hot and very humid weather, I recommend the months from April to October, when the temperatures are moderate, cool breezes blow and the risk of storms and cyclones is small.
  • Fiji offers much more than sand and coconut palms. You can gently snorkel over a dazzling coral reef, visit a rural village school, scuba dive with feasome sharks, play golf… and much more.
  • Don’t spend all you time in one of the big international hotels, lovely though they are. If you hate backpacker beach huts, there are 5-star boutique island getaways where you’ll experience traditional culture and still luxuriate.
  • Don’t hesitate to chat to the locals. Wherever you go, Fijians will always be welcoming and wonderfully friendly.

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

  • Uniformed police officers direct traffic wearing a starched white skirt (sulu) with a saw-tooth hem. The dress uniform of the Fiji Military Forces is similar.
  • The whole country stops when the Fiji rugby team is playing an international game. Except on remote islands with no TV or Internet reception, the entire population is glued to a screen.
  • Fijians readily acknowledge their ancestors were feared cannibals not so long ago. They are not at all embarrassed to talk about such customs but are very thankful times have changed.
A Fijian police parade shows off their striking uniform
Cover of Death Beyond the Limit
The latest in the series

Where is your latest book set?

Death Beyond the Limit, the third in the series, is set in Fiji’s capital of Suva, the beautiful mountainous island of Ovalau and at sea.

Where will your next book be set?

Fiji – the precise location is still a mystery.

Thank you so much for that lightning introduction to Fiji, Bernadette, and thanks also for kindly allowing me to share the following extracts from your books for a further taste of Fiji.

Start Your Journey to Fiji Here!

The Prologue from Death on Paradise Island

The first in BM Allsopp’s Fiji Island Mysteries

A crested tern swooped down to the edge of the fringing reef, attracted by the flutter of white in the water lapping the exposed coral. But the tern flew away disappointed, for this was no fish, just a scrap of cloth. The cloth was torn from the uniform worn by all the Paradise Island staff for the marine reserve celebrations: tailored white tunic patterned with black coconut palms and rugby balls, worn with a black sulu, the Fijian wraparound skirt.

If the tern investigated the white flapping further, it would find the cloth scrap still partly attached to the tunic and the girl wearing it. She had washed in from the sea and was caught by the jagged shelf below the coral overhang. The delicate coral was merciless, abrading her golden-brown skin as the waves tossed her back and forth until the tide retreated.

So it was a small hermit crab who first discovered the dead body of Akanisi Leletaku, who had so proudly arranged the floral decorations for the festivities. The crab picked its way over her uniform and scuttled into her open mouth, where it began to feed on the soft tissue.

© B M Allsopp 2021

Detective Horseman tells the story behind his name – Death on Paradise Island

‘But I like my ancestor’s story better. Legend has it that he was a survivor of a ship wrecked on a reef off Vanua Levu. A few men managed to get ashore, where they were clubbed and prepared for the ovens.’ He paused, trying to gauge if they were really interested.

‘Come on! Truly? I’m sure all those cannibal stories are highly exaggerated for ghoulish tourists,’ McKenzie protested, ever the diplomatic host.

Horseman glanced at Adi Litia, who calmly replied, ‘Not at all, Ian. The victors ate all the enemy killed in battle, for a start. The chiefs’ cooks roasted anyone put to death for offending the law or the chief too. There were even raiding parties whose main purpose was to bring back meat. All Fijians praise God for sending the brave Christian missionaries to deliver us from those evils.’ She put a forkful of rare steak into her mouth and chewed it with strong white teeth.

McKenzie subsided into a stunned silence.

Horseman went on. ‘My ancestor clung to some timber and washed up in a different bay. He came to on the beach as he was being nuzzled by a horse, part of his ship’s cargo. The club-wielding warriors were keeping their distance, terrified. You’ve got to remember, none of them had ever seen a land animal bigger than a pig.

‘The chief’s men reported the wreck to him, and he came along to inspect the flotsam and jetsam for himself. It was true love at first sight. The chief would have given anything for the horse—guns, war canoes, slaves, women—anything and everything. My ancestor sensed the chief’s desire and stayed close to the horse for protection. He stroked and soothed the traumatised animal, and kept repeating the word Horse, trying to placate the Fijians. Desperate to convince the chief of his value, he climbed on the horse’s back and showed off his riding skills before the gob-smacked Fijians. Up and down the beach. Bareback. Trotting, galloping, wheeling and rearing. Impressive.

‘The upshot was my ancestor became the chief’s horseman, groom and riding instructor. He was given a house and at least one wife, and lived long enough to have several children. Only one son had children himself, and he adopted his father’s title as a surname, which has been passed down in the European way until today.’

‘Are you sure you’re not making this up?’ asked Pat McKenzie, suspiciously. Another glare from her husband.

‘No, but it might have been made up a long time ago. Who knows now? Six generations have passed since then. But we’re here, and my ancestor’s word for the animal was horse, so I guess he was from Britain, Ireland or America.’

‘The first horse in Fiji—a fabulous story.’ McKenzie spoke softly, awed.

Adi Litia laughed. ‘Fijians believe it. I hope it’s true.’

‘There are a lot of us now, and we’re officially classified in Fiji as kailoma, part-European. The leaves on my branch are mostly Fijians, so I look Fijian. I’ve cousins in Australia who look completely European. We’re all Horsemans, though. Or should it be Horsemen? Our clan can never agree on that, especially the women.’

© B M Allsopp 2021

Inspector Horseman arrives at Tanoa village, where a man has been murdered – Death By Tradition

cover of Death by Tradition
The second in the series

Mist shrouded the river, thinning as it rose to the hilltops. The hazy river bank opposite curved to the point where the bridge crossed.

To the right stood clusters of houses and a church. Further up the slope was a terrace with a school and a grassed rectangle with bamboo posts at either end. This would be the rara, the ceremonial space that in small villages doubled as a rugby field, both functions equally vital. Here and there were washing lines and small sheds. At the beach below the bridge, women washed clothes, slapping them rhythmically on the smooth river stones. Others tended fish traps, watched closely by a couple of thin dogs. A typical backblocks village—picturesque, placid, dull. But this one harboured an unusual and dangerous killer.

To the left of the bridge, the land rose steeply to a high outcrop of rock, a near-vertical cliff. The stone at the top had been shaped, maybe boulders hauled up to increase the height. Horseman recognised the ruins of a precolonial hill fort. His hackles rose as he gazed through the mists of time at bloody battle scenes. Rough battlements would have protected the Tanoa defenders hurling spears, shooting arrows, throwing missiles with deadly accuracy. What better site to spot attackers from down river? What better site from which to repel them?

© B M Allsopp 2021

For More Information & Free Books

cover of Death of a Hero
Download this prequel for free when you join BM Allsopp’s mailing list

To find out more about B M Allsopp and her Fiji Island Mysteries, visit her website at Her website also includes a gallery of beautiful photos of Fiji and a section of useful resources.

If you join her mailing list at, you can even get two free ebooks!

You can also follow her on Facebook at and on Twitter at @bmallsopp.

Next month: join Helen Hollick for a piratical journey around the Caribbean! 

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