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, Writing

Travels with my Books #7: To Italy with Jean Burnett

Fran Kempton at work in her study

I’m delighted to welcome Jean Burnett to the Travels with my Book spot. Jean’s extensive travels have inspired her historical novels, which she writes under her own name and also as Fran Kempton.

Jean has also written a travelogue, Vagabond Shoes, and compiled and edited A Victorian Lady in the Himalayas, the memoirs of intrepid Victorian traveller, Maria Caroline Bolitho.

In our interview, she’ll be focusing on her latest historical novel, The Devil’s Tune, published under the pen-name Fran Kempton. This is the first of a planned Italian trilogy, featuring a composer, an artist, and a dancer.

Jean, welcome to my blog! I read The Devil’s Tune when it was first published and I really enjoyed it, so I’m glad to have this opportunity to spread the word about it. Can we please kick off by pinpointing your book’s geographical settings. 

It’s set in Naples, Southern Italy. References to Naples are also in my second book in the series, as yet unpublished.

Please whet our appetites with a brief description.

It’s a novel of music, murder and revenge, set in sixteenth-century Italy, based on the life of the composer Carlo Gesualdo, prince, composer and murderer – or to give him his full title, Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa was Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza.

(Gesualdo is best known for his madrigals and eerie sacred music that use a chromatic language not heard again until the late nineteenth century – find out more about Gesualdo here.)

The book is narrated by Laura Scala, maidservant to the prince’s murdered wife. She swears revenge on the prince and pursues him throughout their lives with disastrous results.

There’s also a cameo appearance from the artist Caravaggio.

What is special about the location?

It’s such a dramatic location, historically and geographically.

What is your relationship with (Italy) and how much of your life have you spent there?

I have always loved Italy and I worked there for several months. I agree with Henry James: “Why be anywhere when you can be in Italy?”

What is special about the people native to Naples?

I think Neapolitans past and present are a bit mad, probably because they live next to a volcano!

Your protagonist, Laura, comes from Sicily. What challenges does she face dealing with Neapolitans? 

She finds the city overwhelming and dangerous. There were many Spanish soldiers in Naples as it was ruled by Spain at the time.

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

The volcano, Mount Etna, overshadows everything. The city is huge and chaotic. The bay is absolutely beautiful. There are/were huge gulfs between the rich and the poor. The princes and dukes may have gone, but the Mafia is still very powerful.

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

Enjoy! The food, the art, the scenery, and the people. But beware of pickpockets and bottom-pinchers!

“Only in Naples” – name three things that could only exist/happen there!

  1. You find the best ice cream in the world in Southern Italy.
  2. Museums always seem to be closed ‘for restoration.’
  3. The banks are the slowest in Europe, including their ATMs.

Which other authors’ books set in Italy would you like to recommend?

The English novelist Amanda Craig has set some of her novels in Italy (Tuscany). Of course, there are the fantastic Inspector Montalbano novels by Andrea Camilleri, also shown on TV, and I recommend the cosy crime/humorous Auntie Poldi books by Mario Giordano, all set in Southern Italy.

Where is your latest book set?

My current work-in-progress, about the Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi, is set In London, with flashbacks to Italy.

Where will your next book be set?

The third book will be set all over Europe, but especially in Italy.

Jean, thank you for sharing your passion for Naples and Southern Italy with us, Jean, and for giving me permission to reproduce the following extract from The Devil’s Tune, in which the narrator, Laura, has just arrived in Venice.

cover of The Devil's Tuen
The first in Jean Burnett’s planned Italian trilogy

EXTRACT FROM The Devil’s Tune by Fran Kempton

I wandered along the bank of the canal feeling tired, dirty, and hungry. The few coins in my purse would barely buy a night’s lodging – a meal was out of the question.

Later, moonlight gleamed down on me as it had done once before on a road in Sicily. All around me the gently susurration of moving water and the rustling of foraging rats provided the only sounds, except for the loud rumblings of my empty belly. Without another thought, I curled up at the water’s edge, too tired to care about the danger. The next moment I had tumbled over into the canal in the darkness, my bundle still clutched in my hand.


An old woman sat in a chair near the window mending a shirt by the light of one flickering candle. She looked up in astonishment at the man’s bedraggled burden, holding up the candle for a closer inspection.

What have you brought me, my son?’ Gaetano dropped me on to the floor unceremoniously. ‘I fished her out of the canal, mother. She needs help.’

To find out more about Jean Burnett/Fran Kempton, visit her website,


We’ll have a complete change of scene and climate when Helena Halme takes us to her native Scandinavia.


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

Posted in Reading, Travel, Writing

Travels with my Books #6: Around the World with Clare Flynn

photo of Clare Flynn
Meet Clare Flynn, award-winning historical novelist, whose stories take us all over the world

This month, I’m delighted to welcome Clare Flynn to the Travels with my Book spot. Clare is one of the best-travelled people I know, having visited many of the settings of her historical novels, as well as completing a round-the-world cruise a couple of years ago. In our interview, she’ll be focusing on her series set in Malaysia.

Clare, welcome to my blog! I’m so please to have this opportunity to chat about your travels and your writing life. Can we please kick off by pinpointing your books’s geographical settings. 

My historical novels are set all over the globe. Geographic displacement is one of my “things” – UK, Australia, India, Malaysia, Canada, the USA, Italy, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Ireland and France.

Some places only feature briefly, but Australia, India, Canada and Malaysia are all prominent. For “Travels with my Book” I’ve chosen Penang, Malaysia as I have three books set there and I’m writing a fourth which, whilst mostly located in Paris, also returns to Malaysia – or Malaya as it was before independence.

Please briefly describe the books you have set there.

cover of The Pearl of Penang
The first in Clare Flynn’s Penang trilogy

The Pearl of Penang is Evie’s story. She escapes penniless spinsterhood working as a lady’s companion, when she impulsively accepts a proposal from a man she barely knows and sets sail to the island of Penang to marry him. Things don’t turn out as she expected and a tumultous time awaits her, culminating in the 1941 Japanese invasion.

Prisoner from Penang is Mary’s story. She is Evie’s best friend in Penang. Her story begins with the Fall of Singpore, then to Japanese prison camps in Sumatra (if you’re old enough, think Tenko!) before returning to the island of Penang.

A Painter in Penang is Jasmine’s story. She’s Evie’s stepdaughter who in 1948  flees her miserable school in Kenya to return for an extended stay in Penang as the guest of Mary. This book is a coming of age story set against the backdrop of the Malayan Emergency (a civil war in all but name)

What makes Penang such a great setting for your stories?

Penang is a beautiful tropical island just off the coast of Malaysia and connected by ferry – or these days two Chinese-built road bridges. Lapped by the warm waters of the Strait of Malacca, it is a magical isle, mountainous in the centre and covered with rainforest. There are attap-roofed houses, raised off the ground, brightly coloured Chinese temples, old colonial houses and hotels and the capital George Town is now a Unesco Word Heritage site.

Malaya was one of the jewel’s in the crown of the British Empire – the centre of the world’s rubber industry as well as tin and bauxite mining. Penang itself was acquired in the late eighteenth century by the British East India Company as a port and military stronghold to keep a check on the Dutch and the French who were also busy colonising southeast Asia.

My books begin much later, in 1939, just before the war began in Europe. Malaya and Singapore were never expected to fall to the Japanese in World War II. Indeed Singapore was seen as invincible and its capitulation was a massive humiliation for the British.

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

Don’t laugh – but less than a day! Surely the most profitable day of my entire life!

The brevity of my stay is because it was a port of call on a round-the-world tour. I was halfway through the cruise and had no inclination to write (unusual for me). But I couldn’t get Penang out of my head. By the time we emerged from the Suez canal on the return leg I was bashing away at the keyboard.

Back home, as I researched wartime Malaya, I realised I had struck a rich vein, and now I’m writing number my fourth book in the series. I intended to return to Penang for an extended visit, but Covid and other plans got in the way!

What is special about the people native to Malaysia?

At the time of my books, Malaya was a British colony. The indigeneous Malays only made up around one-third of the population by the end of World War II, with one-third Chinese, and the rest a mixture of Indians and Europeans, mostly British – the latter being the smallest minority but with their hands on government.

After the war, the demise of the British Empire was on the cards and the plan was to achieve a smooth transition to independence. But politics is a complex game and there were many conflicting interests to balance. The British had always “co-ruled” with the sultans. And the sultans neither liked nor trusted the Chinese. There was also a growing fear of communism, balanced by a British Labour government who were reluctant to be openly hostile to China and Russia and who were keen to encourage trade unionism.

It’s not fair to sum up the situation in a few sentences but it makes for a fascinating patchwork of often changing loyalties and conflicting interests.

cover of Prisoner from Penang
The second in Clare Flynn’s Penang series

For your characters who come from elsewhere, what challenges do they face dealing with the local people?

The British colonials were incredibly arrogant and complacent before the war. They got on well enough with their colonial subjects in Malaya but had an innate sense of racial superiority. The same attitude was the root cause of their abject failure to prevail against invasion by the Japanese, completely underestimating their enemy. Their humiliation was made greater when it became apparent that the primary form of transport used by the advancing Japanese army was bicycles! The British had never anticipated such a simple and practical solution to shifting an army on poor roads the length of the peninsula.

After the war, they made the mistake of assuming those Malays (mostly Chinese Malays) who had fought bravely behind the Japanese lines alongside Special Operations soldiers would be loyal once the peace came. But the tons of ammunition air-dropped into the jungle by the British to fight the Japanese were buried in secret caches, and, rather than handing them in, the rebels later used them to fight their former British comrades in what proved to be an ultimately doomed twelve-year struggle.

For the women in my Penang novels, the challenges are mainly with their fellow Brits. Evie and Mary, and to some extent Jasmine, have little time for the cliquey clubbiness of the ex-pat British.  For Mary there is the living nightmare of imprisonment for years by the Japanese. Later, for Jasmine, it’s reconciling her feelings for a native Malay and her ambivalence towards the communist insurgents.

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

A small island surrounded by a tropical sea and topped by rainforest. Hot and humid with frequent rain. Historic George Town faces across the Strait to the peninsula and the Kedah hills. It is an island of spices with the aromatic smells of delicious cooking everywhere. The multi-ethnic food is delicious. The coastline is rocky with outcrops and miniature islands in the sea, which is dotted with fishing boats and passing liners. The beaches are fringed by casuarina trees. Wildlife includes giant red flying squirrels, monitor lizards, long-tailed macaques, flying lemurs, tree shrews, snakes – including boa constrictors, wild pigs and sea eagles.

cover of Painter in Penang
The third in Clare Flynn’s Penang series

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

I may not have had the chance to stay there myself (yet),but I had done a lot of planning for my aborted trip. I intended to stay in the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (the E&O) which features in my books – as well as in a picturesque guest house converted from a former Chinese merchant’s house – as well as a couple of days staying at the beach.

George Town itself offers plenty to fascinate from its delicious cuisine, to its famous street art, colonial architecture and old Chinese wooden quays.

A visit via the funicular railway to the top of Penang Hill is essential for the panoramic views of George Town and the Straits as well as walks in the rainforest. The more energetic can hire a bicycle and cycle beside the paddy fields and spice plantations to explore the island.

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

I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve heard great things of The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng, set in Penang in 1939. It’s about an Anglo-Chinese man and his friendship with a  Japanese diplomat. I have a copy in my TBR pile and am looking forward to reading it. While I was researching my Penang books I avoided reading fiction and read a lot of non-fiction accounts of colonial life. I did dip in and out of Somerset Maugham’s short stories though, many of which are set in colonial Malaya. He was not a popular figure among the British there, who thought he painted a very unflattering picture of them.

Where will your next book be set?

It starts in Nairobi, Kenya, but most of the action takes place in Paris – with a few returns to Penang and to Johore on the peninsula between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. It follows on from the three Penang books, continuing Jasmine’s story.

Thank you very much, Clare, for sharing with us the fascinating history of Penang and its influence on your writing.

You’re welcome! A delight to be a guest on your blog, Debbie!


cover of The Pearl of Penang
The first in Clare Flynn’s Penang trilogy

After strolling past the bastion of Fort Cornwallis with its thick brick walls, Evie turned off and plunged into the nearby streets. Eventually finding herself in a square with a collection of stalls and kiosks, her nose and throat were assaulted by an overpowering, sweet smell of incense. Across the square was a small temple, with the characteristic Chinese swooping curved roof, adorned along the ridge with dragon carvings. There were shrines and stone statues outside, where people gathered to thrust bunches of smouldering joss sticks into jars filled with sand, before bending or squatting in prayer and devotion. Looking around, she could see no other Europeans, but no one seemed bothered by her presence so she walked freely around the space. There was a covered well, where people were collecting water, and piles of stacked wooden cages each containing a small bird. The square was a peculiar mixture of sincere devotion and casual commerce.

Hesitantly, Evie went up to the entrance of the temple building and was glad to find it quiet and almost empty inside, although the scent of the burning incense was more intense than in the square.

The light was dim, provided only by the faint glow of candles and the daylight from the narrow open doorway she had entered through. She squinted to see. In front of her was a small gold-painted shrine. Evie moved towards it and stood for a while in silence, drinking in the calm and quiet of the place after the chaotic scene outside. Her eyes adjusted to the gloom and she saw the shrine was crowded with a collection of painted figures, the male ones dressed like emperors in ornate robes with long drooping moustaches, one or two goddesses, other figures resembling evil-looking ogres, and among them gold-painted animals such as horned deer or sea creatures. Oranges and other fruits were stacked in neat piles with what she assumed to be votive messages written in Chinese on little cards. The smell of burning joss sticks was intensified by the perfume from flowers, stacked around the shrine in tall vases. Curved metal lanterns and red streamers hung from the ceiling.

Evie was transfixed by the scene and felt a strange calm enveloping her after all the trauma, fear and bitterness of the past days. Without thinking why, she stood with her head bowed and closed her eyes.


To find out more about Clare Flynn and her 13 (and counting!) historical novels, visit her website,, where if you join her mailing list, you will be able to download a free collection of short stories.


We’ll have a complete change of scene and climate when Helena Halme takes us to her native Scandinavia!


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