Monday, 17 December 2012

North Beach, Wollongong

I just love coming home to Australia. Mornings like this: nice walk, swim, coffee and book signing with friends.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Bulli Bookclub

Well last week could be called bookclub week. Spent a fabulous evening at Ryan's Hotel, Bulli, with the lovely Lesley Bennett's bookclub girls. Far more chatting and laughing than actually talking about the book!

Monday, 10 December 2012

Wollongong Bookclub

Last Friday evening, with a touch of trepidation and a small knot of nerves, I went to the Links restaurant on the stunning Wollongong beachfront, to meet up with my first Aussie bookclub readers of Spirit of Lost Angels. The wine and champagne surely helped, but I needn't have worried a bit, the girls were all gorgeous and gave me some insightful feedback into my novel. As the evening wore on, I felt less on the chopping block, and more part of their friendly group, especially during the hilarious Secret Santa present swap. A big thank you to Sharyn, the bookclub's 'co-ordinator extraordinaire', and to my long-time school and nursing friend, Deb Holdsworth, for organizing such a wonderful evening.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Fête des Lumières

Every year, the city of Lyon, France celebrates la fête des Lumières - an international light festival to celebrate the end of the black plague in Lyon. Read my guest post on Julianne Douglas' blog: Writing the Renaissance.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Triskele Books Feature

I am happy to announce the Triskele Books feature this month in Book Junkies Journal. Our thanks to Annarita and Cathy from Book Junkies for this lovely piece.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Local Food and Wine Temptation

We truly did have good intentions the other Friday afternoon: a brisk walk through our rural village of Messimy, and up through the Monts du Lyonnais, then back home for a bowl of hearty, healthy vegetable soup.
As we approached the church we noticed a crowd of villagers grouped around the Salle Jeanne Arc.
‘Mmn, what’s happening over there?’ my walking pal asked, so across we trotted to see what the fuss was about. And voilà, in usual French style, we found ourselves in the throes of la dégustation des produits regionaux (tasting of regional products).

‘We don’t have to stay long,’ I said, as we moved from stand to stand, tasting local jams and honey, bread baked into animal shapes, salami made with blueberries, cheese, mushrooms and other unlikely ingredients. 

We then trooped over to the other room, and started on the macaroons, chocolate almonds and snails. Yes, a strange marriage of tastes, but never mind.

Our last stop was the wine stand, offering local reds, rosés, whites and a new pink bubbly one.
Of course, we never got any further on our walk, and the hearty, healthy vegetable soup went into a Tupperware in the fridge.  

Monday, 22 October 2012

Thanks to Annemarie Neary, author of the wonderful A Parachute in the Lime Tree for her generous Goodreads review of Spirit of Lost Angels. If anybody is interested, please join our Triskele Books bookclub discussion on A Parachute in the Lime Tree!

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Mad Women of the Hell of La Salpêtrière

In her generous review of Spirit of Lost Angels on The Queen's Quill Review, Andrea Connell's comment on La Salpêtrière prompted me to write a short piece about this asylum for “insane and incurable women”:  To me, this was perhaps the most fascinating portion of the story - descriptions of the appalling conditions under which the women were kept, the rivalries that developed among cell mates, the rules one had to learn in order to survive this prison. The narrative was stark and believable and, believe it or not, educational. Since I finished the book, I’ve been looking up the history of the Salpêtrière Hospital, intrigued at how low mental health care and the care of women had deteriorated at that time.

As an author, I too, found the asylum parts of the story the most fascinating to write about.

Located in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, this building was named La Salpêtrière due to its origins as a producer and storage area for saltpeter (used to make gunpowder).

For many years it was then known as a cruel and harsh place to which people suffering from mental health problems were sent … as well as various other “conditions” not considered suitable for society: beggars, prostitutes, protestants, epileptics, orphans, Jews, criminals, drunks, witches, depressives, blind women, adultresses, homosexuals, thieves, magicians, idiots, suicidals, bohemians, cretins. The old, the young, the children, all imprisoned together, sent there by families, husbands, neighbours.

On Sundays, prostitutes were rounded up and carted off to La Salpêtrière

In the late 18th century, Dr. Philippe Pinel, child of 18th century enlightenment, finally did away with the women’s chains and the approach to mental disease began to change. Today, Dr. Pinel’s sculptural monument stands before the main entrance in Place Marie-Curie, Boulevard de L'Hôpital.
Dr. Pinel removing patient's chains.

In the second half of the 19th century, when Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot took over the department, La Salpêtrière became world famous as a psychiatric centre, and students came from all over the world to listen to Charcot's lectures. Among them was a young man by the name of Sigmund Freud.

Despite its modern-day state of the art facilities, the hospital is still littered with memories, some of the original structures remaining as a bleak reminder of how things use to be.

During my research into La Salpêtrière, I stumbled upon a beautifully poetic little book – Les Folles d’Enfer de la Salpêtrière (The Mad Women of La Salpêtrière Hell) written by talented French sculptress and illustrator, Mâkhi Xenakis.

Invited to exhibit at the La Salpêtrière hospital in Paris in 2004, Mâkhi Xenakis discovered in the hospital archives the hellish imprisonment there of thousands of women since the time of Louis XIV. This discovery led her to pen a heart-breaking account of the tragic inmates, in Les Folles d’Enfer de la Salpêtrière, and to install 260 amazing sculptures in the hospital chapel and the gardens:

I found this link, and video (in French) both moving and enlightening.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Many thanks to Andrea Connell and The Queen's Quill Review for a generous review of Spirit of Lost Angels. Andrea's comments have inspired me to write a blog post about La Salpêtrière asylum in Paris that features in this story. COMING SOON...

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Autumn Chestnuts and Fortified Villages

Keen as ever for a break from internet research, and to seek out more tangible sources of documentation for my current book, I recently paid a visit to la Maison d’Expositions de L’Araire.

As I headed towards this historical society stone building, admiring the panoramic view across the Yzeron valley to the city of Lyon, it was obvious autumn had sneaked up on me again while I wasn’t looking. In this rural heart of the Monts du Lyonnais, flame, mustard and crimson-coloured leaves almost outdid the green, and I drew my cardigan around me against the damp nip in the air.

La Maison d’Expositions de L’Araire is a humble place, the volunteers who run it always offering a welcoming smile and more than happy to answer my myriad of questions. An elderly woman beckoned me inside, towards the hearth, and the sweet aroma of roasting chestnuts filled my nostrils. She rattled her poker about in the flames as we talked about the weather, and how suddenly the summer had left us for another year. After what I hoped was a polite interval, I bade her au revoir and headed off towards the exhibitions.

La Maison de L’Araire boasts permanent exhibitions of an old silk-weaving loom, and a model of a Roman aqueduct, from when the Romans inhabited this part of France, but it also features temporary exhibits and since my novel-in-progress is set in the 14th century, I was particularly interested in the model-sized fortified villages.

During the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), the inhabitants of this west Lyon region constructed high stone walls around their villages to protect them from the hordes of pillaging, plundering soldiers. This fortification was named the vingtain, as each peasant was required to pay a twentieth (une vingtième) of his harvest towards its construction and upkeep. I pictured the people complaining about this extra tax; yet another to leech their meagre earnings. But I also imagined them working in the fields, startled and frightened as the cries of bandits reached their ears, and hurrying off to the relative protection of their fortified village.

I took the usual photographs, filled my notebook, thanked the historical society volunteers, and hurried off through the early dusk to join my friends for an aperitif in the village bar.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Tuesday, 25 September 2012


Last Sunday dawned warm and sunny, so we stuffed cheese, saucisson, baguettes and water into the backpack and headed up the track behind the house, into the foothills of the Monts du Lyonnais. After several hours tramping up and down valleys, and through forests, we reached the hamlet of Châteauvieux, with its wide view over the Yzeron valley on one side, and the city of Lyon on the other.
Châteauvieux boasts not only a history dating back to Roman times, but also an 11th century chapel, which was my real motive for our day-long hike. For this medieval edifice seemed the ideal chapel for Angel of Roses – my current novel, set in this rural area west of Lyon during the 14th century plague years.
As I peered into the chapel, I felt that twinge of excitement, anticipation and nervousness, when a story starts to come alive. It was as if, in that dim and dusty interior, I could see the villagers hunched on the straw-covered flagstones, the elderly and infirm lined up on benches along the walls, all eyes on the priest. I could hear the priest telling them that Black Death had come to the village because they were all such terrible sinners, and now they must pay for their sins, and repent. And, from her glorious pedestal, I shivered at the implacable stare of the Virgin Mary.
Not a single tombstone is left standing in the cemetery, but as I walked across the grass, the silence broken only by the gentle breeze, it seemed those ancient spirits were still there, crouched in the shadow of the stone walls, watching my every move, guarding their sacred site. I expected to see a wimpled face staring from a cracked, stained-glass window.
‘Who are you?’ she would say. ‘Where do you come from, dressed like that?’
In that instant, I wished for time-travel. I’d have loved to have been in their midst, experiencing their life and times, first-hand. But only for a few hours mind, then buzz me back to the safety of the 21st century, thanks very much!
We left the chapel to its ancient keepers and their secrets, and continued on up the hill towards the village of Yzeron, calling in on some old friends along the way:

Monday, 17 September 2012


Stretched across the stone facade of the ancient village, a wide banner yawns into the soughing air:

Discover the bush peach in all its guises in Soucieu-en-Jarrest, where the Romans once roamed.

Snug in the twist of a Monts du Lyonnais valley, twenty-odd kilometers west of Lyon, the village of Soucieu-en-Jarrest minds its own business, and on the first Sunday of September its business is the bush peach.

Ruins of the fortified stone wall lost in the revolution, and a sign advertising soupe aux choux, herald the village entrance. Fearing a revolution of the intestinal kind, I decline the cabbage soup and head for the fruit, past tractors and harvest equipment––reminding me that this is, essentially, a farming community.

‘What’s the big deal about peaches?’ I ask a local farmer.

‘Not just a peach, madame, but our own succulent fruit with flesh the colour of blood. The bush peach is grown alongside the vines,’ he explains. ‘Susceptible to the same diseases as the vines but quicker to develop the signs, the vine growers plant peach trees next to their vineyards to warn them of potential problems.’ He smiles. ‘And voilà, the bush peach has been part of our arboricultural patrimony since the seventeenth century.’

So, with its questionable history as martyr, I ask myself if the humble bush peach can hold its head high as a separate identity.

My nostrils guide me to freshly baked chaussons––stewed bush peach turnovers––the golden pastries lined up like slippers in a dormitory.

Alongside the turnovers, a man toils over an army-issue cauldron of stewing peaches. A woman breaks up the fruit, and hurls it into the bubbling magenta mélange.

‘Thirty-five minutes to stew a peach, and an hour for jam, but don’t peel the fruit,’ she warns me, waving her wooden spoon like an off-duty martinet.

To avoid being crushed like the wine grapes, I dodge a purple clown on stilts, a troop of majorettes filing past in his ungainly wake. I skip out of the firing line of thrashing pom-poms and take cover in the stall selling bush peach nectar and wine.

‘You can smell those peaches, n’est-ce pas, madame?’ the man says, offering me a glass of white wine.

‘Delicious,’ I say, savouring the intense, yet charming aroma.

‘If madame would care to try the red? An exquisite blend of blackberry, blackcurrant and raspberry, and perhaps the rosé too?’

Nicely mellowed after three glassfuls, I thank him and leave the man to his serious buyers.

Slurping on a double bush peach sorbet cone, I see the Groupe Folklorique de Thurins is already swinging, the women’s traditional red and yellow skirts twirling as their breeches-clad partners spin them about the stage.

As the dancers flounce off, I head to the library where a storyteller––looking all the part in a toga––is narrating a Roman tale of intrigue.

‘In 43 BC, Lyon was the capital of Gaul, and called Lugdunum. The Romans got their water from aqueducts, the ruins of which we can still see all over the Monts du Lyonnais.’

The whites of the children’s eyes flash in the darkened room as the storyteller unfolds a tale of stolen jewels, culminating in a bloody sword duel atop an aqueduct tower.

Strategically placed near the bar, serious competitors are engaged in a pétanque match. The French take their bowling game as seriously as their wine, precisely measuring questionable distances. Soaking up the sun, I sip my tangy bush peach cocktail and watch them exclaiming and waving their arms as the metal ball lands where it should, or shouldn’t.

As I taste the surprisingly pleasant union of white cheese drowned in bush peach sauce, Mr. Loudspeaker orders the crowd to gather for the grande finale.

‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, Miss Bush Peach and Mr. Lyonnaise Hills Wines will be united.’

We enthusiastically applaud the chosen young girl and boy grinning under their dubious honour, a few wolf whistles ringing from the edges of the crowd.

The sun begins its westward arc towards the Monts du Lyonnais, the crisp cusp-of-autumn air nibbling at me. Mothers drag sweaters from heavily-laden bags, the party winds down and a playful breeze whispers centuries of farming secrets across the fields, orchards and vineyards.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Many thanks to Mirella Patzer for her lovely review of Spirit of Lost Angels on her blogs: Historical Novel Review and Great Historicals

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Need inspiration for writing historical fiction? Meet Georges and his cutting-edge cycling

Perhaps because I grew up in Australia, a country with a past so young, I have always been awed by history. Twenty years ago, I moved to a rural French village and found myself steeped in antiquity, age-old culture and monuments. Writing about it became the next logical step.

Surrounded by history certainly gives me ideas for stories, but it is also the local people who provide inspiration for the characters of my historical tales. One such person is Georges, on whom I based Emile, my heroine’s father in Spirit of Lost Angels.

As he has done every Saturday morning for two decades –– so he tells me –– Georges lugs his strange-looking bicycle along to the marketplace. And there he pedals in earnest, all morning, amidst convivial banter, fruit and vegetables still glistening with dew, and boudins and saucissons displayed like plump limbs. But he never leaves his spot.

Curious, I am drawn to this cycling-sur-place, and learn that Georges is a rémouleur, (knife sharpener or grinder), vestige of a French profession dating back to 1300. Exercising his activity in the village streets, the grinder proposed his services to sharpen knives, scissors and razors, as a source of extra income.

‘I’m a carpenter by trade,’ Georges says, not stopping to catch his breath. ‘I had to sharpen my tools, so I taught myself, and adapted my own bicycle,’ he adds, caressing his slate block with a dangerous-looking Opinel.

The rémouleur’s equipment developed over time to become relatively sophisticated but, in the beginning, a simple frame fitted with a heavy sandstone grindstone was used. A wheelbarrow made transportation less tiring. The rémouleur added a water reserve to lubricate the grindstone, then the famous pedal made its debut, permitting him to work the grindstone with his foot.

‘How many kilometres do you cycle in a morning?’ asks a customer, stowing his newly-sharpened Swiss Army knife between punnets of fleshy raspberries and slices of pâté de campagne.

‘No idea,’ Georges replies, as he wets another blade, and passes it across his revolving grindstone. ‘But I must’ve been around the world twice in twenty years.’ With a rueful smile Georges then says he’s never been out of France.

Five minutes later, the grindstone having completed its work, Georges takes a break from his pedals to work the knife across his slate slab.

‘For the finishing touches,’ he explains, continually lubricating the knife from a pot of water dangling from the handle bars. ‘You see, stroke the bevel against the stone, at right angles, like this,’ Georges demonstrates, manipulating the knife with the same gentleness one would stroke a kitten.

George’s trade lived until the middle of the 20th century until the quality of steel and its treatment meant there was less call for sharpening. Indeed, in today’s technological era, I wonder if Georges truly makes a justifiable contribution to his income. But the continual dribble of customers throughout the morning, at an average of 4 euros per item, answers my question.

As the church bell chimes midday, signalling the end of today’s market, a woman approaches perhaps one of the last members of a profession on the verge of extinction. She draws a large carving knife from folds of lettuce leaves and rhubarb stems.

‘Can I leave this with you?’ she asks.

‘It’s a bit late, come back next week,’ the knife-grinder says with a nonchalant wave of his hand. For Georges is not in a hurry. He may cycle all morning, but he isn’t going anywhere. Just yet.