‘..clearly, here was an event that gripped the nation like no other and didn’t relax its grasp for twenty one whole days.’
Tour de Yorkshire fever is about to grip Yorkshire this Friday. In preparation for the race, I have placed a topical book, about cycling, in my handbag. Nowadays, I can’t wait to go and capture the atmosphere of this cycling event but I haven’t always been a fan!
However, my husband has always been obsessed with the Tour de France and is glued to the television for three weeks during the tournament. I could never understand the appeal; to me it seemed like endless scenery whizzing past. I was not impressed when my husband decided to buy me a book about the event. He assured me that I didn’t need to be an enthusiast to read French Revolutions by Tim Moore.
Annoyingly, I did love the book, and didn’t stop laughing; it was something to read whilst my husband watched the race. It is an hilarious book about an amateur cyclist, aged 35, who decided to complete the Tour de France route six weeks before the big race. Admittedly, you do learn about the event, but the book is crammed full of entertaining anecdotes. Moore’s style of writing just breezes along, punctuated with witty observations.
The book entertained me and managed to begin a revolution in my heart! I was nudged again when Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France, and then when the Tour de France visited Yorkshire. It really was like a fever had swept through God’s own county.
I’ll leave you with the words of that great French cycling legend:
“It was like having a Tour de France stage in my home region, it was so amazing. I am not saying that because I am here, I really feel it. To see my name written on the road or on banners held by children really touches me. I have been a rider for 16 years and I have never seen anything like that.”
Thomas Voekler, France, Tour de Yorkshire Winner 2016
I had the pleasure of visiting Yorkshire Sculpture Park last week. It is an open-air art gallery, set in the grounds of an eighteenth-century mansion. The landscaped gardens work together with the sculptures to create an amazing creative harmony.
There is such a variety of sculptures and each one inspires questions. Indeed, it is amazing the way in which perfect strangers are happy to discuss the sculptures without worrying about their interpretations. Perhaps the visitors feel uninhibited as they are not confined by the walls of gallery that echoes with knowledge. Who knows?’
During the walk, we stumbled on many people from different nationalities. An Australian woman told me that she had been ‘startled’ by a wonderful sculpture of a woman’s head. We agreed that the spirit of the woman seems to beckon you. From a distance, the sculpture looks like a projected image – prompting: is she real or imaginary? As you approach, the sculpture is flat – like the silhouette on a stamp. It is a beautiful form that seemed to appeal to women rather than men, on that day. Despite the grey sky, the light was adding a mystical quality that gave the sculpture an air of confidence. What this suggesting something about the modern woman?
Further into the walk, we were greeted by Highland cattle. These creatures were so still, and at ease with the visitors, that we wondered if they were sculptures. We also found a dead tree with ancient looking bark and a very twisted form. Had the tree been left there to demonstrate how natural objects can also be sculpted by the elements? We were having this debate when another visitor overheard and said, ‘What a load of arty farty nonsense!’ This brought us completely down to earth and reminded me of how everything is open to interpretation.
Still laughing at the comments, we found some steps that were carved into the earth paving a way to some open woodland. I decided that the steps were a sculpture but my husband was sceptical at this point; he had been influenced by our fellow Yorkshire folk. A plaque marked the spot as if to reassure me. It felt as if someone was presenting a hopeful message about the climb. Pardon the pun, but I went a step further and commented that to me they represented the struggle for independent authors. But that was my interpretation at that point in time: I was influenced by my emotions, experience, the weather and, of course, ‘arty farty nonsense’.
The Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a wonderful place to visit. I wonder if you would be able to spot the sculptures that instigated our discussions? Would you agree with the interpretations? Did someone deliberately construct a place when art can be read according to mood, weather and other factors? I don’t know the answer to this but invite you to have a look. Perhaps some of the questions should be placed next to the sculptures? Maybe, there will be a sculpture of a handbag in the future, or possibly a sculpture constructed of books.
Following the visit, I was brimming with questions and ideas. Reading the sculptures inspired my own writing, and reminded me that it is so important to take some time for reflection. I placed picture postcards of the sculptures in my handbag, rather than books. However, I know that I will return to ask more questions and to find a suitable reading spot – or maybe several.
Imogen Matthews was born in Rijswijk, Holland, to a Dutch mother and English father, the family moved to England when Imogen was very young.
Imogen contacted me and asked me to review her novel. She told me that The Hidden Village is an ‘intriguing historical fiction’ based on historical facts that have remained hidden in Holland. My interest was piqued when she told me that she ‘needed to tell this WW2 story for the people of the hidden village.’ Obviously, the novel is on my Reading List but I wanted to find out more about the author and the book.
I was delighted to welcome Imogen Matthews to my Chat Room. She is the first author to visit the completed room. I was a little alarmed when she greeted me with, ‘Dag!’ but explained that it is Dutch for hello.
Imogen came into the Chat Room wearing a navy biker jacket over peach-coloured culottes and strappy navy sandals. Of course, she had brought an enviable bag for the occasion and it was an elegant mushroom tote bag.
She requested a black Americano and brought some Dutch “koekjes” (biscuit) called “krakelingen” – lovely crisp flaky biscuits topped with sugar and cinnamon.
She said, ‘In Holland, you always get a “koekje” with your coffee and I miss that in England!’
How is Dutch culture different to British culture?
The Dutch have a word “gezellig” that is an emotion we don’t have a word for. So you can make your house “gezellig” by having lots of table lamps and tealights (strictly no overhead lights). A sociable meal with friends and family is also “gezellig”. My mother also used to say it was “gezellig” whenever I used to pop over for coffee. The Danes have stolen a march on this idea with “hygge”, but I can assure you that I’ve been using “gezellig” long before “hygge” became fashionable!
Imogen is an engaging, lively and positive personality and this reassured me that the narrative voice in her book would also be appealing. It was obvious that her determination has served her well as a writer. She cares passionately about the hidden Dutch history and this made me want to read on for the sake of the lost voices.
Set in WW2 Holland, deep in the Veluwe woods, The Hidden Village is a story about survival, hope, despair, and ultimately, love, as a community pulls together to build a purpose-built village to shelter those persecuted by the Germans. The lives of young Sofie, Jan and Liesbeth become entwined with devastating consequences for their futures.
Tempt me with an extract from the novel
“It was the smell of a cigarette that stopped him in his tracks. A man wearing a grey belted coat stepped out from behind the tree. ‘So’, he said, grinding his cigarette with his boot.”
Why did you decide to digress from your usual genre of novel?
This was a story I felt I had to get down, so when I’d finished I felt pleased I’d told a story that so many people won’t have known anything about.
What do the reviewers say about your novel?
Sensitively written. “From the first chapter you are engaged with the characters and I even found myself warning them when they were due to be raided – OUT LOUD! Sensitively written, with a page-turning plot, this is a wonderful new book from Imogen.” Ms E. Holmes-ievers
I couldn’t put it down. “This skillful blend of fiction within the factual events happening to many at those times, holds you till the end. I couldn’t put it down, nor did I want to until the final page.” Gilly Cox
Highly recommended. “Though the subject matter is tough, there are lighter moments and the book rattles along at a good pace. The varied cast of characters, especially the younger ones, keeps your interest. Highly recommended.” Clarky
How did you feel when you had finished writing your book, and did you miss any of the characters?
It left a big hole as I’d spent so long on the book and I realised just how attached I’d become to my characters.
So yes, I miss my characters lots! I miss Sofie’s feistiness and determination not to let her life change by hiding away from the Germans. And I miss her best friend Liesbeth, who sticks by Sofie through thick and thin, even though she also has to make her own big sacrifices. I even miss the enigmatic Henk, the head woodman, who’s instrumental in getting the hidden village built, but struggles with his loyalties. I particularly miss Jan, who’s always getting into scrapes but is only trying to help others and do good. He goes through so much that I just want to give him a big hug and tell him that everything will turn out alright.
It is obvious that you are genuinely attached to your characters and care about them – this always bodes well for the reader.
Who would you like to read your book and why? This could be another author, someone famous, a friend or a member of your family.
I’d love Anita Shreve to read my book as I’m a great fan of her writing. She has a great ability to say so much in so few words. Her book Resistance, set in German-occupied Belgium, is brilliant and inspired me when I started working out the plot for my book.
Why should I keep your book in my handbag?
Because it’s so gripping that you won’t want to leave it out of your sight!
What is the last sentence written in your writer’s notebook?
I’ve been writing for years and have notebooks all over the place, so that’s a hard one. I guess it’ll be something along the lines of “to be continued.” That sums up how I feel about writing -I’ve always got something more to say.
What is the biggest challenge for an independent author?
Getting noticed. You have to work really hard to get people to find your book as the competition is increasing all the time. I self-published my first book Run Away by Alex Johnson (my pen name) in 2012 and got a great response quite quickly and lots of reviews. Then in 2014 I published the sequel The Perfume Muse and it was already much harder. For The Hidden Village I was fortunate to find Amsterdam Publishers, who have been enormously helpful in helping to navigate the many pitfalls when launching a book.
What is the best advice that you have received as a writer?
A writing tutor once said that you should write every day, however little and however bad you might think your writing is. She also recommended writing before doing anything else first thing in the morning as it’s so easy to get distracted by other things and then never get down to it. I took her advice to heart and sometimes I only write 100 words a day, but these words do add up and eventually you can see you have written a book. Of course, that’s when the hard work starts, but you’ve built the framework which gives you the confidence to keep going.
Tell me a little more about yourself.
I live with my husband in Oxford and love to go on runs, walks and cycle rides in the beautiful surrounding countryside. I love cooking Moroccan and Middle Eastern inspired food, particularly Ottolenghi and Persiana recipes. A favourite is lovely crumbly tahini cookies.
Tahini Cookies (from Jerusalem) by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamiimi
130g caster sugar
150 unsalted butter, at room temperature
110g light tahini paste
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
25ml double cream (you can sub this with milk)
270g plain flour
200 degree C/180 degree C Fan/Gas Mark 6
Put sugar and butter in mixer bowl and with a beater attachment work for 1 minute at medium speed. Add tahini, vanilla and cream, then the flour and work for a minute till a dough comes together. Transfer to a work surface and knead till smooth.
Pinch off 20g of dough and roll between your palms into a ball. Squash down onto a baking sheet (no oil necessary) and use the back of a fork to flatten and make a prong pattern. Sprinkle each cookie with cinnamon. Make sure the cookies aren’t too close together as they do spread a bit.
Into the oven for 15-17 minutes till golden brown.
Turn onto a wire rack to cool and try and resist eating them when hot! Yum!
‘In my heart there was a storm that needed to break and my heart hurt like thorns on the wild rosa canina growing in the hedgerows…’
If you embark on this journey of discovery then be sure to prepare some delicious crostini, in advance, as you will not be able to put the book down….
This is a story of love wrapped up in an insight into rural history and customs of Tuscany. Meet ancient craftsmen and farmers, of Montebotolino, and marvel at the tenacity of their families; see how they survived difficult times.
The history of Giuseppe, a farrier and a cobbler, is completely absorbing. Giuseppe was born at the beginning of last century. His naivety leads him down some challenging paths, but this shapes the man, and ‘suffering begins the journey to wisdom.’ I found myself wanting to shout at Giuseppe and send him in the direction of love; the loves story is beautiful.
For me, the novel unlocked secrets of the enchanting holiday destination. I have often wondered who had once walked along the ancient tracks, and who once lived in the ancient dwellings that nestle in the mountains. As the title suggests, the reader delves into rural Tuscany as it is now and as it was back then at the beginning of last century. The reader has the privilege of meeting characters from the different generations and has more knowledge than the characters: it is satisfying to fit the jigsaw together. Indeed, there is a cleverly crafted narrative, in which there are emotional parallels in the lives of the characters from the past and the present.
Giuseppe’s grandson, Francesco, and his English wife, Anna have turned the ancient houses into holiday lets. Their son, Davide, encounters some of the emotional challenges of childhood that Giuseppe, his great-grandfather, had to face. Alba, Giuseppe’s great-granddaughter, faces choices about education very different to her great-grandparents. Whilst Giuseppe’s grandson Francesco and his wife face different daily routines; this reminds us of how life has changed. However, the tenderness between the couples from both generations is crafted skilfully, and there is an exploration of love.
Life, in Montebotolino, was hard at the beginning of the last century. Yet, the people had to make the most of nature’s larder, and the peasant food is so tempting. It seems that the working people, from the past, shaped the menus in contemporary Italy, sadly many of their homes have been left empty as their lifestyle was too difficult. The charm, and majestic beauty of the Tuscan landscape is still there to seduce the modern traveller. Fortunately, we can still see:
‘Cypress tree lined twisting white ribbon roads up hills towards impressive stone buildings…trees like stakes holding down the land.’
This story takes the reader beneath the surface of the magical holiday destination, associated with a paradise for the eye and the belly.
The transumanza is the Italian term for transhumance, the traditional twice yearly migration of sheep and cows from the highlands to the lowlands, and vice versa. The word literally means “crossing the land”. Ref: Wikipedia
It was a great treat for me to take another holiday in idyllic seaside town where:
‘To the east, the land fell away towards Combemouth; to the west a chain of scalloped shaped bays edged the land’.
The setting is vivid and the charming bookshop is inviting. I settled back into my usual seat in The Reading Room and listened to the latest gossip.
Eleanor, the bookshop owner, is a kind, engaging character – she is someone that one could trust. Her positive outlook led her to set up a new life in Combemouth six years ago. Her philosophy of love is that ‘love is twenty percent attraction, thirty percent luck and fifty percent timing.’ She appreciates her good fortune to meet Dan and the fact that his love supports and guides her – proof that a second marriage can work. The previous book told Eleanor and Dan’s love story but this book tells a different kind of story. In this novel, Eleanor is a glamorous, young ‘Mrs’ Marple: forget the brogues, forget the tweed and dig out a vintage party frock.
The suspense story captured my imagination so much that I wanted to be there. I could imagine a stage production of this mystery as it has all the right ingredients: the manor, the briefcase, the ring, the vicar… Enter Eleanor, the Bookshop Detective, exit Dreary Deirdre. Cue Daniel, waiting in the wings to support but something is troubling him. Is his ex-wife on the horizon?
Blow away the dust on Joshua’s books to reveal a ship. Can you see the ghost ship sailing in the distance and will this bring a bad omen? Dim the lights as the ghost ship gets closer. The characters present a tableau of the Victorian scenes. But what happened to the poor boy who was flogged? Can Eleanor’s investigation save the boy? Why does someone think that Eleanor is ‘going to kill him?’
In a stage production, the actors would have to play many roles. For instance, Erika and Deirdre could be the same actor, or could it be Erika and Daniel? Could someone play the rock star and the vicar? Surely Connie and Joyce could be the same actor. Are there any clues here? You will have to read the book to find out.
I am getting carried away with this ‘detective lark’! Jan Ellis is so clever at writing the dialogue that I became completely absorbed and wanted to be amid the drama. Jan Ellis has skilfully woven the clues into the narrative. I envied Eleanor’s knowledge and read the book greedily in one sitting. I visited the bookshop, the fair and the parties so it was only right that I should be able to get involved in the investigation.
This book has been cleverly constructed so that it could be enjoyed without knowledge of Summer of Surprises and An Unexpected Affair. However, I would recommend this delightful duo as a holiday read! Begin at the beginning with An Unexpected Affair and let the drama unfold as you take a comfortable seat in the Reading Room. Jan Ellis is skilled at creating fun, engaging characters and drawing you into their world.
This novel presents a perfect escape: a cleverly constructed narrative. What a brilliant idea to delve into the detective genre with the characters created in the romance genre -love it!