Dear Santa, please bring me lots of books

The Rylands Library, home to a lot of books

In one of my notebooks of random jottings I have written the following: ‘In 2018, 63 million books were sold in the run-up to Christmas.’ Not sure where I got this factoid or if it’s true.  But in case it is, and you’re wondering just which of the 63 million to buy, here are my suggestions, spotlighting five authors whose books I particularly enjoyed  this year.

Dear Santa

My first ‘Dear Santa’ book list appeared in 2015, the year I started blogging. It featured three authors, all male, all writing in one particular genre-the detective thriller–and all starring the type of complex, edgy, dodgy, sexy, hero-but-anti-hero homme fatal I have been unable to resist ever since falling for those men in trench coats as a teenager.

This year it’s the ladies who get the laurel wreaths, five of them, not a private eye in sight, each one impressive for different reasons. Sheila Patel made me laugh, Jill Kearney made me cry, Helena Whitbread made me bow my head in reverence, and Pamela Allegretto and Deborah Swift took me on incredible journeys.  Here’s how they did it, starting with the last two. (Click on their names to go straight to the author page).

Roman vista

Cities are fascinating places. I lived in a flat bang in the middle of Toulouse for ten years, until the exhaust fumes and seedy bar downstairs lost their charm. But although home is now a beloved four-house hamlet deep in rural France, the allure of the great metropolis still lingers. Allegretto and Swift bring to life two iconic cities at momentous periods in their history: WW2 Rome and 17th century London. The authors share an ability to conjure up the startling realism that a dreamer sometimes experiences, swept away on a night journey where, as in a film, the perspective shifts between panoramic aerial shots to voyeuristic close ups. From vistas encompassing houses, bridges, spires, monuments, wide rivers, vast skies and surrounding countryside,  the camera zooms in to the tobacco stains on the villain’s teeth, the nuance of grays in a puddle, the whole accompanied by a full-on, sensory onslaught of smells, colours and clamour. As I found out more about these authors’ backgrounds, I was struck by another thing they had in common–the way those backgrounds influenced their work.

frescos unrolling

Pamela Allegretto is an American artist of Italian descent. As I started to read her book, Bridge of Sighs and Dreams, the scenes unrolled like frescoes across the screen of my mind. It’s 1938 and we are in an idyllic cherry orchard in southern Italy, home of the Lombardi family for hundreds of years. But this enduring, bucolic way of life is about to be shattered, signalling the end of an era and the beginning of an exhausting struggle by one woman, Angelina Rosini, to protect her young daughter in a country torn apart first by the poisonous ideology of Fascism, then by the invading armies of the Allies. The action moves from the countryside to the cobbled alleyways and ancient monuments of Rome, where Allegretto transposes her ‘pictorial eye’ to the written page, creating an arresting canvas of a war-torn city where the inhabitants, in particular Jews and resistance fighters, live in constant fear and deprivation. In the foreground, two women battle it out on a personal level in a combat as full of primitive emotions as the classical dramas of antiquity: Angelina, the artist heroine, and her driven, harpy-like sister-in-law, Lidia. Who will be the winner?

The Great Fire of London1666 anonymous courtesy wikimedia commons

From Rome to London, where a different but equally deadly foe, is spreading terror – the plague. In Deborah Swift’s trilogy, Women of Pepys’ Diaries, the famous diarist is getting up to all sorts of mischief and mayhem. The author started her career in the theatre, working as a set and costume designer, and there’s a dramatic immediacy in her writing similar to that we experience at a live performance. Indeed her third book is about a woman who becomes an actress, Elizabeth Knepp, who, like the other strong female leads, is based on a real person mentioned in the diaries. Pepys, the man of the title, and inspiration for the novels, is an inveterate womaniser who gets up to the sort of sexist manipulation and exploitation typical of the time, but the way in which he is portrayed by Swift endows him with a sort of irresistible attraction for the reader, much like that of Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair.  All the books are terrific reads but my favourite is A Plague on Mr Pepys, with its heroine Bess Bagwell, who sees her ambitions for herself and her husband, Will, crumble under the random blows of fate and the devious machinations of her brother-in-law, Jack. As her circumstances become more and more desperate, she is obliged to turn to the powerful Pepys in an attempt to save herself and Will. The psychology of their relationship, and the way it develops, is gripping. Bess teeters on a dangerous seesaw in which the necessity of reeling in the only man who can help must be counter-balanced by her desire to keep him at arm’s length. Will she succeed?

The Piece Hall, Halifax

From London and Rome to the north of England.  My next two authors hail from my birthplace, the west riding of Yorkshire (chauvinist, moi? Heh heh). Helena Whitbread is the only non-fiction author of the five, and she has already featured here, in my May blog, along with her 19th century soulmate, Anne Lister, who became world-famous this year in the TV series Gentleman Jack. But Anne’s story may never have reached such a wide audience had it not been for the astonishing devotion and talent of the woman who said of her efforts: ‘I was just the back-street scribe.’ In 1983, Whitbread was looking for a research topic for a Ph D. Wandering into the Halifax Archives, she happened upon the diaries of a 19th century local landowner and secret lesbian, Anne Lister. ‘From that day,’ she writes, ‘I … found myself engaged in a literary, historical and cultural adventure…Halifax, for me, became two different towns. Physically I moved around…twentieth century Halifax. Mentally, I lived in the small nineteenth century town.’ She set out to reveal the Anne hidden in the diaries, decoding and transcribing 27 volumes and 4 million words, of which one sixth are in code with no punctuation. She writes: ‘Curiosity, allied to the thrill of an intellectual challenge, gripped me.’ But her achievement does not stop there. The two books which resulted from her research, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister and No Priest But Love, consist of her final selections from the diaries themselves linked by explanatory passages and further clarified by detailed footnotes. The sensitivity and justesse of her selections and the lucid passion of her explanatory passages communicate a striking empathy with a woman who lived 150 years previously and who, on the surface, could not have been more different from her 20th century amanuensis.

‘Have you noticed you never see a cow laugh?’ This was one of the more notoriously sibylline pronouncements by my Yorkshire grandmother one Saturday as we took her on a drive through the countryside. Those cows had obviously not come across Sheila Patel’s series of books set in contemporary Bradford, The Magic Vodka Wardrobe.  This is definitely not Bradford as you know it, and definitely not as my Yorkshire grandmother would have known the grimy old mill town.  But, along with the cows, Grandma would have been singing and dancing and shaking from head to toe (or horn to hoof) with mirth at ‘Ar Sheila’s’ depiction of the Singh family and life in their corner shop, backed up by a mind-boggling cast of friends and neighbours who  would make Damon Runyon’s eyes water: Mad Mush Martha,  Tattoo Tony and his Rottweiler, Knobhead, Joginder the goat, Graham the pigeon, Dammit Janet, Gyppo Bob, and Guru the Wedding Horse, to name but a few. They feature in a series of outrageously hilarious vignettes which have the same freshness, originality and addictive surrealism as those of Monty Python’s Flying Circus back in the 70s.

Is there a glitter ball in there?

Patel was the seventh child of a traditional Punjabi family who grew up in the same period as The Flying Circus (is there a link?) 1970s Britain. Her writing, she says, was inspired by ‘all the funny things that Indians do daily to adapt to the British way of life’.  Centre stage are the Singh family: Father, Mother,  her two sisters Lady Fatima and Sheila (‘short short skirts, four husbands’) and the three daughters Kirsty (rich husband), Shaz and Trace ( ‘both accountants, both thin, with no scary moles and nice cars’ but- to Mother’s chagrin- still husbandless).  Another important character is Bachitaar but to meet him we have to step out of the fourth dimension of life in Patel’s Bradford and enter a fifth dimension, accessible only through a magic wardrobe,  consisting of a 70s disco bar complete with glitter ball and non-stop musical soundtrack (Douglas Adams, anyone?). Bachitaar, complete with turban, can be found behind the bar serving up endless vodka shots while lending a sympathetic ear to Sheila, Trace and Shaz who take refuge in the wardrobe when life, love, bamboo bikes, spam samozas and the news headlines all get too much. Until the time comes when Santa can supply magic wardrobes to all of us, don’t hesistate to join Sheila and the girls in theirs!

Finally, after the laughs, the tears. It’s a well-known fact that no Christmas is complete without a Miracle on 34th Street.

Jill Kearney, like Sheila Patel, was inspired to write by her real-life experiences. These included being a dog rescuer and in-home care provider. Her book The Dog Thief and Other Stories, set in a rural pocket of Washington State, features humans who are poor and dispossessed, animals who share a similar fate, and those often-hapless individuals who try to help out. In this divided society with its ‘separate realities’-the affluent owners of oceanside homes at one extreme, the survivalists and hippies running meth labs and puppy mills in the woods at the other – it would be easy to moralise, and hold our noses at people like Beverley, an MS sufferer who rejects the relative comfort of the reservation in favour of a squalid existence in a collapsed trailer with a swarm of feral cats, and who spends her social security checks on alcohol and cat food.  Good Samaritan neighbour, Jim, inwardly railing at her stubbornness, tries to save her from total decrepitude, attempting to fix her broken toilet, hauling out overflowing buckets of excrement while literally holding his nose (‘the smell…smacked him in the sinuses.’). Writing in a deceptively low-key, unsentimental style, Kearney gets her message across by delivering unexpected knee chops. She possesses that rare knack of picking out the perfect detail in a myriad of possibilities, the one tiny raindrop that reflects an entire, staggering world, halting us in our tracks as we read, making us laugh out loud or burst into uncontrollable tears. Her alter ego, Elizabeth, features in several of the tales, driven to desperate devices (such as stealing dogs from abusive owners)  in order to right wrongs, while simultaneously trying to grasp the meaning of her own unorthodox life, where poignant remembrance of time past vies with a recognition of the importance of seizing the beauty of the moment. Like that other quintessentially American writer, Carson McCullers, Kearney the story teller pulls off the magic trick of getting us to empathise with her variety of creatures great and small, to suspend our judgement, to enter into their lives with wonder and humility and vow to do better ourselves.

And what better Christmas message could there be than that?

Happy Christmas from the Cowshed



To bookworms around the world Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année from the Cowshed!


Book news, book news, books news!!!!!!

Terry Tyler published her new book in the Project Renova series, Blackthorn, in November.

Paulette Mahurin has just announced the release of her latest book, The Old Gilt Clock, about WW2 Dutch resistance fighter, Willem Arondeus.

Miss Moonshine is back in her emporium with Christmas goodies…

And John Dolan has been invited to take part in a multi-author boxed set of crime thrillers to release in 2020, Notorious Minds. Watch this space.

Coming on my blog in 2020:

A visit to the magnificent John Rylands library in Manchester, more on the Anne Lister theme with a visit to  Lightcliffe Church cemetery where Lister’s ‘wife’ Anne Walker is buried…. along with twenty or so of my ancestors! Also an update on my abandoned project Christmas at Villa Julia, which is now busy turning itself into a new historical series, The Etcheverrias, starting in 1898 with A Wedding in Provence… too nervous to say any more in case the Muse goes on an extended holiday without leaving a forwarding address 😉


The Passage of Desire: Behind Every Title, a Story. Part Two


On this gloomy November weekend when we remember those who died in the Great War, and when France gets ready to mourn the victims killed and injured in the terrorist attack on the Bataclan, November 13th 2015, I’ve chosen to write about a story of hope, of not giving up, a love story. A true one. One with a happy ending.

It starts in le Passage du Desir, in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, a street whose name inspired the title of my novella, ‘The Passage of Desire’. Part 1 ended with an invitation to step through the doors of the magical shop just round the corner, and to lose yourself in visions of the future arising from the dreams of past generations…

catalogue A La Source des Inventions

‘A La Source des Inventions’ was founded in 1904 by a certain Monsieur Michel, an inventor whose family continued to run the shop for almost a century until its closure in 1994. A well-known meeting place for early aviators and model enthusiasts from all over the world, ‘La Source’ lives on today in the memories of nostalgic fans sharing Internet stories of time spent in its hallowed halls, the thrill of discovering its myriad treasures, the hours spent poring over its famous catalogues, which were sent all over the world and have now become collectors’ items. How many noses pressed up against those window panes over the years? How many children grew up listening to their fathers and grandfathers telling the story of that wonderful shop on the boulevard de Strasbourg, whose potent magic could unleash a flood of memories worthy of Monsieur Proust’s famous madeleine?

Catalogue cover: A La Source des Inventions, courtesy of Joël at

Back in the 1950s, in le Passage du Desir just off the Boulevard, the children sat in Grand- Père’s apartment dreaming of ‘La Source’ and its amazing machines, dreaming of a future where men might even travel to the moon in rocket ships.

And the grownups – what were they thinking?  Perhaps their minds were turned to the past, and the astonishing twists and turns of fate that had brought them all here: Grand- Père, from the Périgord, his son, Robert, ex-prisoner of war, and his daughter-in-law, Josefa, deported from a village in Poland.

Many years later Josefa would share her memories, shaking her head in wonder at the chain of events that had ended in a French country garden, opening out on to peaceful fields, where sweet summer breezes ruffled the long grass and in the sky above our heads giant aeroplanes floated down to the airport of Roissy Charles de Gaulle.

sweet summer breezes ruffle the grass

On September 1st, 1939 Nazi troops invaded Poland. On September 17th, Soviet forces marched in from the east, and one month later the country had been divided up between the two powers. Josefa was caught in that first advance; her village was raided and those who were able-bodied deported to do forced labour.  She found herself a prisoner on a farm where the drudgery and inhuman conditions of her new and shocking existence became so unbearable that she decided it was better to risk death in an attempt to escape than continue as she was.

She put her plan into action one night, managing to slip away without waking anyone and raising the alarm. Her initial elation, however, quickly gave way to terror and despair. She was alone in a foreign land, in the pitch dark of unfamiliar countryside, with no idea of what to do or where to go, her sole possessions the clothes she stood up in.  She stumbled on through the inky blackness, finally hearing the sound of a river. Instinct told her to follow it: rivers always led somewhere, and if the farmer discovered her escape and unleashed his dogs she could always take to the water to hide. Dawn began to break. She increased her pace, and saw, not far from the river, a railway line. In the distance, she made out a small station.

Now came another agonising decision. Two people waited on the deserted platform. With no other alternative, she approached. The couple turned round and addressed her in German.

Fifty years later she still recalled with amazement the kindness and courage of those strangers. Somehow, they managed to get her as far as Berlin, to a family with Polish connections who kept her hidden as long as they dared. But, as an escaped prisoner with a warrant out for her arrest, it soon became too dangerous for her to stay as she was. People were talked to, strings were pulled, arrangements were made. Josefa gave herself up; instead of being returned to the farm she had run away from, she was taken to a vast agricultural labour camp where the owner had a reputation for his relatively humane treatment of prisoners. There she was put to work in the fields, and there she stayed until the Liberation, when she would become part of the chaotic human tide flowing east and west as prisoners were repatriated. But by that time, her life had once again taken a dramatic turn.

Passage du désir, Paris photo courtesy of Patrice

Back in France, in 1940, Grand-Père’s only child, Robert, serving in an artillery division posted in Alsace, was taken prisoner at the fall of the Maginot line. He became a part of the estimated 1.8 million soldiers captured and taken to Germany. From the stalag where he was first held he was transferred to a Kommando, a work detail assigned to carry out agricultural labour. Like Josefa, he had one idea in his head: escape. After various unsuccessful attempts he was finally captured by the SS, saved only from the firing squad thanks to the intervention of a landowner where he worked.

Unknown to both of them, the trajectories of their lives were about to cross. One day Robert was sent to help with the harvest at a farm and it was there, working in the fields, that he and Josefa first set eyes on each other. And in the middle of devastation, death and hopelessness, a love story was born. At an age when young lovers are carried away by the thrill and promise of a budding relationship, the two faced a future that was at best uncertain. It would be years before they could truly be together; the complete story of their adventures, like so many others of that time, is the riveting stuff of novels (and long ones at that).

the garden in the north, with church beyond

Josefa was a natural story-teller. Soft-spoken, with a gentle Polish accent, she recounted events which were still vivid in her mind, and which seemed scarcely believable in the context of her enclosed, sun-drenched garden where the distant ringing of church bells added the final touch to a scene of eternal tranquillity.

May 1945. The news arrived at the camp, a rumour at first, then growing louder and louder until the realisation hit everyone with the weight of a sledge-hammer. It was over. Was this the start of a new life for her and Robert? And, her deepest,  most cherished prayer, could she now look forward to a future for the baby that was growing inside her, so big that she knew it was only a matter of weeks before it would be born into a world still reeling from the aftershocks of war?

Her hopes were dashed by a terrible decision. The camp was liberated by the Russians. Prisoners from the east would be returned to their country of origin; those from the west dispatched to join the Allies. In this long-awaited, bitter freedom, she and Robert were torn apart, neither of them knowing if they would ever manage to find each other again.

But the Robert whose one obsession whilst a prisoner was to escape now had another burning mission – to find Josefa, to get back to her and to their unborn child. How he would do it was not clear. But one thing was sure, he would move heaven and earth in the attempt.

He informed the authorities that a mistake had been made, that he was in fact of Polish nationality. In the prevailing chaos he was allowed to leave and set out in search of the convoy taking Josefa back to the east. And because, dear Reader,  miracles do sometimes happen, he found her. Now all they had to do was hope for another miracle, where they would be travelling in the opposite direction, back to France…

Tensions between the Russians and the Allies were mounting: one final exchange of prisoners was agreed. Robert, switching nationalities yet again, persuaded the Russians he was really French and that he and Josefa were legally married. He found himself on his way back to the Allied zone, this time accompanied by a heavily pregnant Josefa, half-dead with exhaustion and terror, and ‘holding both arms over my stomach as tight as I could, and praying to the baby ‘not yet, not yet’.

It was in Prenzlau, 100 km north of Berlin, that on May 27th 1945, their first son was born. It was in Prenzlau that a shocked and dazed Josefa remembered being handed something by an American soldier: ‘C’était un chocolat chaud’. A steaming mug of hot chocolate. With tears in her eyes (and in mine), she re-lived the marvel of clasping her fingers round its warmth and breathing it in. ‘I can still remember it, everything, the heat of the tin mug, the smell of the chocolate, the first sip, the most wonderful thing I have ever tasted.’

Entrance to the Passage du Désir Photo courtesy of Patrice

Arriving in France, the couple went to live with Robert’s father. For more than two years, the small apartment in le Passage du Desir was home to Grand- Père, the young couple, and their first child. What must it have been like for a young woman exiled from her homeland, captive in a foreign country for six years, starting a new life where she knew no-one except the man she had fallen in love with, and with whom she could only communicate in the language of their captors?

Seeing her all those years later, surrounded by pictures of her children and grandchildren, in the village where she and Robert settled in 1948 and where they would live for the rest of their days, I was in no doubt that life had given her treasures she’d never imagined during those long years at the camp. The image she presented was of someone observant and curious by nature, keenly interested in the world around her, quick to laugh or cry, her generous and loving nature evident not only in her relations with family and friends but in the menagerie of stray cats living in her garden alongside the chickens and rabbits.

But I also wondered about her more ‘hidden’ side; the strength of character and resourcefulness of that person who, aged nineteen, was able not only to escape from the farmer and his dogs, but go on to survive, to endure day after endless day of backbreaking physical work, continuous hunger, and a monotonous, mind-numbing existence. A person intelligent enough to pick up three new languages with no formal instruction. A young woman who somehow managed to keep the stars in her eyes, and whose belief in the possibility of a future allowed her to find love and happiness in the arms of a French prisoner and to survive a first pregnancy in the most terrible of conditions. A young mother who, in the photographs from those days, is strikingly beautiful, with her wavy black hair, blue eyes and full lips. A fascinating woman, with a fascinating story, and probably much more complex than she appeared…


the wild and glorious garden

Looking at her, the picture of contentment amid the roses and hollyhocks of her wild and glorious garden, I once remarked that she must have been over-joyed to leave the cramped apartment in the 10th arrondissement to start a proper life with her husband and children in the peace of the countryside.

I was unprepared for her answer.

‘Ah, Paris…’ Her eyes lit up. ‘Vous savez, Paris, c’est autre chose…’

‘Paris is different,’ she told me. ‘In another life, I would have loved to live in Paris…’

Never under-estimate a woman. Never under-estimate Paris.

This blog is dedicated to the memory of Josefa and Robert.

“They had been on a school trip to Paris with the French Society, Mademoiselle Pinaud at the helm, chaperone and cultural guide. Paris, city of light, city of romance. All the girls had been so excited that they’d whispered and chatted the whole night long as the coach trundled through the darkness, its beams illuminating black roads and shadowy forests. The journey had seemed endless.

Then a new day was breaking, dingy suburbs appeared in the dawn; they had reached the outskirts and were soon travelling along tree-lined boulevards where water gushed from metal fire hydrants and shopkeepers rinsed down the pavements with old-fashioned brooms. As the sun rose, gilding domes and rooftops, they began the magnificent procession down the Champs-Elysées.

Those few days had been magical. The visit to the Louvre, the statue of Venus rising majestically at the top of a flight of marble stairs, the stunning rose windows of Notre Dame, Monet’s waterlilies, the huge canvases swimming in light and colour…”

The Passage of Desire, extract.

Magical Paris. Grand staircase, Opera Garnier