Cuppa and some Hutspot with Kim Devereux

Today I am standing in a marbled hallway, paintbrush in hand, floppy artists hat on my head as I wait to meet Kim Devereux, author of the new and amazing novel about Rembrandt and the women in his life. I’ve been instructed by a man in a cape to stand very very still, hold this bowl of oranges in one hand and a paintbrush in the other whilst looking into an ornate mirror hanging on the wall. It will allow me to see inside the world of Rembrandt I am told. I’d rather just meet Kim, I reply. He laughs, disappears with a flourish of cape and paint splatters but not before leaving this behind –

Hutspot - a hutspot (a kind of hotchpotch) with some diluted beer. They did not drink water because it would probably make you ill with its bacterial load so the drink of choice was diluted beer. Thanks to for the picture
Hutspot – a hutspot (a kind of hotchpotch) with some diluted beer. They did not drink water because it would probably make you ill with its bacterial load so the drink of choice was diluted beer. Thanks to for the picture

As I marvel at the food, a curtain swishes before me and parts theatrically. Then the faint noise of a trumpet and I am invited to enter Rembrandt’s rooms to meet Kim –


Hi Kim – It’s so nice to meet you! Thank you for giving us an insight into the world of Rembrandt. How did you research your novel?

I’ve been fascinated by Rembrandt’s works and life since my twenties. I studied his art as part of my history of art degree and then also while working in television. I researched a documentary proposal about Rembrandt. This is how I met experts, such as Ernst van de Wetering the chair of the Rembrandt Research Project and archivist and historian Bas Dudok van Heel. I was struck by how everyone seemed to have a slightly different take on Geertje Dircx’s character. She was his house keeper and dry nurse to his son Titus. Most seemed to blame her in some way. I also empathized with her but perhaps in the end I too became so enamored with Rembrandt that I too did not portray her very sympathetically. It is interesting to think what the story would be like if told from her perspective.


As regards Rembrandt I was particularly influenced by Ernst van de Wetering. He had studied Rembrandt’s works, for over thirty years. He told me to be careful and not perpetuate the many false myths that abound about Rembrandt, for example that he was no longer famous or highly regarded when he died. Rembrandt, for example, still received a visit from royalty, Prince Cosimo, a few years before his death. Perhaps movingly of all, the South German art-lover Bucelinus commented on the fifty-eight-year-old Rembrandt with the words ‘The miracle of our Age.’ He did so in his list of ‘The Names of the Most Distinguished European Painters’. Rembrandt’s was the only name out of 166 to attract such a tribute.

Ernst also influenced me with his emphasis, as he put it ‘you must be cold and methodical’, in other words not to romanticize things. However, a few sentences later he said, ‘What a blessing, each time I see one of his works.’ I have tried not to write anything in contradiction of the fact but perhaps I have added emotion. My own sense is that the purpose of a historical novel is not just an entertaining way of re-iterating facts but to also explore a human question and in order to do so one has to imbue each and every character with life.

Another very important source is a book called ‘The Rembrandt Documents’. It list the hundreds of documents associated with Rembrandt’s life, legal documents and the list of his possessions for example.

I read of course widely about Rembrandt and about his time. I visited Amsterdam several times and I went to see the paintings themselves, forming my own opinions about them.

They inspired the novel just as much as the historical facts. I also read a lot about Samuel van Hoogstraten, especially a book by Thijs Westerstein called The Visible World.


What did you find out about Rembrandt that shocked you? Surprised you?

I was shocked that he had Geertje, his housekeeper locked up in the equivalent of a lunatic asylum. I was even more shocked to find out the lengths to which he’d gone to keep her there. Although it has to be said that there was a process involving witnesses that one had to go through to have a person confined to a Spin Huis. However, it is impossible to say if the witnesses were swayed by Geertje’s brother. What surprised me was the sheer volume of legal documents, disputes, financial complications. Rembrandt was still mired in legal wrangles for years after his bankruptcy trying to ‘rescue’ Titus’ inheritance. It must have been quite debilitating. What surprised me the most though, and what fuelled the writing of the novel is his late works. They communicate, even exhude emotions of love and forgiveness. I could not understand how after going through so much he could create not only masterpieces but images that, I feel, can only have been created with a mind and heart that was open, present and deeply aware of what matters in life. The novel was my way of understanding how he got to this point.

You cleverly tell the story via the paintings and so both the story and history of Rembrant’s world comes to life. Do you have a favourite Rembrandt painting. What is it about it that you like and admire?

I have three favourites: The Kennwood self portrait (Kennwood House, Hampstead Heath), Isaak and Rebecca and Woman Bathing in a Stream.

I will tell you about Woman Bathing in a Stream. We do not know for certain but I believe it depicts Hendrickje. Love the way the brushwork is so free and bold, but what I like the most is how she is depicted. When Rembrandt depicts women they are never objectified. I would go as far to say they are always first and foremost a human being, whose emotions are available to us in a way that compels us to empathize.

It’s as if he does not look at her but he is with her. If a man were to look at me, that’s how I would want to be regarded. That is not to say that it is not a sensual portrait too. It is, look at the way the water laps at her ankles or how her body is revealed and yet hidden by the simple shift she is wearing. Her beauty is seen but at the same time she is free to be perfectly herself. I cannot think of many examples of photography of women or indeed portraits of women that navigate this balance between the human being and her allure as a woman so perfectly. So perfectly in fact that you find her beautiful for who she is (not everyone finds her beautiful, but I do). The other thing is that the women Rembrandt painted are not free from blemishes. They have garter marks on their legs, creases, bellies (which were a sign of beauty.) In short they were real women. How different would our world and life be as women if everyone depicted women the way Rembrandt did?



What do you admire most or dislike most about Geertje and Hendrickje. It must have been so difficult to have been a woman in those times?

Well, perhaps in some ways it was easier, (see question 4). I admire enormously the way Geertje stood up for her rights despite not being able to write. We know much less about Hendrickje, so I am answering this question about the character in the book. I admire the fact that she dares to love him despite the risk and that she has a curiosity that just will not be stifled. I like the way she goes from a guilt ridden Calvinist mentality to embracing her sexuality and refusing to subdue her senses. One theme of the book is about how attitudes to sex, women and love have been shaped by church doctrine, teachings and upbringing. I think it must have been very difficult for women in those times to embrace their sexuality in a positive and guilt free way. Even today it can be difficult.


Rembrandt - pic courtesy of Wikipedia
Rembrandt – pic courtesy of Wikipedia

Do you think Rembrandt was misunderstood?

Yes and no. Perhaps his greatness was not as widely recognized as it deserved, towards the end of his life. This was due to the fact that fashion changed and many preferred a finer, more detailed style of painting. But not all, he still received commissions and sold works. What I admire about him the most is that, I don’t think, he ever compromised as an artist, nor was he swayed by convention. I sometimes get the impression he did not even notice the conventions. This perhaps may have led to some misunderstandings and contemporaries being affronted by his art or behaviour. One example is the vast work of The conspiracy of Claudius Civilis. I was rejected, perhaps a bridge to far. It is so bold and extraordinary almost modern.

At the same time I think he was actually given quite a lot of slack, considering his financial shenanigans which bordered on fraud. Others would have had to leave town. There is, by the way, an interesting theory advanced by Paul Crenshaw that Rembrandt went to England for a year.

And with a flick of the paintbrush she is gone. Kim Devereux has shown me a world of art, of Rembrandt and of the world he lived in with several strokes of the pen and a flash of inspiration. Have you ever seen the worlds of art and literature mix quite like this?

Kim Devereux

Rembrandt’s Mirror, published on 6th August by Atlantic Books’s%20Mirror

Where a boat comes to take me to the island to visit Rebecca Mascull


The little white rowing boat pulls up to the shore and I climb in. “This way,” the man says, “the mistress is waiting for you…” Clutching the side of the boat as I sit down, I steady myself in preparation for the journey. The man smiles “not to worry miss, I am a good driver, and the island is only a few miles that way.” He points over to the horizon where I see nothing but sea mist and hear nothing but the haunting melody of someone singing. “That will be the sea maid,” he smiles, noticing my surprise at hearing such a sound.

What a lovely way to meet Rebecca Mascull I think to myself, the author of The Song of the Sea Maid. She has invited me over to her island to speak of her novel…

She is standing there in white floating robes, a blue shimmering scarf as I step off the boat. There is tea and cake waiting. Served in shells. Very nice I think. And so begins my meeting with the Sea Maid herself..


Hi Rebecca. I have so much to ask you about your novel, Song of the Sea Maid. Let’s start with Dawnay -is she based on a real woman of her time. Can you tell us about the problems female scientists would have had all those years ago?

I would say rather that Dawnay is not based on any specific scientist, yet more that she is representative of a range of female scientists through the ages that have worked in obscurity and yet have contributed enormously to the history of science. In the C18th, despite it being the age of enlightenment, the problems facing any woman who wanted to study were considerable. First of all, it was assumed that women did not have the brain capacity of men, so what father in their right mind would waste his time and money educating daughters when there were sons to school? Some only daughters were educated – the lucky ones. Furthermore, if a woman was lucky enough to have been educated then she had the establishment to reckon with. Many scientific institutions would not allow women to attend lectures, let alone give them. Furthermore, many ideas at that time were deemed to be too controversial to publish or even speak of openly, and could be charged with treason or blasphemy. So, it was a dangerous time to voice controversial ideas about our origins. Thus, Dawnay had tremendous obstacle to overcome. My kind of story!

Dawnay is a very strong character. What do you admire most about her?

I think I admire her bravery most, setting out on an unknown journey on her own. I did go travelling a lot when I was younger, but not on a rickety wooden ship with the danger of shipwreck at every moment! I also admire her determination to carry on, despite the seeming impossibility of her circumstances. And, trying to avoid spoilers, I admire that she learns to change and adapt her single-mindedness to the needs of others and learns the value of human relationships, and most of all, love. She came from such a loveless background that she could have carried on that way all her life, yet I wanted her to be tested and altered in that way.


How did you research the travelling and adventure aspects and more to the point imagine them as Dawnay would have experienced them in the 18th century?

As I said, I did travel a lot when I was younger. My first journey truly alone was on a tour of Spain, Portugal and Morocco when I was 18. I went out full of gusto and on the first day the plane was delayed for hours and when we finally got to the first hotel it was in the early hours of the morning, I flushed the loo in the hotel & it wouldn’t stop flushing! It just flushed and flushed and flushed! I was so worried it was going to flood the bathroom! And I was so embarrassed I didn’t even ring down to reception and just put up with it for two hours until breakfast them hurried away and tried to pretend it hadn’t happened! So I realized that I wasn’t as brave as I thought I was and the next two weeks passed in a huge learning curve of trying to be brave and face up to things. It was very good for me and I travelled more later that year, and again in my twenties, travelling round much of Europe and beyond, to India. I had some difficult times and moments when I thought, what the heck am I doing? But there were other moments that were sublime and worth all the trouble and worry and discomfort. I wanted Dawnay to learn and suffer like that too, and understand that hard bargain every traveller must make. In her day, of course, it was a lot harder to learn that lesson! I read quite a bit about the age of sail, and a wonderful book called Female Tars, about women on ships in that age, which was full of brilliant details. I also enjoyed Henry Fielding’s account of sailing to Lisbon, which gave me most of the local details and also how terrible it is to have a bad captain on board. I loved the accounts of life aboard ship, but I don’t think it would’ve suited me then – or now!

Dawnay’s soul is described as a ‘nomadic one which cannot be cured by reading from the Arabian Nights’.  Does this describe yourself?

It did once, in my late teens and twenties. I had very itchy feet and thought I would spend my life travelling the world. But I’ve settled down a lot more since then. I still have a yearning to see some corners of the world but I also love my home comforts. To be honest, we can’t really afford to travel much with a young child and a home to run. But perhaps one day, a few city breaks in some nice hotels…Sounds good to me!


You evoke your settings extremely well and they are very vivid. Do you look at drawings as you paint them with words? How important is setting in a novel?

Thanks so much. I’ve always thought very visually when writing. Someone said of an early novel of mine (pre-publication) that it was written like a movie, and asked if I’d considered writing screenplays! I’m not sure about that though, as I love prose so much and love descriptive writing. I do have a picture wall in my study that I build up for every novel, that includes a range of images, photographs and paintings, of the period and of the specific topics involved with the novel. For example, for this novel it was C18th dress, interiors, roads etc.; ships, cabinets of curiosities, the Berlengas Islands & Menorca etc. I use maps too, to plot my characters’ steps across their environments. I think setting is crucial to me as a novelist. I love to escape in my writing and that means my characters usually do too! For me a story is usually a journey – both external and internal – that’s what I love to read and watch, and that’s what I love to write.

The stunning Berlengas Islands off the coast of Portugal, where Dawnay defies the conventions of her day and travels alone to begin her scientific investigations in situ. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca)
The stunning Berlengas Islands off the coast of Portugal, where Dawnay defies the conventions of her day and travels alone to begin her scientific investigations in situ.
(Photo courtesy of Rebecca)

When I’m writing a novel, I do make the effort to visit as many relevant places as possible – within my budget and limited free time – so with this book, I visited C18th settings such as Dr Johnson’s House and Fairfax House, Burton Constable Hall and the Coram Orphanage Museum. I take lots of photos and even make little videos to remind me of the sounds too. It helps immeasurably when I sit down to write those chapters. When I was writing THE VISITORS, I visited a hop farm and touched the new growth and felt the stalks – then I knew that the former was so soft and the latter very sticky – I don’t think I’d have found out those precise details if I’d never been there.

We finished our shell cakes and tea and before I knew it the white rowing boat had appeared at the side of the island, knocking gently at the water’s edge as if to tell me it was time to leave. Maybe for now, but I have so much more to discover with Rebecca’s novels, that I’ll be back.

Visit Rebecca via Twitter: @rebeccamascull

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Where I lie in wait for Neil White…..

Now I’d be nervous if I said I wasn’t nervous about meeting Neil White. He writes about killers for one…..he’s a prosecutor by day so would know how to cover his tracks…and he’s set his latest book in ‘the rough end’ of Manchester. Well, that’s why I’ve invited him to Booktrail Towers – better on your own patch so to speak. I’ve made a cake – (fruit cake with a file inside – in keeping with Neil’s crime fiction theme)


Hello Sir (keeping it respectful). So, Tell us about the Domino Killer…

My first intention was to conclude in some way a major part of Sam and Joe’s story, the murder of their sister years before. Also, I was interested in the idea of murders where there isn’t one person killing a number of people but where it happens as a chain. Hence the reference to dominoes.

In the book, a man is found dead in a park, the reasons unclear, and the mystery deepens when it transpires that his fingerprints were found on a bloodied knife close to a corpse a few weeks earlier.

domino killer

Your background as a lawyer must really help with writing the character of Joe in particular but can it be a hindrance?

You’re right, in that there is good and bad in there.

The helpful part is that my job gives me knowledge of the law that I can use, and also an insight into how the courts and criminals work. I find it frustrating when I see books written that include scenes that are just plain wrong. I don’t mind if a legal scenario is potentially feasible, even if unrealistic, but when something is out and out wrong it’s frustrating. The law is a complex beast, based on words and terminology, and it’s easy to make a mistake. What’s frustrating is that the plot could be as tense even if legally correct. Take Broadchurch, for example (which was shockingly bad, probably the most incorrect legal drama ever). There was much rightful criticism of it; for instance, with the witnesses sitting in court before they gave their evidence. Would it have been any less dramatic with the witnesses pacing outside, unsure of what was happening in the courtroom, not knowing whether they were walking into a trap? I don’t think so.

If a writer doesn’t know much about the law, think about a different angle. Write it from the perspective of a confused outsider, for instance. Research is important, but you’ll still get something wrong, because different rules apply to different crimes and procedures.

The downside is, of course, that I might focus too much on making it accurate rather than interesting. Being a criminal lawyer is about plenty of routine stuff, ploughing through paperwork, interspersed with moments of high drama. I have to remind myself to focus on the high drama, not the routine.

The conflict between the two brothers is what sets your books apart. What do you find the most challenging about walking the line between one justice and another?

Being pompous, isn’t justice about finding the truth, regardless of which side you work on?

It is correct to say that being a criminal defence lawyer is slightly different, because a “victory” isn’t the same as justice being served. Let’s make no bones about it, being a defence lawyer involves trying to ensure that rapists and murderers and child molesters evade justice. No defence lawyer would advise a rapist or murderer to admit an offence just because it would be the moral thing to do. They are advised to plead guilty only when the evidence is overwhelming, or at least where they don’t dispute the allegation and the evidence is strong enough to convict. To do otherwise would be professionally negligent.

I’m not a defence lawyer anymore, I’m a prosecutor, but my view is still that the system is exactly as it should be. Whoever brings the allegation should have to prove it and it should not be down to some watered down standard of being “probably” guilty. A person can only be found guilty if the jury is “sure” that they are guilty.

Putting this in a fiction context, however, I can’t see a book doing well where the lawyer gets a killer or rapist off just because he or she can, and they ride off into the sunset, pumping the air with their fists. The usual premise for justice in crime fiction is that the killer is caught or the wrongly accused is acquitted. Justice is usually served.

So justice between Sam and Joe means the same thing, finding the truth, because it is fiction.

Who would win in a fight – Joe or Sam?

Sam would win by using “Home Office approved techniques”, but we’d never know for sure, because Joe is a lawyer; he’d twist the truth and present it in a different light.

 Ancoats -  The Domino Killer Pic courtesy of Neil White
Ancoats – The Domino Killer Pic courtesy of Neil White

How important/significant was your choice of Manchester as your setting?What research did you to evoke the city and its people well?

That’s a really difficult question, because I don’t know if I chose Manchester or if Manchester chose me.

My first six books were set in small Lancashire towns, but for the Parker brothers I wanted somewhere bigger. I trained to be a defence lawyer in Manchester and practised there when qualified before moving to a defence firm in Lancashire, so it just seemed the obvious place.

As far as research goes, I used memories and then revisited. I wanted to present Manchester in a positive light so with each book I tried to select an interesting area. In my head, I had in mind the areas nearer the Pennines than in the city centre. To put it another way, more Myra Hindley than Moss Side. I wanted that old Manchester, of old BSA bikes and blackened terraces, the Manchester of Morrissey.

Like any research, the best thing to do is visit and just observe. Put down what you see.

Mother Mac pub from the Domino Killer
Mother Mac pub from the Domino Killer

At a crime fest dinner party which five other writers, living or dead, would you invite and why?

Harper Lee, just to find out more. Why did she stop at one (or at least why didn’t she insist on The Watchtower being released earlier)?

Charles Dickens. To find out more about Victorian England.

WP Kinsella. To see if he talks as pleasantly as he writes.

Stephen King. Do I need to provide a reason for that?

PD James. To find out how she was able to go on for so long.

Which fictional place would you like to visit and why?

Salem’s Lot. I used to love those descriptions of small Maine towns by Stephen King, where it seemed like the spirits of the night and the undead were just waiting for the onset of darkness.

Well, with that. Neil has managed to find the file in the cake. He takes it as a souvenir of his visit to Booktrail Towers and offers a ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card from Monopoly in return. Signed. Ah with a sense of humour like that, I’m going to be reading all of his books.


Twitter – @neilwhite1965

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Cuppa and a piece of wartime cake with Iona Grey – Letters to the Lost

Iona Grey, author of the wonderful, historical and romantic saga Letters to the Lost has come over to Booktrail Towers today on the premise that we will open the hamper of wartime goodies, put the cherry tarts on a plate and pop the kettle on the stove. All done. We’ve even put out the bunting. That’s how excited we are…

Hi Iona! Welcome to Booktrail Towers. Please do come in and take a seat….(we’re all dressed up in polka dot dresses, mary janes and stockings with black lines up the back. ‘Dancing cheek to cheek’ is on the gramophone in the background to add to the atmosphere…

Iona Grey

Oh the questions we have about your book! Here have a slice of battenberg and we’ll tuck into cakes and questions!

What inspired you to write Letters to the Lost?

A glimpse of a handwritten letter, lying open on my daughter’s desk as I passed by her room one day, and the whisper in my head of the phrase Letters from the Lost. I wrote it down straight away because I thought it would make a good title for a book, and then couldn’t resist working out what the story behind it might be. (In the end ‘from’ became ‘to’, though the file name on my computer never changed!)

You recently put together a Letters to the Lost themed hamper. Can you share with us how you researched the food during the war – the battenberg cake, the eggs and those tinned peaches!

The hamper is unpacked and all ready for Iona coming round...
The hamper is unpacked and all ready for Iona coming round…

I’ve been a total WW2 geek for many years and have read just about every book (fiction and non-fiction) and watched every TV documentary and drama imaginable, so I had plenty of accumulated information to draw on! I was also lucky enough to be given a stack of Woman’s Weekly magazines from the late 30s and early 40s which gave some great insight into popular dishes of the time, but probably my greatest source of information was my Mum, who was born in 1940 and so grew up with rationing and wartime food. She still shudders if you even say the words ‘powdered egg’!

Have you ever tried bloater paste?! What do you think of Spam?

I haven’t ever had Bloater Paste, thank goodness – can you actually still get it? (Quick trawl of Sainsbury’s online suggests not, though Sardine and Tomato Paste is still an option for your sandwiches, apparently…) I have had Spam though, as it had a regular slot on the school dinner menu when I was at primary school. I don’t remember particularly disliking it (not like liver… liver days were very, very bad days indeed) but I do remember that it was very pink and that struck me as being suspicious. It’s hard to imagine that for many people in WW2 these things would have been considered real culinary treats!

Has anyone in particular inspired the lovely yet heartbreaking story of Dan and Stella?

Not exactly, though as a child I was struck by how awful it must have been for my grandparents to have been separated as young newly-weds during the war. I remember my Gran telling me about it again when I was a teenager and in despair because my boyfriend had gone to work in France for the summer. She reminded me that at least we could write as much as we wanted and speak to each other every day – and that I pretty much knew he would come back safely! Her new husband was gone for a year, and she didn’t hear a word from him for most of that time, or know where he was or whether he was all right. In the agonising clutches of first love, I couldn’t begin to get my head around how heartbreaking that must have been.

This needs to be a film. Who would play Dan and Stella?

Top of my list are Theo James and Jessica Brown-Findlay, but I’m a bit rubbish at translating characters in my head into real-life faces so if anyone else has any suggestions I’d love to hear them!

You evoke the sights of wartime, the music of Glen Miller, the spirit of the time…what part surprised you or you wish we did now?

The thing that surprised me most was something I’m very glad that we don’t have now, and that was the powerlessness of women; the way that the law absolutely subjugated them to their husbands. I’m not much of a planner when I’m writing so I explored the options open to Stella as I went along and was shocked to discover that they were pretty much non-existent. On a more positive note, I really admired the resourcefulness of the time. I found myself feeling full of awe and admiration for a population who were able to adapt and adjust and be creative in the face of really stringent shortages, and who appeared to have faced the challenge largely without protest.

Stella was a woman trapped in circumstance. Can you tell us more about her?

She has grown up in an institution, without a family, and spent her childhood longing for a home of her own.  She is cautious and quiet; ‘a good girl’, These qualities make her suitable for the position of housekeeper to Reverend Charles Thorne, and eventually his wife.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the family was sacrosanct. Stella has grown up outside of this hallowed unit, so has had a very idealistic view about what it would be like to belong to one. She soon discovers that it isn’t all she’d hoped it would be, and that the things she thought she wanted from marriage – security and permanence and belonging – are the very things that come to stand in the way of her happiness.

Stella’s fate must have been one shared by millions of women. The society of the time held housewives in high esteem, and made the roles of wife and mother into something women were supposed to aspire to – no one wanted to be ‘a spinster’, with all the very negative connotations that word carries, (unlike ‘bachelor’, its masculine equivalent!) – but it seems to me that the price paid for the status of marriage often amounted to the price paid by the Little Mermaid for her legs. An Englishman’s home was his castle, and when the drawbridge was pulled up he was allowed to behave pretty much as he pleased, without any fear from the law. His wife was his property.

What is the one message you hope people will take away from your novel?

It’s tempting to look at the past through rose coloured glasses, and there’s certainly so much to admire in the spirit and strength of wartime generation, but I hope the message is ultimately positive – that as a society we’ve come a long way in terms of equality and breaking down prejudices – homophobia, and the ignorance about mental health issues and learning disability – that blighted countless lives.

With huge thanks to Iona for popping over today. Please pop over to twitter to say hello. 

Twitter – @Iona_Grey

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Cuppa and a cake – Sarah Leipciger – Canada

Sarah Leipciger
Sarah Leipciger

We’ve driven deep into the Canadian Rockies today in order to meet the wonderful Sarah Leipciger, author of Th eMountain Can Wait. I hope she can wait as we’re running a little late – a few too many bears and moose on the roads in this part of the world. slowing down the traffic. But we’re nearly there – we’re meeting in a log cabin in the woods and having a bonfire, maybe even fell a few trees to get the feel of the story. We’ve brought twizzlers  – a yummy Canadian sweet and the Canadian version of licorice, very red and plastic and sweet.

mountain can waitHi Sarah. Thanks for waiting! We kick the snow off our boots and settle in with the lovely blankets she’s given us, maple syrup lozenges to soothe our throats and a few homemade cakes Sarah’s been busy baking. We’re happy booktrailers indeed. May never move out. We’ll stay here and look after the place when you go back to the UK. 

We have so much to ask you. And Happy Canada Day!

Your novel’s setting is very unique. Can you tell us more about the Canadian wilderness and why you wanted to set your novel there?

I spent six very happy years living on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, going to university in Victoria. To pay for university, I spent my summers knee deep in slash piles, arms glistening and burning with 100% Deet, planting trees. When you live in Canada’s west, your soul is constantly fed and revitalised by the land – forests of old growth trees wide enough to drive a car through (or live in, as a friend of mine did one summer in a hollowed-out cedar), carpeted thickly with green moss; Pacific islands where the windy beaches are strewn with logs bleached and polished. The eastern border of the province is delineated by the Rocky Mountains and in the north, where I treeplanted, there are yet more mountains and rivers and lakes, pine and spruce forests that would seem to go on forever if it weren’t for the enormous swathes of clearcuts. I set my novel in this landscape because the character of Tom Berry could only have inhabited this landscape: on one level he is fulfilled and inspired by its beauty and he respects its brutality and its rules, yet he’s not sentimental about cutting into it or taking life from it for his own survival.

Can you tell us a few places that we should visit in order to get a feel for the setting in your book?

The novel is set in three quite distinct areas of British Columbia: the ragged clearcuts to the north of the interior BC logging town of Prince George; the ski resort town of Whistler, which is part of the coastal mountains north of Vancouver, and a fictional Howe Sound island off the southern coast of BC, where temperate rainforest meets the Pacific Ocean.

Photos courtesy of Sarah Leipciger
Photos courtesy of Sarah Leipciger

The relationship between father and son is a strong one. Is this what drives Tom to do what he does?

The relationship drives Tom, but more than this, it’s his sense of duty. He doesn’t come to fatherhood naturally, and in the beginning, his love for Curtis grew out of his sense of responsibility for another life. He convinces Curtis to turn himself in because he knows the boy’s life will be intolerable if he doesn’t.

The theme of the environment is strong in the novel. Do you think we could learn something from people who live off their land like this?

I think the book shows two very different types of “living off the land”. On one hand you’ve got Bobbie who gathers wild food and spins her own wool, while of course on the other hand there is the logging and silviculture industry which, though brutal and devastating, provides jobs and livelihood for thousands of Canadians. I care about the environment but I can’t pretend to be an environmentalist – I recycle and turn off the lights when I leave a room, but also drive my car more often than I should and always forget to refill my refillable washing-up liquid. I suppose if Tom were to answer this question, he would say that our reckless destruction of the environment makes us fools, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also use the land to support our lives, as long as we do it sustainably and responsibly.

You seem to love nature. Do you enjoy painting, walking or anything similar in the great outdoors?

I’m definitely not a painter but I have always loved the outdoors. I grew up on lakes and rivers, spent most of my teenage years in a kayak. My favourite landscape is the forest, northern lakes and mountains. Here in England, in London where I live, there is of course little access to this kind of environment. But eight years ago I joined an open-water swimming group and it changed my life. We train in an outdoor pool, but we compete in lakes and rivers, both in England and internationally. This spring we head to Croatia for a week to train in the sea. I also do a lot of camping with my husband and our three kids—here in England, also in Scotland and France. 

 Thanks Sarah for that insight into your mountainous world. We look forward to returning very soon indeed.

Stop by and find Sarah here on social media – 


Meet the translator – Quentin Bates – on Iceland’s National Day


On Iceland National Day what better way to celebrate than with a man who knows the country, the landscape and the literature like the back of his hand. Quentin Bates, an author in his own right, is sitting waiting in a log cabin, warming the kettle on the stove for our visit. It’s chilly but he’s told us he provides blankets and cake so we’re good. If  we ever get there through this snow that is.

Well here we are – somewhere in Iceland – there’s lots of snow around that’s for sure. And flags and parties as people celebrate national day! So Quentin…..

You’re a writer and translator and have just finished working on the Ragnar Jónasson’s “ Snowblind’. How did you find that and how different were the experiences?

It was a remarkably rewarding experience. I had done a lot of translation before, but mostly very dry news or technical stuff that absolutely doesn’t need any kind of interpretation. So getting to grips with Snowblind was quite a challenge. I wasn’t sure to start with if I could pull it off, and I think it’s safe to admit that now. But it worked out very well. Ragnar writes a very clear, almost an old-fashioned, Icelandic that’s a pleasure to read.

There’s inevitably some interpretation that has to be done and two translators given the same piece of text could come up with wildly differing versions. That’s the hard part, and it’s also the fun part that keeps the grey cells buzzing – working out what the author meant rather than what the author actually wrote, and trying not so much to keep the nuances and subtleties of meaning but to transpose them into English. The real challenge is with idioms and jokes, especially if there’s a play on words, as they the translator has to find something suitable that is faithful to the feel of the original when a direct translation would be more precise but could completely lose that feel.


You have deep links to Iceland. Can you tell us more about these?

I went to live in Iceland and stayed there for ten years. For some of that time I went native, if that’s still an acceptable phrase, frequently not speaking English for weeks at a time. Since returning to England I’ve remained immersed in Iceland, as my wife and I have always spoken Icelandic together. The internet helps as it means I can read the papers every day and have Icelandic radio on in the background while I’m working. I try and get there a couple of times a year, at least, and would spend more time there if I could.

What do you love most about Iceland and what still surprises you?

It’s probably the tranquillity – although that’s not something you get a lot of in Reykjavík. Where I normally go in the north is very quiet. In fact it can be too quiet and after a while I need to get back to the rumble of traffic.

The climate still takes me by surprise, the sheer rawness of the wind and rain when it’s really howling, as well as the distances once you get beyond Reykjavík. Sometimes you don’t dare pass a petrol station without filling up, especially when you know the next one is 200 kilometres away.

In Quentin's own books, protagonist Gunna refuses to move to Reykjavík, preferring to return to her coastal backwater.  Thanks to Quentin for the pic.
In Quentin’s own books, protagonist
Gunna refuses to move to Reykjavík, preferring to return to her coastal backwater.
Thanks to Quentin for the pic.

How different is Icelandic Noir to Scandinavian Noir?

Not an easy question… there’s so much variety in Icelandic crime fiction, just as there is across the whole sweep of Nordic Noir (if Noir is the right expression). To be blunt, we all owe a huge debt to Sjöwall & Wahlöö, and to a lesser extent to Henning Mankell. But Sjöwall & Wahlöö were the forerunners and I’d go so far as to say their books are as fresh and sharp as anything Nordic since.

If there are difference between Icelandic and Scandinavian crime fiction, it’s maybe more in the look and feel of the location itself, and in the social nuances. Iceland is politically very different to Norway, Sweden and Denmark, although maybe closest to Norway in many ways. Iceland leans more to the US culturally than the other Nordic nations, partly a legacy of the long US military presence that also brought rock n’ roll and gas guzzling cars to Iceland. All this filters through into the country’s fiction, not in an overt way, but subtly.

There are only a few Icelandic crime writers available in English translation – Ragnar is number five. There are plenty who deserve to be translated and may yet make the jump. There’s plenty of variety there, some of it pretty hard-booiled, some relatively cosy, some extremely bleak, just as there are huge differences between the work of Swedish or Norwegian crime writers

Tell us something bizarre about Iceland and its language

Icelandic is the Nordic language that has changed least since the Saga Age. For more than a thousand years Iceland was very isolated and the language changed very gradually. But with the advent of cable TV and the internet it has changed probably more in the last twenty years than in the preceding two hundred as a huge amount of English slang and loan words have sneaked in.

It’s pretty impenetrable for an outsider and it’s not easy to learn. Icelandic has a logical grammatical structure and a vocabulary that’s closely related to other Nordic languages, although there are plenty of words that are uniquely Icelandic.

So it’s certainly not impossible. The real problem is that everyone speaks English and if you make a mistake, people will instinctively switch to English, which can make it difficult to make a start practising spoken Icelandic.

My favourite word in Icelandic is mjólkurbrúsupallabrennuvargur – a vandal who sets fire to milk churn shelters.

Well rest assured, Quentin tells us that he is no mjólkurbrúsupallabrennuvargur himself and so we can safely have another cup of tea safe in the knowledge that the milk churn outside is in one piece.

Thanks Quentin for a great chat and we’ll be back to visit very soon to talk about your own books set in Iceland!

Chicken and a chat with Kelley Powell – The Merit Birds – Laos

Sitting on a beach in Laos, eating barbecued chicken with papaya salad on the side….nice work if you can get it. And here we are today with Kelley Powell who has written a YA novel about the trauma which can result from moving to Laos from Ottawa – more so if you are a teenager like in the book.


Then there is the theme of the Merit Birds – what are they and what do they mean? We’re going to find out. Now that a plate of chicken feet has come out, it looks like the best time to stop eating and start chatting…


The Descriptions of Laos are so evocative and real! You’ve lived there and worked in a domestic violence research project. Do you think your work has enabled you to see the dark side of paradise?

I think every country has elements of paradise and elements of the dark side (Darth Vader breathing here). Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world, one of Asia’s poorest nations and one of the few remaining communist states. The dismal facts make Laos sound like a horrible place to live. It isn’t. No doubt, people struggle through poverty and inadequate health care, but despite it all a certain brightness, gentleness and sense of humour persists.

What about Laos would surprise someone who has never been there?

The unfaltering “Boh Penyang” (no worries) attitude. People truly don’t get irritated by much – they choose to laugh instead. In early drafts of The Merit Birds my character Somchai epitomized this attitude but none of my early readers believed him! They didn’t think his character was realistic, so I had to give him at least one angry outburst.

What’s it like riding in a tuk tuk?

In a country where temperatures soar and just walking makes you sweat, riding in a tuk tuk is like sailing on the ocean. The air feels cool on your face, the wind catches your hair and you feel refreshed. In a tuk tuk you are up higher than you would be on a motorbike, or while walking, so you catch a glimpse of things you wouldn’t see otherwise. Because there are no windows, you are immersed in the sights and sounds of the street.

Can you tell us a little more about the meaning and significance of ‘The Merit Birds’?

Allow me to use the age-old trick of flipping the question back to you, dear reader. After reading the story, what does the image of a merit bird mean to you?

How did you research the scenes within the prison – they are full of raw emotion

Thank you! I spent a month in prison because I am so dedicated to my craft (just kidding – although that would make a good story in itself). I read a lot of prisoners’ testimonies and also used my imagination. I am fascinated by what human beings can endure. People are so strong.

You’ve woven so many human emotions in this novel together with culture, politics, poverty and wealth. The Laos culture and people really stand out. What do you think we could learn from them?

I think Lao people have much to teach the world with their tolerance, acceptance and focus on what really matters in life. Most Lao people love to laugh and don’t take themselves too seriously.

This is a YA novel but could be enjoyed by anyone as we can all learn something from it! What would you like the reader to take from it?

The beauty of a story is that readers will take what they need from it – it will be different for everyone. I would be keen to know via social media!

With many thanks to Kelley for bringing the barbecued chicken feet-  this may not be one thing I take from the Laos culture after all, but I will the other themes in the book!

You can contact Kelley via her Facebook page

or via Twitter @kelleypowell20.

Check out for more information on all the above and more!.


Download the ULUVUS song Boh Penyang  and Tuk Tuk Driver by One Hard Nipple for free when you buy The Merit Birds online on June 2 and 3. The latter shows you how much fun it is to bargain the price of your tuk tuk ride!


If you’re curious about Lao cuisine check out The Recipes of The Merit Birds, which will be available free to people who buyThe Merit Birds online on June 2 and 3.

Dried Icelandic fish with Ragnar Jonasson…the Snowblind author invites the booktrail to Iceland!


Well, we never thought we’d be sat in the Icelandic town of Siglufjörður with a place of fish in front of us. Here to meet Ragnar Jónasson author of Snowblind.  The herring capital of Iceland he tells us. Thankfully that is not on the plate but dried Icelandic fish is…do we try some to be polite? Or shall we just crack on with the questions we’ve prepared? 


So then Ragnar….tell me…Snowblind…it grips you by the throat from the very first page. Can you tell us more about the meaning of the term ‘ snow blind’ and the importance of snow in your novel?

The story actually had a very different working title but my Icelandic publishers sent me back to the drawing board to look for a new title. It took some time to find it, but when Snowblind occurred to me, I felt it was the right one. There is ‘a bit’ of snow in the book, just like in real life in the northerly town of Siglufjörður in winter. The word ‘snowblind’ actually means a temporary loss of vision caused by exposure to bright sunlight reflected on snow and ice. In this case, however, the lead character is blinded by the snow, isolation and darkness to the extend that he finds it hard to maintain focus in his job. It does snow a lot in Siglufjörður and often the snowfall is so intense that people literally need to dig their way out of their houses. When I decided on Siglufjörður as setting, the snow had to be there.

Ari is an outsider who enters a closed and claustrophobic world. Why was it important to have an outsider reveal these crimes?

An outsider is able to look at the town and its inhabitants in a different light than the local policeman, which hopefully benefits the reader, who is in most cases ‘visiting Siglufjörður for the first time. And even though I’ve spent a part of most summers in Siglufjörður, I’ve never actually lived there, so as a writer I am also an outsider in a way. It’s also true that an outsider in new surroundings opens up various options in terms of contrasts and interaction between characters. We trust Ari Thor because he is unbiased.

Can you tell us more about the real setting and what it’s like to live there – with the threat of isolation and the snow tunnel?

Photo courtesy of Ragnar Jonasson
Photo courtesy of Ragnar Jonasson

Siglufjörður is the northernmost town in Iceland, a really beautiful place both in summer and winter. In wintertime the sun disappears behind the mountains for a few months, from November to January, so it gets very dark, and it also snows a lot (which is possibly an understatement). There is also the very real danger of avalanches on the road into town. Fairly shortly after Snowblind was written, a new tunnel was actually opened on the other side of town, through a different mountain, so the town isn’t quite as isolated as it used to be. Siglufjörður used to be the centre of herring fishing in Iceland in the mid-20th century, with lots of people moving there for work. It is a smaller town now, but it is actually becoming a very popular tourist destination, with great ski slopes in winter and sunny weather in summer. In the summertime it hardly ever gets dark, the midnight sun making the nights very bright, and that is also a theme I’ve used in my Dark Iceland series.

Can you tell us about the places that we should visit in order to see the locations in the book? The map at the start of your book is fantastic but tell us more…

In Siglufjörður, I would visit the theatre where the murder takes place, the mountain Hvanneyrarskál overlooking the town, the local church, the local fish store (where you can buy such good fish!) and – last but not least – Ari Thor’s house, but I won’t tell you exactly where it is in the town. It is real, but it actually is not on the street where it is said to be in the book. Ugla is from Patreksfjörður, a lovely town in the Westfjords of Iceland, quite far away from Siglufjörður but a very nice part of the country to visit. Reykjavik, of course, in particular the old west-end in the centre, where Ari Thor lives at the beginning of the book, near the marina is a great part of town for a walk. The road trip from Saudarkrokur (where the airport is) to Siglufjordur is amazing, with glorious ocean views and mountains.

Do you really have several words for snow?

Siglufjörður at 11pm at night. Photo courtesy of Ragnar Jonasson
Siglufjörður at 11pm at night. Photo courtesy of Ragnar Jonasson

Snjór, slydda, él, snær, drífa, fönn, hríð, mjöll, lausamjöll, hjarn, nýsnævi, skari, kafsnjór, kafald, éljagangur, hagl, hundslappadrífa, hríð, ofankoma, bylur, skafrenningur … How many do you want?

What is the best thing about this small Icelandic town that we might not know from your novel?

The peaceful sound of the waves, the lovely scent of the sea and the very quiet pace of life. It’s not always snowbound.

More in the series? What’s next?

The next book in the Dark Iceland series is called Nightblind. Like Snowblind, it is almost entirely set in the town of Siglufjörður, a few years later. The other three books in the series also have Siglufjörður as a centrepoint. One of them is also set in the neighbouring town of Skagafjörður, another one in a wondefully beautiful spot called Kálfshamarsvík (try googling it), where there used to be a small village that sort of disappeared; yet another one is set in the fjord next to Siglufjörður, called Héðinsfjörður, a very beautiful place that has been uninhabited for decades. My story deals with the fictional last inhabitants of the fjord, around 50 years ago.

Well thank you so much for that chat Ragnar! What’s that? A present? Ooh what can it be? That’s very nice of you. Some fish? Suddenly the fear that we could be trapped in that tunnel if it snowed and all we would have to eat would be this fish….

Thankfully, it was just Ragnar having a laugh. He gave us a nice bag of Icelandic sweets instead..chocolate covered salted liquorice for the plane ride home. Now that is an Icelandic treat – as much as this book is!

You can contact Ragnar here – @ragnarjo

and via his website –

From one literary sofa to another – Cuppa and a cake with Isabel Costello


Isabel Costello lives in North London and is (amongst other things) a writer, linguist and enthusiastic traveller.  She also hosts the Literary Sofa blog featuring guest authors, book reviews and her twice yearly selections of recommended new fiction.  Candid accounts of her experiences as a writer always prove popular, maybe because so many can relate to them. 

Hi Isabel,

Fancy a slice of coffee and walnut cake before we start our little chat? Know it’s your favourite…

So, cake in one hand, cuppa in the other, we make our way over to the sofa which today is a literary sofa in honour of our special friend and guest.

So, Isabel, We’ve been dying to get you over to Booktrail towers for a while. So happy you could pop by. Dying to pick your brains about books and more books!

Your love of French fiction is well known – can you share with us a gem that you have found recently?

Not sure ‘gem’ is the word but Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission is a provocative and fascinating read for anyone who knows or has an interest in France – I’ve already reviewed it even though the English translation (Submission) isn’t out until September.  I’m currently reading Meursault, Contre-enquête by Algerian writer Kamel Daoud, which revisits Camus’ L’étranger  from the perspective of the brother of ‘The Arab’ who was shot dead.  It’s very well realised with due respect to the original.

What is it about French fiction you love so much?

Obviously it’s impossible to generalise about French fiction and running an English language blog means that I don’t get to read as much of it as I would like, but one of the joys of reading in French is staying in touch with a language and country I love. I won’t read French in translation although if I’m sent the English version I look at them side by side out of interest.  The art and skill of literary translation deserves greater recognition.

I enjoy the slightly philosophical feel of a lot of French novels and I like it that not everything needs to be slavishly literal or explained.  Ambiguity is a hallmark of French narratives of all kinds, including film: there may not be a happy ending, or indeed, any ending… (and yes, I do find that frustrating sometimes!)

I’ve been influenced by the way many French authors write sex scenes, in a way that is direct yet sensual and without awkwardness.  This avoids the need for the dreadful euphemisms and metaphors which are so problematic in English language fiction.

You also studied German at university  – which German books translated or otherwise could you share with us?

I don’t have the same bond with German as with French (to be honest, I actually prefer Spanish even though I only know it to about GCSE level).  Until last summer I hadn’t read a book in German since leaving university and was delighted to find I still could.  That was Maxim Leo’s memoir of growing up in East Germany, Haltet euer Herz bereit (Translated as Red Love by Shaun Whiteside) and I enjoyed it.  More recently, my life is the richer for discovering Viktor Frankl’s Trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen (Man’s Search for Meaning – not sure who translated this) based on his experiences in Auschwitz.  It’s incredibly moving and life-affirming. 

We love your Writers on Location section as we also totally love digging behind the story of a novel and its setting. Who would you like on the blog that has not been on yet and why?

That would have to be Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng.  I hope he’s writing a third novel as his first two are breathtakingly good.  The Garden of Evening Mists partly inspired our family trip to Malaysia last Christmas and reading The Gift of Rain, set in Penang during the Japanese occupation of World War Two, whilst I was there intensified my response to this powerful and shocking story.  I once met Eng briefly in London – he is delightful and (unlike his books) very funny.  I would love him to visit the Literary Sofa!

You’re writing a novel yourself set in Paris. Can you share this with us and tell us a bit about it?

My novel moves between different areas of Paris, a place I know well and have visited countless times, but is primarily set in the 6th arrondissement around St Sulpice and the Jardin du Luxembourg and the somewhat less manicured 19th arrondissement in the northeast of the city – I like to leave the beaten track in fiction and on my travels.  A few other locations make an appearance: Nice, Honfleur and the Pacific coast of northern California where my first person narrator Alexandra grew up.  On the surface it deals with infidelity but it’s really about a lot more than that, and mostly about love.  I’m hoping this one will get me a deal  – I dream of seeing it translated into French so I’d get to do author events in France!

Which novels do you have in your sights at the moment?

For the last couple of months I’ve been tracking down titles for my Summer Reads selection which will be unveiled on  20 May.  It’s a big undertaking as I read every one of the final dozen and many more in full (not to mention those I abandon) – this really counts for something with my blog readers who know I don’t recommend novels based on blurbs.  As always, the new selection has a wide range of settings, genres and subjects – I can’t wait to hear what everyone makes of it.

Love your Fiction Hot Picks and like us you loved The Strings of Murder and Hausfrau! Very strong on location. Where would you love to travel via fiction but haven’t  been for real yet?

I’ve never been to South America and would love to read something set in Argentina or Patagonia, the top places on my wish list.  But I’m also keen to explore South East Asia further, starting with Vietnam.

Best literary location you’ve been to?

No contest – New York City, and especially Brooklyn, which I’ve come to know and love as reader, writer and traveller.  I have a huge weakness for novels set in NY and am really looking forward to going back there in October.

Best real location you’ve been to?

Difficult to answer, but for its stunning natural beauty and fabulous food and wine, it’s got to be New Zealand.

We’re with you on that one! Gorgeous country. Thank you so much Isabel for popping by. And thanks for the book recommendations. Can’t wait for your Summer Reads! Do stop by the Literary Sofa for more of Isabel’s musings.