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Saturday, November 5, 2016

Benedictines and bubbly; the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire

From the village of Limoux, not far from Carcassonne, the road to Saint-Hilaire and its Benedictine abbey, winds through woods and vineyards. In October, the mists and autumn colours add to the sense of time-travel as stone walls loom out of nowhere. This probably means you are lost, as we were, and that you should have taken the much shorter road. But then you would not have seen the cemetery on the hill, blooming with chrysanthemums in preparation for Toussaint, All Saints' Day, a national holiday when the French pay their respects to their dead.

The houses of the village encroaching on the abbey
The dead were all around me as I walked alone in the cloisters, the only visitor to an abbey founded in the early 9th century, the place where the body of Saint Hilaire was buried. It was mentioned at this time in a charter from Louis le Debonnaire, confirming donations from his father Charlemagne to Abbot Monellus of St-Hilaire. Early features remain in the later buildings and over time, the village has crept from outside the abbey walls to lean over the church itself.

My spirit guide
If you love medieval history, as I do, you will find treasure here. One of the fascinating characters who has turned up in my 12th century research is the Master of Cabestany but I never expected to find one of his masterpieces in this little village in the Languedoc. Made of one slab of white marble from the Pyrenees, this 'sarcophagus' is more accurately an altar piece because it is far too narrow and could not contain a corpse.
The current setting of the sarcophagus,
which was probably once the main altar, in the choir
Look at the people, gawking out their windows as the martyred Saint Sernin is beaten and torn apart by a goaded bull. He still manages to bless the two women who pray for him. Medieval brutality and Christianity in all its horrific richness.

Medieval rubber-neckers
A jongleur on a  tight-rope is distracted by the goings-on
The goaded bull and animals representing the bestial nature of the saint's oppressors

The identity of the Master of Cabestany is a mystery but his - or could it be their? or even her? work is famous throughout Catalonia, known for a certain style. I find it strange that the story progresses from right to left and, having written about left-handers, I wonder whether this was an accidental left-handed reversal of European writing convention? Or deliberate left-handed choice? Or could the Master have been from another culture, where writing flowed from right to left? It seems more than odd for an artist of this quality not to be aware of conventions. Do let me know your theories!

The story of Saint Sernin, reading from right to left (missing the two side panels),
from his evangelical preaching to his gory end

Mysteries and ghosts were all around me and I jumped when something brushed my leg - a cat who accompanied me with the air of a guide who knew all and wasn't telling. Many monks must have met unnatural ends here and when you climb the pulpit in the monks' refectory, you hear your words of warning ringing out around the hall. The protection of the Counts of Carcassonne was not enough to keep the abbey safe in the madness of the Albigensian Crusade that swept Languedoc in the 13th century and the monks were accused of heresy and merged with Les Frères Prêcheurs, the Dominicans.

The Benedictines emerged from their troubles and endowments from the local nobles continued. Naturally the Abbot's apartment benefited from such generosity and I was feeling cynical as I walked into a room that took my breath away. The textures and patterns on the ceiling reminded me of those in the Palace of Joy in Zaragossa but the addition of satirical portraits make it look like an illuminated manuscript, with which a scribe has had fun in the margins.

Abbot's chamber ceiling, with portraits
Detail of ceiling portraits

Heraldic shields on the walls below the decorated ceiling

My favourite motif - a heraldic beast with banner in its teeth

Patterned rows carved in wood

The walls bear the shields and names of all the Abbots and you can imagine how excited I felt at seeing the dates 1146 and 1154. I get the shivers every time I come across details of the period I write about.
The Abbots of 1146 and 1154

Perhaps the Abbey's biggest contribution to the world came in the 16th century. In 1531 the monks created what is claimed here to be the first sparkling wine in the world, the 'blanquette' for which Limoux is now known and I stood in the very 'cave' or cellar where a monk was surprised by bubbles forming in the corked bottles of white wine, as if they were undergoing a second fermentation...

The birth-place of sparkling wine: the wine cave in St-Hilaire

From its origin in this cellar, bubbly gained international popularity, leading 17th century Irish dramatist George Farquahar to comment, 'Brut sparkles like the lively remarks of a man of wit.'

The famous 'blanquette'
Photo: Agne27 at the English language Wikipedia

As I turned to go, I sensed a lighter presence than the black monks. A faded inscription above a door lintel gave me enough of a clue to work out who used to come here and why. Can you figure it out?

A long discussion with the Abbey curator confirmed my guess - this became the 'Ecole Publique des Filles' in the 19th century so the girls and small boys from the village came here for their lessons. The curator also clarified much else about St-Hilaire and played troubadour CDs for me. Now all I need to know is whether Estela and Dragonetz passed this way, and, if so, why.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

What kind of photographer are you?

Athabasca Glacier, Canadian Rockies, twilight

In my ongoing search for what sort of photographer I am and how to improve, I've had another professional portfolio assessment, this time from Getty Images. Although focused on stock photography, the comments apply more widely.

'Your best qualities as a photographer are working with real people, real situations and natural light.'

You have to love the stock world distinction between glamorous models and 'real people' :) and 'real situations' means acted-out situations that look real. As to natural light, I do enjoy fooling around in the attic studio with speedlights but, well, yes, 'let's go outside' is more me.

So I know how I could sell more photos as stock but who am I as a photographer, apart from stock? Sometimes knowing who you are NOT is very helpful and I've learned that photography is not just about liking the subject; it's about YOUR personality and lifestyle. So, who are you? Do you recognise who you are - or who you're not? Feel free to add some categories in your comments!

Landscape Photographer

You rise at dawn, spend the day complaining about harsh light and too much sunshine, then come alive again during the twilight blue hour and into the night. People exist to show scale as 'figures in a landscape' and are of no interest in themselves. In fact, people are irritating and you prefer there to be no people at all. You love slow exposures. Tripod, patience and natural light are your tools. You're willing and able to hike to impossible places, carrying 50kg of gear, to get The Shot.

Check out these photographers for great landscapes (and more):-
David duChemin
Chris Hepburn
Ryerson Clark
Paula Connelly

Athabasca Glacier, Canadian Rockies 6 am

Night Photographer

You come out at night, seeking places that no sensible person would go in the dark. Your partner is used to you sneaking out of bed, throwing on some clothes and going out. He/she has given up telling you it is dangerous. Whether in mean streets or trackless wilderness, you wear a cloak of invisibility that, along with your tripod, protects you from violent lowlife, human or animal. Your exposures are so slow they make people disappear and only the essential remains. You love stars. You might even specialise in astral photography.

La Belle Vie

Landscape and night photographer Tommy Dickson said 'I love turning night into day.'

Wildlife Photographer

You have inhuman patience. You could watch a patch of grass all day because three years ago a rare insect was seen on that very spot. You are a stalker. You know your subject intimately; how it behaves, where it goes; its mating habits. You have a David Attenborough commentary going on in your head at all times. You are happy to get close-up and personal with creatures that have big teeth. You think photo manipulation is cheating. You need a telephoto lens that costs the price of a house. You can lose the hiking/carrying and financial requirements if you opt for the macro version and shoot tiny wildlife, close-up.

Finalists in Wildife Photographers of the Year 2016
Check out the wildlife photos (and more) by Guenter Gueni

Street Photographer

You have no scruples about shooting strangers' private moments in public places. You shoot fast and have an eye for composing a candid scene, capturing relationships, emotions and urban settings. Usually, nobody notices you sneaking photos but every now and then a subject looks at camera with a smile, or shock or indignation. You shoot with an unobtrusive prime, probably 35mm, and you like black and white processing.

Apart from the iconic Cartier Bresson, one of the most famous street photographers is Vivian Maier, the nanny, who perfected invisibility but whose photos were never seen until after her death. Modesty? Lack of money for prints? Or scruples about the strangers whose lives she presents?


You care passionately about human rights, the planet and freedom of information. You want everyone to know what's happening in 'the rest of the world' so you risk police harassment, even rape or murder to portray the truth. You started as a travel photographer but you left your viewers' armchair comfort zone and you want to change their attitudes, startle them, stir them into action. You carry two cameras, no tripod, and you like shutter priority - it's not a question of shooting fast, but rather of how fast you shoot. If you slow down, it's to photograph the people who ought to be in the news, not the people who are. Home can be boring.

Two outstanding photojournalists:-
Anna Puig Rosado
Lynsey Addario

Food Photographer

You buy vast quantities of cookbooks and food magazines for the photos. Eating is a pleasure and you see food as beautiful. An aubergine is sexy and you can see what colours would set it off to perfection. Your house is full of unmatched plates, cutlery, serviettes and other objects bought as food props. Your partner is trained to ask whether you have photographed an item of food before he risks your wrath by eating it. Outdoors/indoors; tripod/free-range; macro/telephoto lens; your choice. As long as you see food items as glamour models, you're a food shooter.

French buche de Noel / Christmas log

My food photography inspiration includes Kelly Cline, whom I met online thanks to istock, and Helene Dujardin (what a great name for a French food shooter!)

Studio Photographer

You're a perfectionist and control freak. There must be no light or shadow in your image but what you allowed and intended. You can shoot beautiful studio portraits but, if you're honest, people are a little difficult to control and what you like best is a perfectly lit product shot. Your studio does not only have lights and every kind of modifier known, including mirrors and gobos; it has a beam and rail systems. You know how to name and use every piece of technology you have and what you most want is a smoke machine. Your assistant takes his/her shoes off at the impeccably clean threshold and whispers while you work.

You know who you are :)

Portrait Photographer

You're a people person. You can make someone relax in front of a camera; talk, laugh, fool around. People trust you and show you who they are, who they want to be and then magic happens. A portrait is an interactive threesome and, unlike food or landscapes, the subject has opinions and can hate the photo. Relationships can hurt and if you don't know what the other person wants, you can both be disappointed; if you work together, you can have more fun than ought to be allowed when working. Studio or natural light; tripod or not; still or movement; your favourite portrait lens (mine's an 85mm f1.4) Just steal somebody's soul!

Check out the portraits (and more) taken by Richard Clark

Architecture Photographer

You get excited at diagonal lines and architraves. You have the urge to lie on your back and shoot a cupola or skyscrapers. Stairwells induce pleasure overload. You are THE mathematical photographer, always aware of symmetry and straight horizontals. If a human being is in front of you, what you see are circles, verticals and curves. Sorry, did it say something? Your weapon of choice is a tilt-shift lens but you'll settle for a wide-angle that doesn't vignette.

Ceiling, The Palace of Joy, Zaragossa

Fashion Photographer

Designer labels and colour co-ordination make your shutter-finger twitch. You know about handbags. Only young, beautiful people exist and you can charm them into impossible poses to show off the real subjects - clothes and accessories. Star-jumps on rooftops and clinging to a cliff-face are only some of your ideas to display voile floating. You are inseparable from your favourite stylist and make-up artist.

Check out three-times-winner of Malta's Fashion Photographer of the Year Kurt Paris , and stunning work from Nils Kahle

Sports Photographer

You don't just support one team; you support twenty and you know the rules of every game, underwater, over hurdles and in the sky. You love action, motion, effort and achievement, winning and losing. If it moves, you shoot it. You like panning, tracking and motion blur. Forget the tripod and sell the house for a super-fast telephoto lens.

Check out Charlie Mann's work.

Of course there are overlaps and specialisms within specialisms; timelapse, underwater, lo-fi, baby-mugging and Pellier Noir are just some that came up when I googled photography categories!

My photographic adventures in 2016 have included organising and shooting professional models in Paris with some amazingly talented photographer friends; giving a ten minute presentation on my work at a Getty Images event; and testing my landscape skills in Zaragossa, Northumberland and the Canadian Rockies. Next weekend I'm attending a portrait workshop with Anna Puig Rosado who lives only 30 minutes from me and is not only internationally respected as a photojournalist but also a warm, friendly person and a great teacher. Watch this space!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Moors who stayed; Zaragoza, Spain

Zaragoza: even the name sounds magical, a fantasy city, and the more I found out about its history, the more I needed to see its medieval treasures. What could stones and ceiling patterns tell me about the people who lived in this city a thousand years ago? About the little boy, Malik of the Banu Hud, heir to the throne of Zaragoza, whose life I wanted to understand as he grew to manhood? Was there a spirit of place?

Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar and the River Ebro

My guide books told me what to see and what to think, veiling me in a mental burka, but for this trip I was determined to see through the eyes of a 12th century Muslim growing up in the palace of his ancestors, the Kings of Zaragoza. The 12th century? Not to Muslims, for whom this was the 5th century in the Year of the Hijra.

Guide books make a big deal about freedom. Places are 'conquered' and 'liberated' but these are often words that can be interchanged, just by changing the point of view. Zaragoza's medieval citizens inherited the infrastructure left by the the Romans for whom it was Caesaraugusta. A city can have many names in its lifetime and each one is a layer of history and language. Caesaraugusta became Saraqusta (Moorish), then Zaragoza (Christian). A visitor is left in no doubt that this is an ancient city, dating back to about 25 BCE (to use the 'neutral' term for the year).

The Roman walls in central Zaragoza
After the Romans came the Visigoths, Then, for 300 years, Moors ruled the city and state of Zaragoza.

The building I had come to see was the Aljaferia, the only surviving example of a palace from the time of the Muslim Taifas (Kingdoms), legacy of the Moorish Banu Hud dynasty and Malik's childhood home. The oldest part dates from the 9th century and is known as The Troubadours Tower, which got my hopes up for a story - but no, the name was given much later, when the tower features in 'Don Quixote.'

The Aljaferia
In medieval times, the words Moor and Saracen were used, rather than Muslim, but the faith was implicit in those terms and explicit in the architecture of what became known as the Palace of Joy. This beautiful mihrab, a niche in the wall, was a focus for prayer in the same way as an altar in a Christian church.
The Moorish Oratory (Mihrab), the Aljaferia
Calligraphy had symbolic and religious importance equal to images in Christian churches, and quotations from the Koran were used as decor and inspiration. Just as medieval Christian scribes sometimes doodled marginalia in illuminated manuscripts, so did Moorish architects indulge in tongue-in-cheek comments chiselled in alabaster such as, 'Have you seen any mistakes?' as well as the more conventional, 'Allah be blessed.'

Late 11th century epigraphic fragment
The gardens of paradise are easier to imagine when you have visited earthly ones, with fruit trees and patterned paving. As in the Moorish gardens of the Alhambra, the water channels are carved in straight lines, ending in gentle water features, spouts and small fountains. In Moorish tradition, the water should bubble in the background and encourage meditation, not explode in high fountains Versailles-fashion.
Known since the 17th century as the Santa Isabella Courtyard, the garden was part of the earliest Taifa Palace
Malik would have eaten the fruit (oranges nowadays) in the gardens, run his fingers through the flowing water and washed his hands in preparation for prayer. He would have peeked through the windows and arches, watched the gatherings of learned Jews and Moors, heard the poetry, music and debates. Famous for its culture and sophistication, the Aljaferia was known as The Palace of Joy, from lines composed by one of its Moorish kings, Abú Yafar of the Banu Hud:-
O palace of joy! O hall of gold!
You embody my aspirations.

Historians might disagree about how happily Christians and Jews lived under Muslim rule in 12th century Spain but there is general consensus now that they socialised and traded together, and were all allowed to worship in their own faith. Christians and Jews paid a tax for the privilege. The city boasted a mosque, a synagogue and a church. What is now the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar was then only a small chapel, but it contained the same wooden Madonna on her jasper pillar (dating from the 1st century) and is believed to be the oldest church dedicated to Mary.

The River Ebro and view of the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar
Stone does speak. The keyhole/horseshoe arches 'typical' of Muslim Spain in fact developed from an architectural feature used previously by the (Christian) Visigoths. 

View into the Moorish Oratory, the Aljaferia

The ceiling decoration of the Muslim palace was replicated in the extension to the Aljaferia built by the Roman Catholic Kings who occupied it later, even to the repeated image of the pine cone and other Moorish symbols. 
Ceiling of the Catholic Kings' Throne Room
To build the cathedrals and churches to the glory of their god, these Christian kings employed Muslim architects and, whether you believe in any God or not, the glory of Moorish style in Christian Spain is undeniable. This is what gained World Heritage status for Zaragoza's medieval buildings; the combined vision of Christians, Muslims and Jews, expressed in stone and plaster. Examples of inter-faith collaboration are everywhere.
The ceiling of the 3rd Pacing Room of the Catholic Kings
(Note to self - I need more 'Pacing Rooms'!)
So how did that little boy lose his kingdom? Did crusading Christians destroy his family and his home? Far from it. Militant Muslims fresh from Africa swept through Spain, attacking the residents who had grown 'too tolerant', 'too integrated'. The Banu-hud could not hold their fortress against the the extremist Muslims and in 1110 CE, the Almoravids took the Taifa of Zaragoza for themselves, only to lose it eight years later to the Christian King of Aragon, Alfonso the Battler. 

Side door in the Catholic Kings' Throne Room
The real twist in the story is that the Moors who chose to stay in the new Christian Kingdom of Aragon were offered work, not just as architects and builders, not just as tradespeople, but as generals and soldiers for the King of Aragon. The Banu Hud were no longer kings but they still wielded power in the Iberian Peninsula. 

Such alliances were not new. Little Malik's grandfather fought alongside the grandfather of Aliénor (Eleanor) of Aquitaine and gave him a precious crystal vase, in token of friendship. The vase was given to Aliénor as a wedding present when she became Queen of France and can be seen today in the Louvre Museum.

Malik grew up to be a fictional character in my Troubadours series and I understand him so much better from seeing where he came from and what he lost. I know why he rode under Aragon's colours and was part of the political coup of the 12th century which united Barcelona and Aragon to form an unshakeable power in the north. Today, the city of Zaragoza is the capital of Aragon and hosts its Cortes (parliament) in the Aljaferia itself. I think that would make Malik smile. 

Room where the Cortes of Aragon meets
I wonder what stories the local children are told about the palace as it was in days gone by.

FREE! Song at Dawn, Book 1 of The Troubadours Quartet
'Believable, page-turning and memorable.' Lela Michael, S.P. Review
Winner of the Global Ebook Award for Best Historical Fiction 
1150: Provence
amazon link

On the run from abuse, Estela wakes in a ditch with only her lute, her amazing voice, and a dagger hidden in her underskirt. Her talent finds a patron in Aliénor of Aquitaine and more than a music tutor in the Queen's finest troubadour and Commander of the Guard, Dragonetz los Pros. 
Weary of war, Dragonetz uses Jewish money and Moorish expertise to build that most modern of inventions, a papermill, arousing the wrath of the Church. Their enemies gather, ready to light the political and religious powder-keg of medieval Narbonne. 
Set in the period following the Second Crusade, Jean Gill's spellbinding romantic thrillers evoke medieval France with breathtaking accuracy. The characters leap off the page and include amazing women like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Ermengarda of Narbonne, who shaped history in battles and in bedchambers.
'One of the best historical novels I've read in a long time.' Paul Trembling, Dragonslayer

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The loveable assassin - Glen Barrera

I admit to being intrigued by Glen Barrera, the man behind the assassin who can't dance, a man who routinely shoots people and blows them up. (Glen will smile at the deliberate ambiguity - he's a writer who notices nuances.) So who is he exactly?

Glen, a former partner in a real estate appraisal company, who still takes appraisal assignments from time to time, now writes. Over the years he's edited a company newsletter, written short stories (one a contest winner) and poetry. It wasn't until he divorced a few years ago, however, that he finally found time to take a writing course while working on his first novel. The Assassin Who Couldn't Dance and a follow-up novel, A Capable and Wide Revenge (now available), were tutored by Michael Mirolla, a published Canadian writer. He is now working on a third novel with the working title, Sweet Peach. Glen grew up in Chicago, with college at Western Illinois University, College of DuPage and the University of Illinois, Chicago. He studied Isshinryu Karate for fourteen years, sailed for seven years out of Burnham Harbor, practices Tai Chi and plays classical guitar. A Chicago boy at heart, he now lives in a western suburb.
You say you started writing classes after your divorce. Was the personal change a catalyst in looking at your professional future? Had you always wanted to write?
I believe the idea to write was an extension of the countless books I’d read, an “I can do that” mentality, whether for better or worse in actuality. My first novel was written in the 1980s, on an Underwood typewriter (yeah, carbon copy), with no recourse other than a full re-type if I screwed up after fifty pages and needed to correct a plot-point back at page twenty-five (I think I still have the rejection slips). With a wife, two children and a demanding career, however, writing had to take a back seat to life. I was still writing, but in a technical environment. But even before the divorce, I knew I wanted to write fiction again. Writing classes, then, were a natural progression, to get me back into the rhythm and structure of the story. So no, there were no ambitions to write as a professional – I simply wanted to write.      
I often wonder whether I could have written at all if I'd had to hand-write or type a manuscript - redrafting and edits would have been a nightmare!

I know that you care deeply about work being well-written and well-edited. What have you gained from writing classes? Would you recommend them? Do you still go?
Writing classes were the best prelude to writing fiction that I could imagine. I signed up with an internet class from Canada, twenty lessons, coached by a published Canadian writer. The later part of the lessons took me through most of my first novel. It wasn’t a “gravy” adventure with accolades galore for my brilliant writing. Instead, my tutor, serious about the craft of writing, had no problem in correcting my errant ways with countless raps on my knuckles with his five pound cyber ruler. It stings. 

After two years, with very sore knuckles and a humbled opinion of my genius, I learned. So yes, I recommend writing classes. Taped to my desk is a quote (from Quality of Course): “Nice writing isn’t enough. It isn’t enough to have smooth and pretty language. You have to surprise the reader frequently, you can’t just be nice all the time. Provoke the reader. Astonish the reader. Writing that has no surprises is as bland as oatmeal…” Now, rather than classes, I meet every week with a very talented writers group of seven, all working on novels. I can bring in my weeks’ worth of writing, six copies, and have everyone read, correct and comment. I still get rapped on the knuckles occasionally, only this time verbally. 

Hector is an endearing character (for an assassin :) ) How did you come up with the idea of 'the assassin who couldn't dance' (and of course a great title for the book. Did you know straight away that Hector would be such a key character?
The idea for Hector came about through my belief that a good person isn’t always good – and a bad person isn’t always bad. I had been reading any and all thrillers I could find at the time, and the plots became boringly consistent: the “good” guys always against the “bad” middle-eastern terrorists. I decided to bend the rule. I knew Hector would be a key character. From seven years old until the age of twenty-three, along with classroom studies he’d been taught to kill. His target being the U.S. Army officers responsible for the deaths of his father and brother. He didn’t have a choice. But with little social interaction during those years - friends never made and family hardly known - he is emotionally vulnerable as he sets out on his quest of vengeance. He asks himself at one point in the story: If his family had moved to the States sixteen years before, would he have a girlfriend now? Would he have learned how to dance? It was such an innocent query, so like the character, I decided to use it in the title.  

'A Capable and Wide Revenge' is another interesting title. How did you come up with this one?
It’s been a long time since I’ve read the complete works of Shakespeare, so I can’t say I remembered the line from Othello. But the quote I used (from Dictionary of Quotations by Bergen Evens), which reflected exactly what I had in mind, read: “Till that a capable and wide revenge swallow them up.” Shakespeare: Othello III.iii 

amazon link

Your thrillers detail special ops and Middle East politics. How do you get your background information? Or should I call it 'intel' :) ?
Most of the background information came from books, the internet, and two Marine vets with experience in Iraq. I probably went through four or five books relating to the Gulf War. The internet also offered a wealth of information. In the second book  A Capable and Wide Revenge  I used an armored Humvee, mounted with a 50 cal. machine gun. Not only were pictures plentiful for research, but videos of the Humvee with the machine gun in action came along as a nice bonus. Articles pertaining to political structure in Baghdad, street views, neighborhoods and militant groups were there for the taking. I’ll confess, I’ve taken many liberties with the truth in the course of my novels, but then again, I don’t feel I was too far from the actuality.  

Events in your novels seem to me to be mirrored in events that hit the news. Have you had a moment where you switched on the TV and there it was - your fictional story come to life?
Yes. The first book took place in 2006, the second in 2009. The destabilization and turmoil in Iraq, and its effects, were a given even as I wrote. With approximately one million (+) U.S. dollars funneled into Iraq each day, corruption was rife and militant groups controlled areas police were loath to enter. The U.S. pulled the last of its troops in December 2011, leaving a vacuum to be filled – and it was, as is apparent today. The geopolitical nature of the area would rule out a direct correlation to the Vietnam fiasco, but as a student of military history I’d have to quote Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Do you worry that your books might attract attention from terrorists or militant groups?
Not really. For the most part I try to be somewhat vague. In Capable and Wide, I noted actual names for the militant groups in and around Baghdad at the time, but the names I eventually used for my “bad guy” groups – Sword of the Righteous Lions and Green Shields of Allah – were made up, using bits and pieces of the others. I can’t get into too much trouble with that…I think (he said, looking over his shoulder).

What do you hope readers will get from reading your books?
My original theme was the relationship of family and friends within conflict, that they will support each other no matter the odds. But I found myself writing another theme as well – that is, everyone is searching for someone special to love, and when that love is found you don’t want to let it go. In The Assassin, Lucy and Hector/Morgan and Gil were looking for that love. In Capable and Wide, it was Wes Easterly, Darien and Colin, and even twelve-year-old Ashi who needed that special belonging. I guess I’ve always rooted for the underdog, faced-off against the bully that life, and people, can sometimes be.  

What are your future projects?
I’m currently working on a book titled, Sweet Peach. The first line of her introduction to the story is: Sweet Peach (yeah, momma was slugging beers right through the midwife’s delivery) stumbled out of her battered Honda Civic. 

The story takes place in Tennessee. Hector, Gil and Morgan, and the others will be back. It’s a bit different from the previous books that used Iraq as a backdrop. I’m currently working on some “bad guys” as worthy adversaries, of the drug-running, cartel type. This time they’re from Mexico. 

What are your own favourite books?Strangely, as I write fiction, many of my top picks are non-fiction. I’ve read The Outline of History by H.G. Wells (originally written in 1920, revised in 1976) three times. Not just for its historical significance, but for its literary elegance. H.G. is a great writer! In contrast, I finally read Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire three years ago. It was written (first volume) in 1776. The history is good for the period, imbued with the bias and prejudice of the time, but the writing tends to be stifled, flat, and exciting as year-old fruitcake (all the footnotes are in Latin, and even with my two years of study, plus copious notes taken from Google translation, I could only pick up about 60%). Of course, Tolkien is still a favorite. I re-read him every year or two. I’m currently reading a lot of Indie publications, and have found some very good writers. But as I read so many, I can’t recall the title of the book I read last week, or who wrote it. I could give a list of authors I like, but I’d likely leave someone out. 

What about the private Glen Barrera? What are your favourite activities apart from writing and reading? Can you dance?
Ha! Yes, I can dance fairly well. I also play classical and blues guitar (although, I don’t pick up my guitars as much as I used to). I sailed on Lake Michigan for a few years on a Rhodes 22 and a Seaward 26. Unfortunately, we had to sell the boat when my ex and I divorced. I still practice Karate kata (formalized movements like Tai Chi, but faster and with full force) and Tai Chi. I was in Florida this past November, staying with my sister who works with horses as a trainer/dressage teacher/coach. It’s been a long time since I’ve been on a horse, let alone one showing at a dressage-trained level. It was a very interesting experience, with riding nuances to boggle the mind. A new endeavor perhaps? 

Which question do you wish somebody would ask in interview?
Can you sing?
And the answer is?
Yes. I was a member of the Bogan (my Chicago High School) Boys Choir. Except, our “choir” relied on one of us getting dad’s car, getting an older guy to buy beer for the four or five of us, and then cruise around singing songs on the car radio (okay, and trying to pick up girls). 

The Assassin Who Couldn't Dance

The Story
Blue-eyed Hector Munoz (his present name) is fluent in five languages, can kill a man a hundred different ways and yet, at twenty-three had learned almost nothing about life and love. His father and brother were brutally murdered by corrupt U.S. military officers when he was seven. The teacher, a close friend of his father, took control of the boy’s life, as well as the future debt to be paid. Now, after years of rigorous training, the assassin is judged ready. But is he?

The plan to draw out the officers has been set into motion. Hector has only to illegally cross the border from Mexico and retrieve keys to safe deposit boxes containing eight-million dollars and incriminating documents before the officers can respond. It shouldn’t be a problem. But then Hector’s plan didn’t include Mexican bandits; ruthless mercenaries also after the keys and led by a sadistic cowboy; or a sleazy Chicago mob figure. Things get more complicated for him when a third party joins the search for the keys, the crazed leader of a militia group with a secret room in his basement reserved for “guests” – and then falling in love with an escaped guest, Lucy. Hector also didn’t realize that the mercenaries’ target, an ex-Force Recon team holding the keys and the last four men to see his father alive, were far from old and rusty.

In the race for the keys, Hector must confront the emotional emptiness in his life that he wasn’t allowed to experience in his quest for vengeance. With time running out, he is forced to make a choice: follow the assassination plan or ally with the surviving recon team, their families, and Lucy before they are eliminated; and, maybe discover who he really is.

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The Assassin Who Couldn't Dance 

My Review

Loyalty between friends in all-action special ops thriller
I was worried the book might be too violent for my taste but Glen Barrera's judgement stayed within what worked for me as part of a fast-paced all-action story. The opening scene is as violent as the book gets so that sets the tone - and gets you straight into the twists of the plot and some of the key players. If the guerilla warfare and killing can be gutsy, the romance is the opposite - tender and implicit.

What I think sets this at the top of its genre is the portrayal of loyalty and trust in the midst of warfare. We see traditional military values (and weapons) in the midst of criminal chaos and outright warfare and we care about this band of brothers. I want a new term to replace 'band of brothers' because what the author does really well is to include women as equals in that band. The links of loyalty and trust unite the whole group, with romances being more like special friendships within the overall bonds. Crime novels often show the bond between detective partners but this is the first book I've read which really shows group friendship in extreme duress. Imagine the Famous Five in the army, having adventures in which people are killed.

'The Assassin' and 'A Wide and Capable Revenge' give you no time to draw breath but across the two books the reader gets to know the characters more. The language is suitably muscular and when there is a little description, it always fits the scene and the characters - I'd enjoy more of that but then, I guess I'm reading out of my usual genre and I'm not used to all that gunfire!

Coming Soon! Twisted Tales

Glen and I will be keeping each other company in this collection of short stories from Readers' Circle of Avenue Park. The Burglar by Glen Barrera is about a burglar's chance meeting with a large unfriendly dog. My story The 13th Sign also features a dog of sorts... Perhaps Twisted Tails may be more appropriate. I'll keep you posted re publication as it looks like great holiday reading.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Barred in Paris

One of the treats for my big forthcoming birthday was to visit the photography exhibition in Paris: 'Qui a peur des femmes photographes' (Who's afraid of women photographers) The tongue-in-cheek reference to Virginia Woolf was echoed by a portrait of her mother, taken by one of the photographers featured. The hint of an allusion to the big, bad wolf was no accident either.

The exhibition challenged, informed and inspired me. We think our digital cameras are state-of-the-art but Kodak happily targeted the mass photographer market a hundred years ago with tag lines like 'You press the button; the camera does the rest'. Queen Victoria thought photography an appropriate hobby for ladies and as long as the ladies kept their cameras focused on family and flowers, everybody was happy. But women did not stay confined within their Brownie - or any other - Boxes. Nor did photography remain a bourgeois hobby. If you are lucky enough to see the exhibition, you'll find photography beyond gender as well as imagery exploring gender; from war journalism to smashed dolls.

Maybe the ghosts of Margaret Bourke-White, Lee Miller and Lisette Model whispered in my ear as I re-visited Paris. For many years, I have focused beyond the bars - made them disappear. If I didn't see them, they couldn't stand in my way. When I am described as a 'woman writer' or - ironically, in view of this wonderful exhibition - a 'woman photographer', bars are created. Is the glass ceiling there if I behave as if it's not? 

Self-portrait: Going through the glass ceiling
Even if the exhibition hadn't got me thinking about women's exclusion in the past from e.g. The National Geographical Society, being in a city always makes me feel constrained, regardless of gender. I love the explosion of culture and contrasts in cities - for a maximum of five days. Then the feeling of being trapped becomes too much for me. In Paris, this time, I let myself see the bars. Here are a small selection of the images and all twenty-six can be seen in my new gallery. 

Paris, the honeymoon city

Notre-Dame behind locks; Pont de l'Archevêché

Since 2010, the craze has spread for couples to declare their love by attaching a padlock (!) to a bridge and throwing the key into the Seine. I'd be tempted to throw the man in with it if he offered me such a 'romantic' gesture. Despite the removal of padlocks from one bridge, which was breaking under the weight, the craze continues and entire bridges are covered. Any railings are now starting to display padlocks. 

The Seine at Night

City gardens and parks are forbidding places behind their fences and walls, prohibitive signs and controlled access. Plants and flowers live behind bars.

This sign for 'Keep off the grass' reminds me of political posters protesting repressive regimes. But we are in France...

Don't Kill the Grass in Winter

Such signs arouse the instinctive rebel in me. Before I saw the 'Don't pee in public' sign, I never considered doing so.

The City and the City by China Miéville describes two cities occupying the same space, the inhabitants of one city pretending not to see the inhabitants of the other, and that dislocation is what I felt, sitting in a cosy bar, drinking a glass of wine, looking at this window. 

Nouvel Arrivage

You can see the whole gallery here in the Photography Galleries on my website. If you find my photos interesting, you can see a selection in my illustrated collection of shorts One Sixth of a Gill, free if you sign up for my newsletter. 

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