Monday, 1 December 2014

The Incubator Journal

My short story 'No Such Thing' appears in Issue 3 (December 2014) of The Incubator, another great literary journal, featuring writing from Northern Ireland and Ireland. Have a browse; the pdf version is free to download. I've enjoyed 'Sparta' by Heather Richardson and look forward to reading the rest when I receive my hard copy.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Crannóg 37

Delighted to see my short story 'Poke' in the autumn 2014 issue of Crannóg Magazine.

Great to read the other stories in this issue. There are some very talented writers out there. My favourite (so far) is 'Tomorrow' by Melissa Goode. Beautiful and intriguing cover image by Isabelle Gaborit.

Monday, 25 August 2014

RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition 2014

Writing news is trickling in at a slower pace these days as I'm sending out fewer stories and trying to concentrate on my next novel.

But one competition I did enter was the RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition 2014 and I was delighted to hear that my story, The Bugaboo, was on the longlist.

I was longlisted in 2013 too and wrote this piece for at the time. Unfortunately I won't be able to make it to Dublin this year but I'm sure the attendees will enjoy the day in Pearse Street Library as much as I did last year.

Monday, 7 July 2014

An Earthless Melting Pot

What a beautiful cover! Delighted to be part of this:

Another volume of prize-winning short stories from the Words with JAM BIGGER Short Story Competition 2013 is released ...
Judged by David Haviland (fiction agent for the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency), Polly Courtney (author of Feral Youth) and Susan Jane Gilman (author of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street), this second collection displays the talents of another up-and-coming group of new writers. 
A heady mixture of stories, from romance to spine-chilling tension and from the virtual world to the extreme worlds of the self-deluded, these stories will take you to places you’ve never been before. 
Longer stories are mixed with pieces of flash fiction. How long is a story? As long as it takes to tell it. This second volume of competition-winning stories proves the maxim once again. 
Stories and contributors include:
Advertisement by James Collett
Guests by Alison Wassell
A Lonesome Snow Leopard by David McGrath
The Clock by James Harding
Apprentice Pillar by Ralph Jackman
Recycled by Marie Gethins
Drop-Dead Gorgeous by Helen Laycock
The Road to Repair by Gail Jack
Street Kids Don't Have Birthdays by Gill Sainsbury
Sackcloth and Ashes by Justin N Davies
Beneath the Arches by Lindsay Bamfield
Biological by KM Elkes
Is There Anything You’d Like to Say to the Person Who Donated this Food Parcel? by James Collett
The Baron’s Elixir by Mahsuda Snaith
Let Me Pay by Bren Gosling
Symbiosis by Mark Wilkinson
99 Red Balloons by Barbara Leahy
Cockles by A.M. Hall
Mustard Heart by L.A. Craig
Tell Me a Secret by Alison Wassell
Your Account is in Arrears
Take Action Now by Justin N Davies
A Pointed Question by Brindley Hallam Dennis
Trumpet Dreams by Hilary McGrath
Little Legs by Julia Anderson.
Paperbacks are available from Amazon. Ebooks are available from Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords and other retailers.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Short Story: What Happened to Us by Dan Chaon

What Happened to Us by Dan Chaon

The Spring 2014 edition of Ploughshares Literary Magazine contains this gem: A story about Rusty Bickers and the family that takes him in as a foster child. Joseph is the narrator and is eight years old. Rusty is fourteen. We know little of what happened to Rusty before he arrived into Joseph’s home except a few hushed conversations between Joseph’s parents, where we hear that ‘unspeakable things… happened to Rusty in his family home,' and Joseph’s mother's comment, ‘How long does it take to get over something like that?’

Rusty does talk to Joseph about his past at one stage:

‘Do you know what would happen if a kid like you got sent to a foster home?’

‘No.’ And Joseph breathed as Rusty’s eyes held him, without blinking.

‘They do really nasty things to the little kids. And if you try to scream, they put your own dirty underwear in your mouth, to gag you.’

Although Rusty's past was disturbing, we follow his summer in Joseph's home with a little optimism. We are lulled into the meandering narrative, peppered with humour, especially when Joseph’s father dances with his prosthetic arm.

‘After he got drunk, Joseph’s father would go around touching the ladies on the back of the neck with his hook, surprising them, making them scream. Sometimes he would take off his arm and dance with it.'

But this humour is followed by raw understated emotion:

'Sometimes he would cry about Billy Merritt.’

The story contains some great descriptive passages.

‘Rusty…watching Joseph’s family as they ate their breakfast, his shaggy hair hanging lank about his face, his long arms dangling from slumped shoulders, his eyes like someone who had been marched a long way to a place where they were going to shoot him.’

The story gets progressively more disturbing as the summer passes and we sense that Rusty is a deeply troubled teenager.

‘You could kill the little kids first, while they were sleeping. It wouldn’t hurt them, you know. It wouldn’t mattter. And then, with the gunshots, your mom and dad would come running in, and you could shoot them when they came through the door…’

An excellent and enjoyable story.

Dan Chaon is the author of the short-story collection Stay Awake, the novel Await Your Reply and other works of fiction. He lives in Cleveland.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Authors in France: Amanda Hodgkinson

 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

In the small village of Labatut Rivière in the lovely south west of France a group of readers and writers welcomed Amanda Hodgkinson, author, to talk about her first novel: 22 Britannia Road.
In preparation, I did some strenuous research on my sunlounger...
Here's the blurb:
It is 1946 and Silvana and eight-year-old Aurek board a ship that will take them from Poland to England. Silvana has not seen her husband Janusz in six years, but, they are assured, he has made a home for them in Ipswich.

However, after living wild in the forests for years, carrying a terrible secret, all Silvana knows is that she and Aurek are survivors. Everything else is lost. While Janusz, a Polish soldier who has crisscrossed Europe during the war, hopes his family will help him put his own dark past behind him.

But the war and the years apart will always haunt each of them, unless together they confront what they were compelled to do to survive. 

Amanda read an extract from the points of view of the three main characters and I enjoyed (as she suggested everybody does) being read to in the glorious sunshine with a glass of rosé and only next door’s cockerel to punctuate the silences.
Then Amanda spoke about her motivation for writing the book - her attempt to capture something of  the relationships between families who were separated during the war and, although reunited, are never the same.

The discussion then moved on to her journey to publication: One query letter (I said 'one' there in case you missed that), several bids which led to an auction, and the novel went straight onto the New York Times bestseller list. A dream for many, but good to hear it can, and does, happen.
Amanda's second novel Spilt Milk was released earlier this year and has been very well received:
'Hogkinson's second novel is simply but elegantly written, its subtle charms emerging as her gentle, bittersweet story shows history repeating itself over the generations' Sunday Times

She also spoke about the Grand Central, an anthology to be released in July which sounds very intriguing:

Now, ten bestselling authors inspired by this iconic landmark have created their own stories, set on the same day, just after the end of World War II, in a time of hope, uncertainty, change, and renewal...

 Thanks to Jane who hosted the lunch in her beautiful garden. I returned home with garden envy and road-to-publication envy. But it was an enjoyable day and great to meet so many book lovers.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Creative Writing: Robert Olen Butler

Creative Writing: A Spectator Sport

I came across this video by Robert Olen Butler on youtube, published in Oct 2012, the first in a series. He is attempting to capture his creative process for an audience and it's fascinating viewing. He uses an old postcard as a prompt and we watch and listen as he tries to articulate the reasons for the choices he makes without becoming too analytical which would impede on the dreamlike state he needs to preserve. I found it interesting that he collects old postcards for the messages written on them, and how he tries to imagine the person who wrote that card.

I noted that he uses a dictionary which references the date the word came into use. When he checked the word 'shimmied' in relation to a horse, he found that it was first included in the dictionary in 1919, but, as he was writing a story set in 1913, he couldn't use that word.

I recommend watching these if you have quite a bit of spare time, but beware there are no action scenes (unless you count when he reaches for the dictionary), just a writer sitting and tapping the keyboard, then the backspace key, then stretching and re-reading what he's written.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Short stories: ‘The China Factory’ by Mary Costello

'The China Factory’ by Mary Costello

This collection of short stories, published by The Stinging Fly, really drew me in. The first story, The China Factory, and the last, The Sewing Room, are beautiful pieces. But there is plenty to recommend in between: The Patio Man, And who will pay Charon, and Little Disturbances being worthy of mention.

The China Factory features Gus, the main character's co-worker, who gives her a lift to work every day. He’s a quiet hero and she betrays him, but he understands that she’s young and desperate to fit in with the other women, even if she has nothing in common with them. 

'She was the kind of girl who wore flesh-coloured tights and pencil skirts but never jeans, and would grow into the kind of woman I never wanted to be.'

The Sewing Room is an elegant story, which fits perfectly with the main character’s comportment. It recounts the build-up to a schoolteacher's retirement party. While she accepts everyone's best wishes she is also considering her past mistakes. A slow-moving and evocative story.

I like that the first story is about a young girl starting in her first job and the last story is a woman retiring after many years of service.

In many of these stories there is a note of loneliness, especially within married couples: A husband reminiscing on an affair he had with a girl when he was school inspector; a wife, bored in her relationship, having an online affair; a husband waiting for the results of medical tests, unable to express his feelings. Quite a sad reflection on married life.

Although the characters are normal, almost banal, there is disease, rape, death lurking in the background. 

This collection is a treasure trove to be dipped into and savoured. Mary Costello has a light touch and an uncomplicated, understated way of telling a story.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Creative Process Blog Tour

The Creative Process Blog Tour

Thanks to Paula McGrath for nominating me to answer some questions on the creative process.

What am I working on?

Well-travelled - A short story collection: From the backpacker to the business traveller, from the child of diplomat parents to the retired couple touring in their campervan, I’ve been chipping away at about fifteen stories for the past six months and they’re currently reposing in a virtual drawer.

New novel: I’ve been plotting and planning and trying to gather inchoate notions of characters and settings for my nameless new novel. This is the creative stage of the writing process that I love. So these mornings I jump out of bed (something I’m not too well-known for) to get back to it. I hope to write the first draft (and give it a working title) over the summer.

I’m also working on all the little things writers have to do that take insane amounts of time - submitting my completed novel, Lost in Lourdes, to agents and editors, researching writing competitions and literary magazines, devouring all the information I can about the craft and business of writing (and not getting too distracted on Twitter.)

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I haven’t really figured out my genre. I guess every author’s voice is different though, and I have been told in my writers’ group that a certain turn of phrase is ‘typically Hilary’, so although I can’t define my voice I know others can hear it.

Why do I write what I do?

Although novels were my first love, I started writing short stories and flash fiction as a way of gaining some real critique on my writing. I soon came to love reading and writing short fiction.
I feel I have the freedom as an emerging writer to choose whatever form or style or subject-matter I want. I mostly write for myself, usually to just try to make sense of the world.

The books I’ve read and loved recently include Gone Girl, Apple Tree Yard, Transatlantic, The Luminaries, The Goldfinch and Frog Music. It’s difficult to say what these books have in common (apart from the fact that they’ve all been nominated for literary prizes) but I would like to write like that.
How does my writing process work?
Here’s a picture of my attempt to follow the subplots in my new novel. I began with normal-sized cards but I was adding too much detail, so I had to cut the cards to small pieces. I still managed to cram each with barely decipherable scrawl.

My writing process really consists of sitting down every day and trying to progress on one project or another depending on real and self-imposed deadlines. If my concentration is waning, I push myself to complete the task quickly (because a first draft is easier to revise than a blank sheet of paper) and then punish myself with forty lashes or some housework. 

Who I nominate next...

I’d like to ask the same questions of KM Elkes @mysmalltales and Geoff Holder @geoffholder58 (update: here it is) and look forward to reading how they work.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Writing Contests: On The Premises Magazine

On The Premises is a web-based fiction magazine. New issues are published every four months. 
A rarity in the world of writing competitions: there are no fees, yet winners receive cash prizes in addition to exposure through publication.

They also provide a free critique to any contestant whose entry makes the top ten but doesn’t get published.

As well as the main contests (see below) there are mini-contests for anyone who has signed up for their newsletter. The current mini-contest #No. 23 is entitled ‘It Was the Best of Prose, It Was the Worst of Prose.’

There is an interesting article in the newsletter which conveys the concept of using the right prose for the right content. You should sign up for the newsletter if only to read this article, which is insightful.

The competition asks to write two very short pieces of prose, each one between 10 and 25 words. The first 10-25 word piece should use TERRIBLE prose that ruins what the content is trying to convey. The second one should be a dramatically improved version of the first piece that is also 10-25 words long but uses much better prose that enhances the content's inherent power.

I have been enjoying this challenge. It’s a great learning tool - deliberately searching for the wrong way to convey the story and then aiming to improve the same few lines to produce a better version. I’m looking forward to reading the winning pieces.

The closing date is 30/4/14 so there’s still time to enter. Sign up for the newsletter here.


Here’s the main contest:

Contest #23 officially launched on March 9, 2014. Its premise is


One or more characters face an especially difficult decision. Whether readers would find the decision difficult will have no effect on how the story is rated. What matters is whether at least one of the story's more important characters finds the decision difficult.

As usual, any genre except children’s fiction, exploitative sex, or over-the-top gross-out horror is fine.

Your challenge: In at least 1,000 but no more than 5,000 words, write a creative, compelling, and well-crafted story that clearly uses the “Decisions, Decisions” premise. If you have questions, ask us at

Deadline: 11:59 PM Eastern Time, Friday, May 30, 2014.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Review: 'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt

Here’s the blurb

‘Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. He is tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and down the years clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld. As he grows up, Theo learns to glide between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love - and his talisman, the painting, places him at the centre of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present-day America and a drama of enthralling power. Combining unforgettably vivid characters and thrilling suspense, it is a beautiful, addictive triumph - a sweeping story of loss and obsession, of survival and self-invention, of the deepest mysteries of love, identity and fate.’

Pure entertainment

This is a door-stopper of a book at 700+ pages. A greatly entertaining story, I was bereft when I finished and couldn’t choose another book to read for days. Well-deserving of all the accolades.

Well-drawn characters

Theo, his mother, Boris, Hobie, Xandra and Andy are all memorable characters and kept me turning the pages - from Andy's drawling voice telling us about his dislike of boats, to Hobie's stilted and formal manner of speaking. The only character I never got to like or care for was Pippa, but she was off-the-page almost all the time.

Theo’s mother has a strong voice although she is dead from the beginning. When she relates the history of the painting in the museum we are drawn to love it. We see the bird and its chain, and the history of the painting, and want to protect it.

Great settings

I have to say I’m a sucker for great settings. I loved the New York in this book - the restaurants, cafés, parks and museums. Las Vegas was first introduced by the bling, the strip, the cliché, but we were brought with Theo to the suburbs and saw a side of Las Vegas rarely written about.

Hobie’s antique shop is vividly depicted. I can smell the antiques, the wood, the oils. The Barbour’s luxurious apartment on 5th avenue contrasted well with Theo's own New York home.

The devil is in the detail

Although there are sections of this novel that are arguably too detailed and unnecessarily long (the first time Theo gets really drunk in Vegas and does a lot of  stupid things, or the long bus journey with the Popper, the dog), this is a novel that draws you in and you accept the detail because that was what was important to Theo.

There is, however, a long epilogue that felt too preachy and I felt the book would have been better without it, but overall I was entertained and drawn into Theo’s world. I despaired at the hand life had dealt him.

 A wonderful novel to get your teeth into. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2014. Bravo Donna Tartt.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Longlisted: Fish Flash Fiction Prize


The winning stories of the Fish Flash Fiction Prize 2014 were announced this week and I was pleased to see my story 'Baobab' on the longlist. Thank you to the judge, Glenn Patterson, and to Fish Publishing.

Fish Publishing

From the Fish Publishing website:
'Publisher of over 400 emerging authors and poets since 1994 in The Annual Fish Anthology.

Fish is an open door that's inviting writers to walk through it.It has to be encouraged, celebrated, congratulated. - RODDY DOYLE -
Fish is doing God's own work.
It's an inspiration and an avenue to writers everywhere.

I hail anyone who enters the Fish Prize . . . It is difficult to create from dust.
I know that the best stories are those that are still untold -
so keep writing, keep creating, keep the faith.

The Flash Fiction Prize

The flash fiction contest is very popular - there were 1,250 entries submitted in total.

The challenge: 'to create, in a tiny fragment, a completely resolved and compelling story in 300 words or less.'

The authors of the first ten stories have been invited to read at the launch of the anthology during the West Cork Literary Festival in July. I hope they enjoy West Cork. Last time I was there I stayed in Durrus, home of Fish!

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Review: ‘Five Star Billionaire’ by Tash Aw

‘Five Star Billionaire’ by Tash Aw

Here’s the blurb:

'In the Man Booker prize-longlisted ‘Five Star Billionaire’ Tash Aw charts the overlapping lives of migrant Malaysian workers, forging lives for themselves in sprawling Shanghai.

Justin is from a family of successful property developers. Phoebe has come to China buoyed with hope, but her dreams are shattered within hours as the job she has come for seems never to have existed. Gary is a successful pop artist, but his fans and marketing machine disappear after a bar-room brawl. Yinghui has businesses that are going well but must make decisions about her life. And then there is Walter, the shadowy billionaire, ruthless and manipulative, ultimately alone in the world.

In ‘Five Star Billionaire’, Tash Aw charts the weave of their journeys in the new China, counterpointing their adventures with the old life they have left behind in Malaysia. The result is a brilliant examination of the migrations that are shaping this dazzling new city, and their effect on these individual lives.'

Fast-paced, breathtaking

I was surprised and delighted by this book. Tash Aw's writing style is elegant, yet fast-moving and modern. This is a novel that sparkles.


Themes of loneliness, ambition, success and tragedy are threaded through the inter-connecting stories. Most of the characters are struggling to climb to the top of the ladder and struggling to stay there. The author imagines the difficulty of being a woman in modern China as well as the despair of a successful pop star on the way out.


From tiny villages in Malaysia to luxury spas in Shanghai, from a dilapidated hotel in Malaysia to the slums in suburban Shanghai, from pineapple stalls near Singapore to lonely hotel rooms in Taiwan, the settings in this novel are exotic and unique. I'd love to visit modern China after reading this. Failing that I would like to read more from this author.


I listened to this as an audiobook and felt it was hard to follow at times. As the pace is quite fast, I felt the need to flick back to check which character was which. I would highly recommend this in hard copy/e-book format.


Tash Aw is the author of two previous novels, 'The Harmony Silk Factory', winner of the Costa First Novel Award and a Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Novel, and 'Map of the Invisible World'. He was born in Malaysia and now lives in London.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Contemporary French Lit: ‘Bernard’ by David Foenkinos

Contemporary French Literature

‘Bernard’ by David Foenkinos is a slim French novel. In fact, fooled by the unorthodox format, I’m not sure it can even be called a novel. A novella, then.
The story begins with Bernard returning to live with his parents after he splits up with his wife. At the age of fifty he finds himself in his childhood bedroom, falling in with his parents’ rules. We find out how he ended up there: He had an affair. His wife threw him out.
He realises that he’s gradually losing contact with his daughter. He tries to reconnect with her through facebook, a rather creepy episode that doesn't show him as a sympathetic character, although that was perhaps the author's intention.
Living with his parents is difficult. They treat him like he’s still a teenager. Then they try to set him up with a divorcee.
‘Bernard’ is a pleasant and easy read, although I didn’t feel much empathy with any of the characters. There was a certain lightness about the story, as if it wasn’t taking itself that seriously. Plenty of humour in there that had me chuckling, especially as he reverts to the behaviour of his teenage self.
Bernard, although only concerned with himself, manages to shake up his parents’ lives too and causes them to make changes themselves that are well overdue.
Find out more about David Foenkinos here.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Short Story: 'The Fjord of Killary' by Kevin Barry

'The Fjord of Killary' is one of the stories in the 'Dark Lies The Island' collection by Kevin Barry.

Originally published in the New Yorker, read the story online here.

‘So I bought an old hotel on the fjord of Killary.’

A great opening line that draws us right into this story. Caoimhin wants to escape the city and buys a hotel in the west of Ireland, a place with an interesting history, and hopes it will inspire him to write poetry again.
‘All of my friends, every last one of them, said, “The Shining.”
'But I was thinking, The West of Ireland . . . the murmurous ocean . . . the rocky hills hard-founded in a greenish light (the light of a sad dream) . . . the cleansing air . . . the stoats peeping shyly from gaps in the drystone walls . . . '

But it doesn't inspire him. Instead he grows to despise his customers in the bar and dreams of escaping elsewhere. This story takes place on the night the ‘gibbering Atlantic’ looks like it's going to flood the hotel.

Although Caoimhin himself is a bit of a bore, his customers are varied and typical. The conversations of the locals in the pub, from the undertaker to the retired lorry driver, give a realistic insight into the rural psyche in the west of Ireland.

Caoimhin tries to engage in discussions but is magnificently ignored. The staff, all Belorussians, won't let him forget he's paying them minimum wage. The disco that follows the rising water is vividly portrayed: We can imagine the old ballroom, the dusty corners and the disco lights as the water rises up the stairs.


Barry's genius must lie in the authentic dialogue. The voices of his customers make the stories more gritty, more real.

The primary interest of these people’s lives is how far one place is from another, and how long it might take to complete the journey, given the state of the roads. They make a geography of the country by the naming of pubs:

“Do you know Madigan’s in Maynooth?"
"I do, of course.”
“You’d take a left there.”“I have you now.”

 Bill worked in haulage as a young man and considers himself expert.

“I don’t know, Bill,” I said.
“Would we say an hour twenty if you weren’t tailbacked out of Newport?”
“I said I really don’t fucking well know, Bill.”
“There are those’ll say you’d do it in an hour.” He sipped, delicately. “But you’d want to be grease fuckin’ lightnin’ coming up from Westport direction, wouldn’t you?”

 They like to criticise and discuss their neighbours.
 “Fuckers are washin’ diesel up there again,” John Murphy said. “The Hourigans? Of course, they’d a father a diesel-washer before ’em, didn’t they? Cunts to a man.”
“Cunts,” Bill Knott confirmed.

Kevin Barry certainly has a way with language. The west has ‘disgracefully gray skies' and the 'gibbering Atlantic.'
'The last of the evening light was an unreal throb of Kermit green.'
 'Seven sheep in a rowing boat were being bobbed about on the vicious waters of Killary. The sheep appeared strangely calm.'

A dark humour runs throughout the story, fierce honesty amid the tragedy and we can but laugh or we’d cry.
'It was by now a hysterical downpour, with great sheets of water steaming down from Mweelrea, and the harbor roared in the fattening light. Visibility was reduced to fourteen feet. This all signalled that the West of Ireland holiday season had begun.'   

'This, by the way, was the Monday of the May bank-holiday weekend. Killary was en fête. Local opinion, cheerfully, was that it had been among the wettest bank holidays ever witnessed.'

'I always tended bar in the evenings. I’d had a deranged notion that this would establish me as a kind of charming-innkeeper figure. This was despite the fact that not one but two ex-girlfriends (both of them, admittedly, sharp-tongued academics) had described my manner as “funereal.”'

The author

Kevin Barry is a bit of an oul' character himself. I went to see him last year at the Cork Short Story Festival where he presented the Faber anthology which he edited: 'Town & Country: New Irish Short Stories.' Remarkably down-to-earth, considering he also won the 2013  International Impac Dublin Literary Award for his novel 'City of Bohane', he advised us to 'go home to your tea, now' to close the event.
A good interview with him on Irish Writers in America, in which he describes Ireland as 'a wet, tormented little rock,' can be viewed here.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Review: 'The Three Musketeers' by Alexandre DUMAS

Statue of D'Artagnan in Auch, Gers

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre DUMAS

Written in serialised form in 1844, and set around 1625 in the France of Louis XIII, Louis XIV, Anne of Austria and bishop Richelieu, Les Trois Mousquetaires is a story of adventure that still delights and entertains. Although historically inaccurate in places, it is rich in colour and atmosphere, full of witty dialogue and drama. It is the first in a trilogy about D’Artagnan (other books are Twenty Years After, and The Vicomte de Bragelonne).

D’Artagnan is a brave but temperamental Gascon who makes his way to Paris on a yellow horse, encountering adventures on the way. He provokes duels with each of the three musketeers - Athos, Porthos and Aramis - when he first meets them in Paris. However they join forces to fight the bishop’s guards and forget their differences and become friends. D'Artagnan dreams of joining the Musketeers - the King’s guards -  and is finally admitted to the Musketeers at the Siege of La Rochelle. D'Artagnan also falls in love with Madame Bonacieux and embarks on a quest to save her, a quest which takes him to England and back, and which also saves Queen Anne of Austria’s reputation.

Les Trois Mousquetaires first appeared in serialised form in 1844

A Gascon

Dumas’ genius must lie in the characters he creates. Like Dickens, his characters attract and hold our interest and D’Artagnan remains one of the most well-known and well-loved characters of all time. Much is made of the fact that D'Artagnan is a Gascon.

He had the power of seeing in the night:

‘It is said that the eyes of Gascons, like those of cats, have the faculty of seeing in the night. D’Artagnon was able to see therefore…’

He was proud:

‘Proud as a Scotchman, muttered Buckingham. ‘And we,’ answered d’Artagnan, say ‘proud as a Gascon’. The Gascons are the Scotchmen of France.’

And crafty:

‘Imagine Don Quixote at eighteen; Don Quixote without his corselet, without his coat of mail, without his cuisses, a Don Quixote clothed in a woollen doublet… face long and brown, high cheek bones, indicating craftiness, the maxillary muscles enormously developed, an infallible sign by which a Gascon may always be detected even without his cap…’

 And brave:
‘Our brave Gascon has just shown himself as brave and as faithful as ever.’

D’Artagnan was clever enough to be able to read people just by looking at the countenance of those he encountered:

‘It was not a landlord this time but a landlady who received him. D’Artagnan, being somewhat of a physiognomist, examined at a glance the fat and good-humoured face of the mistress of the place. This glance satisfied him that dissimulation was not necessary with her and that he had nothing to fear from such a happy-looking countenance.’


Women in Dumas' world could be weak, powerful,  cunning, charming, vindictive, and capable of sorcery.

‘There was an understanding between this lady and Porthos. If she was a lady of quality she would have fainted, but, as she was only a solicitor’s wife, she contented herself with saying in a concentrated rage…’

‘The enchantress had resumed that magic charm which she took up and laid aside at pleasure, that is to say beauty, softness, tears and above all the irresistible attraction of that mystical voluptuousness which is the most irresistible of all kinds of voluptuousness.’

‘Her ladyship wished to please the Abysse and this was a very easy task for a woman so truely superior. She endeavoured to be amiable and became charming so that her entertainer was seduced by her varied conversation as well as by the grades which appeared in all her person.’

I'm particularly amazed at this feisty lady:

'Athos examined it (the ring) and became very pale. He then tried it on the ring finger… A shade of anger and revenge passed across the generally calm forehead of the gentleman.

She turned, no longer like a mere furious woman, but like a wounded panther.

‘Ah, wretch,’ said she, ‘you have betrayed me like a coward, and, moreover, you have learned my secret. You must die.’

And she ran to an inlaid cabinet on her toilet table, opened it with a feverish, trembling hand, drew from it a small dagger with a golden hilt and a sharp and slender blade and returned with one bound to the side of d’Artagnan, her vesture in pieces. Although the young man was, as we know, brave, he was frightened at that convulsed countenance, at those horrible dilated pupils, at those pale cheeks and bleeding lips. He arose and recoiled as from the approach of a serpent that had crawled towards him and, instinctively putting his perspiring hand to his sword, he drew it from the sheath. But…. her Ladyship still advanced to strike him.

Her Ladyship was rushing at him in horrible transports of rage and howling in a fearful manner…’

The English

Dumas manages to slip in a few amusing digs at English food:

‘The English, who above all things require to be well-fed in order to prove good-soldiers, eating only salted provisions and bad biscuits, had many invalids in their camp.’

And comments on the weather in England:

‘It was one of those few and fine summer days when Englishmen remember that there is a sun.’



Proper sustenance is critical for the French, even in the midst of battle:

‘We are four against one... about to be engaged to a far greater amount of foes…. How many persons? Twenty men. How far off are they? About 500 paces. Good, we have still time to finish this fowl and to drink a glass of wine. To your health, d’Artagnan!’

The musketeers even ask the enemy to hold off the battle until after breakfast:

‘Gentlemen, we are some of my friends and myself engaged in breakfasting in this bastion. Now you know that nothing is more disagreeable than to be disturbed at breakfast, so we entreat of you… to wait until we have finished our repast or to come back in a little while unless… and coming to drink with us to the health of the King of France.’

Loose ends

The story in this book meanders and detours. Some of the loose ends are conveniently tied up, like where her Ladyship might be found. The name of the town they will later need to locate actually falls out of someone's hat:

‘Hello sir. Here is a paper which fell out of your hat. Hello sir, hello.’

‘My friend,’ said d’Artagnan, ‘half a pistole for that paper.’

‘With the greatest pleasure, here it is.’

D’Artagnan unfolded the paper. Only one word…the name of a town… Armentieres…. is written in her hand… let us take great care of this paper…’

Her Ladyship decides to wait for the cardinal’s orders in a convent, which also happens to be the convent where Madame Bonacieux is being held:

‘I am proceeding to the Carmelite convent at Bethune where I shall await your orders.’

'All for one and one for all'

The famous slogan is only referred to once in the book, although there are many duels and shows of bravery.

Some of the pleasure in reading this book is the fact that the real D’Artagnan (Charles de Batz de Castelmore d'Artagnan)  on whom Dumas based his character, came from Lupiac, a village in Gascony. So, whilst reading the book, I paid a visit to the Musée D'Artagnan in Lupiac and was transported to the 17th century. It was easy to imagine the proud D’Artagnan,  leaving the area as a boy and returning many years later leading the King’s guard. The entourage travelled through France and Gascony on the way to St Jean de Luz where Louis XIV wed Marie-Thèrese of Austria.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

French food served in a gamelle

Gamelle: Lunch pail; mess tin; billy can

Although I picked up this red gamelle in an antique fair a few years ago I didn't ever expect to actually eat from one. I mean, a million years ago, Laura Ingalls took her lunch to school in one, but I didn't think you'd find them in use anywhere anymore. Apparently you put the soup in the bottom section and the bread and sundry items in the top.

Dining in Pau, Pyrénées-Atlantiques

On Friday last we dined in Restaurant Le Pilota in Pau. It's situated in the sports' complex, overlooking the pelote basque courts (although they were preparing for a badminton tournament at the time.) The setting is modern and chic but the food is traditional.

La Musette du Jour

I ordered the set menu (served weekday lunchtimes, it consists of a starter, a main, a dessert, a 1/4 bottle of wine and a coffee - all for 13 euro) and the waiter arrived with my lunch bag and hung it over the back of my chair.

Opening it up it revealed the lunch pail, the wine, a bread roll, a couple of slices of saussisson, a Paris-Brest in tinfoil.


The first tier contained the starter - a slice of quiche...

...the second revealed the main course - hake and king prawns in creamy sauce...

... and the third, cauliflower and cheese,  although I'd lost the run of myself at that stage and forgot to take any more photos. Sorry!

Worth swinging by - all was delicious.

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