A short break in Tuscany – Part One

Last week, my husband, younger son and I took a short break in a small town called Gallicano, in Tuscany. Our main reason for going was because my current WIP is set in that area, and I wanted to get the ‘feel’ of the place. As we only live a 4-hour drive away, it seemed the perfect opportunity for a holiday!

Even though I’ve been living in Italy for 27 years, I’ve never been to Tuscany before and I was interested to see if it is as beautiful as they say it is. The answer is yes. I love the mountains anyway, and these are incredible.

We stayed in a small residence, just 3 individual apartments with an outside area to relax in. The best thing was waking up early in the morning and seeing the mist-covered mountains, partially in sunlight and partially in shadow. It was truly magical.

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On our first afternoon there, we decided to go for a gentle stroll around Gallicano. The gentle stroll turned into a strenuous walk up the steep streets, but the view when we got to the top was worth it! There we found a church, La Chiesa di San Jacopo, built back in the 11th century, an imposing building with an overgrown graveyard. We even found a Weeping Angel hidden in the long grass! Needless to say, the church and graveyard will be featuring in a future book!

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We finally made our way to a lovely restaurant called Eliseo, run by an Italian and his English wife. Great food, great wine, and a friendly atmosphere – perfect after all that walking. And an ice-cold glass of cream of limoncello on the house to finish off a tiring but exhilarating day.

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Next: La Grotta del Vento – The Wind Cave.

 

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Why I won’t be in a hurry to ask bloggers to review my book in the future

 

All writers know that they mustn’t respond to negative reviews on Amazon, in public forums, or on other sites, we must just bite our tongues and move on. But then I read an article by another author who found himself in my same position, and allowed himself the freedom of his own blog to write his feelings about the situation. And I thought, what a great idea! My blog, my space, my chance to answer. So here goes:

When I released my debut novel, Walls of Silence, I read that one of the best ways to get publicity was to ask bloggers to read and review it. After asking several, I found a blogging team willing to help out. I sent off my copies to two reviewers, happy that my book was finally going to get some exposure.

What I didn’t expect was the hurtful negativity that came out of the experience, and the way that it would have such an effect on my book.

Don’t get me wrong. I know my book isn’t perfect, I don’t expect glowing reviews from everyone, but I certainly didn’t expect the sort of reaction I got. The first reviewer wrote every detail, every plot twist, everything that might surprise the reader, in their review. Which went up on Amazon. Not the end of the world, but as a reader, I like a few surprises…knowing exactly what happens in the book isn’t really what I want to see. Never mind. But while the review had many positive points, the negatives seemed to outweigh them by far. And the comment ‘I am afraid I could no longer suspend my disbelief at this point; I thought of at least three more convincing ways to end the Matteo section even as I was reading it’ could have been avoided, in my opinion. I wrote the book, I included a scene that was full of adrenaline, cars racing through the deserted streets of Milan at the dead of night while it was pouring with rain – I had so much fun writing that scene, and I have had no complaints about it. On the contrary, people have told me how they have sweated reading it, wondering how it was all going to end. Yes, I could have written other endings – if you like boring and mundane. I don’t.

And this comment, about a drug scene: ‘I suspected that Ms Pryke knew little about her subject at this point.’ You’re right, I have never taken drugs in my life, I used my imagination to write that scene, and the only thing I got wrong was the type of drug Maria took.

At least the second reviewer didn’t give away the entire plot, but they had problems with my pacing. ‘I love Prologues and this one was strong…But then the abrupt change to Maria’s story; the flashback, left me a bit stranded. I kept wanting to know the reactions of both Pietro and Antonella…I have to be honest though; I’m not at all sure how else the author could have written it.’ Thank you, you wanted me to add something, and even you could not imagine how to accomplish it. So why mention it? And 160 pages of adrenaline-filled scenes on every page is hard for any writer to maintain, and for any reader to cope with, I imagine.

But what hurt the most was a comment I found today, agreeing with the reviewer’s point that ‘Part of the proceeds from this book will go to a women’s centre in the UK. This kind of statement always gives me a problem; I feel guilty if I don’t rate the book higher.’ The comment seems to imply that I am playing on emotional blackmail to get the reader to buy my book. I wish that would work, as it would probably be a No.1 bestseller by now! It has never been my intention to emotionally blackmail, convince, or in any other way influence the reader. I merely thought that someone who buys my book might like to know that some of their money will go towards helping abused women; women who live in fear of being beaten or killed, of seeing their children being beaten or killed, not being able to sleep at night, afraid of what their partner might do to them or their children. I wonder if the reviewer’s reaction would have been different if it had been for, let’s say, an animal charity?

I envy those people who have obviously never found themselves in an abusive situation before, but I do not envy their inability to empathise with, or comprehend, those women who have. I have lived this situation personally, and believe me, it’s not something you should take lightly. Or try to ignore and pretend it doesn’t exist.

The two reviewers will probably never read this article, but if they should I would just like them to know that I have found their comments deeply hurtful. And I find it even more incredible that no-one, not one other woman, has tried to defend me. Having been abused most of my life, it is hard for me to accept being abused for something that I have written from my heart, from my soul. I’m sure that they will be able to justify their words, both to themselves and to others, and not feel any guilt over what they have done to someone who is just trying to find their feet, as insecure and anxious as they must have been when they started out writing.

Most people who read my book understand its message of abuse, of courage, of hope for other women. Unfortunately, a small minority don’t.

And while you’re thinking, so what, it’s only a couple of negative reviews, what harm can it do…since these articles did the rounds on Twitter this week, I have not sold a single copy. Many people have seen the article, it has been retweeted countless times, and my sales are at zero.

So this is why I won’t be rushing to ask any more bloggers to read my book, now or in the future. I am still writing, my next book should be published towards the end of the year, and I will leave it up to the readers to decide whether they want to buy it or not.

And if anyone should be interested, this is a donation I made to a women’s centre in Milan, thanks to people who bought copies of my book in Italian at a book signing.

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Translated: In the name of everyone at Cerchi d’Acqua and all the women we help every year and accompany on their journey away from violence, giving them free support, we wish to thank you for your donation of €100. Your gesture of solidarity is a sign of your generosity and your sensitivity.

Hot in the city…

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Summer has truly arrived here in Italy, and it is hot! With temperatures of up to 40°C and high humidity levels, writing becomes difficult as your brains start to melt. Thank goodness for air conditioning! (Although I might be cursing that same godsend by September, when the electricity bill arrives!).

The thought of our four-day break to the mountains in Tuscany is what is keeping me going at the moment, a momentary respite from the heat here in the Po Valley and a chance to get some research done for the book I’m currently writing. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing the Grotta del Vento, some caves up in the mountains which feature in a scene in the book!

So while we are all sweltering in this terrible heat, why not take five minutes to enter this competition:

Book giveaway!

One Stop Fiction are giving one lucky person the chance to win 60 books, either in paperback or ebook format. There are a lot of great books in the prize, including mine! So if you’re looking for some summer (and autumn, and winter) reading, why not enter? Someone’s got to win 🙂

A trip to the mountains

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Last Saturday, my husband, son and I went to Val Trebbia, a beautiful valley in the Piacentino area. It’s about an hour and a half drive from our house, and once you leave the city of Piacenza, you really start to appreciate the panorama.

The flat, dry ground of the Po Valley gives way to the Apennines, with tiny villages nestled on their slopes and the Trebbia river winding its way through the area. There are many picturesque villages in the area, but our destination was the Bellaria restaurant in Rivergaro.

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This family-run restaurant has been open for many years now, serving delicious, traditional food in a beautiful setting. If you should ever by lucky to go there, try their home-made tortellini –  delicate pasta with a ricotta and spinach filling, tossed in butter and sage, but obviously made with a secret recipe that gives them a flavour you won’t find anywhere else!

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Their anolini are exquisite too – pasta with a meat filling, served either in stock or with a tomato sauce. And if these don’t appeal, there are other pasta dishes to choose from, including home-made lasagne. Or you could try two or three different types, and just skip the main course!

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After all that wonderful food, a walk along the river is practically obligatory as an aid to digestion. During the summer, many Italians from near and far head to the river Trebbia at the weekend for a picnic, a swim, or just to top up their tans.

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And as you head home, you promise yourself that it won’t be long before you return to the mountains for a much-needed respite from the humid heat of the Lodigiano area.

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Dreaming about British food!

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The other day, I was thinking about all the English food I miss here in Italy. I’ve already written about my love of Cheddar cheese and how much I miss it, but there are lots of other things that British people take for granted and that I can only dream about!

For example, Heinz Salad Cream. The thought of a Cheddar cheese and salad cream sandwich makes me salivate. The last time I ate it was probably two years ago, after a trip to the UK where I stocked up on as much British food products as would fit in the suitcase. And Shreddies. You can buy every other cereal that’s ever been produced here in Italy, except Shreddies. No explanation as to why, they just don’t exist here! We can even get porridge, the original Quakers one, but no Shreddies. Branston Pickle, Bird’s Custard Powder, Lyle’s Golden Syrup, scones with clotted cream… the list is endless.

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Fish and chips. Those three words transport me back to Saturday evenings with the family, on the sofa watching Knight Rider, Dukes of Hazard, the A-Team or Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (loved that show!) with a bag of chips on our laps, the strong aroma of malt vinegar wafting around the room (which, incidentally, you can’t get over here either).

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Then there’s Marmite. You either love it or you hate it, as the saying goes. Well, I love it. I always asked people to bring some over with them, and would enjoy Marmite on toast in the mornings. Until recently. Now I’d rather have a cappuccino and biscuits for breakfast. However, I did manage to get one of my Italian students hooked on the stuff… I love getting Italians to taste it, they are usually very polite but you can tell they hate it!

There is a chain of shops in Milan that sells English and American food products, or you can order them online, but at extortionate prices. But if the craving should ever get too much…

Cadburys Dairy Milk Chocolate Bars (Fair Trade)

Another thing I miss a lot is Cadbury’s chocolate. You cannot find it anywhere here in Italy. What? I hear you cry. You live in Italy, the home of Perugina, Ferrero, Caffarel, Switzerland is just around the corner, there are Lindt shops everywhere. Yes, it’s true, Italian chocolate is good, really good. But it’s not Cadbury’s. Those Dairy Milk bars, Creme Eggs, Flakes… all missing here in Italy. I substitute with Lindt – which, I must admit, is a pretty tasty substitute!

Imagine going to your favourite supermarket and half the products you usually buy are missing. And not just once, but every time. You tend to obsess over them, you build up this sensory image of them, and when you do actually find them, it’s like you’ve been on a desert island for years and suddenly found civilisation again. Yes, you can find substitutes, but they’re never as good (at least in your own mind) as the real thing.

What about you? Do you live in another country? What typical foods do you miss from your home country? Or even when you’re just on holiday!

Memories

Having seen a few Facebook posts this week about books people read in their childhood, it got me thinking about all the old books I’ve got squirrelled away in my bookcase upstairs. So I went on a journey that took me back to my youth, looking through all those worn copies of my well-read, beloved books that accompanied me through good times and bad.

First of all, Enid Blyton. I used to have so many of her books but only a fraction of them are in still in my bookcase, many having been lost when moving house, etc. I loved reading the adventures of the Famous Five; I wanted to be friends with Anne, own an intelligent dog like Timmy, and be brave like George. But I also remember reading many of her other books – has there ever been such a prolific writer? Probably the only series I didn’t like was the Secret Seven, for some reason those books didn’t appeal to me at all! Here’s what remains of my original collection.

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Another series that I absolutely loved and read over and over again was the Narnia books by C S Lewis. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read them but it’s a lot! How I longed to find a secret doorway into Narnia when I was young, and meet all those wonderful, fascinating characters. And to fly on a winged horse! To hear words of wisdom from Aslan in times of need. These books were my salvation even during my hormonal teenage years, somehow I still found comfort in them. This is my original collection, looking rather battered but loved all the more for it.

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The next three books are a bit more random, but still a large part of my childhood. Watership Down was, and still is, one of my favourite books – the way Richard Adams created rabbit legends, rabbit words, and enabled you to live in the rabbit world as if it was the most natural thing, is incredible. Such a wonderful, imaginative story told by a great writer. Alice In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass are classical stories that every child should read, even nowadays. And my copy has been read quite a few times! The red book is called The Golden Wonder Book – I have no idea how it came to be mine, but it is full of classical fairy tales, shortened Shakespeare works, poems…a bit of everything. I don’t think I’ve ever read it all the way through, and it’s falling apart now, but I remember flicking through it often when I was young.

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When I was growing up, I was passionate about horses. I loved them (still do, in fact!). And this is reflected in these books I found in my bookcase, again just a fraction of what I used to own. I have lost some of the Mary O’Hara ones, and will replace them eventually, as I remember how beautifully written they were. The large green book is a horse encyclopedia my Nan gave me when I was twelve or thirteen, full of every bit of information about horses I could ever need!

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Last of all, although they’re not my original copies, I bought these books for my sons to enjoy when they were younger. We read them together at bedtime, and later on they carried on reading them by themselves. And even though my sons are grown up now, I know they have fond memories of these books!

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So that’s it. My collection of books from my childhood that I wanted to share with you. And now I really want to go back and read them all! What about you, did you read any of these? Share in the comments!

Book Fair

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On Thursday, my husband and I went to the book fair, Tempo di Libri, in Milan. After a lot of controversy between Milan and Turin (the original site of the book fair), it finally opened last week. So obviously, there was a lot of expectation about this important event! Did it live up to all the hype?

Yes and no. The fair itself was enormous, and pretty impressive from the outside.

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Inside there were all the big names in publishing, as you’d expect. Giunti, Mondadori, Rizzoli, Newton Compton, and many more.

IMG_20170420_113921 There were also some smaller publishers, and even a stand of independent authors who’d got together and were selling their books. There were also author presentations, cooking demonstrations and activities for kids. We must have walked around the whole thing about four times and still probably didn’t see everything! There were books for every type of reader – so many in fact, that it was all slightly overwhelming.

For me, the highlight was finding a small publisher, SEM, that had only just opened a few months previously, and finally I found some books I’d never heard of before or seen in bookshops. Whilst the big publishers didn’t offer discounts or any other promotion, this smaller publisher gave us a substantial discount on two of the books we bought, a free mug, a couple of pencils and a cloth bag to carry it all in. I really can’t understand why the big companies couldn’t have done something similar!

This is the book haul we came away with:

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Two from the big publishers, three from the small publisher, and one from the independent authors’ stand. Now I just have to find some time to read them all, my tbr list is getting out of control!

Bells!

I haven’t written an article in a while, as I’ve been pretty busy with translating work and writing my second book. Well, trying to work and write. My auto-immune disease decided to flare up over the last week or so, making day-to-day living particularly difficult. It would seem I’m over the worst now, fingers crossed!

Today, because I’m feeling tired and drained, I’m going to have a moan about something that I never experienced before living in the Lodigiano area. Church bell towers. Yes, they’re pretty to look at, yes, they’re a very characteristic part of the landscape…

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…but why do they need to chime every hour and half hour (and sometimes every quarter hour) day and night, 24/7? Why does this not bother the Italians? And why does this bother me so much, you might ask? Because I have a bell tower about 100m from my house. It’s the only part of the old church that remains, the new one having been built a couple of kilometres away in the town centre… without a bell tower. So while the priest is enjoying his lie-in on a Sunday morning, the bell tower near me starts ringing out its bright, chirpy songs at 6.30am. Every day. For a light sleeper like me, it’s not much fun. Just for the record, I think bell towers are beautiful to look at. This is the one near my house:

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But I wish the darn thing would let me sleep once in a while!

Say cheese!

I have a confession to make: I’m addicted to cheese. Or more precisely, cheddar cheese! I dread to think how many kilos I must have eaten in my life. It’s the one thing I miss more than anything else living in Italy. I can’t find it anywhere here. The closest cheese I can find is fontal, but while it has the consistency of cheddar (more or less), it lacks the flavour.

Italy has an abundance of cheeses, from the world-famous parmesan cheese to casu marzu in Sardinia (literally, rotten/putrid cheese in English) which contains live maggots. Needless to say, I haven’t tried this one!

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The Lodigiano area has its fair share of locally-produced cheeses, including tipico lodigiano ( a type of parmesan cheese that can only be made in the Lodigiano area), mascarpone, pannerone, and raspadura.

Mascarpone is that calorie-laden soft white cheese used in desserts such as tiramisu and is known in most of the world by now. I have tasted pannerone in risotto and other pasta dishes, but I must admit that I find it has quite a bitter, unpleasant taste. This is just my personal opinion, many other people love it!

My favourite local cheese has to be raspadura. A particular knife is used to scrape long slivers of parmesan from a whole wheel of cheese. It originally came about as a way of using imperfect wheels of cheese (Italians hate to waste any food!) but nowadays perfect wheels are used, seasoned to the right moment. Too long and it crumbles, too little and it doesn’t have enough flavour.

Usually served as an appetiser, together with cured meats, nuts or mushrooms, it is also used to garnish risotto or polenta. Personally, I love to eat it as it is, perhaps with a glass of cool white wine to wash it down!

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So while I forlornly wait for cheddar to arrive here in Italy, every now and then I try another cheese I find at the supermarket, just to ease the cravings, you understand. And if anyone from the UK comes to visit, the first thing I ask them is to bring me over a few blocks of cheddar. Which go straight in the freezer, to be eaten at leisure and every mouthful savoured over as if it was manna from heaven!

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