Samuel’s Smile

I should be revising Mystery Manor, book 3 in the Magali Rousseau series. And I am, a little, but since I'm travelling in India, the required concentration is hard to find. There's too much to see. I don't mean sightsee - there's only so much pleasure to be had from garish gods in temples or monkeys scampering by a waterfall. No, India is the street: the buyers and sellers, tuk-tuks and buses, and the challenge of an obstacle course (erroneously called a pavement) while all the while your eyes are darting left and right so as not to miss any action.

And the smiles. They're India too, from merely delightful to full-on dazzling. It struck me the other day that ever since I arrived, I've been in a good mood. Perhaps I was before, but not with quite the same buzz. It comes from having a smile ignited inside me all the time, a pilot flame ready to burst into life at a moment's notice.

It isn't unique to India. I've felt the same in most Asian countries I've been to, as well as some in Africa. Europe? Not so much. The flame takes a bit more effort to ignite. But I hope to keep it with me when I get back.

On October 31st 1662, Samuels Pepys wrote in his diary that he was 'as happy a man as any in the world, for the whole world seems to smile upon me'. He meant good fortune rather than actual smiles, but the metaphor says it all: the two walk hand in hand. Or as George Eliot put it, 'Wear a smile and have friends; wear a scowl and have wrinkles.'

There aren't a lot of smiles in Mystery Manor. Touches of humour, yes, but on the whole, it's quite dark. Which leads me to wonder how a writer's inner smile is expressed. Take 1984, one of the bleakest novels ever written. Now admittedly, George Orwell didn't have much of an inner smile, but nor was he perpetually depressed - from the trials he endured early in life he developed a wry humour, a sense of compassion, and a cast-iron resilience which saw him through many more trials, several of which he actively sought to experience. Whether he thus achieved a form of wisdom is open to discussion, but I'm reminded of the end of O Lucky Man!, when Lindsay Anderson, as himself, tells Travis (Malcolm McDowell) to smile. Travis, having been subjected to all manner of arbitrary ups and downs, is at his lowest point ever. 'For what?' he asks. 'There's nothing to smile about.' Whereupon Anderson slaps him and says, 'You don't have to have a reason. Just do it!' And a slow, deep smile of enlightenment spreads across Travis's face. The sort of smile I'd like my writing to have. But now I must go out and get my daily dose from the street.

(This post is inspired by the We Are The World Blogfest, but can't really claim to be part of it. The WATWB has got me thinking a lot - at some point I'll organise the thoughts into an essay. In the meantime, the participants' proper contributions give a good idea of what it's all about.)

The Book a Break 2018

Many thanks to all who submitted stories to this year's Book a Break short story competition. The number of submissions is considerably lower than previous years - just 41 this time. Perhaps the theme - nourishment - didn't provide much food for inspiration, but I look forward to reading some tasty stories packed with plenty of protein.

Is this low number of entries a problem? As far as the competition is concerned, not at all. And as indicated in the guidelines, the name of the winner will be announced here on this blog on March 11th.

For the anthology, though, it could well be a problem, since a certain number of quality stories are needed to put together a volume. Given the 2000 word maximum for the stories (and many are shorter than that), I would say a minimum of 25 would be needed. Depending on how many stories make the cut, it might be possible to extend the  submission period for the anthology (not the competition) till we get enough. But we'll take a rain check on that. For the moment I'll be tucking in to the stories already received.  Many thanks to all - stay tuned!

Where do the nets go?

The Book a Break short story competition is in its third year. From the outset, it was decided to donate the proceeds of the resulting anthology to charity, specifically the Against Malaria Foundation. Writers who submitted their stories have all kindly accepted to forego any royalties, knowing that they go instead to the fight against malaria.

One key reason for choosing the AMF is that Give Well, which assesses charities for cost-effectiveness, "it offers donors an outstanding opportunity to accomplish good with their donations".

The two minute video here shows the distribution of LLINs (long-lasting insecticide-treated nets) in Malawi, which along with Togo has benefitted from the donation of proceeds from the Book a Break anthologies. 

By developed country standards, the revenue generated by sales of the anthologies is tiny - over two years, we're talking in the region of $200. But that sum has bought 70 nets, which now protect over 100 people for up to three years.

My thanks, then, to all who have helped with the Book a Break, writers and readers alike. For me, the experience of compiling and editing the anthologies has been enriching, and in the course of it, I've made the acquaintance of many wonderful people and excellent writers. 

I recently added a page on the AMF website where people can donate directly a sum of their choice. If they then contact me, I'll send them the two anthologies so far published (here is a review of the 2017 anthology). You get good stories to read, people get protected from malaria - there can't be a better win-win situation than that.

Thanks to   Shilpa GargSimon FalkLynn HallbrooksEric LahtiDamyanti Biswas and Guilie Castillobe  for hosting this month's WATWB.

The summit at last!

Last month I did something I should have done 25 years ago: climb the Ste Victoire. To live in Aix and not do that is like living in Athens and never visiting the Acropolis. Never mind the 28,764,319 people who've climbed it before me, it still felt like an achievement.

It isn't difficult. Steep in parts, to be sure, but the path is practically a motorway and in 90 minutes you're there. I was with Bruce, an old Scottish friend from my school days who visits regularly; this was his fifth ascent. My daughter must have been up it a dozen times at least. So you could say I have no excuse. You could even call me a sloth.

I shall retort with the astounding fact that the great man himself, Paul Cézanne, who painted the Ste Victoire 82 times (I'm  not kidding), never found it necessary to admire the view from the top. You see? It's like a Christmas tree - better contemplated than climbed.

All the same, it felt good to have done it, so I thought the moment deserved to be captured for posterity. This, believe it or not, was another first for me - a selfie. You might wonder why I look like a discombobulated turtle: it's because I couldn't figure out how to swivel the screen into selfie mode, so I'm fumbling for the button on the other side of the phone.

Bruce, by the way, has many talents, one of which is acting - we were in several school plays together. So when he was over, I asked him to record 35 (Slateford via Holyrood). that's the story by Sam Middleton Beattie in With Our Eyes Open, this year's Book a Break anthology. When I read the story, it cried out to be recorded - you'll see why when you listen to it. And I think you'll agree that Bruce did an excellent job.

The Book a Break Experience

'Green Tights' was the award-winning story by Sherry Morris in the 2017 Book a Break short story competition. Below is her account of the stay in Provence which she won.

It was a wonderful surprise to learn I was the 2017 winner of the Book a Break competition. I had just moved to a farm in the Scottish Highlands after nearly 17 years in central London and my initial thoughts were that it might take a bit more planning to get to Provence than I had originally intended. Happily, I was proved wrong and my partner, Phil, and I took full advantage of our get-away by spending time in Lyon, as well as Aix-in-Provence.

We decided to go at the end of September and were pleasantly pleased by the good weather that greeted us – it was certainly much warmer and sunnier here than in Scotland. This was my first trip to Provence and Curtis was an excellent host, picking us up at the airport, providing us with maps and guides and making sure we had everything we needed, including breakfasts à la française each morning – though we both agreed it would be better if I made my own tea. We soon settled into a routine of leisurely morning breakfasts and writing, then exploring in the afternoons. We found Aix-en-Provence a delightful city of sidewalk cafes and squares where we could sit and absorb the relaxed atmosphere – I would have happily spent all four days this way. However, Phil was on a quest. He’d heard there was a Black Madonna in Aix and wanted to find it. With vague directions from the tourism board, we set off and spent the afternoon exploring Aix and its many churches, lanes and fine architecture, eventually rewarded by finding the elusive Black Madonna high up on a building on a small side street. We celebrated our find with cocktails.

 We also visited Avignon, where we were deeply impressed by the Palais du Papes and its wonderful 14th century tapestries and painted walls.  Of course, we visited Pont Saint-Benezet, better known as the Pont d’Avignon or simply The Bridge. I am seemingly the only person on the planet unaware of this medieval bridge and its famous song, but as it was a glorious day it was the perfect time to visit the bridge with its remaining four arches that still stretch into the Rhone and become better acquainted with it and its history.  I was also ‘treated’ to the song associated with this bridge in a variety of genres courtesy of an interactive display board. At the press of a button I could hear ‘Sur le Pont d'Avignon’ in the style of country, rap, traditional, garage, and ska. But by far the best version was when Phil serenaded me in his own reggae-jazz style as we strolled along the bridge.

We also greatly enjoyed a day trip to Marseille and exploring the newly developed Fort Saint-Jean area of the city and discovered our second Black Madonna in Saint-Victor church.  Our evenings were spent eating fine meals cooked by Curtis and chatting with him, his lovely wife and an old school friend of Curtis’s who was also visiting from Scotland. Of course, our talked turned to writing -- Curtis with his new novel, my short story and flash writing and Phil with his plays -- keeping us all up far later than we realised.

It was a thoroughly delightful and diverting trip and we both came away with many great impressions and ideas for new writing projects. I would encourage everyone reading this to enter the competition, and be in with a chance to experience the wonderful hospitality and atmosphere for themselves.

Thank you, Sherry, for this post. You and Phil were great guests to have!

The 2018 Book a Break Short Story competition is now open. Details here.

The Big Announcement

Release of Perfume Island: 15th November.

Now, to those who've been following me for a while, that's not a big announcement, as I've set about 8 different release dates over the past 15 months. Like the boy who cried 'Wolf!' But this time, I promise, it's for real! To prove it, here's the link to the page where you can pre-order it.

The cover reveal isn't a big surprise either, as I've posted it many times in various places and forms. But in case you missed it, here it is again.

And here I must thank photographer and graphic artist Alba, who's not only taken an interest in my work since the beginning, but gave me precious advice on the cover, even going so far as to do a mock up which I was able to use to get the final version.

So things have come a long way since I tried to come up with a cover myself for the first in the series, One Green Bottle. No problem, I thought - all I need is a knife, some blood and, you guessed it, a green bottle. All of which was easy to find, though the blood involved a trip to The Magic Joke Shop in Cambridge, where I spent some time admiring the magnificent disguises before heading over to the blood shelf.

I had to ask for help. Blood, I discovered, is like aftershave: spray, bottle or gel? "Oh, bottle, definitely," said the hemoglobin assistant, who clearly knew her stuff. When I got back, I tied some string to the bottle and dangled it from the wall outside the house, observed all the while by the neighbour across the road. He was fixing snow chains to his car, which I thought was odd. It was a cold day in January, yes, but bright and sunny all the same. But then, I suppose, I was hardly well placed to describe other people's behaviour as odd. Eventually, each convinced the other was mad, we sauntered cautiously into the no man's land between us. "I'm getting in some practice," he explained. "Off skiing soon."

"Oh, right. I thought we might be in for snow."

"Oh, no I think we'll be fine." He glanced at the sky. "For the moment, anyway."

I was holding the blood-covered knife. He was too polite to ask, so I came to his aid. "For a book cover."

"Ah, OK." His look of relief turned to worry. "That would be fiction, would it?"

"Oh, yes." I glanced at the knife. "For the moment, anyway."

Bonnieux the Beautiful

I've long harboured a wish to paint. When I visit museums of modern art, I inevitably get a moment - as I suspect many of us do - of thinking, 'Well, I could do that.' Usually, this is in front of a canvas with three or four dots on it, perhaps a squiggle or two, and a title like Infinite Entrails #3. Or else a collection of paperclips dangling from a thread, called Seek And You Will Find. As a result, our garden shed is full of what look like rusty bedsprings, electrical wiring and old bicycle pumps, but which are in fact works of art in the making. My favourite is a glass oven door, called The Discovery of Joy, to which I'll add some drops of paint before taking it along to Tate Modern. Every so often I look at it, wondering what colour the drops should be and how exactly to apply them. The tip of a brush? A syringe? My big toe? Then the door goes back in the shed and the Tate will have to wait a little longer.

So I always admire people who actually produce pictures. One such is Rahim Najfar, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in his gallery in Bonnieux. Perched on the side of a hill in the north Lubéron, an hour's drive from Aix, Bonnieux is one of the 157 Plus Beaux Villages de France. Started in 1982 by the Mayor of Collonges-La-Rouge in Corrèze, the aim of this association is to 'protect and promote the outstanding heritage of these exceptional villages and thereby provide them with an alternative to rural exodus. [...] We aim to avoid certain pitfalls such as villages turning into soulless museums or, on the contrary, "theme parks". Our well-reasoned and passionate ambition is to reconcile villages with the future and to restore life around the fountain or in the square shaded by hundred-year-old lime and plane trees.'

Whether Bonnieux entirely avoids the pitfalls is debatable. On a mid-October Friday (market day), well past the peak season, there were still plenty of tourists, mostly American. Very few market stalls or shops offer anything other than arts and crafts, all so pretty they'll decorate dressers and sideboards the world over, till a few years later a declutter sends them to a car boot sale. And food, of course - there's plenty of that. Cheese, charcuterie, olive oil, herbs, all guaranteed 100% pure and natural. I'm sure most of it is, especially in a place like Bonnieux, but suspicious minds like mine tend to retain the information that half of supposedly local olive oil, for example, comes from Spain, or the 'authentic Provençal' nougat you bought at 69 euros a kilo is made in Hungary.

But that's enough cynicism. Bonnieux is a delight to stroll around, and when you enter Rahim's gallery, what you see is authentic art. By which I mean there's a personal quest - tourists' expectations come second. He paints the surrounding countryside, but often adds borders where you see an influence of Iran - Rahim left his native country after the 1979 Revolution, and though he's never been back since, some of his pictures hark back to Persian miniaturists. 'That was at art school,' he explained. 'Three days a week it was free expression, so I'd go off and pretend to be Gauguin. The rest of the time, we had to study the miniaturists, imitate them. I hated it - such a constraint! It's only later you realise the discipline was so valuable.'

I told him we'd been in Iran too, before the revolution; we brought back an enamel box with miniature men on the lid, darting this way and that on miniature horses. I didn't say we're decluttering - the box is now in a drawer marked 'car boot sale'. I would have liked to buy one of his pictures, but we're not decluttering so far as to empty our bank account of 800 euros. Thoughtfully, though, Rahim prints cards for those who don't have that sort of money to spend. We bought a dozen, which seemed to delight him as much as if we'd snapped up the whole gallery. And when I got back home, I retrieved our little box from the car boot drawer and restored it to its rightful place on the dresser. Whether it can compete with A History of Casual Telepathy, currently on display in our garden shed, I leave for you to decide. Alternatively, you can view more of Rahim's beautiful artwork here.




Lou Messugo

The Women of Mayotte

Flying back from Mayotte once, I was sitting next to an elderly woman whose daughter and two grandchildren were on the other side of the aisle. We got to talking and I asked her if she'd gone to Mayotte for a holiday. 'No, I came to rescue my daughter,' she said, and went on to explain, 'She's been married to a local inhabitant for eight years. For the first six years, they lived near me in Grenoble. Everything was fine. Then they went to Mayotte - for him, it was going back to his roots. That's when it started - drinking, womanising, beating my daughter every time he got back. If I hadn't come out to help her escape, there's a good chance he'd have killed her.'

Her story, transformed, made its way into Perfume Island. 'Nature reclaiming its own' was how she put it. But how common is it? I don't have figures, but Valérie Tomas, a doctor in Mamoudzou Hospital, interviewed more than 1000 women and concluded that violence against women in Mayotte occurs more often than in Metropolitan France (where it's already far too common).

When she visited the women in their homes, Tomas noticed that they spent a lot of time watching telenovelas made in Brazil - the audiovisual equivalent of the frozen battery chicken wing they also import from Brazil. And this gave Tomas an idea - why not make a TV series in Mayotte? Chababi Project, produced in Mayotte with local technicians and actors, is entertaining but educational, focussing on the issues facing the island, and especially the woman, but with an upbeat, positive message. The sort of approach encouraged by the Constructive Journalism Project, but applied to fictional dramas.

For all sorts of reasons too complex to go into here, it was rare in Mayotte to come across anyone optimistic about its future. Which I why Valérie Tomas's initiative is all the more welcome, laudable and brave. And proof that with enough enthusiasm and energy, such projects will not only see the light of day but have a positive effect. The series is now in post-production and will hit the screens next year.

We Are The World Blogfest

Thanks to  Shilpa GargSylvia McGrathMary Giese, Belinda Witzenhausen and Guilie Castillo  for hosting this month's WATWB.




Story Statistics


I’ve always been something of a numbers nerd. I was once upbraided at school by Mr. McCartney, the maths teacher, for not doing his polynomial equation. In its place, based on a complex formula of my own, I was trying to calculate the position in the following week’s charts of You Really Got Me by The Kinks. It was obviously going to hit the top ten but the crucial question was in which spot? If I remember rightly, I was only out by a couple of places, which I considered very good. You’d think that with a name like McCartney, the maths teacher would be excited, but sadly he took no interest at all in pop music.

Anyway, the publication of With Our Eyes Open, 34 stories based on the theme of ‘a journey’, gives me a great opportunity to share a few statistics. Because you’ve obviously been wondering where and how the journeys were undertaken, so here is the breakdown for you.

Twelve are in the UK, no doubt reflecting the fact that most of the authors are British. The US has six and France two, with Italy, Poland, Kenya, Zambia, Iran, South-East Asia and outer space each getting one. Seven are unspecified. Regarding mode of transport, seven are by car, four by train, four on foot, three by bus, two each by boat and plane, and one by spaceship. The remaining eleven don’t involve a vehicle as such but describe a journey through life. There appears to be a correlation between ‘unspecified location’ and ‘journey through life’, but further research is needed to determine whether this is significant.

Of course, you may take Mr. McCartney’s view that my love of pointless statistics only says something worrying about what goes on in my brain. I beg to differ. It’s fascinating to see that 34 authors can take the same prompt and interpret it in so many different ways. There are some who take a broad perspective, with characters reflecting on life’s crucial issues, and others who focus on a specific time and place. But despite the differences, all have something to say about what it means to be human. Which is why, in fact, they were selected for the anthology. The shortest journey, incidentally, is about eight yards, the longest 2.7 billion miles. All of which goes to show, I think, that it isn’t the journey itself that counts but the story we choose to make of it. The authors here have all made stories that open our eyes as they take us travelling with them. And not even Mr. McCartney could argue with that.

The stories in this anthology were selected from submissions to the second Book a Break short story competition.  The proceeds from this book go to the Against Malaria Foundation.

The 2017 Book a Break short story anthology is available for now on Amazon as a kindle ebook in colour or directly from this site by clicking below. Alternatively, you can donate directly to the Against Malaria Foundation. Forward their thank you email to me (curtis.bausse(at) and I will send you the PDF file straightaway.

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Collecting the prize

Sherry Sept 17

At the end of last month, Sherry Morris came to stay with us, together with her partner Phil. I suppose you could say she came to collect her prize as winner of the 2017 Book a Break short story competition, though there wasn't actually a ceremony like they do at Wimbledon. Maybe next year I'll manufacture a cool trophy which the winner will hold aloft before making a speech.

Living here, I sometimes forget what a splendid place it is, notwithstanding certain discomforts of modern life such as the ever-increasing volume of traffic and rising levels of pollution. But Sherry and Phil weren't bothered: they live in a remote part of Scotland, so it was an opportunity for them to observe some human beings. Though apparently in summer they get a lot of them up there too. There are human beings all over the place.

Apart from Aix itself, they visited Avignon and Marseille, where Phil went to see a Black Madonna. For some reason, he developed a sudden interest in Black Madonnas whilst over here, so now he'll be trekking the world in search of them. Or else he might just write about them - he's a playwright, so maybe at some point there'll be a new nativity play starring Beyoncé.

After reading Green Tights, Sherry's story in With Our Eyes Open, one of the contributors said it was 'very David Lynch', which I thought nailed it perfectly - the same blend of startling imagery and delicious, twisting storyline. I'd imagined her rather similar -  eccentric, intense, prowling the garden in a creative bubble of her own. In fact she's perfectly normal, which reassured me that you don't have to be extraordinary yourself to produce extraordinary writing; you just have to roll up your sleeves and work at it.

My own company, of course, isn't part of the prize, but inevitably it's in the package, at least for part of the time. So I tried to keep on my best red carpet behaviour, though I stopped short of the bow tie, or indeed of any tie. Come to think of it, my dress sense - no, better not go there. Let's just say I'm better at cooking. On the whole, that is, though I managed to make a mess of Sherry's tea. I'm not sure how. I think it was George Orwell's fault - I was following his recipe. I'm a great Orwell fan, but maybe when it comes to tea, I should seek inspiration elsewhere.

The Book a Break competition is singular in that the organiser gets as much pleasure from it as the winner. Like Ingrid Jendrzejewski last year, Sherry and Phil were charming and interesting guests - my thanks go to both for making this year's edition so enjoyable.

The 2017 Book a Break short story anthology is available for now on Amazon as a kindle ebook in colour or directly from this site by clicking below. Alternatively, you can donate directly to the Against Malaria Foundation. Forward their thank you email to me (curtis.bausse(at) and I will send you the PDF file straightaway.

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