It is a bit early to be thinking about Christmas, I admit, but the opportunity to take part in the book tour for this intriguing sounding book from New Vessel Press was too good to miss.

Short story collections by assorted authors can be hit and miss. Harnessing together authors from different periods with very different writing styles is quite risky. The logic behind such an enterprise is, I imagine, to seek to introduce the reader to a variety of writing united by some common theme or themes – as here where we have two in Frenchness and Christmas – at the same time bearing in mind that not everyone is going to like everything, but should at least like something! This book very successfully presents us with an excellent selection of festive French literature that I think will please and interest the vast majority of readers.

The Frenchness emerges in various ways in the anthology. France has long been thought of as a bastion of male chauvinism, something reflected in the language itself. Get one guy and a thousand girls together and you have to refer to them as ‘ils’ because of that one man! Times are changing, however, if slowly, but it was rather disappointing to see just one female author included in this anthology. Yes, it’s a long story/screenplay but it’s still just one as opposed to nine male authors. The lone female is Irène Némirovsky, of Ukranian Jewish origin, lived half her lifetime in France and wrote in French, but was refused French citizenship. Had she been awarded it, this prolific author might have avoided being arrested as a stateless Jew on 13 July 1942, despite having converted to Roman Catholicism, and sent to Auschwitz where she died just over a month later. It is thus very poignant and powerful to find her work included in this French anthology, since her adopted country let her down.

Other Frenchness emerges in how Christmas isn’t overly romanticised in any of the stories. In many, it’s mainly a background. This is how Noël is in this country. There isn’t the crazy hype starting in October that you get in other countries. There’s an air of restraint about it, but nonetheless, a good time is had by all. There is also a clear focus on eating during the festive season, and this emerges in many of the stories. The importance of food is one French stereotype that holds firm! But there are some small helpings of magic and wishful thinking, a crucial part of Christmas.

Straight talking is another Frenchness. No beating around the bush. Thus it’s a little startling and uncomfortable, for Western European readers at least, to come across an African character called Black Jo in one of the stories. It’s not offensively motivated, it’s who he is to the other boys at the school, and as the narrator of the story comes to know the boy better, he begins to call him Jo or Joseph.

But all these Frenchisms, together with the variety of writing we are offered, give a good impression of the country’s historical and present culture.

These are the stories and authors:

The Gift – Jean-Philippe Blondel (b.1964) Relationships and loneliness at Christmas.

St Anthony and his Pig – Paul Arène (1843-96) Great fun this one! St Anthony struggles with terrible temptation.

The Louis d’Or – François Coppée (1842-1908) A gambler seeks redemption.

Christmas in Algiers – Anatole La Braz (1859-1926) A soldier far from home attends a midnight mass with a difference.

The Wooden Shoes of Little Wolff – François Coppée (1842-1908) A touching tale, the most Christmassy of them all.

Christmas Eve – Guy de Maupassant (1850-93) The moral of this story is don’t pick up a pregnant prostitute on Christmas Eve…

Christmas at the Boarding School – Dominique Fabre  (b.1960) A young African boy in France, because of ‘events’ faces Christmas far from home.

Salvette and Bernadou – Alphonse Daudet (1840-97) Two imprisoned French soldiers remember the Breton Christmases of their youth.

A Christmas Supper in the Marais – Alphonse Daudet (1840-97) A Christmas ghost story – or just too much wine for Christmas supper?

A Miracle by Guy de Maupassant (1850-93) Evil spirits at Christmastime.

I Take Supper with my Wife – Antoine Gustave Droz (1832-95) Husband and wife share a playful Christmas Eve supper.

The Lost Child – François Coppée (1842-1908) A sweet Christmas miracle.

The Juggler of Notre Dame – Anatole France (the pseudonym of Jacques Anatole Thibault 1844-1924) Another religious miracle based on a medieval legend.

Noël – Irène Némirovsky (1903-42) Bittersweet undercurrents during a Christmas party held by affluent Parisians.

My only gripe is with the subtitle – in my opinion it’s a little rash to claim things are the ‘greatest’ but it gets attention I suppose, and it’s acceptable ‘puff’. However, I think the anthology would have worked just as well without it. Clearly the stories are selected because the editing team considers them to be exceptionally good and worthy of inclusion, and thus it’s implicit that there is merit in reading them. I suspect an anthology of awful stories not worth reading has yet to be published…

I also take slight issue with the ‘of all time’ label as three of our ten authors were born in the twentieth century, and all the other seven in the nineteenth from 1832 onwards. But since some of the stories refer to earlier times and we come right up to the present, then we do get a taste of several periods.

The book makes for an interesting, enjoyable and educational read, will make your Christmas more multi-cultural and will, I hope, tempt you to discover more French writers after sampling the writing in this anthology.

 

A Very French Christmas:
The Greatest French Holiday Stories
of All Time

on Tour

August 8-14

Very French Christmas Cover

A Very French Christmas:
The Greatest French Holiday Stories
of All Time

(short story collection)

Release date: October 10, 2017
at New Vessel Press

ISBN: 978-1939931504
142 pages

Website
Goodreads

 

SYNOPSIS

A continuation of the very popular Very Christmas Series from New Vessel Press, this collection brings together the best French Christmas stories of all time in an elegant and vibrant collection featuring classics by Guy de Maupassant and Alphonse Daudet, plus stories by the esteemed twentieth century author Irène Némirovsky and contemporary writers Dominique Fabre and Jean-Philippe Blondel.
With a holiday spirit conveyed through sparkling Paris streets, opulent feasts, wandering orphans, kindly monks, homesick soldiers, oysters, crayfish, ham, bonbons, flickering desire, and more than a little wine, this collection encapsulates the holiday spirit and proves that the French have mastered Christmas. This is Christmas à la française—delicious, intense and unexpected, proving that nobody does Christmas like the French.

THE AUTHORS

Alphonse Daudet, Guy de Maupassant, Anatole France
Irène Némirovsky, Jean-Philippe Blondel, Dominique Fabre,
Paul Arene, Francois Coppee, Antoine Gustave Droz, Anatole La Braz

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Max, our very down-to-earth and hands-on heroine, returned from New York to her small home town of Crystal Shores a year ago to help nurse her mother through her last months of fighting cancer. But Max is still here, working in Darlene’s Wedding Belles Bridal Salon. However, she’s just been offered a job as assistant designer at Bissette’s, where she used to be a pattern maker. Her father and friends are delighted that she’s delighted about this, but none of them want to see her go. Max herself has mixed feelings.

However, for the time being her attention is diverted as during a dress fitting stroppy and generally unpopular bride-to-be Jennifer Burns collapses. She dies shortly later in hospital, of cyanide poisoning. Who’s the murderer? Max, since she did mutter under her breath that she wished the trying Jennifer would drop dead, and she had in her pocket a red gemlike stone she’d found on the beach that very morning which someone tells her is a wishing stone? Stacy, the new wife of the man Max always thought she’d marry – Andy? She gave Jennifer some cake samples just before she died, and Jennifer had a past with Andy. Or one of the many, many local people who don’t want Jennifer to turn the town’s beloved old theatre into a shopping mall? Jennifer has inherited the theatre and it’s hers to do with as she pleases.

Max can’t help becoming involved in solving in the case. This brings her into contact and conflict with handsome cop Detective Jason Cruz. As she investigates, as well as learning the truth about what happened, she learns some truths about herself and what she really wants from life.

This is a beautifully written book, extremely readable and very entertaining. It has a romantic setting in this pretty seaside town in general and in the wedding shop in particular, but it’s never twee. We see behind the scenes into the dusty corners. There’s a great mix of characters, good and bad, and a convincing sense of community. We become as fond of Crystal Shores as Max. Max herself is creative but also practical, kind and caring but also assertive and businesslike, well-meaning but sometimes heavy-handed, and all in all, a perfectly imperfect heroine whose adventures we thoroughly enjoy sharing.

Other genres, such as mismem and griplit, come and go in popularity, but cosy mysteries remain constantly popular. These require creativity, ingenuity and humour on the part of the author, which make for a winning formula for readings. You find some really excellent writing.

Dying for Dinner Rolls by Lois Lavrisa is no exception. This is a short, delightful read. Our heroine Cat works in the family organic food store. She’s recovering from the recent violent death of her father, but her supportive husband and lively children have kept her going. Also she’s making an effort to be there for her Korean mother, Yunni. When Lucy is found dead after nipping home to fetch dinner rolls for Cat and the other members of the Chubby Chicks Club, a group of friends who get together for pot luck suppers and chats, a chilling clue seems to link her death with Cat’s father’s. The police consider it to be a suicide but Cat is convinced otherwise. Annie Mae, the chubbiest of the chicks, joins Cat for a day’s eventful sleuthing which threatens to land them both in jail. Handsome cop José keeps a nervous eye on proceedings and rushes in to rescue the crimebusting pair when the difficult situations they get themselves into threaten to get out of control. They do get a little carried away at times! However, they also get the murderer, but Cat is still determined to track down her father’s killer, whatever the cost.

Once you start this novella it’s hard to put it down. The characters are quirky, diverse and fascinating. Cat is a lively, likeable heroine with strengths and flaws that make her so utterly identifiable with. Annie Mae, twenty years her senior and, by the sounds of it, twenty times her weight, makes for the perfect sidekick for her. The plot twists and turns, just as it should, and the result is a clever, original cosy that has you gasping in horror and chuckling in delight in equal measure. I highly recommend it, and I’m now off to read the next two books in the series.

Just a couple of tiny nitpicks – well, I am an editor! There were just a couple of typos, but that’s quite acceptable as the error-free book has yet to be published, and the cover is a little too cluttered. The image is clean and classy but the quote and the Chubby Chicks logo rather spoiled the overall effect for me.

Formidable! I thoroughly enjoyed this book from start to finish.

Joe, his French wife and bilingual son leave California for Paris. Joe seems well-prepared for what French life will throw at him on the whole, but the quest for a French driving license leads him a merry dance and becomes all-consuming. It’s from this point of view that we follow Joe’s adventures in the land of shrugs and snails.

He has a sharp eye for detail and a lovely, lively style. He clearly relishes the foreignness and frequent inexplicability of France. The result is a very readable and entertaining book that will have you chuckling every few pages. For example, he hilariously describes the frustrating vagaries of French road signage, details delicious but interminable meals (with helpful ‘how to survive them’ tips), and gives wonderful accounts of nervous-tic inducing encounters with bureaucrats. He throws in lots of fascinating facts along way, for example about car ownership and vehicle-related revenues, and about the Strange French Names Club aka Asso des communes de France aux noms burlesques. He teaches us some slang and swear words and weaves in plenty of helpful information too, such as about the dreaded priorité à droite rule. All excellent stuff.

For me the book was also a look at ‘how the other half lives’, the other half being employed people in France whereas I’m from the self-employed sector. All those paid days off and holiday vouchers, I’m green with envy!

The only thing I took issue with was where Joe says that if a car fails its contrôle technique it has to be repaired immediately before it goes back on the road. You actually have two months to do the necessary work. Only a minor quibble but worth mentioning in case it causes panic to would-be expats!

A splendid book, well presented and written, and most definitely a must-read.

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get round to reading this lovely book. It’s been waiting patiently on my Kindle for ages.

But better late than never, as they say. And so at last I’ve been able to enjoy Rebecca’s excellent novel about Rachel’s experiences as a TEFL teacher in Greece. Anyone who’s ever lived or worked abroad, or thought about doing so, will revel in this story, with its ups and downs of foreign life, the faux pas and the frustrations but the endless fascination of discovering another culture. I’ve never been to Greece and so I eagerly soaked up every detail we get of all the places our heroine describes to us, and, of course, the people she meets.

There’s not only the geographical journey, there’s a spiritual journey too. Rachel feels that she has a point to prove to unsympathetic family when she undertakes a year of TEFL: that she’s independent and perfectly capable, thank you. But you do get the distinct feeling she’s not quite happy in her own skin at the start of the book, but by the end, when she’s the girl gone Greek, then she most certainly is. Greece is her spiritual home, the place where she can be who she’s meant to be. Through friendships, and minor but significant triumphs at work, Rachel puts down her roots and blossoms.

It’s a delightful, uplifting book, full of sharp observations, humour and determination.

I’m delighted to be hosting Will Bashor today as he sets out on his virtual book tour with this truly absorbing and meticulously researched book.

Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days: Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergerie by Will Bashor

 

Synopsis

This compelling book begins on the 2nd of August 1793, the day Marie Antoinette was torn from her family’s arms and escorted from the Temple to the Conciergerie, a thick-walled fortress turned prison. It was also known as the waiting room for the guillotine because prisoners only spent a day or two here before their conviction and subsequent execution. The ex-queen surely knew her days were numbered, but she could never have known that two and a half months would pass before she would finally stand trial and be convicted of the most ungodly charges.

Will Bashor traces the final days of the prisoner registered only as Widow Capet, No. 280, a time that was a cruel mixture of grandeur, humiliation, and terror. Marie Antoinette’s reign amidst the splendors of the court of Versailles is a familiar story, but her final imprisonment in a fetid, dank dungeon is a little-known coda to a once-charmed life. Her seventy-six days in this terrifying prison can only be described as the darkest and most horrific of the fallen queen’s life, vividly recaptured in this richly researched history.

 

My Review

I was riveted by this book from start to tragic finish.

Marie Antoinette must be one of the best known-about historical figures of all time, but not the best known. We’ve all heard the famous statement, “Let them eat cake,” Qu’ils mangent de la brioche, although it’s not certain she ever actually did give this tactless response to the claim that the poor people had no bread, and we also know that she was executed by guillotine during the aftermath of the French Revolution. And for most of us that’s just about it.

But there was so much more to her than that. In Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days, historian and author Will Bashor recounts the dreadful experiences she went through between the beginning of August 1793 until her death in mid-October. Her husband already dead, separated from her sister-in-law and children she languished in a filthy prison. Yet she showed resilience and dignity in the face of hatred and enemies baying for her blood.

The book reads, I think, more like a novel rather than a history book, in that while the authors shares a tremendous amount of painstaking research with us, we’re never overwhelmed and the pace is crisp. Our tragic heroine develops before our eyes and we feel empathy for her in her wretched circumstances. She stops being a figurehead and becomes a very real person to us. Yes, she had been one of the royal family who knew no restraint in flaunting their wealth and acting insensitively and unsympathetically towards their subjects, but that was how life was then. There was a chasm between the haves and have-nots. You can understand why the people wanted to redress the balance somewhat, or at least attempt to. With the forthcoming elections here in France, it is somewhat ironic to realise that once again there is a widening gap between the people and those that govern them – there are many millionaires in the government these days. Did poor Marie Antoinette die in vain?

If you’re interested in French history then this without doubt is the book for you. It is completely absorbing and absolutely fascinating.

 

Extract

Security tightened in the Conciergerie as the public uproar increased. The guards searched through the queen’s laundry, and she was only allowed a change of clothing every ten days. At the same time, the queen’s health was faltering. She complained of pain in one of her legs, covering it with her cushion to keep it warm. The queen also suffered from insomnia, anxiety, dizziness, weakness, and frequent bouts of vaginal bleeding. Rosalie attributed the hemorrhaging to the “crushing sorrows, the foul air in her cell, and lack of exercise.”

These miseries were perhaps every bit as disturbing as the presence of the guards, who violated her modesty as they watched her change clothes. When the queen discretely removed the bloody dressings, Rosalie disposed of them secretly but with great difficulty; the inspections were multiplying at all hours of the day and night. And the noise became unbearable, with the locks continuously clanking and the door of the queen’s dungeon screeching as deputies entered and exited.

On October 3, Deputy Jean-Baptiste-André Amar of the Committee of General Security decreed that 129 deputies of the Gironde party be denounced as outlaws, arrested, and brought to trial. The Girondins had campaigned for the end of the monarchy but came into conflict with the more radical Jacobins. On the same day, a large number of the Girondins were imprisoned in the Conciergerie, the same prison that housed the fallen queen of France. That these Girondins would be tried and most likely face the guillotine before the queen sparked another public controversy.

They argued that the queen was the “guiltiest of all” and “her head should be the first to fall.” The committees, clubs, and cafés of Paris were all calling for a speedy trial of the Agrippina, a reference to the ruthless, domineering, and violent mother of Nero.

“I rang my alarm bell to all French ears on the infamous Antoinette,” wrote lawyer and politician Armand-Joseph Guffroy in his journal. “Keep Marie Antoinette in prison to make peace, you say drearily, and I say to you, ‘Make her jump like a carp with its hands tied behind its back.’”

“We aim to judge the Austrian tigress from twelve until two o’clock in the afternoon,” the deputy Louis Marie Prudhomme wrote, “and we demand the offenses to condemn her; if justice is served, she will be hacked up like mincemeat in a pâté.”

 

About the Author

Will Bashor

 

earned his M.A. degree in French literature
from Ohio University
and his Ph.D. in International Studies
from the American Graduate School in Paris
where he gathered letters, newspapers, and journals
during his research for the award-winning
Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution.
Now living in Albi, France,
and a member of the Society for French Historical Studies,
his latest work, Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days: Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergerie,
was released in December 2016.
He is currently working on the final part of his historical trilogy,
Marie Antoinette’s World: The Labyrinth to the Queen’s Psyche.

Visit him on his website
and here are many ways to follow him:

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MARIE ANTOINETTE’S DARKEST DAYS

Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days:
Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergerie

(history – nonfiction)

Release date: December 1, 2016
at Rowman & Littlefield

392 pages

ISBN: 978-1442254992

Website | Goodreads

 

 

Giveaway

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they are listed in the entry form below
.

ENTER HERE

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of the Tour will give you 5 extra entries each time!
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1 winner will receive a copy of this book

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From 2011: The Year of All Things Wild and Woolly

Talking about sad episodes, it’s time to mention our polytunnel. Our earnings were a little healthier now that we were with Angling Lines, but there still wasn’t a lot of spare cash. Now, we’d been mulling over the idea of getting a greenhouse or polytunnel for several months. We ate a lot of tomatoes and lettuces but these didn’t thrive outdoors. Despite digging lots of poop from assorted animals into the area of ground we designated as the vegetable patch, the soil remained poor. The only things that did grow were courgettes and pumpkins, and you can definitely have too many of those. Hence, the desire to grow a wider variety of veggies. After a lot of pondering, we opted for a low budget polytunnel off eBay. Stop laughing and bear with me. It looked good in the advert, and was the right sort of size so we paid up and eagerly awaited its arrival. It wasn’t too long coming and we got it up in one afternoon. Given the number of bits of framework and the unhelpfulness of the instructions, that was surprisingly fast. We chose a south-facing spot behind the barn. It was in the female llamas’ field and they were delighted. They had a very interesting time watching us grapple with poles and plastic. Llamas are so wonderfully inquisitive. Once it was finished they seemed very pleased with the new addition to their field and inspected it every now and again. We’d have to make sure to keep it closed, or they’d be in like a shot.

We got to work constructing some workbenches from recycled building materials and quickly covered them with seedlings in yoghurt pots. My inner gardener blossomed. I spent many happy hours pottering around potting things up in there, and Chris likewise. It started to look very impressive and productive. We took the precaution of wiring the framework to two very heavy iron bars that had come with the farm. We had no idea what their original purpose might have been, but we knew they’d come in handy one day and so we left them where they were, on the grass beyond the hangar, and regularly tripped over them. However, all those stubbed toes were worth it as the bits of iron now came into their own.

They, the bits of wire and a few bits of bent framework were all that were left after the first slightly windy night we experienced after erecting the polytunnel. A few moderate gusts of wind and the whole thing fell apart. The plastic ripped and fluttered off around the farm, sending our seedlings flying, only to be consumed or trampled on by the llamas. What a disaster. All that hard work wasted. Evidently the polytunnel was intended for indoor use only. We sighed and collected up any salvageable pieces of debris, and they weren’t many, ignoring the llamas’ giggling.

We learnt our lesson from that act of cheapskateness and decided we would have to invest in a real, proper, heavy-duty polytunnel with thick plastic and a weighty metal framework. It would be worth dipping into our savings if it meant we bought something that would last longer than a couple of weeks and withstand a gentle breeze. And so our new polytunnel duly arrived. This was more like it. It came on two pallets and weighed a ton. Never mind several hours, it took several weeks to erect. The main supporting framework needed concreting in place, wooden doorways had to be constructed and it took the whole family to help with fitting the rest of the frame together and fitting the plastic over, stretching it carefully to fit and cutting off the excess. Leaving a central walkway, Chris built a raised bed to each side which, over a few days, we filled with barrowfuls of llama and chicken poop. The ten-metre long and four-metre wide polytunnel accommodated an awful lot of poop, I can tell you. We were delighted, and, although a bit late, set to on a second splurge of growing seedlings. We hung up a thermometer and marvelled at the tropical temperatures reached in the polytunnel. On a cloudy day when it was 20 degrees outside, the tunnel clocked up 35 degrees. And when it was hot and sunny outside around the 30 degree mark, the thermometer showed upwards of 45 degrees. Surely our lettuces and tomatoes would flourish now.

Word must have got round about our polytunnel because out of the blue, a young man turned up. He explained he was a neighbour, relatively speaking – he lived a good few kilometres away but there weren’t many other habitations between us and him so I guess that did make us neighbours – and that he’d just taken over Les Chapotiers and planned to make a living growing bio (organic) fruit and veg. We’d detected a hint of hippie. He had a polytunnel on order and asked if we’d come and help him erect it when he arrived. We replied that so long as he wouldn’t object to a good bit of swearing going on during the process, then no problem, count us in. We’d found from our few years of heavy labour in France that swearwords are as crucial an ingredient in constructing something as the physical constituents. Cussing concentrates the mind. We weren’t the first to think so. I remember from my childhood Dad going round to help our neighbour, who I knew as Uncle Will, with a car problem. “Damn, I won’t be able to swear so it’ll take ages,” Dad grumbled as he set off. Uncle Will was indeed a gentle soul. We’d often call round as kids and be treated to a biscuit in the kitchen. I only saw the living room once, and the walls were festooned with beautiful embroidered pictures. All Uncle Will’s work.

The young guy never turned up again.

Another #SampleSunday, another extract from my forthcoming ‘Total Immersion: Ten Years in France’. We’re in March 2009, and we get to meet our first home-born baby llama and Chris has a very close encounter with a fox.

We’d moved Gabby, the mother llama, into a stable so she’d be warm and cosy when delivery time came and we checked on her frequently. We coated the stable floor with hay, and counted the days. We were starting to give up. She seemed intent on exploding rather than giving birth, just to spite us.

This cria is actually Sir Winter, born Jan 27 2017. My photos of baby Lulin are on another computer. But he’s equally as cute as she was!

It was a fine, sunny morning during the kids’ winter holiday fortnight so we decided to go for a walk. We did one of our local strolls, the Chambon shuffle we call it (ch = sh in French, so it’s a nice alliterative name). Coming back along the green lane between fields, we spotted a fox in the hedgerow, but it didn’t run away. We peered close and saw that it had a metal snare around its stomach, getting tighter and tighter every time the animal moved. It was probably stupid of us, but we couldn’t leave it like that. Chris had gloves on and tried to free the fox but it bit him, not surprisingly really, and we were forced to abandon the rescue mission for the time being. When we got back, Chris went to put Germolene on his bite and then find thick gloves and wire cutters for a second attempt. I went to look in on Gabby. And there, in a hideous, spindly heap, was a llama cria. Gabby had chosen the darkest, dirtiest corner of the stable to deliver in, studiously avoiding the birth-friendly hay carpet we’d put down.  The baby was cold and grubby. Caiti and I got busy with towels drying the little female down while the boys went off to deal with the fox.

Both missions proved successful. Caiti and I soon transformed the baby into a clean, dry, fluffy cria. She was mainly white with some pretty brown splotches on her face and back. At the time Comet Lulin was visible, and we thought that Lulin was the perfect name for a little llama. Again with the alliteration. Benj and Chris came back, fortunately with no more bites, thanks to the thick gloves. But we still had the one bite to worry about. And worry a lot about, as France was then still officially a rabid country.

We hopped in the car to go to the doctor’s. We explained what had happened, and he asked us if we had the fox’s head. I stared at him blankly. No, he can’t have said that. I must have misunderstood something there. I asked him to repeat the question at a non-Francophone-friendly speed, and the same words came out. Chris and I shot other a ‘what the heck’ look. I warily replied that we didn’t have the head. We’d left it on the fox as it clearly had need of it. There didn’t seem a lot of point in freeing a fox from a snare only to immediately decapitate it, not the thought of doing so would ever have occurred to us.

The doctor sighed and told us, in a long-suffering tone, that if you get bitten by a fox, or any other possibly rabid animal, you’re meant to kill it and bring its head with you for testing. As with so many things in France, you’re meant to instinctively know this. Well, we didn’t, and we hadn’t got a vulpine head with us, so what next? The doctor quickly cheered up and said that Chris would need to go to Guéret hospital for rabies-neutralising shots. These would start at the rate of several a week, then one a week, then one a fortnight and so on at increasingly long intervals for at least the next six months. He might have said years, I was too shocked to listen properly. This really was a blow. We’d been expecting Chris would need a few injections, but not that many or for so long.

Lulin today

The doctor phoned the nearest Department of Information about Rabies and we watched as the smile dropped from his face. Our hearts were in our boots. He must have underestimated the treatment process. But it turned out that Boussac was a rabies-free zone. There hadn’t been any cases reported here for some officially sanctioned period of time, so we didn’t need the injections after all. The doctor was clearly very disappointed about this. I think he’d been quite looking forward to having a case of rabies to tell all his medical chums about. Or maybe, odd as this may sound, he liked seeing English people suffer. All that needed doing was to give Chris some antibiotics. Our anti-tetanus shots were up to date, so no more jabs were necessary. Talk about relief. The incident has, however, left Chris with an intense dislike of foxes. He also vowed he would never try and free another animal from a snare, a vow he steadfastly kept until Christmas when we came across our next case of a snared animal, a deer this time, which, of course, we set free.

Snaring  is legal in France, under certain conditions, and also trapping. Our local friendly farm supply shop, run by incredibly nice people, has a whole rack of gruesome looking devices for these very purposes and obviously they don’t give it a second thought. It’s still a way of life for some country dwellers. We haven’t come across any trapped animals for a long while now, it has to be said. However, I don’t suppose the practice has died out, just that whoever’s setting the snares is keeping them off our usual stamping grounds. The snarer has possibly worked out that the proximity of our farm to the cut-through snares they’d laid was more than coincidental. Because they were quite close to us, the only inhabitants in a sizeable chunk of very many square kilometres. Mine were the only local chickens, or in fact livestock of any kind, that a fox might have helped itself to, so I can’t see the need for anyone to have set a snare in that location. OK, deer eat crops which must be annoying if you’re a farmer, but this snare was on a bit of fencing (erected by the gas board) bordered by scrub land. Unnecessary and unpleasant.

Now that the first draft of Haircuts, Hens and Homicide is in the bag, I’ve been able to return to part Deux of my memoir of our lives in France, Total Immersion. To whet your appetites here’s an extract from the chapter ‘2012: The Year of the Pig’.

The Big Freeze of 2017 is going on as I write about the Even Bigger Freeze of 2012 so it’s helping to put me in the mood. It’s brought back precise memories of exactly how flipping cold it was.

The year started off harmlessly enough. Once New Year was over, the kids headed back to école primaire (Rors), lycée (Caiti) and fac (Benj) and Chris and I settled into our daily routine of this time of years of jobs around the farm, lake maintenance and our online businesses. However, Chris’s inner swineherd was proving hard to ignore. He’d been becoming more and more interested in getting pigs, and talking about them to such an extent that some returning angling clients of ours gave him a book about pig ownership. Perhaps that was the deciding factor, or maybe he just felt ready for a new challenge as by now, between us, we’d mastered llama and alpaca, goat, sheep and poultry ownership. It was time to conquer another animal species.

Chris did some research and found someone who did pig management courses in Poitou-Charentes, about four hours away. He booked himself in on the next available session and sorted out a night’s accommodation nearby as there was an early start to the day’s training. All he had to do now was wait.

January was ridiculously mild, to the extent that the daffs were coming up, the chickens were laying fit to bust and buds were starting to appear on many trees. What a lovely short winter we’ve had this time, we thought with a smile. But Mother Nature had the last laugh.

Chris set off on a sunny Sunday afternoon, waved off by me and the two youngest. Once he was gone we pottered around in the warmth, doing the farm chores and getting some fresh air before focussing on getting everything ready for school next day. For Rors this was just making sure there were clean clothes ready and waiting, but for Caiti it was the usual painful process of packing the suitcase for a week of boarding. We should have had it down to a fine art by now, and we had done with Benj, but somehow every week seemed like the first with our daughter. She always left packing till the very last minute, long after parental patience had been ground down. I’ve never been a late night person and since moving to France and taking up a much more physically exhausting lifestyle, then bed starts calling at nine o’clock, sometimes earlier. So things would tend to get fraught on a Sunday evening. But Caiti inevitably produced the proverbial rabbit from the hat and was all ready for the off, although she regularly resembled the proverbial slow snail and reduced me to a nervous wreck on Monday mornings. However, as it turned out miraculously we only ever missed the bus once.

This particular Monday morning was very chilly but with Chris away I had no alternative but to load a warmly wrapped sleepy Ruadhrí into the car to be taken for the ride when delivering Caiti to the bus stop in Clugnat. The road sparkled with frost and it was nippy. One low, hill-bottom stretch of the road was, as usual, particularly cold. We called it the ‘frost bucket’. This arose from a very young Caiti mishearing us using the expression ‘frost pocket’. Well, since ‘frost bucket’ is so much better we adopted that one as a family saying. The car showed a temperature of minus three or so. Brrr.

Meanwhile Chris was getting up to minus five, which came as a bit of a shock. Fortunately he’d taken plenty of warm clothes with him as a lot of the training was done outside and the day itself was sunny and bright. He had a wonderful time learning about the finer points of pigmanship with trainers David and Lorraine. They specialised in English old breed pigs and so Chris got to meet Gloucester Old Spots, Berkshires and Oxford Sandy and Blacks. He got to eat them at lunchtime too but not the ones he’d just met, obviously! The whole point of getting pigs was to become self-sufficient in pork. We weren’t going to be a pig sanctuary – we were going into this venture with hardened hearts and a love of sausages.  Chris was immediately struck with how much nicer the pork from these old breeds was than what we were used to eating from the supermarket.

Chris learned about fencing, handling and breeding pigs, and about all the relevant legislation. There was plenty of hands-on experience of rounding up and feeding. He was struck with how intelligent the pigs are. You can interact with a pig. Llamas, alpacas, goats, sheep – not so much. The action with them is one way, i.e. from the human, with the creature in question simply regarding you vacantly as The Mysterious Being That Dispenses Food. A pig, though, will come over for a chat. A pig will listen. A pig will scrutinise you and size you up with those shrewd eyes, rather than just gaze dumbly at you. A pig is altogether a different kind of animal from other farm livestock.

Temperatures began to plummet as the day wore on. I distributed extra hay to the animals and took a hat for Rors with me when I walked to Nouzerines to meet him from school. It was the walking-to-and-from school season in the winter, but the rest of the year we cycled him in and out. Despite living the furthest away, and Chris and I being the oldest set of parents by at least a decade, we were the only ones who were able to get to and from under our own environmentally-friendly steam rather than resorting to car or bus. As well as allowing us to feel morally superior to the rest of the world, it kept us all fit and we enjoyed the exercise as a family activity.

Chris got back quite late and reported freezing fog and icy roads all the way. It was by now a good few degrees below freezing, and it was going to be several weeks before it warmed up. The Big Freeze had begun.

It seemed to come out of nowhere. Admittedly we didn’t watch the Météo, weather forecast, regularly. We’d tried and failed to adapt to French television generally. With its love of short and frankly bizarre (‘quirky’ doesn’t come close) vignettes, and its overly-verbose chat and quiz show hosts, it just wasn’t for us. The culturally divide turns into a chasm when it comes to the TV. But we soon started watching it every night. And the news, where ice-bound scenes from around the country filled most of the half-hour slot. However, we were far more concerned with our own ice-boundness, which was dramatic and wholesale.

(The artwork for the cover of Total Immersion is by the incomparable Roger Fereday. The photo is of our own Berkshire pigs, Rosamunde and Oberon.)

The author describes this as a dozy mystery, rather than a cozy mystery, which right from the start gives you the idea that the book is likely to be quirky and fun. And it is. It’s a very enjoyable, well written and easy read.

Ron, our laid back hero, who only panics now and then such as when it looks like he’s been snugly stitched up as the perpetrator of the crime, leads us through the story. He’s determined to find out who did actually sink a machete into Old Pete’s head, and so he sets about the task, very unably assisted by Sam, his colleague at The Jolly Jester. He encounters various other shady but fascinating characters along the winding way. He discovers, as do we, that there’s a lot more going on in the village of Duckley than meets the eye.

Well worth a read, and many thanks to the author for keeping me thoroughly entertained.

Available from all the Amazons.