Ask a Local: London

One of the best ways to find something special when traveling is to ask someone who lives there where they eat, what museum they like, or what do they do for relaxation.

While visiting London last weekend, I did just that and found two great discoveries, one very nice pub and a pretty good place to eat Indian cuisine.

We were strolling through the Portobello Market on a blustery day. Having exhausted our shopping needs, we asked one of the vendors if there was a place nearby to get a warm drink. She suggested we stop in Alexeeva & Jones at 297 Westbourne Grove, right there in the Notting Hill part of London.

This is a store that makes high end chocolate treats. We are not talking about supermarket stuff, here. These are exquisite chocolate delights, more expensive than run of the mill pralines, but so worth the difference in price. We each had a hot chocolate, just what the brisk London weather called for. I added a shot of chocolate from Italian chocolate maker Guido Gobino, who hails from Torino (Turin) and is one of the finest chocolatiers in the world. Yum.

Once we were enjoying our chocolate buzz, we asked if there was a nice pub nearby. Hey, it’s London, right? The suggestion was to walk over to Walmer Castle (58 Ledbury Road, across the street from an Ottolenghi deli). We did so and were thrilled to find an excellent Thai kitchen serving upstairs. It is quite common in London for a pub to hire out the kitchen to a specialty chef, and I have found through extensive research that Thai cuisine pairs quite well with a cask aged English bitter. Three of us enjoyed a very nice lunch, followed by going downstairs to watch the England vs Italy rugby match.

The next day, we were strolling through the National Gallery and asked one of the employees if they knew of a good Indian restaurant nearby. She sent us to Masala Zone (48 Floral Street, Covent Garden).  Decorated by hundreds of folkloric dolls hanging from the ceiling, I was a bit worried at first it would be touristy and not so great. To my pleasant surprise, the food was pretty good (not the best Indian I have had in London, but five of us ate for less than 90 pounds). We were all quite happy with the quality and the service.

Finally, and in my mind, the best find was Lupita (13-15 Villiars Street – not far from the Embankment underground station). They serve authentic Mexico City cuisine. Anyone who has visited Europe knows how difficult it is to find really good Mexican food. Well, the problem is solved! They had home-made tortilla chips, the Margaritas were excellent, and I ate a vegetarian burrito with roasted mushrooms that was simply fantastic. Bonus: they make fresh guacamole right at your table!

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This place is going to be on my itinerary every time I visit London.

If you want help from a local for your visit to Italy, check out my collection of eBooks from the Amazon Kindle Store.

 

Visit to the Local High School

Each year, I go visit the local high school to talk to the kids about being a writer.

 

Discussing one of my books at the High School.

Discussing one of my books at the High School.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I made that pleasant trip today and met an enthusiastic and engaged group. I babbled few minutes about what life is like as a writer (you know – many hours of work, no money) before we started our writing exercises.

The most interesting and fun project was to rewrite a boring sentence. The kids started with “The man walked across the room.”

A group of High School students working to improve a boring sentence.

A group of High School students working to improve a boring sentence.

 

 

 

 

They were split into four groups, each table was asked to rewrite the sentence to make it either scary, funny, exciting, or sad. They had about fifteen minutes to work on their sentences, and some of the results were terrific. I’m not sure why so many of them described the man as “old,” but whatever…

 

 

 

 

Authors, even High School authors, deserve praise for good writing.

Authors, even High School authors, deserve praise for good writing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think I was able to convince them how important it is to use exciting, descriptive words.  When I read some of their sentences aloud, the reaction to the particularly good ones was a great measure of them wanting to know what happens next! Hopefully they’ll remember that next time they have an English paper and the next time they write a letter to their grandmother.

It was (as always) a fun and interesting time for me, and hopefully also for them.

A Terrific Wine Weekend

Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to visit Italy’s northeast corner, specifically the wine production area called Collio. I spent three days tasting five varieties of a local white wine. Read my thoughts about it here.

Cheers

WHen visititng Collio, one must be prepared at all times!

When visiting Collio, one must be prepared at all times!

 

Final Day of Pordenone Book Festival

I know I said I would talk about meeting Umberto Eco in this post, but I am not going to say much. He signed three books for me, which is great, and he is an impressive intellect. But my favorite moment was when he sat on the couch in the lobby of a hotel with Margaret Atwood.

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What I will talk about is meeting Hannah Kent. If you have not yet heard of her, you will. Her first novel, “Burial Rites,” has just been translated to German, Spanish, and Italian. Check out her web page to read what some pretty heavy hitters have said about that book.

Hannah Kent (with a traslator) at a Press Conference during PordenoneLegge 2014.

Hannah Kent (with a traslator) at a Press Conference during PordenoneLegge 2014.

I read and really liked it. She is a young writer, not yet 30 years old. But has a mastery of the craft that far exceeds mine and most other authors I have read. If she continues to write, she will be enormously successful.

So go get a copy of “Burial Rites” today. If you are in a book group, add it to your list.

 

I spoke with  her for about 30 minutes. She is quite smart and seems fully committed to becoming a truly great writer. She graciously accepted a copy of my “The Salome Effect.” I will let you know what she says about it (if what she says is good).

Me with soon-to-be-incredibly-famous Hannah Kent

Me with soon-to-be-incredibly-famous Hannah Kent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anyway, go get a copy of “Burial Rites,” and let me know what you think.

More news from the Pordenone (Italy) Book Festival

What an amazing Saturday!

First, a press conference with the inspiring Margaret Atwood. Then a break for an excellent lunch (this IS Italy, you know!). Then her presentation to the public – which ended with her singing! Then, purely by chance, I walked with her on my way to the next press conference. That one was Umberto Eco, a pretty accomplished writer, too. Finished off the night with an excellent pizza.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood

 

 

Margaret Atwood is a charming and intelligent woman in her mid 70’s. Much of her writing recounts post-apocalyptic survivors struggling to reboot humanity. She is concerned about our collective future. In the press conference she talked about introducing new technologies, warning there are always good, bad, and stupid (or unexpected) consequences. It is the unexpected ones to worry about.  She talked about in the 1990’s a new anti inflammatory drug gets used to treat livestock in India. The drug, as it turns out, is fatal to vultures. So the vulture population there dropped by 99%. With no vultures to eat dead animals, rats and wild dogs show up in huge numbers. This introduces rabies, botulism, anthrax and other horribly dangerous diseases to India.

It is that kind of background she uses in her books, which then tell the stories of the survivors. Good stuff.  Get her MaddAddam trilogy (“Oryx and Crake,” “The Year of the Flood,” and “MaddAddam.”

The audience at an author presentation. Pretty cool stuff.

The audience at an author presentation. Pretty cool.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My next post will be about the encounter with Umberto Eco.

 

 

 

The Pordenone (Italy) Book Fair

This week the annual book fair in the small town of Pordenone, Italy opened.

I really love this event, as authors from all over the world come and speak to readers, journalists, and other authors.

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Yesterday I met Michael Dobbs, author of “House of Cards.” After great success as a book, and a few seasons on BBC, it is now a huge hit on US television (finally being broadcast on the Sky Network in mainland Europe). Season two of the US TV series opens on Sky next week.

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I sat through a press conference with Dobbs (and about 25 Italian journalists), then his presentation to the public, with perhaps 250 in the audience.

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He talked about how it has taken 27 years for “House of Cards” to become such a big success – so I take some comfort in being stuck for the last year or so on my second novel.

He started writing while on vacation after being sacked from his job as Chief of Staff to then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Sitting by the pool at a resort on the island of Malta, he had a pad, a pencil and a bottle of wine.

By the time the wine was gone, he had written just two letters, F U.

Given what had just happened to his political career, I think we all know what those letters meant. Anyway, as he finally started to get some traction in his writing effort, those letters became the initials of his main (and really, really nasty) character. Francis Urquart in the British version, Frank Underwood in the US (played brilliantly by Kevin Spacey).

Dobbs said that drama comes from getting to the dark side of a character, and real drama comes from exploring the deepest depths of that darkness. If you have seen the show, or better yet read the books, it’s pretty clear he has found some drama.

When asked about Scotland voting for independence from the United Kingdom (Dobbs is a member of the British House of Lords), he first said if it were approved, it would be the saddest day of his political life. Results came in today and the independence bid was voted down by the Scots.

Dobbs then talked about leaders, in a political sense. As he is a MP, and has a long political career, and writes compelling drama about politics, this is a theme close to his heart.

He expressed his opinion the world, but Europe in particular, needs new charismatic and creative leaders to figure out solutions to the many vexing problems of our time.

I was more interested in his literature than his politics, but had to ask him if it took one bottle of wine to get him to produce the letters F U, how much wine would he need to be that charismatic and creative leader he wants?

He smiled and said (paraphrasing), “Wine does not keep you young, but it does keep you.”

I told him that since he was in Italy, he was in the right place for plenty of creative inspiration.

I found his presentation interesting and informative, and now can’t wait to read his entire “House of Cards” trilogy.

Later this week, I’ll meet Margaret Atwood, Umberto Eco, and Hannah Kent.

 

Talking to young people about writing is an invigorating experience.

During my one hour meet at the school, the kids asked plenty of great questions.

During my one hour meet at the school, the kids asked plenty of great questions.

Next, we did an active writing exercise, substituting words and phrases to a painfully boring sentence to make it come alive with vivid descriptions and compelling verbs.

They did seem concerned at how frequently a writer is told “no” by agents or publishers or editors (this writer is, anyway). I asked them if they get back up when they fall down, and they got it.

Get ready for a group writing exercise

Get ready for a group writing exercise

I left them with two pieces of advice on being a better writer:  read more and write more.

I love good reviews!

It is so gratifying to find a new (good) review of my work.  Here are two new ones that have recently been put on amazon.com. Thanks to both reviewers for their kind words about “The Salome Effect.” Of course, I’d love to get more…

By Lucinda on October 15, 2013

Format: Paperback

This is the story of an American in Italy who falls irrevocably in love with a painting by Carravaggio and a sensual stripper, set within the beautiful backdrop of Torino. Exquisitely evocative and colourful this atmospheric masterpiece ensnares the senses and illuminates the mind, by transporting you the very heart of Italy’s vibrant culture. James Sajo flawlessly captures Italian life; the passion and obsession with both fine art and mouth-watering food, which is utterly delectable and piquant. This astonishingly unexpected and profoundly absorbing story swept me away, with its intoxicating concoction of lust, genius, deadly desires and gluttony that was so darkly disturbingly magnetic! Having never visited Italy I was captivated by the richness of the ambience and the places described in such detail, hence I am keener than ever to visit the location of where “The Salome Effect” takes place.

This fantastic fictional tale about a former American Soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, a spicy Romanian stripper, a priceless Italian painting and a mysterious murder is incredibly impressive. Utterly believable and highly readable this novel containing likeable, interesting characters was an unexpected surprise and delight. Cleverly combining exquisite detail with inspired creative vision, the author has created an imaginative masterpiece of sheer wonderment that takes you on a thrilling ride. If you were looking for a sub-genre “noir” fiction that is enjoyable and that has a fast-paced plotline, then this would be my top recommendation to you.

4.5 star rating

By Tom Mullen on September 30, 2013

Format: Kindle Edition

The Salome Effect is about an American who lives in Torino, Italy, and has fallen in love with a local stripper, as well as a painting by Caravaggio. The plot tells of his plan to have both. What really draws you in as a reader are little details of Italian life that the author has sprinkled in. These make you want to be in Torino – where chocolate truffles are served with hefty Barolo wine, where a homemade ‘simple’ dinner of linguini, egglpant, and Barbera wine sounds exquisite, and where dank and smelly back alleys contrast to adjacent and magnificent locations that include La Raggia palace – bigger than the Palace of Versailles. I’ve visited Piemonte in Italy south of where this book is set, but now – having read this book – am fired up to visit Torino.

This is a very readable story about cops, robbers, and community. It’s about how love can drive a man to outlandish ends, how friendship and deals sometimes trounce the law, and about how a person can be seduced not only by a beautiful woman, but by food, art, and the need for a sense of belonging. Characters include a hefty Turkish bouncer, a corrupt politician, a knife-wielding lout, and a powerful painting that draws their situations together. This book will make you want to spend time in Torino, and to enjoy the local food, wine, and galleries. Well done!

This week, on Friday I will make my annual visit to the local high school to talk to kids about writing and why it is cool. I think I’ll start with the difference between
“Let’s eat, Grandma!”
or
“Let’s eat Grandma!”
It is an old ploy, but the high school kids might like it (and hopefully get the point!)

What do you think of historical fiction?

My next big project comes from that genre.  I’ll be telling the story of a woman from the House of Savoy during the 17th century.  In the mid-19th century, the Savoy King was the driving force that unified the Italian peninsula into the country we know today as Italy.

But two hundred years earlier they were, quite literally, a house divided. Duke Vittorio Amadeo died (some believe poisoned by his enemies), leaving his wife Cristina to serve as Regent until her young son could rule the House.  She had the qualifications: her older brother was King of France, one sister was Queen of England, another Queen of Spain. Her mother was from the powerful Medici family of Florence.

Cristina, Duchess of Savoy

Cristina, Duchess of Savoy

But the fallen Duke’s two brothers Tommaso and Maurizio were not happy with the choice of Cristina. They were allied with the Spanish throne and feared her ties to France threatened their own ambitions. Spain and France were already involved in battles and skirmishes throughout Europe. The danger to the House of Savoy was very real.

Cristina, Duchess of Savoy ruled for 26 years.  She sometimes battled sometimes negotiated but won a delicate balance between Spain and France, outsmarted and outlasted her two brothers-in-law in a bloody civil war, and raised four children. She instituted political and cultural reforms, constructed roads, built hospitals, and improved the living conditions of her subjects.

Everybody has heard of Elizabeth 1 of England or Catherine the Great of Russia, but almost nobody knows the story of Cristina. I plan to change that.

She was The Royal Lady to her subjects, who loved her.

She was The Royal Lady to her subjects, who loved her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am nearly finished with the research phase and (almost) ready to start writing. I’ll keep you posted!

I just spent five days at an Italian Book Festival

The small city of Pordenone, Italy hosts a winning annual book fair. This year was no exception.

Pordenonelegge (it translates to “Pordenone reads”), now in its fourteenth year, has become Italy’s second most important annual literature festival. This is an impressive accomplishment for a working class town of slightly less than 50,000.

Pordenone is nestled in Northeast Italy, about sixty kilometers (35 miles) from Venice. When the Pordenonelegge book festival comes to town, the city’s characteristic medieval center transforms from a quiet community to a vibrant metropolis bustling with an enormous audience keen on culture and literature.

From 18-22 September, more than 120,000 visitors attended some 200 events, featuring 263 authors, philosophers, journalists, poets, and artists of international standing.

This was not only an opportunity for authors and publishers to sell books.  It was a lively intellectual exchange of ideas and philosophy.  It was a hands-on discussion on how to write.  And it was an exploration into the mechanics of evoking emotions through the written word.

It was a thoughtful discussion of the challenges we face as individuals (love, loss, desire, ambition, etc.) and the problems we face as a society (Syria, economics, racism, and more).

The great English novelist Martin Amis presented his newest work, “Lionel Asbo.” The title character as a very violent but not very successful criminal who wins 140 million Pounds Sterling in the English National Lottery. Amis said he tried to show how fame has become the new religion in western society, and that the only way to counteract that troubling trend is through education. Hear, hear.

English novelist Martin Amis (center) listens to an interpreter as he is introduced before receiving the prestigious "History in a Novel" Award

English novelist Martin Amis (center) listens to an interpreter as he is introduced before receiving the prestigious “History in a Novel” Award

A well-respected intellectual and author from Greece, Petros Markaris told a large audience the economic troubles threatening the European Union are not unsolvable. He went on to say the other countries in the EU should stop blaming Germany and start making their own proposals for a new European economic plan.

His words were well received by an audience comprised almost entirely of Italians. Italy is frequently described as on the brink of financial and economic collapse, and Italians generally feel their political leaders only follow the orders of German economists, rather than taking steps to reduce taxes, create jobs, and revive their economy.

The five days of Pordenonlegge featured presentations across seven different themes. Beyond Literature, experts also spoke about Screenwriting, Poetry, and Philosophy. One program, called “Aperitif with an Author” was a chance for a small group to sit with a well-known author or journalist, share a cocktail, and engage in a lively discussion. How cool is that?

One of the most popular themes was Children’s Books. School groups, from elementary school aged brand new readers to first year university students attended lectures, participated in hands-on writing workshops, and even had a chance to meet kid’s favorite Geronimo Stilton.

Another author present was Booker Prize winner John Banville (the Booker Prize is the United Kingdom’s equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize in the US).  Banville’s latest work, called “Ancient Light” is a story of obsessive love and the power of grief. His prose has been compared to poetry.

In a meeting with journalists, Banville said he felt anything “weird” in a book will not work if it is done for too long. He described “weird” as dream sequences, flashbacks, stream-of-consciousness narratives, even sex scenes. A very pragmatic writer, Banville urged writers in the audience to write to the end of their book, then go back and worry about making it readable.

Irish writer John Banville meets with a group of journalists before making his public appearance.

Irish writer John Banville (right) meets with a group of journalists before making his public appearance.

Past editions of Pordenonelegge have hosted noteworthy international authors including: Erica Jong, J.M. Coetzee, Tony Harrison, Michael Cunningham, Jeffery Deaver, and Ian McEwan.