A second-hand ice cream in Cairo

A CLEOPATRA CIGARETTE PACKET FROM 1973

Before I began writing Cairo Mon Amour, I wrote a memoir of my time in Egypt in 1973, when Cairo Mon Amour is set. Here’s an extract:

We found a flat in Muhammad Mahmoud Street, which led from Tahrir Square to the old market at Bab El-Luq. The charmless street was lined with metal shuttered shops, repair workshops and cafés. The little residential compound at No. 29 was reached through an arch leading into a small courtyard that gave access to three or four flats. Ours overlooked a tiny garden of palms and cactuses coated with a hundred years of grey dust.

A toothless concierge – our bawwaab – lived in a cupboard under an external staircase, where he cooked on a primus stove in the midst of his blankets. There was a fraternity of these bawwaabeen in the neighbourhood, and our man Farag had half a dozen of them over on Fridays to be shaved in the courtyard by a visiting barber. Our interactions with Farag were brief and functional, not the least because I had difficulty understanding rural speech spoken through gums. We settled into a daily routine of checking the mail once I had figured out that the concierge word for ‘letter’ wasn’t the standard term risaalah but gawaab, meaning ‘reply’. Most days he’d greet me with ma feesh gawaab – ‘no reply’. I often wondered what this usage implied; did it characterise the recipient as the party repeatedly begging some favour? Were people like Farag so insignificant that nobody would write to them except to refuse a request? Was Farag perhaps awaiting a legacy, heir to some Egyptian version of Jarndyce and Jarndyce?

I recently learned that our old locale is now notorious for the battle of Muhammad Mahmoud in November 2011, when tear-gassed protesters had their eyes shot out by riot police snipers.

But in 1973 it was a homely but unprepossessing neighbourhood where most basic needs could be satisfied within a few minutes’ walk. I took my shirts to the makwagi, the open-air ironing shop where the black hand irons were heated on a brazier, and the ironing man filled his mouth with water and sprayed the garments through his lips. At the open-air cinema, you could buy melon seeds and peanuts wrapped in a screw of paper made from recycled exam papers, and the floor was always carpeted with shells by the end of the film.

Bab El-Luq market supplied the staples, but I was surprised at the narrow range of fruit and vegetables available; lots of bananas, tomatoes and aubergines. One day my wife came home with half a gigantic cabbage, shaken and upset after being berated by a market trader; when she had asked for the monster vegetable to be cut in two, he had cut it and tried to make her take her both halves; apparently, you couldn’t buy a half, but you could ask for it to be cut in two. She would have needed a wheelbarrow to get the whole thing home.

I’d often take a bowl to the fuul shop in the morning to bring back a dollop of stewed horse beans for breakfast. We learned to give baqsheesh at the baker’s shop to make sure the bread was wrapped with the minimum of finger contact, but we toasted the crust over the gas when we got home anyway. It took me a while to find bottled milk, so I took my own saucepan to a back-alley dairy. It was run by a man with a filthy temper, who constantly yelled at the boys sterilising the water buffalo milk in big open vats; he disappeared for a month to go on pilgrimage, and returned transformed into a genial, beaming uncle.

Indeed, the purchase and preparation of food was largely pre-industrial. Apart from cans of superannuated vegetables and fruit from behind the Iron Curtain, there was little packaged food: Rice and lentils were bought loose and had to be picked over for grit; loose coffee came in two varieties – the same coffee, but Arabic (fine ground) and French (coarse ground); water had to be boiled and stored in second hand whiskey bottles, which could be bought from the robivecchi man (why these junk dealers were called by an Italian name I have no idea).

We gradually widened our shopping circle to include a pork butcher tucked in a nearby alley, as well as the upmarket Maison Thomas delicatessen, where the loveliest butter was made into pats on a cool marble counter, and the most toothsome eggs were sold – long and pointy with orange yolks.

Out delicate stomachs slowly hardened until we suffered from diarrhoea only one day in three. After all, people of my generation were well nourished and hygienically raised under a post-war regime that gave us cod liver oil, school milk, the National Health Service, and council grants to install bathrooms; people sometimes had ‘bilious attacks’ in England, not the nagging gassy squits that dogged us in Cairo. Anticipating gastric troubles, one of the students in our group had tried to prepare himself in London by eating small amounts of dirt each day, scraped from window sills and train floors. But nothing could have prepared me for the folly of buying a second-hand ice cream one evening.

“What flavour is it?” I asked the small boy, who was holding the thing in his fist in the crowded market.

“Mango,” he said, poking the orange mush into the cone with his finger. I snaffled it on the spot.

“Why did he only have one ice cream? Shouldn’t he have had a box of them?” my wife asked me.

The next day, tossing a Frisbee on a playing field in Zamalek, I thought I tore a stomach muscle. Hour by hour the pain grew worse until, believing I was dying, I lay on my bed as a doctor – a Syrian specialiste des maladies internes – used a large antique syringe on me that wouldn’t have gone unnoticed in a medieval torture dungeon.

My faith in British order and bureaucracy intact, I weakly indicated the student travel insurance voucher beside the bed; the jolly old doctor providing the service was to simply complete the details, post the voucher to Head Office in Swindon or Rickmansworth or somewhere, and await reimbursement by postal order. But the screws on the vice squeezing my bowels turned another twist and by the time I returned from the toilet, my wife had paid the Syrian in cash and he had gone.

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Find out more about Cairo Mon Amour here.

‘Cairo Rations’ still #1 in its Amazon category!

graphic cover2Cairo Rations is still #1 in its Amazon category and still free! In fact, it’s permanently free on Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and Kobo. Today’s stats:
Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #15,507 Free in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Free in Kindle Store)
#1 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction > Travel > Africa > Egypt

Check here to see where to get it.

 

New scholarly book evokes warm memories

New-Insights-into-Arabic-Translation-and-InterpretingI took time out from writing fiction last year to contribute the introduction to this new book, edited by Associate Professor Mustafa Taibi from Western Sydney University. In writing the introduction I took the opportunity to honour the memory of the Iraqi scholar Dr. Safa Khulusi, whose  Arabic classes I attended at the Polytechnic of Central London in the seventies.

The invitation to write the introduction evoked warm memories of academic colleagues, teachers, and students from the Arab World.

You can read a sample of the book by clicking the  Look Inside button here.

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Learn about Stuart Campbell’s novels here.

The orientalist stripped bare

inscribed book
“To the English friend and guest of Egypt the orientalist Professor Stuart Campbell I give this book (author’s name redacted)

My third novel Cairo Mon Amour (publication July 2016) is set in Egypt in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War. I travelled to Egypt with my wife a few weeks before the  war started on October 6. I was to study at Cairo University, and my wife was to enjoy a reunion with her Armenian grandmother. We had  expectations of the Romantic Orient; these hopes were soon dashed.

I have written about our first days in Egypt in my memoir Cairo Rations!, and I have included the relevant section at the foot of this post. If you would like to have a free copy of the entire 11,000-word memoir, email me at stuartcampbellauthorATgmailDOTcom (replace the AT and DOT with @ and . so that I know you are human) and I will send you a copy and add you to my email news list.

Read a free sample of An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity  here. Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity and The Play’s the Thing . Stuart Campbell’s covers are designed by Rachel Ainge .

EXTRACT FROM CAIRO RATIONS!

THE ORIENTALIST STRIPPED BARE

The address we had been given was written in English: ‘Bustan Said’, and that was it. This piece of information had been passed along a chain of relatives from Egypt to Australia to Britain by letter and telephone, and via several languages and alphabets.

On our first night in Egypt we booked into the Hotel Cecil in Alexandria, where Somerset Maugham had stayed and the British Secret Service used to rent a permanent suite. Our mission was to travel to Cairo the next morning to find my wife’s relative’s boarding house. I spent the evening combing the telephone directory for anyone with Madame P’s surname and calling them up. “No, not here. Who’s that?”, “Who, who? Not here!” It didn’t help that the phone book was in Arabic and that Madame P’s Armenian name could have been spelt in at least six ways. But this was 1973: People didn’t expect to locate some exact spot on the surface of the earth in microseconds; people were used to being stood up, missing each other at planned meetings; people were used to unanswered phones. We went to bed without misgivings.

The train took us through the Delta to Cairo the next day, and I fought for and won a taxi at Ramses Station, asking the driver to take us to Bustan Said Street. I tried pronouncing ‘Said‘ in several ways – the four bald English letters gave about half the information needed to guess the Arabic word – and the driver lurched fatalistically into the traffic, no doubt praying that the mysterious location would magically appear before his rheumy eyes. It didn’t of course, although we did crawl up and down Bustan Street many times, craning to see past the bogged traffic and the sticky fingers of the child beggars on the car window, in case we saw a huge illuminated sign for Pension P. Nothing. “Take us to a hotel,” I said, and he drove for miles, eventually stopping outside an unmarked establishment in an empty street blighted with dusty urban poverty. We refused a squalid room upstairs with six frowzy beds, and resumed our journey. This time I said to the driver, “Take us to funduq urubbii“, ‘a European hotel’. I still cringe at the memory of the clumsy request. We were delivered to the posh Borg Hotel, where our room had just one bed.

My only experience of the Arab World had been our honeymoon in Tangier, a memory naturally tinted with romance, or more specifically The Romance of the Orient. Our taxi trip had left me with the impression that most of Cairo looked like a rubbish dump, but waking up in a decent hotel with a view of the Nile restored my hope that the Orient was out there to be found. Even better, the front desk staff knew exactly which street Pension P was in – Bustan El-Saeedi Street, right opposite the Filfila Restaurant. With the missing syllables restored to Madame P’s address, we checked out of the Borg and took another cab. And here we were, outside an Italianate apartment building in chaotic Bab El-Luq with all the prescribed features of The Orient around us: Men in nightshirts and turbans, donkeys, street stalls, thronging crowds, beggars, hullabaloo. We took the shuddering birdcage lift to the fourth floor and were admitted to a large vestibule with a dining table and a dozen or so chairs, and seven or eight doors leading to bedrooms around the sides. A couple of professional gents sat us down and politely explained that Madame P was out shopping. They sent out for fuul medammes and boiled eggs while we waited. The gents were two of Madame P’s boarders. Some weeks later, one of them – an army journalist – gave me a signed copy of a book he had written in praise of President Sadat. He inscribed it in Arabic, To the English friend and guest of Egypt the orientalist Professor Stuart Campbell I give this book.

Now might be a good point to take stock of how things stood with the Orient in 1973, at least among the people that I mixed with. Despite its glee at the dismantling of the colonial order, nouveau intellectual youth culture in the UK had inherited the cultural blueprint of the East drawn up by former generations: The Orient of the Beatles and the bandwagon Indian mystics was sensual, passive, spiritual, dismissive of material concerns. This hippy formulation wasn’t much different from that of T.E. Lawrence’s views of the Arabs he led at the fall of Damascus in 1918. As for me, I spent the first two years of my degree luxuriating in the works of old-time Orientalists like William Lane, Richard Burton and Gertrude Bell. The task, I believed, was for the West and the East to reach mutual understanding, mutual respect, world peace and all that. The bit that I missed was that we, the colonialists, had written the rules and the East didn’t have a say. Five years later the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said launched his seminal book Orientalism, changing for ever the rules of intellectual engagement in the study of cultures. After Edward Said nobody wanted to be called an orientalist.

Let’s return to the dining room at Madame P’s. We had finished the fuul and eggs, and there was still no sign of the lady. The professional gents sent for a young man, a university student, who must have lived in the building, and he was told to take us around the neighbourhood to look for Madame P. We went from shop to shop while the student practised his English on us. I was expecting him to be interested and flattered (I cringe deeply again) that a British student had gone to the trouble of studying his language and his culture. Instead he questioned me brusquely about why I was in Egypt, eventually becoming quite sarcastic and tossing in terms like ‘imperialist’ and ‘invader’. We didn’t find Madame P, but by the time we returned to the Pension she was there, and the sour student slipped away. There were hugs and kisses, and my wife, her relative and an ex-orientalist settled down to catch up on family history.

Is Moroccan the new black?

almaghrib

Groping in the shower for the plastic bottles last week I noticed that we had switched to Kazakh shampoo. Mmm, a warm spicy blend to replenish the vital oils my scalp lacks. I popped out at lunchtime to the bookshop to get some ideas for a dinner party and I was staggered at how many Kazakh cookbooks there were. ‘Chuck an ‘andful of cumin and coriander at a lump of lamb, sling a blob of yoghourt on top, whip it onto the BBQ and yer got an authentic  Kazakh feast,’ somebody called Jamie wrote in his book.

I’ve met perhaps half a dozen people who’ve been to Kazakhstan, a country of almost no economic significance to Australia, to which we exported $8m of goods in 2011-2012 and imported $23m. That’s even less than our trade figures with Peru.

Hang on, did I say Kazakhstan? Actually I meant Morocco, that other trade colossus to which we exported $17m of goods and imported $51m, most of which was crude fertilizer. But at least I know a few more people who’ve actually been there than to Kazakhstan. By the way, I couldn’t find any Australian visitor numbers for Morocco, which means that they must be very low. And I think I probably know most of the Moroccans in Australia.

So why I am I picking on poor neglected Morocco? The reason is that I am astonished by the way that the word Moroccan has been appropriated by the food industry and its publishing handmaidens. Every other box of over processed dust or pulp on Sydney supermarket shelves seems to be Moroccan. Search for Moroccan in Amazon books, and the list of cookbooks goes on interminably. I came across a book by somebody with a clearly non-Moroccan name, that contained one hundred and fifty Moroccan tagine recipes! Is this Moroxploitation or what? Is the author a gastroanthropologist who spent years at the feet of peasant women in the Rif Mountains feverishly scribbling in notebooks?  The statistics just don’t work: If the basic protein variants in a tagine are chicken, lamb, fish or pulses, how do you get nearly forty variants on each? The only solution I can think of is to omit ingredients one by one, e.g.  hold the parsley! (that makes eighty four), halve the cumin! (eighty five), put the saffron away! (eighty six), etc. Before I stop let me tell you quite truthfully that I have just found in my fridge a container of Moroccan Minestrone soup! I’m sure I saw a can of Peruvian Goulash in the cupboard last week …

My real purpose for writing about Morocco is to mention that besides an appropriated cuisine, Morocco has some captivating literary associations with the non-Arab world. I was reminded of this when I was recently dipping into an excellent bilingual reader of Arabic short stories, translated and edited by Ronak Husni and Daniel L. Newman and published by the equally excellent Saqi Books. My tactic with this book is to plod through the Arabic text on the right hand side while I use short eyeball flicks to speed read the English translation on the other side.

The book fell open at a story by Mohamed Shoukri, the Moroccan ‘poet of the dispossessed’ who the editors tell us, was illiterate until his mid-twenties but went on to be one of the most celebrated writers in the Arab World. Shoukri had an important connection with Paul Bowles, the American composer and writer who spent much of his life in Tangier, where he was visited by literary figures like William Burroughs and Christopher Isherwood (who named Sally Bowles after him, for those who remember Cabaret). Now, somehow I’d missed Shoukri’s novel For Bread Alone, translated by Bowles and apparently much celebrated in the seventies; presumably I was too busy collecting arcane degrees to fit in celebrated novels. Coincidentally I happened to be in Tangier in 1971, but being ignorant of Bowles and Shoukri, may well have brushed past them in the Petit Socco.

At any rate, Bowles, despite his long residence in Morocco, did not read Standard Arabic, although he was proficient in the spoken dialect of Morocco, which is about as different from the standard language as German is from Dutch. The formerly illiterate Shoukri in the meantime had written his novel in Standard Arabic (as all Arab novelists do), so he orally translated the text into dialect so that Bowles could render it in English. Tangier was then a multilingual city where almost everyone spoke Arabic, French and Spanish, and Bowles tells us in the introduction to For Bread Alone that he and Shoukri would use French or Spanish to help work out shades of meaning.

It’s hard to find an analogy, but imagine that a Moroccan writer comes to live on a cattle station in outback Australia and learns to speak a variety of Pidgin English from the Aboriginal stockmen. One of the stockmen’s children comes back from Sydney after getting an Arts degree and writing a novel about his early life in the bush. He sits down with the Moroccan writer and retells his novel in Pidgin. The Moroccan writer translates it into Arabic and it becomes a hit in the Middle East. Weird or what?

Of course I swiftly downloaded an e-book copy of For Bread Alone and finished in just over one sitting. The verdict: This is the novel that the word gritty was invented for. It follows Shoukri’s squalid childhood and adolescence as he endures beatings, poverty,  grinding work, and a descent into a grim stew of alcohol, hashish and sordid brothels.  The colloquial style – apparently an artefact of the translation process – is elusive and fast moving. Quite a contrast from tagines and shampoo.

So this is my dinner party story gift to you, dear reader. Have a rewarding read of Mohamed Shoukri so that you can set the record straight the next time you are served Moroccan taco dipping sauce that tastes like crude fertilizer.

I originally wrote this article a part of an anthology called ‘On Becoming a Butcher in Paris’. You can download the whole collection for free under a Creative Commons Licence here.

Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:

An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity

The Play’s the Thing

I think a war just started

 

P1020460This is an extract from my memoir Cairo Rations, which you can download free under a Creative Commons licence. I wrote the memoir as the launch pad for my novel in progress Cairo Mon Amour. The picture, by the way, is my 1973 Cairo University student card.

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In hindsight there were portents in the week leading up to October 6 1973, the day that Egypt and its allies launched an attack on Sinai and the Golan Heights without warning.

People spoke anxiously about spies and secret police: “You can’t trust anyone. Be careful who you talk to.” English friends who went horse riding at Giza on October 5 galloped too close to a military area and just avoided being arrested, perhaps shot. A few days before that my wife and I were walking one evening past a disused museum when we were ordered into the gatehouse by a couple of Green Goons. These were the intelligence police recruited from university graduates, six inches taller than the black and white askari police who did the routine work of directing traffic and chasing street thieves. We sat in the gloom on hard chairs for half an hour while they studied our passports and asked us, Why are you in Egypt? Why do you want to study Arabic? Are you Jewish? We assumed when we were allowed to leave that they were simply bored, but perhaps they really were on the lookout for spies.

Consumer goods were scarce and, again with hindsight, the civilian population may have been hoarding in expectation of shortages. Some shops around the upmarket areas near Tahrir Square were selling one-offs – a bottle of perfume, a woman’s blouse, an ornament – that we were told were brought in by Egyptians flying home from Europe.

On the night of October 6 we went to Madame P’s guest house for dinner. The usual pattern of these visits was that we would arrive to find Madame P holding court in bed wrapped in a crocheted shawl and smoking a Craven A. Often there would be a friend in attendance – an elderly Armenian lady sharing with Madame P the woes of the world. The friend would be booted out in favour of binti and ibni – we’d been promoted to ‘daughter’ and ‘son’, and while the servants made dinner Madame P would regale us with an apparently infinite account of the family in diaspora. We would walk home trying to unpick the knots of Eddys, Dikrans, Roupens, Vartanouches, Sylvias and Serges in Paris, California and Beirut.

But the guest house was hushed and tense tonight. Those gentlemen residents who were at home stayed in their rooms. It was usual for casual diners to turn up during the meal – a mysterious old man in a beret who had been imprisoned in Nasser’s time and told my wife how he remembered her from when she was a child, frizz-haired woe-betiding distant aunties, a homeless cousin who lived with the families she sewed for. But nobody came tonight and we ate our lamb and aubergine alone at the big table with its checked oilcloth cover.

A notable absence was the army journalist. Because of his size, his hee-haw voice and his bonhomie, Mr. H was impossible to ignore. He was often at the big table drinking a bottle of Stella beer and eating cucumbers one after another – ‘like a donkey’, Madame P would whisper in the kitchen.

The evening grew gloomier. Now and again one of the gentlemen came out of his room, conferred with one of the other gentlemen in whispers, and then disappeared again. Then late in the evening as we were preparing to leave Mr. H arrived, except that he was now Major H in an army uniform. And he had in his hand a piece of grey painted wood from a packing crate with Hebrew letters stencilled on the side. It had come, he said, from the front. The gents came out of their rooms and gathered around Major H; the Arabic was fast, whispered, colloquial, and I couldn’t understand the detail. We retreated into Madame P’s room and probably all smoked a Craven A – my exact recollection is faint. But one of us said, “I think a war just started”.

My wife and I walked the few streets home from Bustan Saeed Street to our flat at 29 Muhammad Mahmoud Street. Farag the one-toothed doorkeeper said good evening. I don’t remember whether he called me ‘professor’, ‘captain’ or ‘head engineer’ – he never seemed sure which honorific to use.

The next morning I went out early into the hushed neighbourhood. There were knots of people on street corners listening as someone read the war news aloud from the newspaper. I bought a copy of Al Ahram and thanked providence that my Arabic was up to understanding most of the detail. On one page was a press picture of captured Israeli prisoners, which you can still find in the Al Ahram archives. Some of them looked like Frank Zappa.

Later that afternoon I returned from the university, whose gates were barred by a tank. Almost home, I heard a voice behind me calling gaasuus israa’eeli – Israeli spy. A small rock flew past my ear, and then a few more. A gang of boys was in pursuit, but I made the street corner ahead of them and dashed into our courtyard unseen.

When it was dark I scuttled through the back alleys as far as Tahrir Square, and then across the raised walkway to the Nile Hilton. There I had a haircut of the kind David Niven would have enjoyed in Monte Carlo in 1939. The sleek and deferential barber, with a pencil moustache that could have been measured in microns, used implements that I’d never seen in Watford; after cutting my hair with belt-driven clippers, he massaged my scalp with an electrical orange rubber vibrating pad; he rubbed in unguents and oils; and then he lit tapers to singe any single strand that dared to stand up from the shiny black dome of varnished hair he had moulded to my head.

I walked home looking like a ventriloquist’s dummy, ready to face my war.

 

Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:

An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity

The Play’s the Thing

Farts in their drawers: Using and abusing foreign proverbs in fiction

fartsOne of my most treasured books is Arabic Proverbs by  J. L. Burckhardt, a Swiss orientalist famous for travelling to Mecca disguised as a Muslim in 1814-15. I’ve always found the book fascinating, and I couldn’t resist drawing on it in writing my novel Cairo Mon Amour.

A difficult technical challenge in writing this book was finding a narrative voice for my Egyptian characters. I used proverbs here and there to give some oriental spice without stereotyping; I get tired of the Bad Arab Syndrome, a condition that seems to afflict many thriller writers. I’ve vowed that no character of mine will say, “By Allah, the infidel dog will taste bitter dates this night”.

One of my favourite characters is Zouzou Paris. She’s a film actress with a notorious reputation, the mistress of a shady senior military figure. She can barely act, and admits to her friend Pierre that ‘the owl became an actress’. Here she’s explaining to her friend Pierre how she got her start:

” … I couldn’t act, but I could – let’s say – give him the kind of companionship he needed. So with the help of his movie cronies the owl became an actress, as the old saying goes,” [Zouzou said].

“You’re known as a fine actress, hardly an owl.”

“You obviously haven’t seen any of my films…”

In fact, Burckhardt’s original proverb is ‘the owl has become a poetess’, intended to describe a person who is operating above their level of competence. I adapted it to the context and added a bit of support for the reader with ‘as the old saying goes’.

Later, Pierre describes Zouzou as ‘tough as a sheep’s ear’, but this isn’t one of Burkhardt’s: I made it up. My Arabic is reasonably good, but I have no idea whether the Egyptians say this. Does is matter? I think not.

My favourite appropriation is when I have two policemen complaining about their unappreciative superiors. Here’s a snippet:

“Ha! They whine about the breeze around their turbans, but what about the farts in their drawers?” one officer said bitterly.

“And we’re the ones sniffing their farts …”

The original (see illustration) is somewhat different, and Burkhardt’s translation treats the fart word delicately: ‘a slight wind’ in the translation, and then the Latin flatus in the commentary. My version is as bawdy as the original, but I’ve modified the first part so that I give farts more emphasis by placing it later in the proverb. And I couldn’t resist adding the sniffing comeback.

I wonder if other writers have used this strategy?

Stuart Campbell

You can find out about my novels here.