The Pleasure of a Printed Book: An Old Time Simple Joy!

We're all so deep into the Digital Age, flinging ebooks on our ereaders, that the simple pleasures of the past, like holding a printed book in your hands look quaint and old fashioned...Yet, when my novel FEAR OF THE PAST came to me yesterday through the mail, I was so happy!

Yes, I'm squinting! But that's meant to be a smile... The sun of Umbria is really hot even though we're still in March - very unusual weather this time of year...How do you like the cover? You can tell I like the color BLUE! It was printed by Amazon's Create Space and I think they did a superb job.

Here's the inside, the start of a chapter:

Nice print, very easy on the eyes. Yes, for the first time I felt my book was real - goes to show I'm old fashioned even though I love Internet, in particular for the ability to connect with readers - a wonderful opportunity for us writers to get out of our ivory towers...

If you're addicted to printed books (I have some close friends who are and won't touch an e-book with a ten foot pole, much less a computer), here's the link you need to purchase it:

Fear of the Past, a novel

When it opens, click "paperback" and you'll see it costs $19.99 - not much considering it's a book of some 525 pages...

But my promo is still on TODAY 16 MARCH and you're in time to get your FREE e-book version of it - until tonight 12 pm Pacific Standard Time! Click here: Fear of the Past, a novel

All this raises a question in my mind: why doesn't Amazon start a "bundling" campaign? It's well positioned to do so since Create Space is a division of Amazon. Bundling involves selling a printed book together with its digital version for a preferred price: say, in this case, $21. With one dollar more you'd get the digital version (which costs $5.99 once the promo is over). Or you could launch promos on the printed book with a free digital version attached. There are really many ways to do this...

Don't you think that would be a good idea? What's your take on launching a bundling campaign?

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The Sicily of The Phoenix Heritage

Sicily evokes the worst and the best in Man: the brutality of the mafia and the beauty of its art and landscapes. The corruption of its governments through the centuries, the gentleness and dignity of its people. To travel to Sicily is like taking a world tour around the human condition.

In many ways that's what the first two books in my New Adult series, THE PHOENIX HERITAGE is all about. It's a coming of age story together with a family saga spanning 900 years of Sicilian History. 

It is a travel novel that makes you discover a Sicily you didn't know existed.

When the protagonist, Tony Bellomo, a gifted American video game creator, goes to Sicily looking for his family roots (his deceased father is a Sicilian aristocrat), he first visits the Museo Bellomo in Ortigia (that's the old town of Syracuse founded by the Ancient Greeks). Here it is:

A forbidding medieval fortress, right in the middle of the old town! The museum was the home of the Bellomo family for centuries before it was turned into a city museum around 1914. Alas, the museum held no family mementoes for Tony and, disappointed, he wanders down an old narrow street like this one:

Rounding a corner, he discovers an intriguing building, blue and white (this also exists - but it is in Ragusa, an hour away from Ortigia...Ah, call it creative license, but this is the place that actually inspired me to write THE PHOENIX HERITAGE when I first saw it some 15 years ago):

On the frontispiece, you can read the name of the building:

"Circolo di Conversazione" - the Conversation Club: in the 19th Century, every important town in Sicily had such a club, patterned after the men's clubs in Britain (the Sicilians have always followed British fashion in so many ways, including in viewing themselves as islanders, and calling the rest of Italy "il continente", the continent). 

Here's the lion head that inspired the book cover for my original publication (back in 2011) when the series was still called Fear of the Past:

And here's the book cover:

Pretty close, right? I love that hieratic, menacing look, the past can be an unbearable burden...When Tony walks in the Circolo, he finds the ghosts of all his ancestors milling about, waiting for Judgment Day. To while away the time, they re-enact for each other the high points in their lives in a small theatre - and, mind you, the real Circolo has something quite close to a theatre room, here it is:

You'll find all that red velvet, gilded mirrors and chandeliers in the first book of the Phoenix Heritage series: Flying in the Past. You'll also find real historical characters, like Ferdinand I, King of Two Sicilies (he preferred to live in Naples but ran away to Sicily when the Napoleonic armies, headed by Murat, invaded - he was helped in his escape by Admiral Nelson):

And here's his wife, Queen Maria Carolina (she's the sister of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France) with whom he has a memorable clash. The two just didn't get along, although she gave him 18 children - but she ran the Kingdom in his stead, something he didn't appreciate:

This is an official portrait by their favorite painter Angelica Kauffmann (actually both paintings are by this very talented woman). Unfortunately, neither portrait is realistic: both Ferdinand and Maria Carolina were incredibly ugly. He had a huge nose - he was known as "Re Nasone" (King Big Nose) and she was incredibly Teutonic and harsh. Here is a later portrait of her that was undoubtedly closer to the model:

Source: google.com via Claude on Pinterest

A tough lady! When she spoke in her raucous voice, it sounded like she had a potato in her mouth - at least, that's what the Neapolitans said of her and the King had a habit of chasing pretty women and leaving his wife to go hunting days on end. Who can blame him?

He fell in love with the beautiful Duchess of Floridia and later married her as soon as Maria Carolina died (creating a scandal at court). Here she is, in 1814, just after marrying the King:

She looks beautiful, doesn't she, considering that she's 43 years old in that picture (the King was 64). The King went crazy for her: he had a fantastic villa built for her, the Villa Floridiana, overlooking Naples and he stocked the park with lions and tigers and imported from Australia the first kangaroos that were ever seen in Europe. Here's the Villa Floridiana:

The Duchess, before marrying the King, had, it seems, many affairs, including a secret English lover - Francis Leckie, an adventurer who settled in Sicily in the 1800s. Okay, I made that one up for the novel. We do know however that they were neighbors. Leckie had set up a modern farm at Tremilia not far from the Duchess' properties around Floridia, a small rural town founded by a Bonanno (an ancestor of the Duchess - and that's how I got a lot of the historical information, through the Bonanno family archives).There is no proof but they could easily have met...

Things become complicated when Tony discovers he shares with Francis Leckie both his looks and his emotions - no doubt the result of a quirky genetic inheritance. When Tony meets the Duchess in the Circolo, she mistakes him for her secret lover and Tony finds himself unaccountably attracted to her...Can he outgrow this impossible love and escape the deadly grip of the Circolo?

But the Duchess of Floridia is not the only beautiful woman haunting the Circolo. There's also the Countess of Castiglione, known as the Divine Countess, a spy at the service of Cavour who became the mistress of Napoleon III and helped obtain France's support for Cavour's policies to unify Italy:

Source: url.it via Claude on Pinterest

This is a famous photograph made by Pierson, the Countess' favorite photographer in Paris. He took hundreds of photos of her over a period of 30 years in all manner of dresses and also...undressed. Her naked legs were a matter of scandal...Why is she in the Circolo? Because there was a rumour that she was the granddaughter of the Duchess of Floridia. What is her role in the novel? Spoiler alert, I won't tell you!

You've guessed, the plot involves many more people and periods of History before Tony finally gets hold of himself and starts living his own life. As one reviewer put it: " a rogues' gallery of heroes and sinners"...  In the third book of the series, Out of the Ashes,  Tony has left the past behind him and works as an assistant in the IT Department of Catania University. 

Catania University? You probably think of it as an ancient, venerable institution and you'd be right. It was founded in the 15th century and boasts some beautiful buildings in the centre of the old town:

Source: flickr.com via Claude on Pinterest

But on the outskirts of town, it's very modern. Here is the Department of Physics and Astronomy:

Source: google.com via Claude on Pinterest

Surprisingly modern for Sicily, isn't it? But Catania is known as the "Silicon Valley" of Italy. It's in just such a building that Tony works on a new social media network. With the help of students, he creates the "Chat Club" that soon becomes wildly successful but, alas, it also attracts the appetites of both the Russian and Sicilian mafia. The woman he loves is kidnapped...How can he save her and his creation, the Chat Club?

Want more pictures related to the book? Go take a look at my board on Pinterest where I pinned many more pictures than I can show here: click here. I find Pinterest hugely fun, you should join it!

And why don't you plan a vacation to Sicily and prepare for it reading THE PHOENIX HERITAGE? You'll know more about Sicily than your tour guide! Or if you can't go to Sicily, dream about it reading the novel...

English: Flag of the Sicilian Region Italiano:...English: Flag of the Sicilian Region  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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When a Hospital Turns into a Fairy-Tale Castle: It Could Only Happen in Italy!

If you drive out of Rome going to the airport, you pass by what looks like a modern hospital: Romans call it the Ospedale della Magliana and it is run by the Knights of the Order of Malta. Built in the 1960s, it's one of the most modern hospitals in Italy, well known for its neurology service taking care of paraplegics and endowed with a fully equipped state-of-the-arts coma recovery room.

What is not so well known is the hidden gem behind that modern, efficient façade: a medieval castle turned by a succession of Popes in the 15th and 16th century into a a magnificient villa they used as a hunting lodge. Here's the main entrance to the hospital:

Yes, crenellated walls! And the surprises don't end here. Look at the entrance gate, leading into the inner courtyard:

I couldn't resist, I ran up to that arch:

I walked through and this is what I discovered:

This is the heart of the ancient Renaissance villa-castello della Magliana, as it is called. Restored by the Order of Malta, this part of the hospital is used to house the administration offices and a school for training nurses and voluntaries. The flag of the Order, a white cross on a red background, floats near one of the entrances:

But the main entrance is this one:

And the staircase leads to the main reception room:

A grand room - the ceiling is at least 10 meters high, and on the right, there is a portrait of Charles V, the Spanish King who donated the island of Malta to the Knights of the Order. The frescoes have been taken off the walls to be restored.

At the end of a series of offices, there's this beautiful loggia (the two people conversing here give you an idea of the size of this loggia - indeed of the whole building):

The view from the loggia, looking out on the courtyard is breathtaking:

And just across from the villa, here is the old barn, gigantic and...looking like a military fortress:

This building is of course a part of the actual hospital (operating rooms etc) and here are the bedrooms for the patients (250 beds):

Yes, very modern, with all the rooms looking onto this garden that was filled with white spring flowers when I took the pictures (I took them on 9 March). In fact, because of the requirements of the Italian Belle Arti - the Ministry that acts as a watchdog on the Italian patrimony -  permission for additional, permanent buildings are difficult to obtain. As a result, the chapel has been housed in a vast tent. You can see it here:

Since it is so vast, it also serves as a meeting room, a screening room for films and even a place to sing and hold Karaoke events! Here is the inside, note the altar in the centre and a video screen on the right:

There are also other temporary buildings, including a Day Hospital:

And yet, because Italy is the way it is - there's always something falling apart and that needs to be rebuilt - there is still one building on the grounds, an old farmhouse (probably built in the 1920s) with a roof that has fallen in and that could surely find some appropriate use:

It's quite a large place, and right in the middle of the hospital grounds. Here you can appreciate how big it is and how far the roof has fallen (right side of the picture):

You can also see some of the lovely trees (in the back) that dot the hospital grounds...Surely the Italian Belle Arti will allow restoration of this house and make the hospital a perfect place?

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Italy: Protest Against Monti Government Is a Failure, Here's the Evidence

Italiano: Sciopero generale contro la manovra ...The way protests looked in Italy at the time of Berlusconi (September 2011) Image via Wikipedia
Everyone expected social tensions to rise in Italy, following  on the austerity measures the Monti government had to adopt to address the catastrophic debt situation.

Yesterday, 9 March, was meant to be a major protest accompanied by a general strike of the "metal-mechanics". The first BIG mass protest since the Italian trade unions had planned on a general strike two months ago. It involved one of the three big unions, CGIL, the leftist union (Italian General Confederation of Labor) plus a smaller union, FIOM, the trade union that recently walked out of the FIAT auto industry contracts offered by CEO Marchionne.

FIOM has always wanted to become the 4th big union in Italy but so far hasn't made it. Now that it's out of FIAT, it finds it has problems financing itself (FIAT has traditionally provided funding to the unions it is involved with). And yesterday, as it turned out, the big leftist party in Italy, the PD (it is in fact supporting the Monti government measures) did not participate. The only politicians who turned up were small fry: Di Pietro, a maverick leading the small, inconsequential IDV party (Italia dei Valori) and Vendola, an ambitious extremist on the Left that most people shun.

FIOM claimed its general strike at FIAT was adhered to by 70% of workers while FIAT itself reported only 5 to 7%. I leave you to imagine who's right.

What about Piazza San Giovanni in Rome, where the major meeting of all the protesters had been organized?

Italian newspapers this morning (as I write this post) show pictures of streams of people filling the streets and walking to Piazza San Giovanni, waving red flags and chanting.

Fine. Streets are narrow, they're filled much more easily than a big open Piazza  like San Giovanni. I was curious because the amount of noise I could hear from my flat sounded subdued. I walked over around 2 pm as the concluding speech was delivered.

Small wonder the noise was contained: very few people had actually turned up.

Here's the photographic evidence - something you will not see in Italian newspapers (they were careful to photograph streets filled with people walking together and agitating red flags). Look at this photograph I took while walking up to San Giovanni:

This is hardly a packed piazza with standing-room-only the way I remembered it when people protested against Berlusconi a couple of years ago. That time I hadn't even been able to cross the avenue and walk up to the Church, it had been a wall of people! And it has nothing to do with the turnout on September 6, 2011 when Berlusconi tried a "manovra finanziaria" to impose austerity measures (see picture at top of post).

Yesterday there was so much space nearer to the podium (right side of pix) and in front of the Church that people walked about and laid on the grass, soaking up the sun:

Feels like a Sunday outing... It was nice and warm, a perfect day for a chat with girl friends:

People certainly had fun preparing for it, some even did a purple octopus  holding onto puppets of politicians (Monti is on the right):

There were the usual t-shirt vendors - this one doesn't seem to have done much business:

And a lone, bearded beggar as people were leaving the piazza (but he seemed by-passed by most people in a hurry to grab lunch - it was already 2:30 pm at that point):

 No doubt this kid had a whale of a good time, beating the drum:

But children were in a minority - so were young people. My impression was that most people there middle-aged or old:

The few young all seemed to belong to extremist groupings, like the No TAV people (those who want to stop the construction of a High Speed train linking Northern Italy directly to France):

There's a pile of garbage dumped in the forefront of this picture, see it? Admittedly, this time the mess was relatively contained (as the noise was) but still...Everytime there's a mass protest organized in Piazza San Giovanni I feel sad.

Very sad.

It seems like such a shame to reduce to shambles with garbage (and worse - there are never enough public toilets) a lovely piazza, surely one of the high points in the city for tourists. Perhaps more importantly, San Giovanni is the Church of the Bishop of Rome, and the Bishop is none other than the Pope - hardly an appropriate place for mass protests (considering a hospital is near-by and the noise can be deafening).

There are many other places in Rome that would be more appropriate (ranging from the Circo Massimo to places outside the Raccordo Annulare, including the one Pope John Paul II used). Yet politicians on the Italian Left have traditionally considered Piazza San Giovanni as theirs to do with what they please...and if the traffic in town grinds to a halt because of a mass protest in San Giovanni, politicians certainly don't care. They've got their "auto blu" (blue official cars) and bodyguards and go anywhere they please. It's us, poor citizens, that have to pay: we get the noise and the dirt; we have to pay the extra police to maintain order and street cleaners to clean up the mess.

That's democracy for you!
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