Book Review: ‘A Walk in the Woods’ by Bill Bryson

Today I review Bill Bryson‘s very entertaining account of his attempt at walking the entire Appalachian Trail alongside Katz, an ill-prepared friend, who becomes the highlight of the book.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson is published by Black Swan with beautiful line drawings by David Cook – though as I read I did wish it was lavishly illustrated with photos! On several occasions throughout my reading, I turned to Google Maps and Google Images, and I feel I know a lot more about the USA than I did before.

The book opens with several pages of preparatory thoughts and research about the Trail, which presents a fireworks display of comic writing and is almost painfully funny to read, as Bill gets the idea, tells his nearest and dearest, starts reading books about it, listening to horror stories, stocking up with equipment, and trying to persuade one of his friends and acquaintances to come with him. Ultimately the most unlikely person of all volunteers: which is after all the stock-in-trade of the comic writer.

The 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail takes walkers from Georgia to Maine through fourteen eastern states in America; it is a huge challenge, and many set out but do not finish it. Anybody who sets themselves a goal to walk the entire trail wins my admiration, whatever else may be their weaknesses or foibles. Bill Bryson’s travelogues often shine their brightest through the inclusion of hilarious conversations with different people along the way. In this book, my favourite character is his friend Katz, who is totally relatable, setting out unfit, overweight and inadequately prepared. The author’s conversations with Katz are often very funny.

Bryson rarely includes any kind of emotional sense of connection with the mountains and forest which to my mind would make a huge wilderness challenge worthwhile. A lot of the story is about the physical duress involved. I can understand the addiction to walking, the compulsion to keep going, and the desire to complete the challenge. But it does make me think that when one sets out upon an enterprise like this, the major benefit is simply pitting oneself, in all one’s weakness, against a force which threatens to overwhelm you, and proving you can survive it.

So there are very few nature notes or descriptions of wildlife or the natural wonders of the trail. We find a factual and historical piece about the great American chestnut tree and its ultimate fate, and one lovely passage about a surprise meeting with a moose, and one reference to being surprised by bears at night, but he doesn’t see them: only their eyes shining in his torchlight.

Within this book, we find several passages where the author recounts different types of facts like an encyclopaedia, and laments government decisions in many areas including their failures of planning, inadequate employment of knowledgeable rangers and responsibility for the severe lack of good quality shelters.

Also, the regular consumption of junk food intrigued me! I wondered why the two walkers didn’t stock up with better quality food like rice and beans, and relied so much on noodles. Perhaps that’s because noodles are lighter to carry, don’t involve cans, and are quick and easy to cook after an exhausting day of walking and climbing!

Although Bryson gets a lot of humour out of the annoying fellow hiker Sue Ellen, and out of Katz, I couldn’t help admiring both of them anyway, for even embarking on such a challenge in the first place. That in itself requires strength of character and resilience. In fact, those supposed personal characteristics make their determination even more remarkable. The wry humour in setting out for an enterprise like this with inadequate supplies and preparation does tend to make the readers feel not so bad themselves about “falling short”.

I couldn’t help comparing this account at times to Raynor Winn’s narrative of her journey with her husband Moth along the South-West Coastal Path in Cornwall, England in The Salt Path. Both she and Bryson write disparagingly about people who walk with expensive high-quality walking gear, equipment and clothes, seeming to take pride in it and considering themselves superior. It becomes a source of satire, perhaps because the writer sees that some people use the “wild experience” as an excuse to show off wealth, style and taste, overlaying the experience with the false values of the very consumer society they’re supposed to be getting away from.

The end of the book denies the reader any kind of glib spiritual or psychological epiphany, to compensate for the intense and sustained physical discomfort. But that in itself says something deeper about the experience: its ultimate value cannot be immediately felt, but works its way out in subsequent years.

Reading interviews online I get the impression that Bill Bryson struggled quite a bit as he tried to decide how to pitch this account. He observes that a walk of a similar length in the UK would entail many more meetings with other people, who do after all provide the lifeblood of his humorous travel writing. He eventually decided to fictionalise certain aspects of ‘Katz’. However, I read an interview with the friend, who stated that most of it is true, and ‘just about how it was’.

The end of the account comes as abrupt and slightly sad. One might say at first that ultimately the wilderness defeated them.  But this of course would not be true, when viewed long-term. They learned from the wilderness, and this kind of experience would stay with you for life. And especially for a writer, of course, it’s pure gold!

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Book Review: ‘A History of Women in Medicine’ by Sinead Spearing

A History of Women in Medicine: Cunning Women, Physicians, Witches by Sinead Spearing is published by Pen & Sword. I was fascinated to read this book, as I have myself for some time been considering writing a nonfiction book on the subject of the Anglo-Saxon ‘cunning-woman’.

Sinead Spearing is “a psychological historian specialising in the research of obscure beliefs. She worked as a professional musician before returning to university to study psychology and philosophy. Following a number of articles published in Journals including those of The British Psychological Society and Mensa, Sinéad began researching the bizarre world of Old English medicine, psychiatry and associated supernatural traditions.”

This is an excellent survey of the subject, with a scholarly but accessible tone, and a graceful style, clear and objective.


‘Witch’ is a powerful word with humble origins. Once used to describe an ancient British tribe known for its unique class of female physicians and priestesses, it grew into something grotesque, diabolical and dangerous.

A History of Women in Medicine: From Physicians to Witches? reveals the untold story of forgotten female physicians, their lives, practices and subsequent demonisation as witches. Originally held in high esteem in their communities, these women used herbs and ancient psychological processes to relieve the suffering of their patients. Often travelling long distances, moving from village to village, their medical and spiritual knowledge blended the boundaries between physician and priest. These ancient healers were the antithesis of the witch figure of today; instead they were knowledgeable therapists commanding respect, gratitude and high social status.”


As I read Sinead Searing’s account of the known history of ‘cunning-women’ in Anglo Saxon communities, a curious irony occurred to me. It is often only because of the witch trials that we even know of these women at all, because the trial itself necessitated documentation. Thus they enter the historical archive. So we may surmise that for each one we know about by this means, there were many more within English communities. Within this account, Spearing presents the ancient physicians of the day: and they were exclusively women.

The author considers ‘wise-women’ to be a better term for us to use now rather than ‘cunning-women’ simply because the word ‘cunning’ in our present times has such a different meaning. In Saxon times it meant ‘knowledgable’ and ‘wise’. However throughout this book she uses the term ‘cunning-woman’ because that is the term they would themselves have used, and those who read this book will understand its true meaning.

The account takes as its starting point the discovery of the skeleton of the cunning-woman in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery excavated at Bidford-on-Avon, Warwickshire. With her were numerous grave-goods which were eventually proven to have been the equipment and materials traditionally used by cunning-women.

In this account, she is given a name ‘Mildred’ (probably pronounced Milthrith at the time) and the author then goes on to re-imagine Mildred’s life and work using all the evidence that has since come to light, through ancient texts and through archaeology. I enjoyed this, and readers cannot but feel immensely grateful to Bishop Bold who got his scribe to collect and record the remedies of the cunning-women and record them in the book known to historians as Bold’s Leechbook. This now stands as a vital document opening up to us the numerous remedies used. These can be seen to have used many herbs which science has proved to be effective in curing various ills today.

The author examines the history of Christianity and Paganism in Britain, and the struggle for the hearts and minds of the people. I cannot help feeling that St Augustine gets huge blame in this history. He comes over as a woman hater, a religious fanatic, and insanely obsessed with what he saw as the ‘diabolical nature’ of Paganism. He was tragically influential in creating the damaging link between pagan equals woman equals bad.

The author concentrates in this book on the region where the cunning-craft, or Hwicce are most active: Mercia, in other words, the Midlands. Penda was a pagan king here, and the Hwicce are only spoken of after he came to his throne in Mercia. The author refers to this region from henceforth as Hwicce Country.

After St Augustine, next up in the war against the cunning-woman with her herbs, magic and incantations, was King Alfred the Great.

In just one hundred years since Alfred’s first overt use of the Hwicce’s name to describe sorcery, it had been successfully adopted as a label for diabolical magic.

From now onwards ‘Hwicce’ means a practitioner of witchcraft, which no longer includes anything beneficial – forever identifying cunning-women and their activities of healing, magic and prophesy with malevolent practitioners of black magic.

To the reader, it seems almost like a kind of ethnic cleansing, rather like the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition – and all ethnic cleansing always begins with a period of demonising those seen as ‘other’.

Pope Gregory hit upon an idea to change the pagan ways of the obdurate English – turn the old pagan temples and sacred spaces into Christian ones. It was very successful – he correctly saw that the power of the site itself was what really caught the imagination of the people: i.e. sacred space. Saints assumed the positions of old gods honoured at ancient wells, and cunning-women may have used Christian prayers along with their incantations.

The author explores the history of ‘witch persecution’ which is really a case of mass hysteria. Then she moves on to its lingering elements, right through to the 1950s, and probably beyond, as we see the resurgence of Wicca and Shamanism. The book ends by citing three cases of witchcraft in Warwickshire, primarily of the murder of Charles Walton at Lower Quinton in Warwickshire, a murder which was never solved, but which is thought to have been motivated by a fear of witchcraft. I referred to this and the other two cases myself in my own book Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire.

Ultimately, I found Sinead Spearing’s book a compelling account, and highly recommend it to those of you intrigued by this aspect of British history.

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Book Review: ‘Wheel of Fortune’ by CF Dunn, the first in ‘The Tarnished Crown’ historical fiction series

Today I am delighted to be taking part in the blog tour to launch a fantastic new historical fiction series, set during the turbulent times of The Wars of the Roses (as they became known in later centuries). Wheel of Fortune by CF Dunn will be released by Resolute Books on 20 May 2023.

Book cover design for Wheel of Fortune by CF Dunn
CF Dunn historical fiction author, and author of ‘The Tarnished Crown series

I loved this book, and give it 5 stars. I have only one problem with it: the author ends her narrative in the middle of such a devastating scene, the reader can only feel anguish and crave the next book in the series immediately!


Wheel of Fortune is a tale of love, loyalty and vengeance set during the turbulent years of the fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses and is the first book in a major new series called The Tarnished Crown.

Wheel of Fortune is the story of two men, one woman, and a lie. Born into a period of intense conflict, all Isobel Fenton wants is to live in peace in her beloved manor of Beaumancote overlooking the river Humber and to tend her garden. But no one remains immune to the ripples created by the fight for the Crown and, caught in the web at the centre of power, Isobel must negotiate extremes of courage and moral ambiguity in her bid to survive.


At the time (1455-1485) they were ‘the Cousins’ Wars‘ and included some of the bloodiest battles ever fought on English soil (such as the Battle of Towton). It’s so easy for us nowadays to trivialise the narrative of how Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick ‘the Kingmaker’ deposed one king (Henry VI), put another on the throne (Edward IV), later deposed him and put the first one back again, then finally met his fate in battle at the hands of Edward. It sounds farcical. At the time, it would have felt complex, intractable, desperate and terrifying for many, from the highest to the lowest in society: just as we now feel about the many challenging issues that face us, nationally and globally, in 2023.

Right through from the first recognition that Henry VI’s weakness threatened the national interest, up until the victory of Henry VII over Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and the union of Yorkist and Lancastrian sides in the new Tudor dynasty, these were unstable and frightening times, full of anger and betrayal.

If you love Alison Weir, Hilary Mantel, and Philippa Gregory you are going to be enthralled by this series. The Wheel of Fortune by CF Dunn was published by Resolute Books on 20 May 2023.

I have during the course of my own research in Warwick for my forthcoming book A-Z of Warwick gathered quite a bit of knowledge of these Wars, and of the main players in the conflict. Historical fiction at its best can crack open the dry shell of ‘schooldays history’ and invite us in to share the hopes and fears, passions and motivations of those who lived in the middle of those turbulent times.

CF Dunn has done a magnificent job with this novel; I absolutely felt I was there, on the side of her main protagonist, 17-year-old Isobel Fenton, and I could imagine every scene in the castle of the treacherous Earl where she is being held supposedly ‘under his protection’. For Isobel, it seems her destiny is utterly in the hands of political game-makers; her personal happiness, marriage prospects, free will and choices, her identity and inheritance. I could feel the insidious menace building up, as the nobles start to suspect and make plans against those who are changing sides and about to become a deadly threat.

I learned so many new things in this book, and among them, I loved the vivid portrayal of life as a nursery maid to the self indulgent children of the Earl and Countess. The depth of research undertaken by this author shines out from so many details we may never have fully appreciated: how they washed; what they used as soap; how they made up healing ointments and creams; what they brushed their teeth with, the perils of the privy in the eyes of a young child, what they wore and ate, and a host of other small but incredibly telling details about life and power balances in the castle.

Along with that, I was very aware of how people of the time would have perceived and talked about the massive political events: the terms they would have used of Henry VI and Edward IV and their wives such as ‘The King’ and ‘the old king’ and ‘the old queen’, and Henry VI’s formidable wife Margaret referred to (probably with a fine blend of respect, fear and feigned contempt) as ‘Anjou’.

The author gives us an intriguing insight into her working method as she says, I approach all my writing projects in a similar way: I know the beginning, middle and end and the major plot points before I start writing. However, then I step back and give a freer rein to the characters to interact and develop, which in turn influences the plot, adds depth and colour, and often takes the book down paths I hadn’t anticipated at the beginning.

CF Dunn’s strong, hard-hitting narrative is also often intensely lyrical and poetic. I found every aspect of this novel utterly compelling. The author is currently writing book 5 in this series, and I can’t wait to read book 2! Wheel of Fortune published by Resolute Books will be available to order from bookshops and online on 20 May 2023.

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Book Review: ‘The Little Stranger’ by Sarah Waters

It’s not often I come across a novel so strong that it reaches out into my thoughts and life while I’m reading it so that I can’t wait to get back to it. Sarah Waters, however, is one novelist who does indeed write stories like this.

In The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, the central paranormal premise is one that I haven’t come across before, in all my research: and even I found it difficult to take on board alongside all the other theories I’ve considered: but in this unsettling weirdness lies its power.

Book cover image The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The author’s slow build-up of fear, grief and madness among the family is extraordinary. The quality of her narrative does find a resonance within the classic tales of the macabre: the first person narrator, a correct, professional man, often seems rather tedious, conventional and pedestrian in his way of expressing himself, and in his attitudes and opinions; and yet his stolid painstaking description of events makes the whole story even more gripping.

The story centres upon the kind of 17th century mansion which we may see quietly and mournfully disintegrating behind locked gates and weed-infested drives, because the last of the family have died and no-one else wants to buy the sinister premises. This Warwickshire mansion, however, is now seeing the final weeks and months of its life as a barely living home, in the years following the Second World War. The owners have been reduced to a vulnerable trio: Mrs Ayres, a widow whose little daughter met tragic death years before; Roderick, her thin, nervous, touchy son who is trying to manage the estate whilst suffering shellshock from his war service; and her daughter Caroline, who appears competent and resilient but who will soon prove herself as vulnerable as the others.

Alongside them, Betty, the young maidservant, is also a very significant character. She is the first to notice and to articulate the invisible ‘something bad’ in the house that is affecting them all; and at that time a character of her gender and social status would of course have been the easiest to deride or to ignore. Yet we the readers know better; she is correct in her observations, and she should have been taken seriously from the very first.

 I love to find myself so captivated by a story that I have to get back to it at every opportunity, and the characters and their situation haunts me, and I wake up thinking about them and wondering what is going to happen to them. It’s actually quite a rare experience to come across a novel like this.

As the story progressed the feeling grew on me more and more that Dr Faraday, the narrator, is controlling and manipulating the family under the guise of offering support. I did, also, feel that Mrs Ayres, Rod and Caroline were too passive and compliant in their response, and later in the novel I found myself willing them on to be much more assertive with him, in particular, his insistence on minimising and trivialising their growing terror of ‘the thing’ in the house, and constantly trying to rationalise it.  This is a general attitude mirrored later in the novel by other members of the community: once again, they could not be more wrong.

The author has said that sometimes she feels she has not fully met the challenge of writing a story centred upon this kind of paranormal activity, as quite a lot of readers have asked for somebody to ‘explain’ the ending to them. However, I found the ending perfect: it tells me everything the reader wants and needs to know. It is indeed a huge challenge for a modern gothic fiction writer to handle this kind of subject, which is on one hand so vaporous, and on the other hand so terrifyingly real for those who experience it, and provide a satisfying conclusion without falling into the trap of over-explaining.

This is clearly a five-star book, and in my eyes, the best Sarah Waters novel that I have read.

Join me on my writing journey and sign up to receive my monthly newsletter. I share gems and snippets from my research discoveries along with news and insights of the publishing and writing worlds. Also you’ll be the first to know when I have a new book coming out. For those regular readers of my blog posts who would like to support my writing journey you can do so here at Buy Me a Coffee and I’d be very grateful.

How I Came to Write ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’

I have often been asked how I came to write Paranormal Warwickshire.

Front cover of Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman pub Amberley 2020

It began soon after my arrival in Warwickshire twenty eight years ago, through the experience of visiting many of Warwickshire’s iconic locations. A fellow writer, Sue Vincent, a great traveller throughout our country and its historic, sacred and mysterious sites, who has now sadly passed on, describes ruined historic sites in these terms: the essence is to be found not in the walls but in the space within where we live and have our being… it is not the vessel but the space within that holds the wine.  This wine she describes as the indefinable spark of animating life.

My book Paranormal Warwickshire emerged from just this kind of experience, which is what I originally describe as spiritual resonance.  These great buildings, now in a ruinous state, are not simply piles of stone, but animated by that indefinable spark.

I began by frequently visiting several places in Warwickshire, which I loved more each time I visited. Subsequently, I wrote blog posts about them in my occasional series Places of Inspiration. Two of these, Kenilworth Castle, and Guy’s Cliffe House in Warwick, are in ruins, and somehow they are the richer for that, feeding the imagination of visitors. 

Book cover Collected Ghost Stories bv M.R. James

As a person who has long loved classic ghost stories and reading about all things paranormal, I was happy to draw together some of my experiences and insights into a book.

Later, I re-visited all the locations, joined town ghost tours, listened to stories, gathered new ones, and amassed a good selection of photos, many of which are in the book.

My view of the paranormal may be summed up in the words of ghost story writer M.R. James who said, I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me.  I have listened to many stories of others’ curious experiences and as a consequence I have developed an inner sense of veracity. That is, certain criteria are applied to a story and to its teller, and if those criteria are met, then I am prepared to give weight to the story.

This process takes place in the unconscious. But whenever I contacted people to ask them further questions about their stories, I had the following series of questions in mind:

  1. Can you tell me how you first became aware this was more than a mundane incident?
  2. Did any other explanations come to mind?
  3. What conclusion did you reach as you thought through these possibilities?
  4. Did you take any action based on this?
  5. How did it affect you from then on?
  6. Do you have any background, cultural or historical, that sheds light on this?

When I came across a story I found particularly convincing, it would be because the narrator had satisfied all the above queries in their account.

Writer Stuart Carrol, quoted in the Fortean Times, Sep 2020 edition, gave this description of ‘a haunting’: time momentarily flickering… presents us with a projection of a person from another age going about their business.

I like this description, and I do feel that if all the places of which I write had no such qualities of animating life, arousing an emotional response in contemporary visitors, they would be of far less interest to us all. I believe that applies to us whether we claim to believe in the paranormal or not.

In my book, the curious anecdotes told of these buildings acknowledge the life that fills the spaces between the stones. I include stories of everyday places as well: shops, railway stations, houses, pubs and churchyards, not just castles, abbeys and manor houses.

When I hear stories, I listen respectfully, even if I feel some may be conjured up by the imagination. I also ask why several different people, independently of each other and unknown to each other, should have the same experience in the same place over a long period of time. There have been many recorded cases of which this is true. Then, if you think it was “all their imagination”, you have to ask. “what is it about this particular place that makes so many different people imagine the same thing there?”

The most compelling ghost stories are not about famous historical characters. A lot of them turn out, after research, to have emerged from the lives and deaths of people who never made their mark on history: people about whom we would have known nothing if the paranormal event had not alerted our attention and prompted research.

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Book Review: ‘Murder Before Evensong’ by Revd. Richard Coles

I knew I had to read this novel as I have so enjoyed listening to The Reverend Richard Coles on the BBC Radio 4 programme Saturday Live and seeing him on his many TV appearances. I also follow him on Twitter and find his tweets very amusing. So I was expecting great things of this, the start of a new cosy crime series starring a country vicar.

When I read it I was quite surprised as the cosy crime title and light-hearted cover design both raise expectations it will be much funnier, all the way through. And indeed parts of it were funny with some laugh-out-loud moments of pure recognition, as I’m knowledgeable about church life and some of the things that go on. I’m also much in sympathy with vicars about the challenges they face. They try to be all things to all people and can’t easily tell annoying members of the flock what a pain they are (or if they do, they have to tread so softly that I’m sure it takes all the enjoyment out of giving certain individuals any kind of come-uppance). For all have sinned… and for some of the characters in this novel, a few have sinned more dramatically and unexpectedly than others!

Richard Coles’ novel then becomes a fascinating kaleidoscope of parish life in the village of Champton St Mary, with many different characters interacting with each other and the local scene. Finally, it becomes a murder mystery. As I loved the TV sitcom ‘Rev’ (largely inspired by Richard Coles’ own real-life stories, I understand) I recognised several incidents in the life of the well-meaning, gentle, and forbearing vicar, Canon Daniel Clement.  The novel certainly has a strong flavour of that sitcom, which was often sad and poignant, as is this book.

I was intrigued by the murder mystery itself, and I did like Daniel’s formidable mother Audrey. Another favourite character was Daniel’s rather irritating and interfering brother Theo, the actor, who made me think a little of ‘the media vicar’ in ‘Rev’ – the irony being that it’s Richard Coles himself, the author, who is truly the media vicar. He certainly must know what it’s like being shadowed and interrogated by an actor in his daily parish life!

Another element of the book I greatly enjoyed was the depiction of the life of the great house at Champton, with the Lord, Bernard, and his family, and the wonderful descriptions of hospitality flowing at the manor in the true noblesse oblige tradition.

With many colourful characters and a hugely observant take on village and parish life, Richard Coles has created a most beguiling novel.

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A Visit to Warwick Castle 1st April 2023

Today I share a few photos from Warwick Castle which I visited again the other day to see the new trebuchet being fired, and to update some of the information I give in my chapter on the Trebuchet in my forthcoming book A-Z of Warwick.

A-Z of Warwick will be published on 15th November 2023 by Amberley and is on pre-order now.

Medieval ladies at Warwick Castle – photo credit SC Skillman
Magnolia tree outside mill and engine house at Warwick Castle – photo credit SC Skillman
Trebuchet in action on the island at Warwick Castle – photo credit SC Skillman
Mill and engine house at Warwick Castle – photo credit SC Skillman
Guy’s Tower, Warwick Castle 1 April 2023 – photo credit SC Skillman

Warwick Castle 1 April 2023 when the river Avon was very high – photo credit SC Skillman

The previous trebuchet was getting worn out, and there was, at one point, an accident with the projectile the trebuchet master fired. It hit the boathouse, which was burned to the ground. I’m glad to report that no such accident happened when the new trebuchet fired for the first time at a public performance on 1st April 2023, as the replacement boathouse is still intact!

As you approach the castle courtyard along a path between towering rockfaces, you can see some of the trees which would have inspired JRR Tolkien for his Ents in ‘The Lord of the Rings’. He loved trees all his life, and in his own artwork, he often drew trees with complex and delicate networks of roots. It is also known he was inspired by the trees of Warwick, and by the location of the castle on the clifftop.

The approach to Warwick Castle from the entrance next to Mill Street, Warwick – photo credit SC Skillman

Finally, here’s a video of the river Avon taken at the castle Mill and Engine House. This shows how high the water levels were that day.

The river Avon and the Mill Garden, Warwick, as seen from the castle Mill and Engine House on 1st April 2023 – video credit SC Skillman

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Book Reviews: ‘Brother Cyril’s Book’ by Penelope Wilcock and ‘Winter People’ by Grainne Murphy

Today I’m pleased to bring you two reviews: one, a historical novel set in a medieval English monastery and the other, contemporary fiction set on the Irish coastline. Both books – Brother Cyril’s Book by Penelope Wilcock (published Feb 2023 by Humilis, Hastings) and Winter People by Grainne Murphy (published Oct 2022 by Legend Press) demonstrate an acute level of sensitivity and discernment about human feelings and behaviour, and both are equally relevant to those of us today who seek to understand the inner life more deeply.

WINTER PEOPLE by Grainne Murphy

Here is a very sensitive and discerning account of three people living near each other on the Irish coast, all in solitude, all haunted by broken relationships, grief and regret, all aware of each other but never fully interacting.

Sis Cotter’s husband Frank died of cancer, and her two daughters Doreen and Cathy have moved away and have little concern for their mother, while her son Mike is also estranged from her. In three days she will be evicted from her home. She only has her loving canine companion, the elderly Laddie, and her memories, and her love of the sea, to sustain her.

Lydia lives nearby in a big house and watches Sis walk past every day. She is separated from her husband Andrew; her mother plagues her with selfish, judgemental phone calls; and she is tormented by guilt over a tragic accident she caused, which devastated the lives of a mother and son.

Peter is a local Sheriff whose job it is to evict people from their homes. Yet his inner life too is explored, and his vulnerabilities and tragedies exposed, along with his past as a fostered child, painfully aware of how it feels to live an unsettled life, constantly on the move from house to house. So he has sympathy for the people his job forces him to evict; and he tries to do it with kindness.  Peter too is haunted by a tragic death; his boyhood friend Fintan who was so loyal and supportive, and who died of cancer, and whom Peter was afraid to visit in the hospice because he didn’t know what to say.

For me, this author gives us an acutely-observed account of the elemental shifts in our inner and outer lives, harmonising with the rhythm and the moods of the sea. Having followed through the story with empathy for the characters, I was glad to see some kind of uplift and redemption at the end.


I loved this account of how Brother Cyril, timid and insecure young medieval novice, decides to go round his community asking every monk the same four questions; he will then put their answers into a book.

The responses from all the different monks are so moving. Alongside this, the author’s voice itself is wise and discerning, and some of her descriptive passages exquisite.

One particularly outstanding example is this lyrical passage:

The soul and the voice of stone… has a resonance of light… it… encapsulates and holds… memory, the thoughts of the earth and the pictures she keeps in her heart.

I found the book beautiful and touching, funny, delicate and playful. It’s both spiritual and totally relatable, being full of characters doing all the things we recognise – being hurt by the words of others, over-personalising, catastrophising, and many other recognisable elements of human behaviour. The reader may find here a captivating experience of accompanying these characters on a familiar journey of setting out with a spring in our step, stumbling over snares in the path, finding ways through and beyond, gaining new knowledge and understanding on the way, as we learn to live with one another in any community – not just that of a medieval monastery!

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The Power of a Writers’ Conference – Scottish Association of Writers Annual Conference 2023 in Cumbernauld near Glasgow

I’m just back from an amazing Writing Conference in the Hilton Hotel, Spa and Golf Course near Glasgow – and what a packed, exciting weekend it was!

Hilton Hotel, Spa, and Golf Course Cumbernauld near Glasgow.

I was invited to the conference by the Scottish Association of Writers, to judge the Nonfiction Writing Competition and to give a workshop on Writing Literary Nonfiction.

Literary Nonfiction Workshop led by SC Skillman at the Scottish Association of Writers Conference 2023

So many regions of Scotland were represented, as shown by the number of writers’ groups there; and English and US delegates were also in attendance. The conference offered opportunities for writers in many different kinds of genres to enter competitions. I thoroughly enjoyed chatting with and comparing notes with fellow adjudicators after all the presentations had been made and the critiques given to the entrants.

The winners’ trophies for the competitions at the Scottish Association of Writers Conference 2023
Writers Groups from Perthshire, Angus, Ayr, and Bearsden – just a few of the writing groups to be found in different Scottish regions

The hospitality of the hotel was exceptional; the food, service, and facilities were fantastic, and the wine flowed freely, especially at the wonderful Gala Dinner on Saturday night.

Writers’ Gala Dinner in the Carrick Suite on Saturday night 18 March 2023 at the Hilton Hotel, Cumbernauld near Glasgow

At the Gala Dinner, we heard a moving and inspirational Keynote Speech by historical murder mystery author Fiona Veitch Smith. She spoke about the vital role of writers in our society, and how we are in fact Key Workers. She urged us to hold onto our dreams and to never give up believing in ourselves and the high value of what we do. And she quoted from an unusual combination of sources including Stephen King’s ‘Misery’; and the poem ‘He Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven’ by W.B Yeats.

Keynote Speaker & Historical Murder Mystery author Fiona Veitch Smith, who judged the general novel competition. With her is Stella Oni, who judged the crime novel competition

For the rest of the conference, I learned so much and discovered new opportunities everywhere. I pitched my latest novel to a US literary agent; pitched a scenario for a film or a TV drama mini series to a US film producer; created a plan for a Cosy Mystery; learned new tips for nonfiction research; discovered a brilliant poet whose areas of interest feed into my own latest ideas for a nonfiction book. The poet, A.C. Clarke, had judged the poetry competition and gave a poetry workshop.

‘A Troubling Woman’ by A.C. Clarke, a poetry collection in which the poet invites us into the loves and losses of the complex medieval mystic, Margaret Kempe.
‘Wedding Grief’ by A.C. Clarke, a collection of poems in which the poet charts the course of the passionate and troubled relationship between surrealist poet Paul Eluard and his first love Elena ( later to become famous as Gala, the wife of Salvador Dali)
Selection of books by writers at the Scottish Association of Writers Conference 2023

It has been a fertile, creative, and exciting time full of new and renewed relationships. The danger of weekends like this is always the ‘aftermath let-down’ as we return to normal life. I know many of us will be feeling like that over the next few days. Yet we will move beyond that and start nurturing the seedlings that will grow from all we have learned and discovered, which will in the future come to rich fruition.

Scottish Mist at the Hilton Hotel Spa and Golf Course, Cumbernauld, near Glasgow..

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Booksigning at Vintage Crafts and Gift Fair in Dorridge Village Hall Saturday 11 March 2023

One of the good things for an author about hiring a stall at a craft fair is the company of fellow creatives. So many imaginative and beautiful crafts and gifts were on display at this fair, organised by Ultimate Girls Night Out, who run vintage-themed events, fairs and markets across the Midlands area. A bonus was the excellent singer who, dressed in a vintage ‘frock’, entertained shoppers and stallholders with popular songs and music from the 20th century. As you will see, there were also some keen dancers in vintage costume!

Creative Crafts on sale at the Vintage Craft and Gift Fair, Dorridge Village Hall, on Saturday, 11 March 2023
Dancing couple at the Vintage Craft & Gift Fair, Dorridge Village Hall, near Birmingham, on Saturday 11 March 2023
Join me on my journey and sign up to receive my monthly email directly to your inbox. I share gems and snippets from my research discoveries and news and insights from the writing and publishing worlds. Plus, you’ll be the first to know when I have a new book coming out.

Sign up here if you’d like to join me on my journey.

And for those regular readers of my blog posts here who would like to support my writing journey, why not buy me a coffee. I’d be very grateful!

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