Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire blog tour

This week Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire goes on tour through seven book blogs.

Thank you to Ruth Leigh who began the tour and to Ritu Bhathal who looks at the book on her blog. Both bloggers have shared lovely reviews of the book.

On 11th May, it’s the turn of Joy Margetts. Shelley Wilson follows her on 12th, Mari Howard on the 13th, Maressa Mortimer on the 14th and Marje Mallon completes the tour on the 15th.

The bridge at Bidford on Avon

I’m very grateful to all these lovely bloggers for their willingness to read advance copies of the book and share their reviews.

Hall’s Croft in Stratford upon Avon

The book is widely available in bookshops and online, and signed copies may be ordered direct from me.

If you do read the book I hope you enjoy it, and remember, authors always love Amazon reviews!

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Folklore in Action at Book Launch

On the day of writing this blog post I shall be launching my new book Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire at Hill Close Gardens in Warwick.

Full cover of Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire by SC Skillman published by Amberley 2021

Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire is published by Amberley, and the book deals with strange stories from around Shakespeare’s county, stories which cover many topics: folklore, ancient ceremonies, spooky experiences, intriguing people, witchcraft, mysterious murders among them.

One of my topics under the heading of folk customs was the tradition of Morris Dancing, and I interviewed two members of Plum Jerkum, Warwick’s own Border Morris side. You will see a photo of them has made it to the front cover.

So I was delighted to hear that they were keen to dance at my book launch, which will certainly add to the atmosphere of the occasion!

The bridge and river at Bidford-on-Avon, Warwickshire
Plum Jerkum Border Morris Side, Warwick’s own border morris dancers

I hope you enjoy this selection of photos from my book.

It’s available worldwide in paperback and you can order it here, or go to the books page on this website to order signed copies from me.

Hall’s Croft, otherwise known as Dr John Hall’s House, in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire
Farmyard Scene in the village of Lower Quinton, Warwickshire

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Blog Tour: ‘Burrowed’ by Maressa Mortimer

I’m pleased to be taking part in a blog tour today for fellow author Maressa Mortimer. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Maressa several times at different author events and conferences, and she is a lovely ebullient lady with endless energy, who despite being the wife of a Baptist pastor and the mother of four children, is amazingly prolific as an author and also fantastic at design and author promotion!

Book cover for novel ‘Burrowed’ by Maressa Mortimer

Burrowed‘ is Maressa’s fifth novel and it was published on 12th April 2022.

Author Maressa Mortimer

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY 

Maressa grew up in the Netherlands, and moved to England soon after finishing teaching training college. Married to Pastor Richard Mortimer they live in a Cotswold village with their four children. She is a home-school mum, enjoying the time spent with family, travelling, reading and turning life into stories, she wants to use her stories to show practical Christian living in a fallen world.

BURROWED

BLURB

The beautiful island of Ximiu has a plan for a more sustainable future. But not everyone living on the island is on board. Jasira, daughter of the governing matriarch, is determined to uncover the dark forces threatening her home. With the help of her friends she embarks on a desperate bid to save her island community. When the price is higher than she had bargained for, will Jasira still find faith and beauty in the world around her?

MY REVIEW

I found this novel captivating, set in the rather sinister but beautiful fictional island of Ximui. The island is run by a matriarchy, and is striving to go “green” – very quickly.  The main protagonist, teenager Jasira, is daughter to the leader of the community, who is known as The Xibai. Jasira’s best friend Ilori is the son of the Vice-Xibai. The author demonstrates great skill at creating a creeping sense of anxiety in a setting which is in many ways like our own world, but at one remove. She refers to The Mainland as the place to which people escape, who cannot endure the pace at which the island of Ximui is going “green”; but it is also the place, possibly, to which “the disappeared” are taken. For the story concerns the disappearance of female babies and young girls.

This gives us enough resonance with some of the evils of our own world, to build our sense of unease.  Throughout the story, the author sustains an underlying sense of this world being out of alignment with our own, especially in the unusual choice of names, which fascinated me. In the way it deals with contemporary societal issues, it may be regarded as a “speculative” novel.

The author deals with the issue of “going green” so cleverly that I began by thinking, “So, it’s going green. That’s good, isn’t it?” and I ended up by feeling totally different about it. In fact, although the author may not have intended this, it almost put me off “going green” at all! It made me grateful for all the advantages of our modern world: for asphalt roads, for electricity, for supermarkets, television, cars, diesel, and many other things. Other issues which arise in this novel include “combining genetics” and interference with DNA.

In this story, the ruling Council of the island have an official agenda which sounds good but a current of disturbing reality runs along beneath it, in the way these principles are worked out in the people’s lives, and the unpleasant consequences that result from this. A fear arises, that the changes made on Ximui have caused all the baby girls to be stillborn.  Jasiru and Elori, seeing themselves as detectives, pursue the strange albino brother and sister, Axixa and Kamau, believing them to be behind all the strange disappearances. So many things are inexplicably going missing, as well as the babies and young girls: cars, electricity, energy, asphalt from the roads, even bags of flour. 

The story takes a dramatic turn when we discover who the strange pair are, and where they come from: who are their people, where they dwell, and the truth about their malevolent agenda which threatens the island and everyone on it.

Ultimately Jasira must take a decision to put herself and her friends in extreme danger as she commits to a seemingly impossible mission to save the island.  I found this part of the story very vivid and compelling.

A most unusual novel which may be thought of as Young Adult, but I believe to be of crossover appeal, because of the strong emphasis on serious societal issues in contemporary society.

HOW TO BUY

Click here for Amazon

and here for eden.co.uk

WEBSITE LINK 

http://www.vicarioushome.com/

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Book Reviews: Works by Charles Harris

I had the pleasure of meeting Charles Harris as we were both among the authors who attended the Brechin Book Festival in Brechin, Scotland in November, 2021.

The authors at the Brechin Book Festival, Angus, Scotland, November 2022

It was great chatting to Charles, award-winning film director and screenwriter, and fiction author. He has also written, besides his fiction, a complete screenwriting course.

Charles Harris, film director, screenwriter and author

I’ve now read two of Charles’ dark and witty books, and here are my reviews below.

The Breaking of Liam Glass

The Breaking of Liam Glass by Charles Harris – book cover image

This satirical book is compulsive reading as we follow the disastrous journey of desperate journalist Jason on the trail of a story. The only trouble is, this story involves a real tragedy, a 14 year old boy stabbed in the street and now in a coma, while his grieving mother sits at his bedside hoping he will be restored to life. And in order to clinch the story, and grab the exclusive, Jason makes ever more inethical, illegal and even callous choices.

I spent the first half of the book mostly in sympathy with Jason. I think we all have an instinctive desire to be the one to “break a story”. Imagine what it must be like for journos in the hard world of newspapers whose careers hang on that byline, along with money and fame and praise and everything that goes with it. I believe all writers can probably identify with that base desire, no matter how much they claim higher motives.

As this is a satire of our contemporary British society, focused on a particular area of London, nobody comes out with any kind of noble or high-minded sheen. The novel is peopled with huge number of named characters from the kaleidoscope of our familiar world, and I admit I wrote them all down on a list to try and keep track of them. (The last time I felt I had to do that was when I read JK Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’). The author here drives the narrative along with a waspish wit reminiscent of SJ Perelman and Joseph Heller. Several moments are hilarious. I particularly loved the description of all the rival journos and photographers descending upon the private hospital.

A must-read for all who love satire!

The Cupboard

The Cupboard, by Charles Harris, book cover image

The Cupboard is a collection of short stories and one novella, bringing together several ‘tales of the unexpected.’ Contained within these short stories are the creepy, the disquieting, and the macabre. Charles Harris here gives us his curious and unpredictable take on life, in stories that sometimes remind me of Roald Dahl and and at other times have a Woody Allen-like flavour. They are the sort of stories that leave you with a frisson of unease. I do like the Classic Tales of the Macabre and in some ways the author’s style puts me in mind of those: an elegant narrative that suddenly twists you round and drops you into a dark pit. Recommended to all lovers of noir, and to those who like to be shocked out of their habitual ways of seeing things.

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Book Review: ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ by Annie Dillard

This is a very intense, exquisitely observed book of nature observation, which took place over the course of one year at Tinker Creek in South Carolina in the USA.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

The author wrote ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek‘ back in 1972, at the age of 27. I was captivated by the way she relates her nature observations to spiritual insights.

She sees a knot of snakeskin shed by a snake, and finding the knot has no beginning, she reflects on time as the continuous loop or as an ascending spiral.

“Of course, we have no idea which arc on the loop is our time, let alone where the loop is,” she remarks. “The spirit seems to roll along like the mythical hoop snake with its tail in its mouth.”

I was struck by these words: “I have always been sympathetic with the early notion of a divine power that exists in a particular place or that travels about over the face of the earth as a man might wander.” They reminded me of JRR Tolkien’s observation: “Not all those who wander are lost.”

The book is quite demanding to read, as her use of language is so compact, poetic and intense, while she spends time with muskrats, praying mantises, grasshoppers and humming-birds.

Some of her narrative comes over as stream of consciousness, exquisitely detailed, as if she is in a state of heightened perception. She writes of “bumblebees the size of ponies”.  She draws philosophical or mystical insights from a meeting with a copperhead snake, from the sight of a mosquito feeding on that snake, or from her presence at the terrifying event of a frog sucked dry by a giant water-bug.

The book also includes a dazzling array of facts about insect pests and their parasites. This leads her on to metaphysical speculations about life and dying.  In dying, she imagines, we say, not “please…” but “thank you”, in recognising the extraordinary gift and sheer wonder of life on this earth. She shows, too, the wastefulness, the extravagance, the randomness, the horror and the cruelty of nature; and how all things move from perfection and wholeness to brokenness.

Late in the book, she cites Gerald Durrell (an author I have loved) as expressing the view that creatures live a much better life in (enlightened) captivity than they ever do out in the harshness of nature.

I have heard that view expressed again, quite recently, by a naturalist and wildlife conservationist: animals can expect a much healthier and longer lifespan in (good) captivity than they could ever expect in nature, their well-being catered for in a protected environment, safe from the astonishing but pitiless natural world “out there”.

‘Beasts in My Belfry” one of the many books by Gerald Durrell, naturalist, conservationist, writer and zoo keeper

This is a fascinating book, which repays slow and careful reading.

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Book Review: ‘The Secret River’ by Kate Grenville

As one who lived in Australia for nearly five years, before returning to live in England, I found this novel by Australian author Kate Grenville totally immersive.

The Secret River – novel by Kate Grenville

Kate Grenville takes her main protagonist William Thornhill from his life as a Thames waterman in the late 1700s out to New South Wales on a convict transport, and brings him to the piece of land he has dreamed of owning on the Hawkesbury River. I found myself visualising and experiencing his life and daily environment as if I was there with him. I could imagine the grandeur of the wild scenery at Thornhill’s Point, and sense it in every way. Yet I felt a deep sorrow for the indigenous Australians – the aboriginal people – and for the tragic failures of understanding and communication between them and the European settlers.

I could empathise, too, with how Will’s wife Sal felt, longing to ‘go home’ to London, and living every day in the hope of returning; and I could also feel the profound dilemma for Will. He knows that if he returns to his former environment by the Thames he will be back among people who consider him the lowest of the low, a felon, cutting him off forever from fulfilling his dreams.

Powering along through this story is the sublime evocation of the New South Wales climate, atmosphere and scenery along the Hawkesbury River, and the feeling of majesty and beauty from the unyielding wilderness, upon which the white settlers will need, in some way to impose their own will, their needs and demands.

Modern Australia has come a long way in acknowledging that dreadful betrayal of the birthright of the indigenous peoples, in the assumption of the early settlers that the land was unoccupied and there for the taking. I have been very conscious of the efforts made in the direction of repentance and reconciliation in all my most recent visits to Queensland and New South Wales. And yet we cannot read this book, and others like it, on this topic, without feeling again the terrible clash of cultures between the so-called ‘civilisation’ that the Europeans brought with them, and the values of the First Nation peoples.

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Blog Tour for Author SL Russell: ‘The Wounds of Time’ published 21 March 2022

Today I’m delighted to be taking part in a blog tour for fellow author Sue Russell, with her new novel The Wounds of Time.

I have read a few of Sue’s novels, and they are challenging contemporary novels focusing on a central female protagonist who has to deal with traumatic personal and ethical dilemmas in today’s society, often bound up with difficult family relationships. I believe those who love Jodi Picoult’s fiction will enjoy Sue’s novels.

Today I’m pleased to be able to post my own review of Sue’s latest novel, The Wounds of Time.

MY REVIEW

I enjoyed meeting again some of the characters from SL Russell’s previous two novels, The Healing Knife and The Thorn of Truth. This time the story centres upon Janet Yates, a workaholic Barrister’s Clerk, colleague of Anna Milburn, Head of Chambers, main protagonist of The Thorn of Truth.

Janet is the first person narrator: married to Bob, a paramedic, with a son, Drew, she comes over as a hard, brusque person. Bob is her second husband, and she bitterly regrets her first marriage to Terry.

In the legal firm where Anna and Janet work, they are about to start interviewing candidates for a clerk position. We meet Jan’s sisters Pauline and Christine, their father Desmond and brother Ben, and we get a strong sense of a dysfunctional family. Desmond is an elderly bully, and Ben has a mental disability. Jan’s sour attitude extends to all her family members: to her father, to Pauline, her husband, son and daughter; to Christine and her husband Giles. We build up a picture of an unforgiving, harsh personality, through Jan’s carping inner voice and critical thoughts. 

Jan also disapproves of her son Drew’s choice of girlfriend. This is Tiffany, whom we met before in The Thorn of Truth, where she had befriended Anna’s daughter Millie and caused concern then, because her wealthy father, Calvin Leaman, is believed to be a drug dealer and has been in prison.

Meanwhile, at the legal firm, Jan’s colleagues interview for the new clerk during Jan’s absence to tend a family crisis, and they appoint Lauren Barclay, who starts ringing alarm bells as soon as she enters the role. Back at home, to Jan’s alarm, Drew announces he will marry Tiffany. Alongside all this, we start to get intimations that Jan has a medical condition building up, and, true to her character, she brushes it off; but we, the readers, feel this is going to be serious.

Then we learn that Jan secretly stores significant items related to her childhood trauma in a white suitcase. We discover her mother died in violent tragic circumstances; Jan witnessed the death and consequently became emotionally damaged, having borne the burden of her mother’s loss, in helping to bring up her six siblings, two of whom have grown up to be crooks and con-tricksters.

Jan continues as an unemotional and dry person, described by others as a hard nut.  Meanwhile, Lauren is in her new job, making serious mistakes and revealing a bad attitude. But her father is an important and influential solicitor, and her new bosses are afraid to discipline her for fear of the repercussions from him.

I find SL Russell’s presentation of complex family relationships and the psychological effects of trauma very absorbing and interesting. We learn Jan and Bob’s marriage is not good – they are becoming more distant with each other. Jan has a Catholic background, which she has rejected. The kindly Father Gerard, we discover, knows all about Jan’s family history, and could probably help her: but her own negativity cuts her off from that source of healing. Then vulnerable Ben gets drawn into a scam by his two nefarious brothers and plunges into another crisis. He is discovered to have been stealing expensive goods from his employer; will he lose his precious job, so hard-won and vital to his mental wellbeing?  We wonder whether Bob and Jan’s marriage will collapse. Is Bob having an affair? What is Jan’s health problem?   What’s wrong with Lauren?

I was fascinated by the way the author incorporates several notorious traumatic incidents in the recent life of the UK; terrorist outrages and appalling tragedies with huge loss of life: these are woven into Bob’ story as he is a paramedic.

Although for much of the story Jan may appear to the reader as hard, patronising, and cynical, her story shows how transformation is possible. Through Jan’s story, the author shows how resistant we can all be to change, even when that change is very much in our own best interest. As our questions are answered and the various dilemmas reach crisis point, we see how breakthrough often comes through shocking, life-changing circumstances. Often, only then do people reveal for the first time their inner resources of goodness, begin to see others differently, cracking the hard rock of resentment and pride, opening up to the possibility of forgiveness and true healing.

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Book Review: ‘My Name is Leon’ by Kit de Waal

Having seen Kit De Waal speak at a recent Society of Authors online event, I bought her book My Name is Leon, which is her ‘breakthrough novel’.

Book cover: My Name is Leon by Kit De Waal

An outstanding example of fiction which has emerged from real life experience, this book represents a powerful way to open up the issues of racism, adoption, family breakdown, mental health issues, and the way our society deals with all of these – from the point of view of a small boy.

I feel that the book I can best compare this to is Room by Emma Donoghue, because there, too, the first person narrator is an innocent child, and the sheer simplicity of this innocence presents to us a stark challenge, and sets the cruelty and thoughtlessness of the adult world in sharp relief.

My Name is Leon is set against the backdrop of the race riots in Birmingham in 1980s Britain and I would like to think that the attitude of the adoption authorities has changed since then, especially in regard to the policy of separating siblings and half-siblings when finding foster care and adoptive parents.

This book totally engages us in the heart and mind of Leon, eight years old as the story begins, and how he feels about his mother Carol , who has severe and enduring long term mental health difficulties, which make her unable to look after her children. Mixed-race Leon has begun to see himself as a carer for his mother, and his (white) baby half-brother brother Jake, with his dual advantage of being a baby and being white, is soon taken up for adoption. Through it all we see the adults involved in trying to help the situation, often constrained by the system they serve. We can see that they are, most of them, doing their very best; yet how can they work against the ingrained racism that makes the whole process so painful for a mixed-race child like Leon?

We see the goodness of Maureen, Leon’s kind and patient foster-carer, and her sister Sylvie; and we squirm as we read the conversation the man from the social services has with Leon. He asks all the questions the system requires him to ask; yet he never gains insight into Leon’s true hopes and fears.

A moving and sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes uplifting story, this book is highly recommended.

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Book Review: ‘The Lyrics’ by Paul McCartney with Paul Muldoon

The format of this 2-volume autobiography/memoir makes it an expensive choice; but I was fortunate enough to receive it as a Christmas gift, and having only just finished poring over it, I can now report that I found it utterly fascinating.

The Lyrics by Paul McCartney – image of the box set

I believe the book will be of greatest interest to those who have followed the Beatles and in particular Paul McCartney from the 1960s. Not only does it satisfy the curiosity of all those who have wondered about the meaning behind the lyrics, and the events from which the ideas arose, but it also acts as a valuable social history as Paul recalls life in Liverpool in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

I do feel that the book derives its particular character from the fact that this is a man in his later years, with all the wisdom and reflection of decades of life, trying to remember his thoughts and values as a young teenager and in his early 20s. It is actually quite a challenge, and the feeling of the book is often incredibly revealing and intimate, as the text is simply a transcription of his spoken reminiscences to the poet Paul Muldoon.

The reminiscences vary widely; some come over as rambling and vague; others are sad and regretful, especially about the period 1969-1972 which saw painful misunderstandings, the acrimonious break-up of the Beatles, a court case in which he effectively “divorced” the Beatles, and a period during which John Lennon could not resist the temptation to rehearse his own sense of loss and anger through snide remarks in songs and interviews.

I often found Paul’s recollections very enlightening on subjects veiled in mystery for decades, that I’ve often wanted the answer to – especially what he really thought of John, his insights into John’s character, and the relationship between them, both personally and creatively. I was also captivated by his insights into early fame, and into how his emotional state at the time / life experiences would feed into his songs.

The photos accompanying the text are astonishing: so many of them at all times of his life, from early family records, through to the present. For all creative people, there is value in reading Paul’s insights into his writing process, the way ideas often came out of nowhere, and he would just grasp them and run with them. The songs are in alphabetical order and so if you read the book all the way through you are constantly moving back and forth between 1958 and 2020 and all years in between, from one song to another.

The sheer randomness of some of the lyrics will strike the reader: often they mean something completely different from one verse to the next, as in Hey Jude, or will seem to refer to a specific person in Paul’s life, as in Here, There and Everywhere, but he claims they had just been plucked out of the air and referenced the world rather than any particular person. It also fascinated me that John thought Hey Jude initially referred to himself, and had no idea it referred to his son Julian!

I learned many new things: I hadn’t previously realised The Fool on the Hill referred to the Maharishi (I had always thought the Fool was Paul himself). I had also not known that Got To Get You Into My life refers not to a girl but to marijuana. This was very clever of Lennon McCartney for they often disguised lyrics with bizarre origins by making them seem to refer to a romantic girl / boy relationship. Paul also says something very discerning which I believe applies to writing novels as well: he says that songs once written belong to the world, and those who receive the songs are free to make what they like of the lyrics, and he is quite happy with that.

An amazing autobiography, highly recommended.

Here’s a few links to other posts I have written on this blog about the Beatles and Paul McCartney – including my review of a previous book on their lyrics, also received as a Christmas gift!

The Beatles: a fan’s memorabilia

Book Review: The Beatles Lyrics by Hunter Davies

Paul McCartney: People of Inspiration Part 1

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The Search for Evidence

Another amusing episode in the life of the quintessential English village of Lower Strangling.

The Lower Strangling Chronicles

Ever since finding Nazi memorabilia in his loft, Simon was determined to find out who owned them.

During his free time (even his non-free time) Simon scoured the internet and various documents to find any sign of a Nazi sympathiser in Lower Strangling to no avail.

Until he had an idea; the parish records. There must be something in the parish records.

There was just one issue. There were simply too many records for Simon to go through himself.

It was then that Simon called the village council together for an emergency meeting.

It was safe to say the council was not best pleased when they found out that Simon wanted them to sift through parish records rather than discuss the situation in Ukraine.

The council agreed to help Simon, however.

“Are you sure this is an appropriate use of council time?” John asked Simon, as he looked at a…

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