Book Review: ‘The Winter Guest’ by W.C. Ryan

I was engrossed by this historical novel set in Ireland in 1921 among The Troubles that exploded in 1919 in the Irish War of Independence after the First World War.

The Winter Guest by W.C. Ryan brings our investigator and first person narrator Tom Harkin to the atmospheric, crumbling and haunted ancestral mansion of the Prendeville family, close beside the sea, to unravel the mystery behind the murder of his former fiancée, Maud Prendeville.

Some reviewers have noted its ‘moody, gothic atmosphere’ and its ‘bracing whiff of the supernatural.’ Several years ago I attended a talk by a top literary agent and he remarked that setting and topics go in and out of fashion in the publishing world, especially those connected to political events; and at that time, he said any novel set against the Irish troubles would be rejected, because ‘everyone’s fed up with the Irish troubles right now and they don’t want to read fiction about it’.

Interestingly, here in 2023, the Irish troubles are an OK setting again, especially as the events this novel describes are set over a hundred years ago. And certainly this author opened up for me all the passionate convictions of the IRA Column and Volunteers, in their struggle against Britain, represented by the Royal Irish Constabulary and the ‘Auxies’ as they were called (Auxiliaries).

For a contemporary reader, or at least, for me, I spent the first part of the novel confused about who was on whose side and who was against Britain and who was fighting for independence, and who would be highly motivated to kill or to defend who. This was a lot to do with the labels they gave themselves. Some of the characters were double agents, and were pretending to side with those in authority, when really their hearts and souls were with the cause of independence.

Once I’d sorted all that out in my mind, I was able to fully engage with this story of Tom Harkin, just back from the traumatic conflict of the First World War, ostensibly an insurance assessor but really an IRA Intelligence Officer. Tom has travelled from Dublin to the gloomy coastal Kolcolgan House to investigate the murder of his former fiancée, the lovely Maud Prendeville, in an IRA ambush. Initially I found the whole thing as confusing as the fictional characters. Why was Maud, who had shown herself a fighter for independence, been gunned down by her own side?

If Tom had not persisted in his investigations, Maud’ death would have remained an unresolved mystery, just another accidental killing or example of collateral damage. But Tom is untiring in his quest for the truth among the aristocratic Prendeville family and all their ghosts and living associates, and he uncovers a network of complicated and nefarious underhand activity, implicating Maud’s closest Prendeville relatives, who hold a high status in society and have strong connections with the powers that be. The story gathers in intensity and intrigue, and I became swept up in the progression of events, the rising tension, and the multiple shocks that accompany Tom’s discoveries.

In the end this proved to be an absorbing and compelling novel, thought-provoking in its subject matter and ingenious in its plotting.

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The Lure of a Country House Library

I was inspired by an Instagram post I read recently from a fellow-author.

She said she was warming up with a cup of coffee at the Dorchester Curiosity Centre in Dorset, while waiting for her MOT to be done, and ‘contemplating how cover design has developed over the decades’. She was looking at an entire wall filled with enticing covers of books over the past fifty years.

So, I replied, “Oh for the days when a book cover was boring, and you had to open a book to find out what it was about!”

The library bookshelves in Upton House, Warwickshire (National Trust)

I was thinking about all those beautiful libraries history lovers enter, within grand country homes open to the public gaze. They are my favourite rooms in the house. Usually there is a vast antique desk in a warm golden oak, with crystal ink pots and the finest stationery sets laid out upon its green baize cover. Elsewhere upon its gleaming timber surface we may notice a pure silver tray, and upon this reposes a cut glass decanter of port, sherry or madeira wine, and a few elegantly arranged crystal glasses, and perhaps a dish of almonds and delicate cheese portions. Behind the desk we may find a luxurious leather throne.

Elsewhere we may sink into sumptuous leather armchairs, or Chippendale chairs, and the finest oak tables to place our books on. The walls are lined by deep carved oak shelves, from floor to ceiling, filled with a glorious display of books all mysteriously bound in the same restrained russet or midnight-blue or bottle-green with gold tooled titles on the spine. To decide on a book, you had to go through the shelves and take one out and open it and scan the title page inside and the first few paragraphs and decide what you think.

I later discovered that the book cover as a way of advertising a book’s contents did not exist until the late 19th century. Until then, book bindings – made in leather or vellum – were merely handcrafted protection for expensively printed or handwritten pages.  

The library in Charlecote House, Warwickshire (National Trust)

There was none of this ‘being-hit-in-the-face’ as we are these days as we enter a bookshop, and soon become dizzy with multiple colours, stunning designs and sensory overload. No kaleidoscopes of images from every sphere of human existence, designed to hook you and claim your attention, with the purpose of gaining access to your inmost desires in the shortest time possible, to chime bells inside you, to meet whatever needs you believe you may have. How do the people with synaesthesia cope, I wonder? Those who hear colours as sounds, or experience sounds as colours?

But back before the late 1800s, no-one expected this when they entered a realm of books. Nothing would break in on them. These were times of leisure and contemplation and deliberation, we might think, if we enter one of the gracious libraries in an English stately home.

How I long for the mental and physical space, silence, and peace that I imagine reigned within some of those libraries. My dearest wish would be to go on retreat there for several days or even weeks, with all my needs catered to of course, several of them being met by on-call, willing and ever attentive uniformed staff. (The others might be catered to by a visit to the nearby bathroom with its gold taps and blue and white Delft tiles upon the walls and its porcelain fittings). I would then calmly enter into the world’s greatest literature, spending quality time with the hearts and souls of those who penned it, their wisdom, their insights, their profound thoughts enshrined within the most beautiful language and powers of self-expression. I would have time to imbibe all this, and to take it all into my own heart and soul.

Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire, viewed from the other side of the river – photo included in Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman pub. Amberley (photo credit: SC Skillman)

A dream, you say? An idyll that never existed? Or a luxury only for the privileged few in a profoundly unjust world? For all those who dwelt in this environment during those days when the house was a live space, not merely a museum, would have had their own sorrows and anxieties and pressures too. They too, like us, would have been plagued by annoying people. The staff would probably have brought their own personal troubles into the house. The world they all lived in was replete with dreadful tragedies, social injustice, natural and man-man disasters, and political folly all borne from and fed by the same greed and lust for power that surrounds us all today. They themselves, as individuals, may have been protected from that world to a certain extent by their money: even that did not save them from the effects of disease both physical and mental, ignorant doctors, bereavement, war, broken relationships, adultery and child mortality.

Yes, yes, I recognise all this: but back to those beautiful libraries. Surely, they were created by people with a vision: a vision for what life COULD be like, a vision for what many of certain tastes, like me, dream of and value. A vision marred, of course, by human nature and social injustice, and the fact that humans cannot seem to bring anything into reality, however dreamlike, that does not eventually become elitist, and connected with material wealth and social status. A beautiful, mellow, golden room, lined with books.

Chandos Leigh, poet, 1st Baron Leigh of the second creation, painting in Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire
(from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman pub. Amberley)

My favourites, all from grand country houses in the county of Warwickshire where I live, include the libraries at Charlecote House, Stoneleigh Abbey and Upton House. At Charlecote, the Lucy family were the lucky owners of the library. At Stoneleigh Abbey, Chandos Leigh, romantic poet and contemporary of Lord Byron, spent his happiest hours here within this room, and probably still haunts it today. At Upton House, Lord and Lady Bearsted enjoyed the warmth of this room.

We can dream, and then we return to the twenty-first century high street bookshop and synaesthesia-challenging covers.

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Book Review ‘The Shadowing’ by Rhiannon Ward

Today, I’m pleased to share with you my review of another of my Christmas book gifts: a gothic novel published in 2021 by Orion Books.

The Shadowing by Rhiannon Ward is both a captivating read and a learning experience.

I read this book in one evening and it gripped me throughout. Variously described on Amazon as Gothic Romance / Historical Fantasy / Metaphysical and Visionary Fiction, this novel is set in the 1840s and opens up to us the life of Southwell Workhouse, Nottingham (now in the ownership of the National Trust), of Quakers and Primitive Methodists and how society viewed them at that time,  the system of coach travel just before the railways took over, and also the horror of Victorian baby farming.

Hester, the main protagonist, from a Bristol-based Quaker family, has a tyrannical father, a weak mother, and a very loyal, sympathetic maid, Susanna. Hester combines her strong, determined and steely character with outstanding psychic gifts, intensely aware of “the spirits”, especially her dead sister, Mercy, whose mysterious death at the Southwell Workhouse she sets out to investigate.

I learned so many things from this novel. I had previously been aware that the authorities felt threatened by the Quaker movement when it first arose, and I knew early Quakers were imprisoned and treated like criminals, but I hadn’t realised the deep suspicion and distrust with which the ordinary people viewed Quakers and Primitive Methodists even after the practice of their religion had become legal.

The fact that Hester is a Quaker is recognisable by her plain clothing. I wasn’t at first sure why she needed to hide her “shadowings” (spirit sightings) from her father Amos, and also was mystified why her mother Ruth would feel obliged to tell him, if she knew. It intrigued me to discover that some Quakers at that time were quite fanatic and as bad as the most extreme Puritans and members of the Brethren sects – I had always thought the hallmark of Quakerism was tolerance and open-mindedness. This was a revelation to me.

The story begins with the arrival of a formal death notification from the superintendent of the Southwell Workhouse, addressed to Hester’s father. Hester’s sister Mercy, who ran away from home three years ago, has died at the Workhouse.

It then becomes Hester’s task to set off from Bristol to Southwell, and unravel the mystery.

The author’s description of travel by coach before the first railways began to be built in England was vividly described and answered many questions to which I had previously not known the answer. The novel gave me a very good feel for what it would have been like, in all its details, especially for a woman travelling alone.

Hester first arrives at the local coaching inn, run by Matthew, and spends a considerable time there awaiting her hosts, Dorothea and daughter Caroline, who are also Quakers but much more liberal. Matthew is going to play a significant role in this story, though Hester doesn’t know that yet. Finally, her hosts arrive and take her to their home – they are clearly well-to-do and ‘worldly’, a term used several times in this novel in a positive sense, meaning realistic and open-minded.

Hester pursues the mystery surrounding Mercy’s death, and the question of why she didn’t marry the man she eloped with, Mr Philips; why she never returned to her family nor did she, apparently, ever contact them; why she instead turned up at the Southwell Workhouse; why and how she died, and why she didn’t tell the Workhouse authorities that she was a Friend, or Quaker (which would have entitled her to different burial arrangements).

When Hester travels to visit the workhouse, we discover the local people view it with fear and horror; and once inside she learns that pregnant women are put in the dormitories for the “undeserving poor” and “given extra religious instruction” (meaning, as we would now describe it, ‘moralised at’ and ‘psychologically abused’). The more she learns about the system at the workhouse, the more shameful it becomes, exposing a system of callousness, cruelty and inhuman exploitation. Later Hester meets the local parson, and we discover he’s a nasty piece of work as well.

Throughout the story, the feeling of ghostly presences hovering around Hester is very strong, giving urgency to her mission.

The outcome of the story is both surprising and shocking, totally reversing our previous view of quite a few characters; and it will certainly have you doing your own online research about many aspects of mid nineteenth century England.

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Book Review: ‘Madam’ by Phoebe Wynne

This gothic novel Madam by Phoebe Wynne held me captive throughout, despite some reservations about the plot and development of ideas.

The author builds a strong feeling of creepy, sinister, weird claustrophobia in an exclusive independent girls’ school on the Scottish coast. The main protagonist, Rose, has just been appointed to the highly paid post of Head of Classics in this school for the daughters of wealthy, aristocratic, privileged parents, housed in a remote castle. She has doubts about the job before she accepts it; but the school will take care of her elderly invalid mother and this commitment is linked to Rose’s appointment to the school.

However, once there, despite building a special rapport with some of her pupils, Rose begins to feel oppressed by many things including the odd insistence on calling all the female teachers ‘Madam’, and the lies and false accusations directed against her. The reader is conscious of a sense of powerlessness, of being pushed to the edge of paranoia, of being restrained, of secrets closely guarded, information withheld, and strings drawn tight around Rose. I began to see parallels with certain aspects of Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Lord of the Flies, as Rose is stalked by a deeply disturbed girl, Bethany.

Questions are sewn in the reader’s mind. What happened to Rose’s predecessor, Jane, who was dismissed for some undisclosed reason? What is wrong with Bethany? What was the nature of her relationship with Jane? What exactly is going on at the school? Why is it all so weird? We are troubled by the realisation that the school’s control of Rose is closing in on her and her life.

Throughout the story we are introduced to various key female figures in Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece: both from history and from mythology. I enjoyed this, though intrigued by why some of these women should be regarded as inspirational, since many ended up committing suicide or being killed or having their fates determined by men. I studied Classical Background at university and have read translations of the Greek tragedies, Homer and Virgil, and Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars with relish and fascination. I have certainly never thought of Nero’s mother Agrippina as a heroine of feminism, though I must admit she was strong, determined and wilful!

Soon we recognise the paradox that although the school supposedly has a superlative educational reputation, the girls are not being taught academic excellence at all. That does not seem to be the goal. The standard of teaching prior to Rose’s arrival, the girls’ level of knowledge, and quality of concentration and application, is extremely poor. What’s going on?

The headmaster is a mystery and seems to hold off from a proper meeting with Rose for quite a long time. Later he becomes menacing and directly threatening. Rose realises she is trapped here: her life and integrity are constrained. She is fully locked in; coercion and blackmail are frequently used tools. Rose’s only realistic option is total conformity to the evil system.

The whole idea, we learn, is to keep women subservient for ever. The sheer corruption of this place is overwhelming: everything is directed to strengthening the power and ultimate control of those with wealth and high status in society – who are of course male – and this triumphs over ethics, social justice, personal freedom and respect for human rights. This even trumps any respect for the national academic league tables. Finally, it is very clear that Rose’s mother, is being held hostage.

I was captivated as I read this story but there were a number of flaws. First, the book is unnecessarily long, and several scenes are over-written. I felt it would have benefited from tight editing. Particularly towards the horrific end, the writing became loose, repetitive and drawn out.

There were also a number of anomalies; and set as it was in the 1990s, I wondered how such a plot really would succeed in our society. Nevertheless, this picture of a wicked attempt to reverse everything that has been so hard-won by the feminist movement, was very thought-provoking.

Despite the caveats, for its atmosphere, tension and fascinating ideas, I applaud this debut novel by Phoebe Wynne.

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Book Review: ‘Down Under: Travels from a Sunburned Country’ by Bill Bryson

Today I’m pleased to share with you my review of one of my Christmas present books. Having visited several of the Australian locations in this book – Sydney, Canberra, Alice Springs, Uluru, Darwin, and the Great Barrier Reef, among several others – I loved reading about Bill Bryson’s experiences there in his brilliant piece of travel writing, Down Under.

Bill Bryson is the most engaging non-fiction writer: I was captivated by his mix of whimsical observations, self-deprecating anecdotes, hilarious remarks about the foibles of his travelling companion, and reports on overheard conversations. These are interspersed with occasional excursions into the history, geography, politics or scientific facts and curiosities about particular places. What I enjoy most is the feeling he gives the reader of moving in close to a subject, examining its quirkiest or most singular aspect, then panning out again to take a more distant or panoramic view.

Bill Bryson, travel writer

He reserves his funniest writing for those occasions when he encounters total frustration and annoyance. I don’t think I will ever again be on my travels, up against an infuriating person, circumstance or chain of events, without wondering what Bill Bryson would make of this. He is at his best as a writer when things go wrong. Those of us who are non-fiction writers can all take heart from this. He gives a totally new complexion to the concept of ‘hard luck’, ‘missing out’, or ‘arriving too late’.

I think my favourite episode in the whole book is when Bill and his increasingly tetchy companion drive around Darwin several times trying to find a hotel whose name is unaccountably different from the name it went by when he booked it. When he finally arrives in the reception of the hotel he has now driven past several times, disgruntled and fractious, the receptionist makes it quite clear she has never heard the saying ‘the customer is always right’. Bill Bryson’s assessment of her, the hotel, and the people of Darwin would not look good on Trip Adviser. When I later checked this hotel out, I discovered that several travellers had indeed given it a very low star rating with a mixture of scornful comments.  

Those who read Bill Bryson’s travel books must end up in two minds about whether or not they would like to be his travelling companion for one of his journeys: or indeed, one of the people he meets, chats with, or whose conversations he overhears and records. From my experience, people rarely recognise themselves in books, and of course, the author can always change the names. Would it be fun to agree to accompany Bill, or a decision they will never live down? I will now read Bill Bryson’s other travel books and continue to find great inspiration as a non-fiction writer.

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The Love of British Folk Tradition: Coventry and Kenilworth Morris at Kenilworth Castle on Boxing Day morning

I love Morris dancers, and at Kenilworth Castle on Boxing Day morning, all those who had braved the icy winds and crisp chill of the atmosphere were treated to several dances by the Coventry Morris and the Chinewrde Morris Dancers of Kenilworth. Male and female dancers entertained us while we were fortified with hot chocolate and mince pies from the Stables tea room.

In my book ‘Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire’ I include a chapter on Folklore and Folk Customs. In this, I write about one particular Morris Side, the Plum Jerkum. But the lead melodeon player and dancer, Dave, speaks for all Morris dancers when he says:

“People like to remember the past, when it is thought life was much simpler (and harder too, though people forget that). Border Morris is a celebration of working folk, who had to wear costumes and disguises to dance for money, which was apparently illegal at the time.’

I love the way they got round the authorities and subverted the rules! On this occasion, the male dancers mostly swapped the traditional dress for blue sweatshirts, but there were still a few rags and ribbons to be seen.

Coventry Morris dancers at Kenilworth Castle on Boxing Day morning 2022

On Boxing Day morning at the castle, the festive canines were also out in force for the best-dressed dogs contest.

Finally, we enjoyed a bracing walk around the castle, which included my favourite aspect: up the staircase that now allows visitors to ascend to the different levels of Leicester’s Building. Here, Elizabeth I and her entourage were accommodated during the 19-day festivities in 1575 hosted by Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and then the owner of the castle.

At the very top visitors may gaze across the empty space to the countryside beyond. We have to imagine the floor of the room up here, the tapestries on the walls, the flames in the fireplace, and the gorgeous costumes of the revellers. In this very space, Elizabeth and her courtiers danced the night away.

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Book Reviews: The Poppy Denby Murder Mystery Series by Fiona Veitch Smith

Today, I’m delighted to bring you my reviews of a six book series I highly recommend, having just thoroughly enjoyed reading book six.

The Crystal Crypt, Book 6 of the Poppy Denby series by Fiona Veitch Smith, shown on a Kindle Paperwhite

The Poppy Denby series is widely available online and through bookshops.

The Poppy Denby Murder Mystery series
by Fiona Veitch Smith

I’ve enjpyed meeting and chatting to the author Fiona Veitch Smith at writing events, and have followed her writing and publishing journey from the time she originally self-published her children’s books I read and loved her earlier novel Pilate’s Daughter, and delighted in the increasing success of her present output as an established writer of commercially published fiction. I’ve also played a part in Fiona’s research when she posts her questions on the Facebook group to which we both belong in order to correct any anachronisms in her stories!

Author Fiona Veitch Smith at the book launch for her mystery novel The Death Beat (photo by permission of the author)

The Poppy Denby series is set in the 1920s, and with every book, Fiona has researched key events and issues of the time. There’s also lots of detail about 1920s fashions, which Fiona loves and has fully investigated – this includes dressing up in a gorgeous flapper dress and posing by appropriate props such as a vintage car or a 1920s typewriter for her book launches!

Poppy Denby is an investigative reporter for the London tabloid The Globe. Fiona has herself worked in the world of journalism and has personal experience of life in a newspaper office. With this series, not only do we get a highly entertaining read with characters who will captivate us, but also a strong sense of  the major dramas of that era, enabling us to imagine how it would have been to live through those times, and giving us much greater insight into their meaning and significance for us today.

Here, then, are my six reviews:

THE POPPY DENBY MURDER MYSTERY SERIES

BY FIONA VEITCH SMITH

BOOK 1

THE JAZZ FILES

A thoroughly engaging detective novel set in the 1920s. I loved the main protagonist Poppy and enjoyed the descriptions of her life establishing herself as an investigative journalist in the offices of the London tabloid newspaper The Globe. Other characters are also brilliantly drawn; Poppy’s actress friend Delilah, her boss Rollo, and the loathesome antagonists, Melvyn and Alfie Dorchester. The author draws a vivid picture of the struggle of the suffragettes and conveys the challenges of being a woman in a world where discrimination against women was condoned at every level. The narrative sparkled and was well-paced with powerful changes of tone and mood in scenes of tension and danger. An excellent Lion Fiction debut for Fiona Veitch Smith.

BOOK 2

THE KILL FEE

I found this one even more intriguing and pacey. I love Rollo, Delilah, Novoski, and the author’s vivacious story-telling. I also like the way she brings into her story real people in the theatre world at that time (early twentieth century), such as Stanislavski and Lillian Baylis.

The background to the story involves the turbulent political events in Russia with the end of the Romanov dynasty and the rise of the Bolsheviks. The theft of two Faberge eggs starts the plot spinning, and Poppy, our intrepid journalist, is on the trail of a story for her newspaper The Globe; as she follows her instincts in unravelling the truth behind a jewel theft and a double killing, she and her actress friend Delilah find themselves caught up in a dangerous and deadly turn of events. Enthralling.

BOOK 3

THE DEATH BEAT

This time, investigative journalist Poppy is in New York with her boss, Rollo, accompanied by her good friend, actress Delilah, and her aunt, former suffragette Dot.

She finds herself unravelling a case involving murder, stolen identity, a false claim on a fortune, a possible sex-slave ring, corruption in the film industry, two vulnerable female emigrees from the Russian revolution, and the mystery of who pushed the seaman into the machinery on the ship from Southampton. We meet again the villain Archie Dorchester from Poppy’s past.

I love the energetic narrative pace, the colourful evocation of the era, the accurate description of the fashions of the time, the way the author blends in real people, and above all the delightful and engaging principal characters. Now I move straight on to the next Poppy Denby book!

BOOK 4

THE ART FIASCO

The story surrounds the art world,  centred upon the backstory of a celebrated artist, and two suspiciously linked tragic deaths. Poppy is as ever warm, caring, empathetic but sharp, persistent, and discerning, and the story also takes forward the unresolved questions surrounding Poppy’s love interests. I found this story, the unravelling of the mystery and the truth behind the murders, to be closely bound up with complex family relationships, which I greatly enjoyed. I’m looking forward to the next Poppy Denby mystery!

BOOK 5

THE CAIRO BRIEF

I loved this tale of Ancient Egyptian artefacts. Murders, grand theft and spiritualism surround the death mask of Nefertiti, and Poppy, our intrepid young journalist, is determined to get at the truth as the auction draws ever closer and we wonder which of four countries will get their hands on the priceless object. Of all the Poppy books this is the one that most reminded me of Agatha Christie, as Poppy constantly reviews and revises the list of murder and stalking suspects at the country house party. As ever I loved the cast of characters who reappear in each book – Poppy’s colourful boss Rollo, her love-interest photographer Daniel and her bete noir Lionel from the rival newspaper. A captivating read.

BOOK 6

THE CRYSTAL CRYPT

It’s a fantastic sixth addition to the Poppy Denby series. This time investigative reporter Poppy – as persistent and discerning as ever – penetrates into the suspicious death of a brilliant woman X-ray crystallographer. Poppy plunges into the world of science in Oxford, and also into the heart of the kind of misogyny which will make present-day readers seethe (a misogyny which is still present in today’s society – but much more marginalised, and more strongly challenged). Poppy finds herself in the basement crystallography laboratory dubbed ‘The Crystal Crypt’ housed opposite Backwell’s Bookshop. I know Oxford quite well, and I loved all the detail of the places there, many of them familiar to me. The author did invent the hotel Poppy stays at, The Cherwell Hotel, so if anyone hunts for a room there as an alternative to The Randolph, they’ll be disappointed!

All the beloved characters are here – the wonderful newspaperman Rollo with his special connections into all levels of nefarious society; Melvyn Dorchester, the devious and currently imprisoned aristocrat, ready to strike a deal with the cunning and ingenious Rollo; Delilah Marconi, Poppy’s friend – sadly only a brief appearance this time – and Daniel Rokeby, who seems at long last to be on the right track with Poppy! I also love Ike and Ivan two loyal and resourceful staff members at The Globe.

In this novel, the author gets right to the heart of chauvinism and bigotry in the prestigious academic world of the 1920s. Poppy uncovers a conspiracy by jealous males to eliminate a brilliant woman; and the evidence for this kind of activity is overwhelming within recorded history.

As ever, Poppy encounters personal danger and does not flinch from putting her life at risk in the pursuit of truth.  She is an exceptional character, and I highly recommend this mystery series to all fiction readers.

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Book Review: ‘Nine Perfect Strangers’ by Liane Moriarty

Today I’m pleased to share with you my review of a book I greatly enjoyed.

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty is set in the idyllic landscape of New South Wales, Australia. The TV adaptation appeared on our screens in 2021 as a TV mini series starring Nicole Kidman and shifted the action to the USA instead of Australia.

I picked this book out from a lending library in a Sunshine Coast holiday resort in Queensland. I began reading it and couldn’t stop. The premise immediately appealed to me, and reminded me of my own novel A Passionate Spirit, in which a beautiful and charismatic woman with a mysterious background takes over a creative/healing centre. She too, like the character Masha, played by Nicole Kidman, starts to convince people she has the answer to all their problems. Of course Liane Moriarty guides her story in a very different direction from the one I choose in A Passionate Spirit. Nine Perfect Strangers becomes even more fascinating for me, as I consider the numerous ways in which one could indeed develop this simple premise: nine people gather at a remote health resort.

THE BLURB

Could ten days at a health resort really change you forever?

These nine perfect strangers are about to find out…

Nine people gather at a remote health resort. Some are here to lose weight, some are here to get a reboot on life, some are here for reasons they can’t even admit to themselves. Amidst all of the luxury and pampering, the mindfulness and meditation, they know these ten days might involve some real work. But none of them could imagine just how challenging the next ten days are going to be.

Frances Welty, the formerly best-selling romantic novelist, arrives at Tranquillum House nursing a bad back, a broken heart, and an exquisitely painful paper cut. She’s immediately intrigued by her fellow guests. Most of them don’t look to be in need of a health resort at all. But the person that intrigues her most is the strange and charismatic owner/director of Tranquillum House. Could this person really have the answers Frances didn’t even know she was seeking? Should Frances put aside her doubts and immerse herself in everything Tranquillum House has to offer—or should she run while she still can?

It’s not long before every guest at Tranquillum House is asking exactly the same question.

MY REVIEW

I loved this story of a group of characters who all check in to a supposed healing retreat in a beautiful rural location in New South Wales. The author makes considerable use of the Australian landscape with many details of wildlife and terrain, so the creators of the TV mini series did need to make some changes here. Also there is a strong reference to ‘one of those outback serial killers’ which has a very specific resonance in Australia. Liane Moriarty gives us a picture of each person at the retreat, both guests and staff: their background, and why they are there.

The main protagonist Frances, formerly bestselling author, is a very attractive character and I liked her enormously. The book is often very funny and also hugely perceptive in its observations of human psychology. As I read about the issues of some of the people who’ve booked into this retreat I couldn’t help thinking, ‘She’s got my number’ and identifying with many of the author’s observations.

The leader of the retreat, Masha, intrigued me. She is mysterious, of Russian origin, and very beautiful. She reminded me of a character I created in my own novel, Natasha, who also promises healing and wholeness, and is enchantingly lovely – and both my character Natasha, and Liane Moriarty’s charismatic healer Masha, float around in long white silk dresses. Masha is played by Nicole Kidman in the TV drama series of this novel, and I believe Nicole plays her very well.

I began by liking Masha, and feeling her objectives and methods are perfectly understandable and valid, if she is going to fulfill her claim of transforming people’s lives in ten days. For this to happen, a retreat leader would need to be highly focused and committed but also bring people alongside her.

However, later, we learn new things about Masha, and she becomes more and more crazed, desperate, and starts employing what some might consider ‘unethical’ methods. Techniques she uses include deprivation of freedom, food, and light; and playing disturbing mind-games with her guests, which might even threaten their sanity. The book is classified on Amazon as a medical thriller. Masha’s methods would certainly not be approved by the laws of the land, in the UK, or in the USA, or in Australia!

Initially, Masha plans things that make sense to us. She is a wellness instructor, we think: she might be tough, but this is indeed what needs to happen to help people face their issues and change their lives. Later, however, she steps over the line. Then, we discover her background. The clues lie in Russia and its well-known history over the past century.

The guests are being put to the test; they are being pushed beyond their comfort zone. This is fair enough, we decide; but as the story progresses and tension rises, they are mocked, tricked, played with, deceived, to the point where they are told: “This evening, you will face your own mortality.” To be honest, if I was at this retreat and heard the leader say that, I’d think she was going to kill me.

As Masha proceeds with her over-the-top solutions for life-change, she alternates between condescending unctuousness and unbridled rage. She justifies herself with the very convenient statement, “Only you can set yourself free.” What she metes out to her guests eventually becomes psychological torture. Meltdown, terror and farce lie ahead. But the author presents us finally with some very surprising, and often teasing, outcomes for all our hopeful guests seeking life-transformation.

Do look this book out: I highly recommend it!

If you are attracted by the premise of life-transformation in a healing retreat, and you enjoy reading ‘Nine Perfect Strangers’ why not try ‘A Passionate Spirit’ by SC Skillman too? Only £1.99 to download on your kindle on Amazon UK.

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Book Review: ‘Cuckoo in the Nest’ by Fran Hill

Today I’m delighted to be sharing my review of an ARC of this debut novel by my friend and very funny fellow-author Fran Hill, ‘Cuckoo in the Nest’, to be published by Legend Press on 26 April 2023.

BLURB

It’s the heatwave summer of 1976 and 14-year-old would-be poet Jackie Chadwick is newly fostered by the Walls. She desperately needs stability, but their insecure, jealous teenage daughter isn’t happy about the cuckoo in the nest and sets about ousting her.

When her attempts to do so lead to near-tragedy – and the Walls’ veneer of middle-class respectability begins to crumble – everyone in the household is forced to reassess what really matters. Funny and poignant, Cuckoo in the Nest is inspired by Fran Hill’s own experience of being fostered as a teenager.

MY REVIEW

I found this a heartrending, funny and utterly captivating novel. Set in the heatwave of 1976 (which I myself remember well), the story is narrated by highly intelligent 14 year old, Jackie Chadwick, who opens her story with a deadpan, spare, stark account of the daily realities of her life with her disabled father, who, following her mother’s death, became a violent alcoholic. Jackie eventually accepts the help offered to her by the Social Services, and goes to live with a foster family, the Walls, supposedly on a ‘temporary’ basis. The Social Workers, first Bobbie, and later Cynthia, come over very well, doing their very best in the circumstances and showing sensitivity and compassion (as a similar character did in the book ‘My Name is Leon’).

Jackie herself is bright, perceptive, and full of wit, despite her tragic background. When she enters her new ‘temporary’ home she soon discovers that her would-be foster mother Bridget tries too hard, wants everything to be perfect, and borders on the obsessive compulsive; while Bridget’s husband Nick avoids conflict and hides himself away in his shed much of the time, restoring bicycles. Meanwhile, Amanda, their daughter, rude, surly and ungrateful, is deeply resentful of Jackie’s presence, and makes no attempt to disguise it. Throughout the dry, acutely observant and often very funny narrative, we, along with Jackie, take small incremental steps towards getting to know each family member more closely, their personal and emotional issues and relationship difficulties.  The author keeps the momentum steadily rising with her incisive depiction of uneasy family dynamics, and the reader is held captive trying to anticipate the inevitable crisis point but with no idea when that is going to happen. Flashes of dry humour slip in unexpectedly often making the reader laugh out loud.

Jackie’s resilience and sarcasm carry her through all the provocations by the bitter and troubled Amanda. I found the accounts of Jackie’s attempted contacts with her father moving and very sad, and this aspect of the novel did remind me a little again of scenes in ‘My Name is Leon’, in which we see the unbreakable loyalty of a child towards an abusive parent. The adults around Jackie are clearly not coping at all, while she dispassionately observes and records what is going on.

Surprisingly as the novel progresses, I come to like Amanda, thinking I would probably feel just as he does, if I were in her place. Bridget’s obsession with putting up a perfect front backfires, and the family explode in open warfare; followed by a slight rapprochement between Amanda and Jackie. When Jackie visits her dad in prison, he makes a devastating confession. Then the family heads into an even great crisis with shocking revelations about the adults, leading Amanda and Jackie to start building a curious alliance. I loved the way the author handles the delicate transition for Amanda from open hostility to acceptance, and the edgy way the two girls navigate moving towards a new understanding of each other. This is an outstanding novel of family relationships and an uplifting tale of personal resilience which many readers will be able to identify with even if they have never shared Jackie’s tragic background.

Rated: 5 stars

I received a complementary digital ARC of this novel from Legend Press via Net Galley at my request in exchange for an honest review.

Publication Date: 26 April 2023

Available for Pre-Order now!

About the Author

Fran is a writer and retired English teacher living in Warwickshire, England. She has written three books: a novella called ‘Being Miss’ (self-published 2014), a funny teacher-memoir called ‘Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean?’ (SPCK 2020) and a novel called ‘Cuckoo in the Nest’ being published by Legend Press in April 2023.

Fran Hill, Author

She is a member of the Society of Authors and the Association of Christian Writers and was selected for the prestigious Room 204 emerging writers’ programme run by Writing West Midlands in 2016-17.

Do visit Fran’s website at http://www.franhill.co.uk for more info, and sign up there for entertaining email updates!

Book Reviews: ‘1066: What Fates Impose’ and ‘In the Shadows of Castles’ by GK Holloway

Today I am pleased to share with you my reviews and thoughts on two works of historical fiction by GK Holloway which open up for us the years leading to the Norman Conquest of England, and the aftermath. They are ‘1066: What Fates Impose‘ and ‘In the Shadows of Castles.’

Historical fiction gives us a wonderful opportunity to ‘live vicariously’: to imagine how it may have been for the people living through, suffering from, fighting against, or driving those historical events.

Officially received history can often be limited and sparse. As we know, history is written by the victors: it has also been written mostly by those of high status, who are male; and I have been driven again and again to the conclusion that two major players were written out of history. These two major players are 1) women and 2) the ordinary people.

Many of us who are interested in history must long to know what the ordinary people thought and felt. But it is lost: unrecorded, it appears in no archives, and sometimes we can only rely on the findings of archaeology or objects in museums to give us some hints.

Historical fiction therefore, plays a vital role, when created with scrupulous research, emotional intelligence and high integrity. Through this, we can engage imaginatively with ‘history.’ Real people made decisions, based on their feelings and psychological and emotional states, their personal pressures and lusts and desires, their flawed relationships: for good and for bad, they made their choices, and enormous consequences followed which we have all had to live with.

GK Holloway has carried out an admirable task: he has tried to unravel the story of what led up to William of Normandy sailing to England, invading, and beating the English king in battle; and what followed for the people of England in the years after he built his first castle and had himself crowned on Christmas Day. Here are my two reviews:

1066: What Fates Impose by GK Holloway

Because 1066 and surrounding events are the stuff of our primary school history, we tend to view them from a safe and detached distance. But read this book and you will feel close up to those dramatic and fateful events. My opinion of the novel improved as I read it. Although the opening scene was stunning – showing us William the Conqueror on his deathbed – I then found the first half fairly slow-going with all the details of Earl Godwin and his sons and a fickle and rather weak Edward the Confessor dishing out earldoms, and a mix of rebellious sons, betrayal, poisonous royal advisers and ruthless conniving archbishops. However, the book gained in power and intensity as it moved on towards the events of 1066. In particular, the battle description at the end is brilliant, with several flashes of rich detail, engaging all the senses, together with poignant and moving touches that made me feel I was there at the thick of the battle of Hastings.

The skill of the narrative is such that I couldn’t help seeing the changing fate of the combatants as a metaphor for our own lives. After much detailed description of carnage, brutality and sadistic violence, the end of the book came unexpectedly with a poetic beauty that I found truly moving.

I was so immersed in the events that I even found myself thinking ‘I hope Harold wins’ even though I then thought ‘Of course he won’t. William wins’. And there is one character whose sadistic murder of a mother and child whilst pillaging along the southeast coast of England is so scrupulously examined, I thought ‘I hope he gets his come-uppance’. But he doesn’t. Instead, he wins glory, royal gratitude, a large parcel of land in Devonshire and a wife and two sons. So much for the way of the wicked perishing.

A fantastic evocation of a period of history that can seem very dry in our early school lives. We are so used to viewing the injustice, social inequality, corruption and favouritism of history from a safe distance it becomes merely amusing. But this book engages us emotionally in these events, bringing us up very close, giving us a new sense of perspective, causing us to reflect on the workings of fate in our own lives.

In the Shadows of Castles by GK Holloway

I found this a worthy sequel to ‘What Fates Impose’: a vivid and fast-moving account of the aftermath of the Norman Conquest and the early rebellions against William mounted by the English. We are mostly in the viewpoints of the two rebels Bondi and Whitgar, and two strong-minded sisters Morwenna and Elfwyn, daughters of another high-ranking rebel leader.  For added interest, a love story runs alongside these events; for Bondi and Whitgar are the lovers of the two women, and I felt the account of their relationships worked very well.

The author does a good job of alternating viewpoints, panning out to narrate the events with a broad brush, and then zooming back in again to the intimate personal experience of the individuals whose lives are most profoundly affected by these dramatic and tragic events. Overall, I have a strong sense of people passionately trying to influence their fate and radically change the outcome, unconscious of the fact that ultimately, they will not succeed. The tyrant they seek to overthrow will in fact triumph and win his secure, central place in English history. What’s more, many of us will love the castles which arose from those he first put in place. However, I seek solace from the thought that he could never have guessed the use we would put them to over a thousand years later. I don’t think he would have planned the adventure playground aspect of the battlements, the tea rooms and the ‘little shop at the end’.

This story succeeds in opening our eyes to how the ordinary people may have felt, and all the hopes, dreams, and longings they would have poured into their struggle to return William to the status of a mere footnote in history. It is thought now William succeeded because he was a brilliant military strategist.  It’s a shame Harold didn’t share those skills because he might have stopped in London after coming back from Stamford Bridge and would have stood a much greater chance of beating William and his forces from there, instead of marching off to Hastings and disaster. That possibility has just had to take its place among the ‘what ifs’ of English history.

Because history is written by the victors, reading fiction like this is an excellent way for us to enter the mindset of those who struggled for another reality. They, too, have their vital place in that reality, whether or not we are aware of it. Their strivings, and their hopes and dreams, were not in vain; this somehow seems to be the message of those who write really good historical fiction. I found myself caught up in the efforts of Bondi and Whitgar; if historical fiction is to do its job, we must have characters we can gun for, all the way through the story, hoping against hope they will win through to success, fulfillment and happiness, even if those characters are invented. I consider this author has given us an excellent chance to engage with an imaginative presentation of what it must have been like, as an English person dealing with the reality of Norman invasion.

If these two books appeal to you, do check them out here on Amazon and check out the author’s website too.

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