Book Review: Spirited by Julie Cohen

Today I share with you my review of Spirited by Julie Cohen, published by Orion July 2020.

Spirited by Julie Cohen

I loved this book; I found it enchanting, and it gripped me throughout. Set in the mid nineteenth century in England and India, the story covers spiritualism, so-called “spirit photography”, the oppression of women in Victorian times, and the power of women to assert their identity and to triumph over suffocating prejudice.

The novel reminded me of Affinity by Sarah Waters, published by Virago, another book which captivated me.

Affinity by Sarah Waters

Fans of that book will love this one. Curiously, the colour and design of the covers on both books is very similar.

Julie Cohen’s mastery of atmosphere is compelling and as she builds the sense of mystery, the sympathy of the reader must surely rest with all three main characters, with Jonah who has returned to England from tragic events in India; with Viola, who responds to her grief at her father’s death by giving herself heart and soul to her photography; and to Henriette, strong and resilient, who rises above the cruelty and abuse she has received in the past.

Blended into all this is an intelligent and powerful debate about life after death and the various things we cling to in order to uphold our beliefs. Very highly recommended.

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Book Review: ‘On This Day She’ by Jo Bell, Tania Hershman and Ailsa Holland

This is a book which will probably arouse many different emotional reactions in the reader: fascination, inspiration, astonishment, disgust, anger, depression… you name the life situation the reader is in, and that will determine his or her response to On This Day She by Jo Bell, Tania Hershman and Ailsa Holland.

Many different women, across all periods of history and many nations, continents and cultures, are represented in this book. Their lives and achievements encompass the full range of human endeavour, and the vast majority you may never have heard of, because history chose not to include them in its pages. But the cumulative effect of reading their biographies, all arranged under days of the calendar, is disturbing and uplifting by turns.

Some of these women were enormously successful and influential in their own individual spheres; others were treated with gross injustice and / or met untimely and tragic deaths. Some of them are indeed now acknowledged and recognised for their achievements – for example, the woman who invented the game of Monopoly (Lizzy Magie) but who never received either the credit or the income from her invention, which instead went to Charles Darrow.

I do believe there are signs of encouragement. In our world today, we all know about Greta, Malala, An Sang Su Chi, Nicola Sturgeon, Jacinda Ardern, Angela Merkel. Looking at history, we all know the names of such women as Elizabeth I, or Agatha Christie, or Florence Nightingale, or Jane Austen, or Mother Teresa. We do have a number of prominent women in the world today, whom we need to support and honour. This book reminds us that there have been many, many gifted women throughout history who have not been so honoured; in fact, far from that, they have been crushed and denigrated and marginalised. There is still a very long way to go before all members of the human race are treated equally, regardless of gender, and the many other factors which divide us.

Whilst reading this book, one of the many thoughts that came to my mind was this: JK Rowling, whom many admire, is strongly opinionated. She expresses her opinions fearlessly in the public arena, which she has every right to do. But would her opinions receive the same response if she was a man?

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This book makes you see history differently and through a new lens. Hard-hitting, discerning and sharp, the authors show us the way exceptional female movers and shakers have been rendered invisible by history. Much of this, the authors claim, is the consequence of a lazy use of “generic” language, and sentences framed to denigrate women and represent their role and purpose negatively. They give an example of this in the way in which Catherine of Aragon is summarised by history books as having “failed to provide Henry VIII with a male heir”. This can be rephrased as “Catherine and Henry had no surviving sons.” It’s still accurate, but the balance has been changed. Language needs to evolve to redress this false view of human life.

One astonishing quote in the book, from a man, explains that by ‘person’ he did not of course mean ‘woman’ – he only meant ‘man.’ This is certainly a step further from the assertion that of course the term ‘man’ is always taken by us all to mean ‘human beings.’ Personally I try to use the term ‘humankind’ as much as possible or ‘we’ or ‘human beings’. I do believe language has power; it determines our unconscious presumptions. The words we use do matter; they condition our attitude to the world, and lie behind all our prejudices and false judgements of others.

Among the entries in this books you will find archaeologists, nuclear physicists, mountaineers, peace activists, poets, novelists, artists, anti-slavery campaigners, environmentalists, human rights lawyers, anthropologists, fighter pilots, Viking warriors, nuclear scientist and many more. This book doesn’t presume that women have always been good. Tyrannical rulers are also included. The thesis of the book does not include moral judgements on that level; simply the invisibility of women in our histories.

You will find a woman who completed a course of undergraduate study at Cambridge University but were told she could not be awarded a degree because of being a woman; a female artist who created a famous self-portrait which was by default attributed to her husband; and numerous women who have been defined as ‘muses’ or ‘assistants’ to the more famous men in their lives, when they were in fact equal creators in their own right.

I highly recommend this book to all.

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Blog Tour and Book Review: The Healing by Joy Margetts

It is my pleasure today to be part of the blog tour for a beautiful new book from the publisher Instant Apostle, a book which is a debut novel for its author, Joy Margetts.

During the Covid19 pandemic many have spoken about the experience of lockdown, and some have felt it has been a time to reflect and step aside from all our normal busyness, and view life with new eyes..

Although I agree with that, nevertheless, I don’t think anything of what we have experienced can compare with the deep inner peace and healing that has for centuries been associated with the monastic lifestyle. In fact the two areas of spirituality seeing the most growth, are those associated with cathedrals and monasteries. Of course, a few years ago many of us enjoyed the TV Series The Monastery, when a group of people from all walks of life and varieties of faith or no faith, tried out life in a Benedictine monastery for a few weeks, to see the impact, if any, it might have on their lives.

Joy Margetts, author of The Healing

The Healing by Joy Margetts (published April 2021 by Instant Apostle)

Based partly on the author’s own experience, but transferred to 12th century France and Wales, this warm-hearted, compassionate and touching story draws the reader into the relationship between injured warrior/nobleman Philip de Braose (based on a real historical character) and his kind and compassionate mentor Brother Hywel of the Abbey Cymer in Wales.

We journey with Philip and Hywell from Philip’s near death on a French battlefield, and along the way we explore Philip’s traumatic past, and follow his path of healing and transformation, spiritual, emotional and psychological, as well as physical.

The book has the feel of a spiritual classic – a damaged, world-weary character meets a wise mentor who with gentleness and goodness opens up to him a new way of seeing the world and his place in it. Philip is a young man cast adrift, wounded in body, mind, and spirit, and his journey back to Wales with Hywell is a journey from despair to hope and new life. As the journey progresses, Hywel has many lessons to teach Philip, lessons in grace, humility, kindness, compassion and discernment.

Eventually we learn the back stories of both Hywel and Philip, and the tragedies, sorrows and regrets they have both suffered, and how they have come through them. The ability to move forward calls upon all their resources of forgiveness, both of others and of themselves.

Ultimately the story takes a surprising turn and rises to a very moving outcome.

Highly recommended.

The Healing by Joy Margetts is available from Instant Apostle, from the author’s own website http://www.joymargetts.com or from all online book retailers.

Joy’s social media links are as follows:

Website

Facebook Page

Book Review: The 99th Koala by Kailas Wild

This account of the koala-rescue campaign in bushfire-ravaged Kangaroo Island is gripping and very emotional. Accompanied by superb photos, arborist Kailas Wild tells a story sometimes dramatic and inspiring, and at other times sad and heartrending, packed with tense and harrowing descriptions of koala rescues.

As one of the few professional tree-climbers/ experienced koala handlers called to Kangaroo Island following the wildfires that swept through parts of Australia in 2019, Kailas used his rope climbing equipment to scale 30 metre high burnt trees to flag down traumatised koalas, bundle them into pet carriers, and drive them to the animal hospital for treatment – or sometimes to be euthanised.

As you read the book you feel amazed he didn’t suffer long-lasting mental health difficulties following this incredibly harrowing and challenging time on Kangaroo Island. He is, indeed, very open about his emotional distress and his mental trauma. Throughout the book the reader is moved by his skill and courage, in this dangerous and tough work.

Kailas Wild with rescued koala

Kailas gives many fascinating details of his work, including for example his knowledge of how to test the structural integrity of a fire damaged tree before he starts climbing; his endurance of scratches from the claws of frightened koalas; and the best way to handle them, to avoid the very real danger of being bitten by their knife-sharp teeth. The photos are often dramatic and impactful; shots of him up a tree trying to reach a koala on an adjacent tree, images of a burnt koala, photos which make clear his own mental trauma, visible in his face.

His working days among the burnt plantations involved 10-12 hours of physically and emotionally draining labour. He spent “days alone amongst burnt trees and dead animals… and even the successful rescues are traumatic.”

After a considerable time in which he feels a lack of co-ordination and resources, he finally gets the help he needs from two other wildlife rescue experts – Deb and Fraya. The efforts they go to as the terrified koalas resist capture is astonishing. Their own stress is compounded by the knowledge of the stress to which they are subjecting the koalas – and then at the end the rescued animals may have to be euthanised.

The author is very open about the toll this takes on his mental health. He also considers the ethics of human intervention in the lives of wild animals suffering an environmental disaster; does his work compromise the ability of the wild animals to live independently when released back to the wild, having become over-reliant on humans? He also describes the moment when they realise the risk of injury to the koalas themselves outweighs the benefits of attempting rescue.

Finally the time comes when Kailas and his colleagues realise they have done everything they can, and the remaining koalas, having already survived this long, will most likely thrive.

A deeply moving book for all those who love animals, care about environmental issues and are interested in wildlife conservation, but also an account of courageous human endeavour and compassion, in the face of ethical dilemmas.

Blog Tour for Debut Novelist Ruth Leigh: Introducing The Diary of Isabella M Smugge

On 7th April 2020 fellow-author Ruth Leigh published a Post under the title “The Utter Joy of One’s Craft” on morethanwriters.blogspot.com.

That was the first appearance of Isabella M Smugge, under that name, out in the world.

I was one of those who left a comment on the post, and many of us were intrigued by the idea of Isabella; I mentioned that I felt I knew her: “Isabella M Smugge turns up at conferences and also moonlights as what I call ‘an internet siren’ – someone who is addicted to telling everyone else online how successful they are and how they did it and how if you exactly follow their own prescription of how they achieved it you too can be enormously successful and make millions.

On 19th February 2021 a novel is published, with Isabella as its main character, which hadn’t been consciously planned at the time its author Ruth Leigh wrote that blog post. And today I’m part of the blog tour telling you about that novel.

In May Ruth published another post about her despair at the false picture people give about their lives online. The truth, she said, is always in brackets. Then Isabella re-appeared.

The Diary of Isabella M Smugge by Ruth Leigh published by Instant Apostle 19 Feb 2021

Among those who read the post was a literary agent who got in touch with Ruth and invited her to work up two opening chapters of a proposed book about Isabella, and he would see if he could find a publisher for her. The outcome is now clear; the book will be published by Instant Apostle on 19th February 2021.

Now I’ve read the book I realise Isabella reminds me of so many people: Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous; Margot Leadbetter in The Good Life; the “awful aristos” in Ghosts; Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada.

Ruth Leigh, author of The Diary of Isabella M Smugge, published by Instant Apostle 19th February 2021. Ruth is a novelist, blogger and freelance writer based in beautiful East Suffolk. This is her first novel.

Here’s my own review of the book:

This book is very much a surprise. We can begin to read it thinking it will be a waspish comic satire on the internet phenomenon of aspirational lifestyle influencers, who pretend their lives are perfect, and make everyone else feel they have to live up to it.

In fact the book is a very poignant and touching story about contemporary family life and relationships, the control of social media over our lives, our emotional wounds from the past, our lack of self-knowledge, and our deep need for non-judgemental friendship. To me, the style and atmosphere of the story brings it into the same realm as novels such as ‘The Battersea Park Road to Enlightenment’ by Isobel Losada, and The Handbag and Wellies Yoga Club’ by Lucy Edge, although this book has more of a Christian flavour.

Isabella has moved with her husband and three children from London to a Georgian rectory in Suffolk. She is judgemental, disdainful, and her diary entries often include bitchy remarks at the end of paragraphs. She looks down on others and considers herself “a cut above”. She reminds me of Margot Leadbetter in ‘The Good Life’, and Patsy in ‘Absolutely Fabulous’. In fact I can even hear her superior, cut-glass tones. She also reminds me of Meryl Streep’s character in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’. In waspish, top journalist style, she fills her account with brand names and scatters her prose with knowing references.

As the story progresses, the author inserts little tell-tale holes in Isabella’s flawless, polished and assured account of her perfect life – the fact that she’s moved to a place where no-one has even heard of her; her painful memories of warring parents and a broken home; her controlling, social-climbing husband; her memories of hateful boarding school; her awareness that the children clearly prefer Sofiya, the Latvian au pair, to their own mother; and her grumpiness as she works so hard to get them to pose for her social media posts.

As we read on, through Isabella’s diary, we hear a clear warning to take care who we get inspired by. Ruth Leigh has perfectly caught the phraseology of internet sirens like Isabella; all the snooty superior buzzwords and phrases. Isabella is in fact a flawed narrator, with nil self-knowledge and is often delusional.

We learn that because of her own wounded upbringing Isabella is setting herself impossible standards in a futile attempt to “prove” herself. And in the process she is eroding her own spirit, and has lost touch with her humanity.

In the end a moving and very thought-provoking book which looks set to be the first of a series.

A short while before reading and commenting on Ruth’s blog post, I had met her for the first time in real life – at a writers’ conference in St Luke’s Church, Great Colmore Street in Birmingham in March 2020. I now look back on that event fondly, as it was one of the very last real life events we were all able to attend before the Covid pandemic took a grip and the government enforced lockdown. A few months later, Ruth shared with us her exciting news. Following the publication of that blog post she had won the interest of a publisher for her proposed novel based upon Isabella, and she had begun to write the book.

I’m now delighted to be part of Ruth’s blog tour for her new book and I invited her to answer a few questions.

Ruth, first, I’d love to know a little about your background and family and about other things you do besides writing.

I’m originally from Epping Forest; I met my husband in the Sixth Form at school, which was a glorified dating agency. When we finally got round to going out, I was living in Exeter while he resided at the family home in Buckhurst Hill, Essex. We managed that for eight years until we got married and I returned to the county of my birth, which I had always sworn I’d never do. After my marriage, we moved to Suffolk, where we live with three children aged 17, 14 and 12, plus chicken, quail and a kitten, in the middle of nowhere in a draughty Victorian semi. My favourite thing in the world is reading (anything except sci-fi) and I like walking, playing board games (to win) and chilling out with friends.

When did the germ of the idea for this book come to you? Was it in your mind long before you wrote that blog post? When in your life, and in what situations, did you first start to come across the ‘role models’ who, we might say, inspired the character of Isabella?

I hadn’t thought of writing a novel until the afternoon of 7th May 2020. I invented my frightful snobbish influencer for an April blog post, and thought no more of her until literary agent Tony Collins messaged me to say he thought there was a book in her. It was only then that I switched from freelance writer to first-time novelist. I’d assumed I’d made every aspect of Isabella up until one day I was chatting to an old friend from ante natal classes, and she said, “Ruth, this woman is a mix of all those people we used to see at toddlers who turned up on time, perfectly made up, beautifully dressed and confident while we slumped in the corner wearing stained clothing and paper pants.” I realised that that was exactly who she was, along with a good dash of all the people who post on social media about their perfect lives and make normal folks feel massively inadequate.

What made you want to write about this sphere of life? What in your own background and experience led you to this?

I can honestly say that I’d never planned to write fiction and certainly not fiction about a posh, rich woman who makes a living by being an Instagram influencer. I made Isabella up for a funny blog and then, weirdly, when Tony asked for two sample chapters, I discovered that I knew all about her private life. A husband, children, a Latvian au pair, a hideous mother, a terrifying agent and a mysterious past all came pouring out. Isabella is brilliant at what she does, and considerably younger than me so I found myself researching what it is that lifestyle bloggers actually do. I followed a few on Instagram and found some great hashtags and ideas. As far as my own background and experience go, Isabella is the opposite of me in many ways. She’s come from money, went to private school, is incredibly confident (at least on the surface) and has no shame about showing off constantly on all her platforms. The sad, deeply-buried memories have elements of me in them, and her move from metropolitan life (London in her case, Essex in mine) to a small rural village is my experience too. However, she marches into the playground expecting everyone to be terribly impressed that she’s there, while I slowly made friends and built up a life in a much less glamorous way. From my wide reading, a vast repository of facts and half-remembered stories have played into this novel. Possibly that’s why I enjoyed inventing this woman and her life so much.

Who have you written this book for? What do you see as your target audience?

That’s an excellent question and quite a difficult one too. I suppose the answer would be just about everyone. I love writing that makes me laugh and creates a world I can inhabit, and I hope that Isabella will prove to be someone that people can pick up and enjoy. The cover is pink, many of the main characters are female, but I’d hope that male readers would enjoy it too. There’s nothing wet about Isabella. She’s handy with her fists, doesn’t take anything lying down and tells her husband where to go when he annoys her.

Tell me about your daily routine – if you have one!! What part does creative writing play in your day? Are you highly disciplined?

The alarm goes off at 8.15 and I ignore it. I roll out of bed at 8.30, make breakfast and a hot drink for the two younger children and deliver it to their bedsides, along with gentle encouragement to sit up and log into school. Then I make a pot of tea and breakfast (unless I’ve got an early Zoom call) and take it upstairs to the bedroom where my husband and I consume it, chat and sometimes do the crossword. At this point, the cat joins us and sticks her head into my husband’s pint of water on the bedside table. Back in the summer, bed was where I did all my writing. Now I head downstairs to the dining room and sit down at my desk (a Christmas present), fire up the laptop, go through my emails and work out what I need to start writing first. I’ve got lots of freelance clients, so I will generally have some interviews to conduct, transcribe and then write up. I’ve got my own blog, Big Words and Made Up Stories plus two others I contribute to and for me, that’s creative writing. I love trawling in the header tank of ideas in my brain and seeing what I can fish out. About twice a week I walk the mile and a half into the village to the market and that’s my thinking and planning time for the next Isabella book. I tend to finish working around 6.00, then we have dinner (my husband cooks it) and watch television or play a board game together. Add in plenty of dishwasher loading and unloading, washing, drying and putting away clothes, seeing my elderly parents and picking up random items scattered around various rooms and you have my life. Highly disciplined? Exactly the opposite.

What other things do you love besides writing?

Reading has to be the thing I love most. Without it, I don’t know where I’d be. I really like playing games but I am so highly competitive that the children have banned me from playing Monopoly with them. I love wandering around and gazing at the architecture and spotting little quirky things that fire off ideas in my brain. I enjoy going round museums and wandering along a pebbly beach on a cold windy day. I love chatting, to anyone, but particularly close friends.

Thank you Ruth for those fascinating and detailed answers which I hope will whet the appetite of my blog-readers to lay their hands on your book!

Here is the blurb for Ruth’s book:

Meet Isabella Smugge – as in ‘Br-uge-s’, naturally! Instagram influencer, consummate show-off and endearingly self-unaware. With a palatial home, charming husband and three well-mannered children, she is living the County Life dream.

Newly arrived in the country, Isabella is ready to bring a dash of London glamour to the school gate and gain a whole new set of followers – though getting past the instant coffee, terrible hair and own-brand sausage rolls may be a challenge!

But as her Latvian au pair’s behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre and a national gossip columnist nurses a grudge, Isabella finds herself in need of true friends and begins to wonder if her life really is as picture-perfect as she thought…

The Diary of Isabella M Smugge is published by Instant Apostle on 19th February 2021.

Book Reviews: Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell Trilogy

Having just finished reading the third in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, rather than posting one review here, I thought I would bring together my three reviews, each originally posted online soon after I read the book.

Hilary Mantel, Man Booker Prize-winning author of Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and The Mirror and The Light

Book 1 – Wolf Hall

Now I’ve finished Wolf Hall, I feel as if I’ve been an insider, in the world of Henry VIII. I bought the book following a friend’s recommendation. She said she found it so powerful that she couldn’t read anything else for quite some time after she’d finished it.

And certainly I’ve changed the view I previously held of Thomas Cromwell, whose mind we occupy throughout the novel. Upon reading Hilary Mantel’s account of this man, I admire him and can understand his role in relation to Henry, and his extraordinary gifts as he navigated Henry’s changing whims.

As to Henry himself… what was his prayer? That he might have a healthy, long-lived, legitimate male heir to take over the English Throne for the Tudors, and carry their dynasty well into the future. Of course, in the end, his dynasty only lasted for 118 years, considerably less than the Plantagenet dynasty which had gone before.

I can imagine now how he must have felt each time Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn miscarried a child. He felt professionally devastated and personally anguished; frightened that he had incurred the displeasure of God; afraid that after having been in his hands the throne would go where he did not want it to go; afraid his hopes and dreams would never be fulfilled; afraid that this was God’s punishment. After all, the English Throne was his professional business, his livelihood, his calling.

Now, of course, with historical hindsight, we can judge him as wrong and foolish and deluded, if we wish: see he was wrong to have Anne Boleyn beheaded; and wrong to have various people brutally slaughtered for not agreeing with his divorce, and for not thinking the right things at the right time about religion, and for thinking he, Henry, was wrong.

But what should he have done instead, according to us with our historical hindsight? Some may think he should have stuck with Anne Boleyn, forgiven her, and lived out his life married to her.

What actually happened? Ultimately the English throne became strong and proud under Elizabeth I – though she died childless and thus failed to extend the Tudor dynasty, she is still considered by many to have been England’s greatest monarch

So we may well say that God answered Henry’s prayer – but not in the way he expected.

This philosophical rumination has been inspired by Wolf Hall simply because so many of us are familiar with the Tudor story – but in fact the narrative of this novel only goes as far as the execution of Sir Thomas More leaving the downfall of Anne Boleyn still in the future.

Perhaps the thing that most fascinated me about Wolf Hall is the way the reader follows through delicate, graceful, civilised conversations – gentle, balanced, measured… and then out of them comes a decision to burn someone alive, or have them hanged, drawn and quartered.

One sentence in the book goes as follows: “all that youth, beauty, grace and learning, turned to mud, grease, and charred flesh.”

Emotionally stirring, moving, shocking and instructive, what you learn here of human nature will stay with you.

Book 2 – Bring Up the Bodies

When it comes to the art of making momentous decisions on the basis of throwaway remarks, idle boasts, gossip and loose talk, the Tudors gave us a masterclass. But isn’t this in some measure the story of our own lives, though we never know how momentous any of our decisions may be? Perhaps that’s part of the reason why we are so fascinated by the Tudors.

In language sometimes poetic, elegant and stylish and at other times crude, ribald and cruel, to match her subject matter, Hilary Mantel continues to chart Thomas Cromwell’s course through the treacherous marshes of Henry VIII’s bizarre emotional and mental life, to the downfall and execution of Anne Boleyn.

Whilst reading Mantel’s compelling narrative, I felt as close as I possibly could be to the personal experience of “Master Secretary” Cromwell himself. (In fact I wondered if he ever suffered burnout or stress from working for an unstable boss like Henry.) In such an environment, the news that you’ve got your own final appointment at the Tower must almost come as a blessed relief.

I look forward to being guided through Cromwell’s journey to that final appointment in the next novel in Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy.

Book 3 – The Mirror and the Light

A highly satisfying conclusion to the trilogy: from my experience of Hilary Mantel’s skills as a storyteller, I had come to expect the most lyrical, musical and graceful writing, covering all registers, along with the horror, spiteful gossip, cynical manipulation, brutality, paranoia, religious extremism, lies, betrayal and twisted thinking.

Yet I also felt moved and touched by Thomas’s relationships with his loyal lieutenant Rafe Sadler and his son Gregory. (Afterwards I couldn’t resist looking up all Gregory’s many descendants, from his marriage with Elizabeth, Jane Seymour’s sister). In this book I particularly enjoyed Thomas’s conversations with Ambassador Eustache Chapuys, who always speaks his mind about Henry; he cannot be a traitor to this king but only to his own master, beyond England’s borders.

Sadistic cruelty, jaunty chat, razor-sharp observations: all is recounted, and intermittently we are uplifted by the most fluid, entrancing, poetic prose, which somehow draws the events from micro to macro, rippling backwards and forwards in time, as the high stakes, the pity, and the terror stalk these pages along with the merciless, paranoid king.

Hilary Mantel’s genius is to make us feel sorry for Henry as a human being, whilst his monstrosity is plain to us; and also we feel compassion for Thomas Cromwell himself, navigating the power games and political marriages; and even for the Lady Mary, daughter to Henry by Katherine of Aragon, despite the fact that we know what her future held for her.

The story is told ‘looking over Thomas Cromwell’s shoulder’. In the final part of the book, recounting the Anne of Cleves crisis, the reader feels such a sense of impending doom as Henry behaves like a spoilt, dangerous child, whilst Thomas Cromwell and Hans Holbein try so hard in good faith to make this all work. But Thomas is now on his inexorable downward slope, finally toppled by his refusal to promise anything he does not believe he can deliver, and criticised for not being firmer with Henry when the king shares his plan to take a disastrous course of action.

Henry is described in various places as ‘mutable… mercurial…. impulsive.’ Yet, at times of greatest peril to those he once loved or counted as friends, when a word from him would save them, he remains hard and stubborn.

I feel that Hilary Mantel has done great honour to Thomas Cromwell in telling his story as she has – with such grace, wisdom and discernment.

Finally, two examples of her inspired turns of phrase:

Thomas moves close to his moment of execution:

He feel netted by the past, suspended in some high blue instant, strung up in air.

And this, as Thomas, incarcerated in The Tower, takes his leave of The Queen’s Lodgings, to be transferred to the grim and austere Bell Tower: He says goodbyes to the goddesses, a last flitting glance over his shoulder. No trace of Anne Boleyn. He remembers her saying – was it in this very room ? – ‘Be good to me’. He thinks, if I see her again, perhaps this time I will.

Favourite Feel Good Action Heroes in Books and Cinema: TinTin and his Universal Appeal

During the Covid-19 Pandemic and throughout the three lockdowns in the UK, many have sought the consolation of escape – into books or films.  Every so often I return to one of my top favourites – The Adventures of TinTin: the Secret of the Unicorn. To my mind this film exemplifies classic story structure; but above all it centres upon a likeable, engaging young hero.  Each time I watch it I know again why I loved TinTin so much on TV during my teenage years.

The Adventures of TinTin movie poster
The Adventures of TinTin movie poster

The Adventures of TinTin: The Secret of the Unicorn (directed by Peter Jackson & Steven Spielberg) was released in 2011. So it’s been out a while.  But I write blog posts when something inspires or excites or moves me, and haunts me at night. And that’s what this TinTin story did.

I asked myself again, exactly what is the appeal of TinTin? He’s a totally beguiling hero. He’s Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Spiderman all rolled into one fresh-faced boy hero – and of course his intrepid dog Snowy (originally named Milou by his creator, Herge).

As a child I loved adventure stories. I started with Enid Blyton and later I moved onto King Solomon’s Mines by Rider Haggard, and Prester John  by John Buchan and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. These stories have everything – at their best they not only excite and thrill, but also they move, and they teach you about this life, and they convey archetypal truths about human nature.

You can draw parallels with your own life, even if you don’t do exactly the same dangerous things. You can use the action hero’s experiences as a metaphor to help you clarify what has happened to you, and what attitude to take. This is the power of a great story.

Take the archetypal villain, who pursues his obsession to its bitter end.

There are people who live their lives like this. They’re all around us. They express it in their relationships. People who have never learned the art of letting go.

Their obsession leads to such things as ‘unfinished business’ when family members die; ‘skeletons’ that stay in cupboards for generations; vendettas that last decades, family members who don’t talk to each other for years.

The lesson the archetypal villain and his fate teaches is this: ‘People matter more than things’.

In this life, what matters most of all, above ‘due recompense’, above ‘getting satisfaction’, above ‘being right’, is human relationships – and of course this is the lesson the archetypal villain never learns, and which the hero instinctively honours, or the story wouldn’t satisfy us.

A hero learns, and changes. A villain never learns, and never changes.

TinTin is a hero who’s open to all that life has for him; he’s never held back by self-limiting beliefs; he’s ready to live on his wits, yet has an unerring instinct for a just cause, personified by a character who is flawed, but whose heart’s in the right place; then he throws in all his gifts on that character’s side.

Does this excite, inspire and move you, as it does me?

The Nature of Creative Inspiration and Practice – Inspiration from Hilary Mantel

Recently I watched and listened to Hilary Mantel speaking at an online event from the Stratford-upon-Avon Literary festival, following the publication this year of her two newest books The Mirror and the Light and Mantel Pieces.

Hilary Mantel with portrait of Thomas Cromwell

I loved what Hilary said about the process of writing.  It seems that she does not subscribe to the belief that we must create a structure beforehand, and plan out our work in detail. In regard to her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, the idea she caught was the notion that the truth behind an apparently “evil” character in English history may be far more complex. And then her curiosity and her love of historical research took her on a long and compelling journey. She talks of catching ideas, and of writing scenes and chapters out of order, and  I loved it.

I’ve read the first two novels in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and plan to read the final book of that trilogy, The Mirror and the Light.

In the past I have indeed tried to create a structure beforehand, and I found it not at all helpful. So personal experience has taught me that Hilary Mantel’s way of writing is more to my taste.  

When you begin to write a novel, it can often be impossible to say  from which source the inspiration has come – and how far back in the past that inspiration had its source.

David Helfgott performing in Sydney
David Helfgott performing in Sydney

Now my latest book Paranormal Warwickshire has been published, I am getting back to work on my next novel Standing Ovation

Thsi is the second in a magical realist series starring Dylan Rafferty, young musically gifted rebel.

The first book, Director’s Cut, sees Dylan tackling a very troubled family in a large house in south London haunted by a family curse.

Dylan seeks to escape the overwhelming influence of his own family and the conventional path they want him to follow through education and his future career. He discovers his favourite actress is filming a TV drama in a nearby Jacobean mansion. He sets off, eager to crash the set and meet her.  He succeeds; and she’s delighted by this unusual, intense, talented boy. But Dylan discovers a deeply dysfunctional family who believe themselves afflicted by an inter-generational curse. The house is haunted by ghosts of previous generations. Dylan comes to believe he alone can save these people through the power of his own musical genius As he plunges deeper into the spiritual and psychic deadlock in the house, he encounters a supernatural being, and finds that he must cross the boundary between this world and another dimension.

The story awaits further editing, and I’d also welcome any willing beta readers!

Meanwhile I’m completing the sequel.

In Standing Ovation, Dylan has moved forward from the position he was in at the end of Directors Cut, but he now seeks a quantum leap in his career. 

He’s in Stratford-upon-Avon, staying with his friend Xavier, a stage manager at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Then he lands a post as personal assistant to his idol, Konstantin Kosoff, mentally and physically fragile concert pianist, currently controlled by his two highly dubious brothers. Dylan enters another highly dysfunctional and dangerous household and plunges into a position only vacant because the two previous post-holders died in mysterious circumstances.

There are several people who might inspire me for some aspect of my fictional great pianist. I already have in mind the central inspiration; but that may change as I continue the novel, because when writing we may find elements entering the story from the subconscious. I won’t be able to tell how strong a part any of these elements may play until the story decides for itself, and reaches completion.

Do you other writers out there find Hilary Mantel’s approach rings a bell for you? Or do you rely on creating structure beforehand, and planning out the novel in detail? I’d love to know your own creative practice!

Extract from the Introduction to Paranormal Warwickshire

I have heard, but not believed,

The spirits of the dead

May walk again

William Shakespeare

So says William Shakespeare, through the lips of Antigonus in Act 3 Scene 3 of The Winter’s Tale.

William Shakespeare Engraving First Folio 1623 by Martin Droeshout
William Shakespeare Engraving First Folio 1623 by Martin Droeshout

Did Shakespeare believe in ghosts and spirits? Opinions are divided; Herbert,  Shakespearean actor, who led us around Stratford-upon-Avon one evening on the town ghost tour, maintained that Shakespeare did; whereas a distinguished Cambridge professor, examining the Bard’s use of paranormal manifestations throughout his plays, concluded that he believed these are all ‘emanations from the mind.’

Hamlet and his father's ghost. Shakespeare's Hamlet. Painting by John Gilbert. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons. SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
Hamlet and his father’s ghost. Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Painting by John Gilbert. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

We cannot say for sure what Shakespeare believed; but his works are full of ghosts and spirits. It is known that he himself played the part of his most famous and loquacious ghost, the spirit of Hamlet’s father, many times, and it was the top of his performance as an actor, according to his first biographer. This is the ghost of whom Hamlet says:

 The spirit that I have seen

May be a devil, and the devil hath power

To assume a pleasing shape.

William Shakespeare

And yet throughout the play Hamlet continues to explore and agonise over the true nature of the spirit he has seen, with the input of his sceptical friend Horatio; and he reaches different conclusions according to the state of his mind.

Whether because they made excellent dramatic devices, or because their presence in Shakespeare’s plays denotes something much deeper, more complex and hidden within the recesses of his own heart, it is true his county, Warwickshire, is saturated even today in strange events for which there is no scientific explanation.

Ghost Banquo at Feast. Shakespeare's Macbeth. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons. SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
The Ghost of Banquo at the Feast. Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve lived in Warwickshire for twenty-five years, at the time of writing.  I’ve grown to love and feel a deep connection with some of this county’s most iconic locations: castles, houses, and churches; and also some of its less familiar ones.

Thomas Oken House Warwick
Thomas Oken’s House Warwick – photo credit Jamie Robinson

All of these places have rich and complex stories to tell which span the full range of the emotional, moral and spiritual spectrum, as befits the county of Shakespeare.

Brutus & Caesar's Ghost 1802 Wikimedia commons Shakespeare Julius Caesar SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
Brutus and the Ghost of Caesar from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Painting dated 1802. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

But the stories here acknowledge that energy lingers in many places other than manor houses, abbeys and castles. They also tell of ordinary people going about their business in a very familiar, even mundane environment. It’s about shop owners and sales staff, families in terraced houses and busy commuters on a railway platform. Some of the stories you will find here are those that people kept to themselves, for a long time, for fear of being ridiculed.

Shakespeare monument Holy Trinity Church Stratford upon Avon
Shakespeare’s monument above his grave in Holy Trinity Church Stratford-upon-Avon (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

 Our task here is simply to listen to the stories that people tell, and, like Hamlet, to explore the nature of these strange experiences both with our hearts and our minds, and reach our own conclusions.

Paranormal Warwickshire is available everywhere good books are sold.

Virginia Woolf on the art of reading a book

Listening to an interview by Andrew Marr on BBC Radio 4 the other day, I was delighted to learn that Virginia Woolf‘s classic essay How Should One Read a Book? has been republished in a new edition (12 October 2020).

Virginia Woolf

I studied this text in school as part of my GCE ‘O’ level English Literature syllabus. Ironically, although I found Virginia Woolf’s novels quite challenging to read (although I loved Orlando), that is not the case for this essay. That’s probably because it was originally a talk given at a girls school in Sevenoaks in 1926. I still remember the impact Virginia’s words had on me. The essay is very accessible, and Virginia writes with passion on her subject.

One of her observations appeals to me: “you haven’t read a book properly until you’ve talked about it”. Brilliant! How that makes the heart of an author sing. Nowadays of course authors often look for their readers to “talk about” their books, either in book clubs, or by personal recommendation, or by posting an Amazon or Goodreads review online.

Authors and publishers also, of course, value professional reviews in the major periodicals and newspapers; and these reviews are often quoted at length in the front matter of very popular books. Personally, I prefer not to know the details of what other people think until I’ve read the book – or at least until I’m halfway through. I want to make my own response to the book.

But these are the days when everyday readers – all those out there who love reading books – have power, with their opinions and feelings. Every response to a book is valid. I remember my creative writing teacher at Lancaster University saying:

“Once you’ve written your book, and it’s published, and out in the world, it doesn’t belong to you any more. It becomes a Thing on the Table, for anybody to make what they want of it.”

This view is echoed by Philip Pullman , the author of His Dark Materials trilogy, who, in a recent very enjoyable Society of Authors webinar, said that while you are writing a book, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks. You write what you like and you don’t worry what anybody else thinks: they can mind their own business. When it’s published it’s a different matter. It’s not yours any more. The world can then make what it likes of your book.

Passion for reading, for the different worlds you may enter and explore when you are a voracious reader, shines out from Virginia’s essay.

Here is one quote from Virginia Woolf which many readers have seized upon, as it confirms the joy and the richness of being a great reader. I quote this near the end of my author talk on The Power of Story – for one of my goals is to enhance or re-awaken a love of reading.

“I have sometimes dreamt … that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”

Virginia Woolf, in The Second Common Reader

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction.

Paranormal Warwickshire was published 15th November 2020

Available everywhere good books are sold.