During the Covid19 lockdown, the Society of Authors are presenting a number of webinars with notable authors, and the other day I attended “Afternoon Tea with Philip Pullman”.
I was keen to hear from the author of a fantasy trilogy that captivated me, “His Dark Materials“. 500 of us attended, all waiting with drinks and snacks to hear what the President of the Society of Authors might have to say to us from his Oxford study. When he came on, he showed us his working space; untidy, spilling over with miscellaneous items such as his jacket slung over an open box of labels, files and paper and books. I was greatly encouraged to see this; no compulsion to tidy up his workspace there!
He was asked what the Society of Authors means to him, and he said, “It simply means that I am part of a body of people who have experienced some of the disappointments and hopes and occasional successes that I have.“
On his wall is a giant map of the world and it seems this is a major inspiration for him. He says he doesn’t plan his novels. As he starts his thoughts might be as vague as, “I think she should go north” or “It would be rather nice if she went to Central Asia.”
He loves maps, and for one of his earlier novels, “The Ruby and the Smoke” (another novel I love) he sourced ordnance survey maps of London in 1872.
I myself have a giant map of Warwickshire which I plan to put up on the wall near my working area. It helped me for my book “Paranormal Warwickshire” (due to be published by Amberley 15 November 2020) and I hope it will be useful for my next book too (more of that later).
Philip Pullman came over as a genial, laidback, engaging schoolmaster-like character – after all, he was an English teacher in an Oxford school for several years – and his approach was helpful and encouraging.
I enjoyed his reply to the question: “Do you have a particular age group in mind as a target audience when you begin to write?”
His answer was:
“No. I don’t. When you write a book you should do what you want to do; ignore everybody’s advice. It’s none of their business. When your book’s out, it becomes democratic. Then, everybody’s totally entitled to think exactly what they want to about the book.”
He told us that, before starting “His Dark Materials”, the concept of the daimons (which may be defined as ‘the external physical manifestation of a person’s inner self, that takes the form of an animal’) was in his mind for a while but he had no idea what to do with it.
Then one day he was wandering in the garden and near a rock when he thought, “Children’s daemons change, adult’s daemons don’t.”
“That was the most exciting moment I’ve ever experienced as a storyteller.”
It was (just like the idea about the boy wizard that came to J K Rowling on that train journey), the key to unlock his unconscious – and, for him, all the characters and actions and events of Lyra’s alternative world followed.
There is a powerful lesson for authors here: we must listen to that first instinctive prompt, hold onto it, and follow through, even if other voices try to break in and interrupt it. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t feel it’s wise to seek other people’s opinions on a work-in-progress. Finally, his most practical answer came in reply to the perennial question posed to authors:
“Where do your ideas come from?”
“I don’t know where they come from but I know they come to my desk, and if I’m not there they go away.”
We set off from Paihia early in the morning and drove south through a landscape of velvety green hills uninterrupted by hedges or fences, dotted with a wide variety of trees, and occasionally by pretty white bargeboard houses in gardens. It felt as if we were surrounded by JRR Tolkien‘s hobbit country all the time: The Shire, that pastoral idyll which the hobbits called home. No wonder the makers of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films settled upon this landscape as the ideal location for Hobbiton.
Further along in our journey we entered a region of verdant forest packed with trees so diverse and so attractively interspersed with giant tree ferns that they seemed planted by design.
When we arrived in Matamata we immediately saw the welcoming sign and those of us who have loved the world of Middle Earth for so long at once felt a sense of high excitement.
And yet, as we were to discover again and again throughout our stay in Matamata and our visit to Hobbiton, you don’t even need to have read the books or have seen the films to be thrilled by what has been done here to recreate this romantic vision of pre-industrial rural England.
This of course was what inspired JRR Tolkien. The irony is that he was influenced by the countryside between Birmingham and Warwick, in the UK, and by Sarehole Mill – and his vision of Mordor came from the industrial wastes he found. So Tolkien’s inspiration is very close to where I live. But I went halfway across the world to find it recreated here in New Zealand!
Upon entering the visitor information centre we found a sculpture of Tolkien’s most insightful creation: the tragic and chilling figure of Gollum, who had, long before, been known as Smeagol, one of the river folk, until he came into possession of the One Ring, and had been enslaved and possessed by his lust for ‘the Precious’. The One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
I can imagine Matamata itself was an unassuming little ‘one-horse settlement’ before Peter Jackson found his ideal location for the Hobbiton film set nearby. It is astonishing to reflect upon the power of an iconic fantasy epic to catch the imagination of millions and transform the fortunes of one small town.
We had a delightful meal in The Redoubt and it built up our excitement at the prospect of visiting Hobbiton the next day. It was also an opportunity to sample a range of New Zealand red wines!
Early the next morning we arrived at The Shires Rest, a short distance outside Matamata, to join our tour of Hobbiton, led by a young man called James, who was, appropriately enough, English.
The tour bus took us through the rolling hills of the Alexander Farm, a vision of the undulating landscape of young children’s picture books, a perfect setting for the small, round, cheerful hobbits.
On the way James showed video clips of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings films, and also gave us plenty of fascinating facts about the making of the films, how this area came to be chosen as the site for the Hobbiton film-set, and why indeed there now exists here a perfect, robust and well-built rendition of hobbit country, for the delight of many thousands of visitors each year.
AS for Hobbiton itself, we all found it beyond our expectations, so perfectly realised, with exquisite attention to every detail: Bilbo’s sign on the gate announcing ‘No admittance except on party business’; the oak tree above Bag End, the line of washing, the wheelbarrows full of freshly harvested vegetables, the mill and bridge, the party field, Bilbo’s eleventy first birthday cake, the Green Dragon Inn and the tankards of beer.
Throughout Hobbiton we found exquisite English flower varieties, all in top condition. In fact, being here was indeed like being transported into JRR Tolkien’s original vision. It has been said that he wouldn’t have liked the idea of his books being turned into films, as he believed that the power of the imagination must determine how people see the world he created. Nevertheless I feel that he would have been awed by what has been achieved here. Hobbiton lacked only one thing: real life hobbits!
SC Skillman, psychological, suspense, paranormal fiction & non-fiction. My next book, Paranormal Warwickshire, will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020 and is available to pre-order now either online, or from the publisher’s website, or from your local bookshop.
Before I start my series on New Zealand, which I visited in November 2019, I am delighted to review a book set in the very place I visited – New Zealand’s North Island.
But the times are very different in ‘Waireka’ by Sheila Donald. The genre is historical fiction. We are in the nineteenth century, and the main protagonist Eliza finds herself among the pioneers, and having a very different experience of that beautiful, green and richly-forested country.
New Zealand – a richly forested, green and beautiful country
For Eliza, there is no chance of flying from the UK to New Zealand in twenty six hours, as we can do today. No, Eliza must travel by sea, in cramped conditions, on a voyage which is dangerous and will last at least three months. And the lifestyle which awaits her is that of a pioneer, in a male-dominated society to which women often fall victim.
A very different prospect for nineteenth century pioneers
Having recently returned from my 16 day holiday in New Zealand I was keen to read this story set in New Zealand’s north island in the 19th century. The story tells how Eliza chooses to travel from Scotland to New Zealand in search of a better life, impelled by mostly economic motives but also by the desire for an opportunity to travel away from her own enclosed world with its limited prospects for women.
Eliza sets sail for New Zealand, accompanying a clergyman and his family in the position of governess to the children. After Eliza has arrived in Wellington, the author unfolds a story in which we learn about all the challenges her protagonist must face in making a life for herself in this new country.
An insight into the challenges faced by women in a less enlightened society
In the course of her narrative author Sheila Donald succeeds in showing us how difficult life was for women of the time, and many women readers will surely see their own lives in a new perspective upon reading this book. As we read, we also cannot help feeling angry on occasions, and the issue of female empowerment is one that rises to the forefront of the reader’s mind.
I was particularly struck by how dangerous and risky the sea-voyage to New Zealand could be, taking at least three months; and how vulnerable a young woman was, when faced with a situation of gross injustice, unable to seek any redress for violations of her own human rights by an unenlightened male dominated society.
An emotionally stirring story with a strong twist at the end
Later part of the story are genuinely moving, as Eliza faces tragedy, and an impossible situation where her own integrity and courage are tested. Finally, I loved the twist at the end which was very emotionally stirring.
I later learned that the author based the story partly on her own family history, and I found that particularly fascinating.
SC Skillman, psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction & non-fiction. My next book ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020 and is available for pre-order now.
A powerful, emotionally engaging and sometimes shocking account by a very courageous woman.
Through her own shrewdness, presence of mind and intelligence, Hyeonseo managed to transform her life and that of her family by escaping from North Korea at the age of 17, undergoing a long and hazardous journey through China, and ultimately gaining South Korean citizenship status for them all 12 years later – and then marrying an American (“one of the reviled Yankee jackals of North Korean propaganda”.) She also saved her mother and brother, guiding them on the same arduous journey she had herself taken through China and onto Laos to seek asylum at the South Korea embassy.
Some of the most shocking details in this account come from the author’s description of life inside North Korea under the control of Kim Il-sung (‘Great Leader’ who founded North Korea); and his son Kim Jong-il ‘Dear Leader’ – to whom was attributed a nativity story very similar to that of Jesus Christ (though the brainwashed population of North Korea weren’t to know that).
Hyeonseo shares with us what the North Korean people were told: that his birth was foretold by miraculous signs in the heavens, including the appearance of a bright new star in the sky. From early childhood she and her classmates were encouraged to draw pictures of the snow-covered wooden cabin of his birth with the sacred mountain behind it and the new star in the sky. They came to associate the Great Leader and the Dear Leader with gifts and excitement in the same way that children in the West think of Santa Claus.
She was in South Korea at the time Kim Jong-un took over and this time she was at a safe distance viewing on TV the crowds she herself had once been forced to stand among, weeping at the death of the god-like predecessor, knowing that guards circulated among them ready to mete out severe punishments to anyone who was faking it.
In fact the first time her beliefs about North Korea ‘the greatest nation on earth’ were challenged, was through the impassioned outburst of her uncle Jung-jil, her father’s cousin, whose family had fled North Korea during the Korean War and now lived in Shenyang 8 hours drive into China.
The details the author gives of life inside North Korea, worshipping the Great Leader and the Dear Leader, are stunning. Amongst the highlights are these facts: everyone had to display on the walls of their homes a trio of air-brushed portraits: The Great Leader, The Dear Leader, and the Dear Leader’s first wife, also accorded almost god-like status. Everyone had to keep this trio of portraits in pristine condition – or risk severe punishment by white-gloved government inspectors who would visit monthly to find any specks of dust.
The author describes many other extraordinary events which are a simple fact of life in North Korea, such as the summary executions; the year-long rehearsals by thousands of schoolchildren for the mass display of the Leaders’ portraits; the hierarchy of society determined by one’s family history of loyalty to the Leaders.
She also gives a harrowing description of the famine that gripped North Korea in the mid 1990s when more than a million people died, and she recalls walking past a train station and seeing a dead woman in her early twenties lying on the pavement clutching an emaciated child to her, and being ignored by all who walked past. And she describes the lies of the Great Leader, who claimed in his propaganda broadcasts that he shared the suffering of his people, and was confining himself only to riceballs, to show his solidarity with them – yet remained as portly and well-fed as ever.
The other outstanding fact is the very low regard held for truth or historical fact; the fact that government officials can be bribed with money to do anything – including changing official records.
But even the details of life inside North Korea are not necessarily the most shocking thing in this story. For me, that honour is held by the callous behaviour of those people in China and Laos, who hold it in their power either to show compassion for North Korean defectors, or to destroy their lives. For many of them, not one simple act of common human decency can be carried out without a demand for money. The cruel and inhuman attitude that prevails towards North Korean defectors is sickening, to a Western reader.
Hyeonseo had to bribe her way through China, in order to save herself. Her journey was a journey through the vast underworld of people smugglers, Chinese ‘brokers’, fake IDs, false documents and changed records: all at considerable financial cost to herself and to those family members who were kind enough to transfer money to her (which she later paid back in full). It is truly a chilling vision of humanity to see corruption so deeply woven into a society, infecting everyone, every human interaction.
So when Hyeonseo encounters the Australian, Dick Stolp, and he shows her the generosity and compassion born of altruism, which is so severely lacking elsewhere in her experience, it comes across as a miracle. Interestingly, she was praying to the spirits of her ancestors for help just before he approached her in a coffee bar.
Through this account, sometimes harrowing and upsetting, Hyeonseo’s character shines, together with her love for and devotion to her mother and brother. She demonstrates brilliant presence of mind when she distracts the guard on the bus who is, contrary to expectations, checking everyone’s IDs and studying their faces, and she saves her brother from capture (for he has at this time no ID).
Another very impressive scene is when she is interrogated by an official who is determined to find out if she is North Korean. He looks deep into her eyes and asks her all sorts of tricky questions, but she ends up convincing him she is Chinese. This is largely because of the foresight of her father years before who insisted on her learning Mandarin – which she now speaks without any trace of a North Korean accent.
As you read the book you cannot help feeling that she is a total inspiration, not purely as a successful North Korean defector, but as a woman in her own right, with immense strength of character and inner resources.
After so many traumatic details in this account, it is good to read at the end how things are changing now, due to the international exposure Hyeonseo achieved after her February 2013 TED talk. She writes that some of the most inspiring messages she received afterwards came from China – a country which she says she loves but where she suffered many hardships – many of the messages expressing their writers’ shame at the complicity of their government in hounding escaped North Koreans.
Even after all that happened, her mother and her brother were sorely tempted to return to North Korea – such is the love people can have for their homeland, despite all other circumstances.
It is particularly poignant to read at the end of her account, these words: “Among the 27,000 North Koreans in the south, two kinds of life have been left behind: the wretched life of persecution and hunger, and the manageable life that was not so bad…. for the second group life in the South is far more daunting. It often makes them yearn for the simpler, more ordered existence they left behind, where big decisions are taken for them by the state, and where life is not a fierce competition.”
These words are particularly astute because they reflect what some people from East Berlin felt after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The irony is that for some, life under a totalitarian regime can be simpler, with far fewer options, all big decisions made for them by the State. This is something they prefer to what we might call “freedom.” This is a paradox we would all do well to muse upon and always to hold in mind.
SC Skillman, psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction. My next book ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15h June 2020.
I remember Andy asked me about my interest in being at the conference and I told him I too was a writer. He asked me about what I write and when I said fiction (psychological suspense / paranormal thrillers) he said, “Oh they sound much more interesting than my book.”
The two authors take us through some of the great biblical heroes: Joseph (of technicolour dreamcoat fame); Elijah (who beat the 400 prophets of Baal in a fantastic challenge as to whose god could call down fire from heaven); Ruth (who chose to go forward into a new and very different culture, to support her bereaved mother-in-law Naomi, and who then met Boaz); Daniel (captured with his friends and taken to Babylon where he eventually became famous to us for his survival of the Lions’ Den and the Fiery Furnace); and David – great King and Psalmist, formerly the lowest of the low as a shepherd boy, famous to many for his showdown wth Goliath).
We also hear of John (the Beloved Disciple, and writer of letters, a gospel, and the book of Revelations); and Mary of Bethany, who scandalised everyone by pouring perfume worth thousands of pounds in today’s money, onto Jesus’ feet at a dinner party in her home.
Interspersed with tales from contemporary life and plenty of anecdotes we can relate to and identify with, this book moves along at a sparkling pace.
The two authors, with their own colourful personalities, demonstrate their ability to relate the circumstances of those heroes to our own situations, translating from a very different culture into ours, in a breathtaking display of what we know as ‘dynamic equivalence.’
The stories surrounding these heroes are among the most outstanding, captivating and dramatic in the history of story-telling. They abound with human interest, transferable messages that are sharply relevant to us in our culture, and the most stunning imagery that burns them upon our imaginations.
These heroes genuinely are people who stand out – for courage, personal commitment, self-sacrificial giving and love – all of them through various human weaknesses. In every way these people are heroes not only for their times but for ours to us today, right where we are, in this culture that pays homage to individualism, freedom of expression, and the vital importance of being independent and somehow ‘true to ourselves’.
This is a profoundly moving novel set in our contemporary society, which works on so many levels, intimate, insightful and also demonstrating panoramic vision.
In ‘Half a World Away’ Mike Gayle takes as his subject those children who are born into deeply dysfunctional situations in the UK, and thus come to the attention of the social services. Setting his story in London, he tells us of Kerry, a cleaner, and of her half-brother Noah, a barrister, who were separated when Kerry was 10 and Noah (formerly known as Jason) was two.
The story is on one level a very moving portrayal of the different destinies lived out by those who are adopted by a loving family, and those who go into care. On another level the story explores family relationships with discernment, sensitivity, compassion and a sharply observant eye. Then the novel works as an insightful account of how fate and chance and small decisions and choices interact in our lives leading to huge consequences.
As I read the book I was reminded in part of ‘The Love Story of Miss Queenie Hennessy’ by Rachel Joyce. This is a book of which you may say, “I had to put it down” because it was so highly emotionally engaging. At such times the reader may feel the need to take a rest from it, for that reasons. Some of it is painfully acute in its depiction of the most heartrending circumstances. And in addition to that, Mike Gayle’s observation of human behaviour, from the most callous and selfish – and no less tragic for that – through to the most kind, compassionate and caring, is of the highest order.
A brilliant book, which I may recommend to all – and to those personally involved in issues of adoption and social care, though some may find it almost too painful to read, it is so finely and accurately observed.
psychological, paranormal and mystery
fiction and non-fiction
Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path
My next book Paranormal Warwickshire will be published by Amberley Publishing in June 2020.
Set in the second World War, this story is appealing in its simplicity yet powerful in its implications. A young boy and his mother are on a train bound for the countryside, away from their London home which has been destroyed in a bombing raid.
During their journey they meet an unassuming stranger to whom they might never have spoken – if it wasn’t for the fact that their train is threatened by German fighters, and they stop in a dark tunnel, and he begins to tell them a story to comfort them all in the darkness, by the light of the few matches he possesses.
On one level this is a story of “What ifs” and “If onlys”. It has emerged from a real story, of a British war hero who may have saved Hitler’s life during the First World War – thus leaving him alive and free to make the choices he did, and to wreak havoc upon the world during the 1930s and 1940s.
And yet the real story itself may not be accurate. Hitler apparently identified the British hero who spared his life, from a painting which he kept in his study. And yet, even that knowledge of the mercy shown to him did not hold Hitler back from his own massive betrayals and merciless actions in the future.
The story Michael Morpurgo tells will help young readers to engage imaginatively with some of the events and larger issues of the two World Wars – and despite the tragedy and huge moral dilemmas the story poses, goodness and humanity does shine through.
I first heard of this book via my local independent bookshop Warwick Books, and planned to go to an evening with Gaby Koppel, to hear her talking about ‘Reparation‘.
The subject of the book – a young Jewish woman’s research into her mother’s past as a survivor of Nazi persecution during World War II – immediately appealed to me, but in the end I wasn’t able to get to that evening. Instead I ordered the book later, and now having read it, how I wish I had been there to see Gaby Koppel and hear her talk about her inspiration for the novel. When you’ve finished reading a novel, that’s when you are hungry to find out details about the author’s personal biography.
This is one of those books which will surely increase your knowledge in a number of areas, not least insights into how Hungary is currently addressing its baleful wartime past, and a vivid description of the fiercely insular life of the Hasidic Jewish community in Stamford Hill, in London; and indeed into how a modern Jewish person with no religious belief feels.
Alongside that, it is a heartfelt and passionate exploration of a mother daughter relationship. And the book helps you to understand wherein Jewish identity lies. It is undoubtedly based on the author’s real life experience of her Hungarian mother and her German father. And the main protagonist, Elizabeth, works in TV production just as Gaby does in real life.
As I began the story, for some time I found the first person narrator’s attitude to her mother Aranca very judgmental and sardonic, expressed in waspish style. Then gradually I began to see how Elizabeth had developed this attitude, and to understand the pressure on her of her mother’s volatile and temperamental behaviour and alcoholic episodes.
As my reading of the novel progressed I liked Elizabeth more and more, with her sharp and sassy wit, and her habit of always saying exactly what she thinks. She is a character who never wears a mask, and I often felt myself identifying with her thoughts and feelings.
As for Aranca herself, known always as Mutti to Elizabeth, she comes over as very challenging and exasperating, but the more we understand what she has suffered in the past, the more we empathise with her. And I was captivated not only by her quest to seek reparation from the Hungarian government for her past losses, but also by Elizabeth’s accounts of her relationships with Dave and with Jon, and by her exploration of how being Jewish profoundly affects every area of life.
I was fascinated by what we learn in the story about the Jews, about their feelings, beliefs and attitudes, and in particular about the Hasidic Jewish community. Reading this book opens up the lives of others to us, and I believe stories like this teach us to respect and accept our differences, and the various ways in which people seek to express their identity.
Psychological, paranormal, mystery
fiction and non-fiction
Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path
My next book Paranormal Warwickshire will be published by Amberley Publishing in June 2020
Today I share with you one of my latest book reviews: in fact the last book to which I awarded 5 stars!
A Vision of Locusts by SL Russell is an unusual contemporary novel which introduces a number of themes including religious intolerance in the world today, the nature of evil, and the mysterious source of the main character’s “visions” or “seeings.”
Abbie, the main protagonist, is a young girl, half English, half Indian, who possesses what we may call a gift of “the sight”. I was gripped throughout the novel as the storyline explores Abbie’s struggle to be taken seriously by those closest to her, especially as the insights her visions bestow have the power to save them all from a highly dangerous situation.
Tension increases as an apparently charming man enters the neighbourhood and begins to make inroads into everyone’s lives.
I highly recommend this very thought-provoking and powerful novel.
psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction
author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit & Perilous Path
I’ve recently been to see the film Tolkienabout the early life of the great author who created The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. As one who has loved the creations of Tolkien, both his writings and his art, since I was at university, I looked forward greatly to seeing this film.
I was aware that Tolkien’s family have distanced themselves from the film so I was intrigued to find out for myself what could be the cause of their objections.
Nicholas Hoult’s performance as young Tolkien is admirable, and I often found the story very moving. The film sets out to show what might be considered Tolkien’s formative years – his childhood move to Birmingham, the loss of his parents, the transfer of his care to a priest, his lives at school and university, the relationships he formed, his early relationship with Edith who became his wife, his experience in the trenches in the First World War and his early married life, moving towards the time when he began writing The Hobbit.
Some of the criticisms levelled at the film have included the fact that no mention is made of his Catholic Christian worldview which played a vital part in his conception of Middle Earth and can even more clearly be seen in The Silmarillion. But this didn’t strike me as a major fault in the limited context of this film, since I had not expected it to cover more than a few elements which may have played their part in the creation of Middle Earth.
The film opens with a grim scene in the trenches and we return to this again and again in flashback. Then we move on to idyllic sunlit forest – woodland at Sarehole Mill, known to have inspired Tolkien. Throughout the film we are offered scenarios in which the film-makers speculate about the experiences from which may have sprung many elements in Tolkien’s fantasy world: the eye of Sauron, the two Towers, the Nazgul, the Dark Lord, the Ents, the Elvish princess Arwen, the close Fellowship of the Ring, the devotion and loyalty of Samwise Gangee to Frodo; and behind the action we often hear the voices of Lothlorien.
I enjoyed all this, accepting that the film-makers could not necessarily be expected to stick to known facts. From the point of view of a writer myself, I know that often when we write, ideas arise from the unconscious, and we cannot even say necessarily where any of them came from: unless it strike us unexpectedly. Thus it would surely have been for Tolkien as he created Middle Earth.
I was fascinated, though, to learn of Edith’s love for Wagner’s Ring Cycle – a love I share – and how this would have influenced Tolkien. And also to learn of the influence of his professor in Philology, played by Derek Jacobi, who says: “There’s a comfort in distance, in ancient things.” Tolkien’s passion for creating languages, complete with structure and vocabulary, comes over strongly.
And the film ends again back in the woodland at Sarehole Mill with Tolkien encouraging his children to speak to the trees, and speaking to them of their power: “little people just like you… little in stature, not in spirit.”