I found this an immensely varied collection of pieces, both prose and poetry. It was very moving to reflect upon how differently people react to the onslaught of Covid-19 upon the world.
The range of moods and outlooks among the 220 writers is fascinating: funny, sharply satirical, melancholy, fearful, heartbreaking, hopeful.
Some of the lively contributions from very young writers stood out for me: for instance ‘Riddle’ by 9 year old Cailin Abercromby Gemmell:
“Look out, look out, one and all, whether you’re big, or whether you’re small / Because I cannot be seen at all, and I won’t catch you when you fall.”
I admired some exceptional observational writing, for example in this piece by Angela Cheveau:
“A man walks down the street, hands in pockets, his dreams emptying onto the pavement like loose change.”
Many of the writers give us precious insights into their lives and circumstances, as in the case of Nick Cox who volunteers in a shelter home in Snehalaya, India. All through the pandemic he has remained there, protecting and supporting women and children rescued from slum and red light areas.
We are given glimpses into so many different worlds: for some positive, for others negative: a kaleidoscope of the human heart, here a terrible struggle, there a gift, elsewhere, new opportunities; but very close by, grief and loneliness.
Some have lost weight, some have gained weight, because of the same event. The experience of one writer has been heartrending, as in “A Dog’s Life” by Alexa James; and for another writer a time of longing, as in the beautiful poem by Sheila Johnson, “A Piece of Thyme.”
Every one of the contributions is a window into the lives of others: sad and touching; philosophical; desperate; chilling; witty; satirical; moving.
The book ends with a few harrowing accounts from health professionals: doctors, nurses, a hospice nursing director. Their courage, strength and compassion shine through.
A highly recommended book. Every sale supports the Rennie Grove Hospice Care.
Today I share my review of ‘Miss Graham’s War‘, the latest novel by Celia Rees, which has been released in a new edition, having spent some time on sale as ‘Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook’.
‘Miss Graham’s War‘ is a very complex and gripping account of life in Germany in the immediate aftermath of the Allied victory over Germany in 1945. The main protagonist Edith Graham, a lover of recipes and cooking, goes out from England to take part in what is known as the Control Commission, in the British Zone, to try and help the education system in Germany recover. However she is also asked to act as a spy seeking out wanted Nazis in hiding. I learned a huge amount about this period, of which I had previously known very little. It opened my eyes to how the ordinary people of Germany suffered in the first few years after the War, both those who still sympathised with Nazism, and those who had not agreed with Hitler’s ideology, but who had kept quiet to save their lives.
The structure of the book, interspersed with recipes from the time, was fascinating. The recipes and ingredients were very revealing; some horrifying, as they revealed the desperately low rations for people in Germany at that time.
For instance, one recipe was for Moltkestrasse Tea: pine needles chopped fine, and boiling water. Used to ward off hunger by those who have nothing else.
Another minimal recipe for the near-starving, deprived of rations, involved finely-cut-up human hair, to provide some element of minerals and vitamins.
A third example is Prison Camp Soup – fish bones and skin; water; and buckwheat, or whatever else you can get. Note: we have no equivalent, unless you count the Irish a hundred years ago reduced to eating grasses in the Famine.
Other recipes evoked another world entirely: I loved the German cake recipes, especially one for Bee Sting Cake, which is essentially sweet dough, baked, topped with honey, butter, sugar and almonds, and filled with a custard cream. In wartime circumstances, with rations low, but with the ingredients cunningly sourced from somewhere and hoarded out of sight, a slice of that would have been pure heaven. Such cakes of course belong to the famous ritual Kaffee und Kuchen. Another recipe, for asparagus flan, sounded gorgeous; some of the recipes I thought I really must try out myself (but not the ones with human hair, fish bones and pine needles).
The book gives many harrowing details of war crimes committed by the Nazis. It is packed with characters who have different motivations, which can be confusing to the reader, but ultimately we are carried along with the decency and goodness of Edith’s character, and the passion of Harry, whom she loves, and who will later go to Israel and become a member of Mossad. Fate intervenes, along with tragedy. Depending on your point of view it may be said that Edith’s quest ultimately results in poetic justice, or not. Here on earth, we have no final answer to the mystery of human wickedness, or a perfect resolution to the quest for justice. But this story is very compelling and there are many chequered characters to arouse our emotions.
It is the kind of story which may haunt you for some time afterwards, as you wonder about war, and about the aftermath of war, and the disastrous decisions that are made in such times, that attempt to correct injustices but only sew new tragedy and pain for the future, even after the actual fighting has ended.
A highly recommended book for those who can’t get enough of historical fiction and books about the history of the 20th century.
Today I am pleased to be hosting a stop on the blog tour for Penelope Swithinbank’s new book, Scent of Water, published by Malcolm Down and Sarah Grace Publishing.
When Penelope Swithinbank’s mother died tragically and suddenly as she watched the out-of-control car sweep her away, she plunged into deep depression. She found nothing that reached her dark soul of the night, nothing that helped her know that God was still with her. She was numbed by grief, frozen into solitude and nothing and no one seemed to be able to penetrate her protective walls. She found it very difficult to pray or to read the Bible. She couldn’t concentrate, nothing seemed to help, and she wished there was a specific daily devotional to help her to connect with the Lord in and through the grief. For a full two years she was there. When hugs rubbed her raw and consoling, well-meant clichés did not ring true. When God seemed far away. She was far away. She couldn’t read. Anything, let alone the Bible. When the depression and the blackness were all-consuming and life was barely worth living. Eventually, out of that experience, she wrote a daily devotional to help others going through the first six months of bereavement. Those who found it on her website and either used it themselves, or passed it on to others who were grieving the loss of a loved one, kept asking her to publish it so that it could be easily given to those who mourn. Maybe as a gift in their time of need. So here is A Scent of Water. Penelope hopes it will help others in times of bereavement and grief. Just a verse and a few thoughts for the times when mourning and grief mean that anything longer, anything deeper, is impossible.
My Review of the ARC:
I found this book beautifully presented and full of sensitive observations. It gives comfort to those who mourn, particularly in the early stages, and acts as a companion for the bereaved who may find themselves overwhelmed by conflicting feelings and unable to pray. I loved the structure of the book, especially the way it is divided into different sections for specific times like the first time the birthday comes round, or the first Christmas, or the first anniversary of the loss. The book is full of lovely photos of the natural world along with thoughts for every day of the week under each of these headings. It also includes common questions that the bereaved ask. There are helpful words too, for those who want to accompany and comfort the bereaved, to help them understand the best way to go about this.
Finally the book ends with the quote from the final page of The Last Battle by CS Lewis.
A highly recommended book, published 9th July 2021.
Today I am delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for the brand new edition of this fantasy adventure book by MJ Mallon.
I found the book captivating and full of curious magical elements. Here is my review:
This is an intriguing novel for all those interested in magic, supernatural, fantasy and myth. I found it highly readable and was intrigued by the author’s magical ideas, and by the fluency of her descriptive passages. Curious events and characters abound in this story. I particularly liked the idea of Esme, the girl trapped in the mirror.
In several scenes the author’s words seem to take wing. She has packed many different fascinating ideas into this one novel, which will need to be teased out and further developed through the promised series. I found myself speculating about Ryder and who and what he truly is. This will certainly whet the appetite of the reader for further revelations ahead.
I did feel a little unsure about the overall shape of the story structure, and yet consider this perhaps a consequence of introducing so many quixotic ideas into this, the first book of the series. And perhaps it’s appropriate too for a series whose overarching theme is The Curse of Time.
The many exceptional scenes in the story will be more than enough to captivate readers who love all things magical, paranormal and fantastic. The author’s own varied interests and her creativity promise well for her future books.
Here is a brief biographical note the author has written about herself:
M J Mallon was born in Lion city Singapore, a passionate Scorpio with the Chinese Zodiac sign of a lucky rabbit. She spent her early childhood in Hong Kong. During her teen years, she returned to her father’s childhood home, Edinburgh where she spent many happy years, entertained and enthralled by her parents’ vivid stories of living and working abroad. Perhaps it was during these formative years that her love of writing began inspired by their vivid storytelling. She counts herself lucky to have travelled to many far-flung destinations and this early wanderlust has fuelled her present desire to emigrate abroad. Until that wondrous moment, it’s rumoured that she lives in the UK, in the Venice of Cambridge with her six-foot hunk of a rock god husband. Her two enchanting daughters have flown the nest but often return with a cheery, heart-warming smile to greet her.
MJ’s writing credits also include a multi-genre approach: paranormal, best-selling horror, supernatural short stories, flash fiction, and poetry. She worked with some amazing authors and bloggers compiling an anthology/compilation set during the early stages of COVID-19 entitled This Is Lockdown and she has written a spin off poetry collection, Lockdown Innit.
She’s been blogging for many moons at her blog home Kyrosmagica, (which means Crystal Magic,) where she celebrates the spiritual realm,her love of nature, crystals and all things magical, mystical, and mysterious.
MJ’s motto is…
To always do what you Love, stay true to your heart’s desires, and inspire others to do so too, even if it appears that the odds are stacked against you like black hearted shadows.
Her favourite genre to write is
Fantasy/magical realism because life would be dull unless it is sprinkled with a liberal dash of extraordinarily imaginative magic!
Her fantasy series The Curse of Time is published by Next Chapter Publishing. Book 2 in the series will follow soon.
Here is the blurb for the novel:
Bloodstone – The Curse of Time Book 1
Genre: Fantasy Adventure Fiction
Fifteen-year-old Amelina Scott lives in Cambridge with her dysfunctional family, a mysterious black cat, and an unusual girl who is imprisoned within the mirrors located in her house.
When an unexpected message arrives inviting her to visit the Crystal Cottage, she sets off on a forbidden path where she encounters Ryder: a charismatic, perplexing stranger.
With the help of a magical paint set and some crystal wizard stones, can Amelina discover the truth about her family?
A unique, imaginative mystery full of magic-wielding and dark elements, Bloodstone is a riveting adventure for anyone interested in fantasy, mythology or the world of the paranormal.
An angry voice screeched, ‘paint me, paint me,’ repeating the words until they echoed in my head. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I surrendered. Driven by a buzz of immediate energy that surged through me, I dipped the tip of the brush into the White Moonstone paint. As my paintbrush touched the canvas, the crystal’s heady orchid scent hit me in the face full force. My mind raced in an intoxicating whirl. I began to sweat, and the humidity of the room increased, becoming so stifling I could hardly breathe.
Sucking the air into my lungs hastily, the canvas and I became one succession of bold, mysterious strokes. As the painting took shape, I recognised the view of the winter’s sky I’d seen through the kitchen window the day I’d met Ryder.
The Black Obsidian paint pot called me next, beseeching me to open it. Just like before, it refused to do so. In frustration, I slammed it down hard. The pot exploded with a loud bang like a child’s burst balloon.
As I dipped the brush into the paint, a gripping sensation overcame me. I painted in haste with a multitude of dissolving crystal paint flecks staring back at me from the canvas. A dark grey, bluish black, sinister tinge blemished the artwork. Shades of varying hues moved across the painting, competing for supremacy in a powerful duality of light and darkness.
I tipped over in my chair, toppling to the ground with a loud crash. Wiping the sweat from my brow, I stood and righted my chair. Thoughts and questions swirled in my head. I peered at the canvas and wondered why I’d drawn all those strange black flecks dominating the painting.
My attention turned to the window. The sky had become dark and oppressive, as if etched with the murkiest ink. I felt an uneasiness in the air. It reminded me of the feeling I got when an eclipse of the sun had just taken place. I experienced a dull sensation in my temples.
A swift wave of dizziness and nausea hit me hard. The room spun, and I fought for control. With difficulty, I closed my eyes, willing the strange spinning to stop. Tentatively, my eyes opened, and a narrow tunnel of faded images came toward me in a giddy whirl. First, I saw a misty image of my dad playing his guitar, with my mum laughing by his side. In slow motion, I watched a replay of the day my father had disappeared, followed by the day he returned. The images swirled and blended until everything went black.
Today I share my review of ‘Witch Child‘ by Celia Rees, now out in a special 20th Anniversary edition. This is a compelling historical novel of the arrival of a group of Puritans in New England in 1650, of their encounters with the Native Indians, and a tale not only of religious intolerance but of the deep-seated fear human beings have of anybody who dares to be different.
Having just finished reading The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory, about Catherine Parr and the dangerous path she trod through religious fanaticism and intolerance, I feel my senses have been sharpened to this theme of rejection of women for being different. It seems that historical fiction is an excellent vehicle for this theme but sadly the theme is also highly relevant in today’s world.
Witch Child is a Young Adult novel and has been firmly established on the schools curriculum for the challenging issues it raises, vital for children to wrestle with, themes of intolerance, the true nature of freedom, the forces of conservatism, spirituality and female independence.
The book opens with a horrific account of the persecution of a woman in late 17th century England. Through the eyes of a young girl, we learn how her grandmother is dragged away – feared and reviled as a witch for her role of village “wise-woman and healer” – tortured then hanged for witchcraft. We are confronted with the intense hatred, fear and hysteria that flares up among the local ‘authorities’ (often self-appointed); their fanaticism aroused by another opportunity to publicly shame, humiliate and destroy a woman for being different.
As I read the story of Mary’s departure for the New World with a group of Puritans, I was keen to refresh my knowledge of this period of English history. As it happened, the Puritans sought freedom in another land to practice their own brand of religion freely. Ironically they took all their own prejudices and narrow-mindedness with them and transplanted it into the communities they built in New England.
I was moved by Mary’s growing connection with her two allies from the local Indian tribe, White Eagle and Jaybird. They too knew what it meant to be ostracised for bring just what they were. The themes of nature-connection are strong between the girl trained in ways of herbalism and intuitive healing, and the native people with their deep spirituality and knowledge of the earth and their environment, as with all First Nation peoples.
I loved the overriding structure of the book, pages of an authentic historical journey, found sewn into a late 17th century quilt, and the mystery with which the book ends. I know the author wrote a sequel, but this book left the way wide open for me to imagine exactly how I wanted it to end and what I hope happened to Mary next.
A compelling story from an author who has just brought out a new book, this time for adults, called Miss Graham’s War. Set in Germany in 1946, and published by Harper Collins in May 2021, this will be my next read.
The Tudors have been popular for the last few years, in books and films and TV programmes. And whatever we think of Henry VIII as a man, he was certainly a gift to history. For he must be one of the most memorable of all characters in the story of Britain. Never mind that he was a monster and a psychopath. It seems that Tudor propaganda has won out through the centuries, and many prefer to think of him as a colourful over-the-top character who started up the Church of England, ate an enormous amount, and killed a few wives on the way.
Although I myself love history, and read history books as well as historical fiction, I know that many, perhaps, learn most of history through reading historical fiction. That is why I believe our high quality historical novelists are so important to us, because they engage us in history and encourage us to imagine what it must have been like to be there, and to deal personally with characters like Henry VIII.
Such is the case with ‘The Taming of the Queen’ by Philippa Gregory which is the story of Henry’s last wife, Kateryn Parr. This novel was published in 2015 and although I have read several books of historical fiction by other authors, I haven’t read many Philippa Gregory novels, other than ‘The Boleyn Girl’. However I found this story of Kateryn compelling, and Gregory drew me in so that I felt I was there with Henry’s sixth Queen, navigating the mercurial character of the monster she was forced to marry, while keeping her love for Thomas Seymour a secret.
I was also captivated by Kateryn’s passion and intelligence, and her commitment to religious reform, as she led a theological study group in her palace rooms. Kateryn’s tragedy was, in the world of the Tudor court, “Nobody likes a clever, passionate woman.” We see that in the case of the religious reformer and courageous preacher Anne Askew who was ultimately tortured on the rack then burned at the stake.
One of my favourite characters in the novel is Will Somers, the King’s Fool. He is so witty and clever, an acrobat, a juggler, a commentator and observer of the action rather like the Chorus in ancient Greek tragedies. He made the King laugh, he lightened the mood, then when his political satire became too close for comfort, he acted silly to relieve the tension.
“It is easier to stand on your head than keep the king in one mind,” he says. At another point, he remarks, “If I were a wise man I would be dead by now.”
In reading the story of Kateryn, I think the best safeguard any Queen of Henry might have would be her ladies-in-waiting and her gentlewomen of the bedchamber. All the queens depended on their ladies’ 100% loyalty and trustworthiness, their ability to sniff out danger ahead, and to warn of conspiracies in the making. Kateryn relied on Catherine Brandon, Anne Seymour, and her own sister Nan.
Nan, we are told, has served six of Henry’s queens and buried four. Nan forewarns Kateryn she is being targeted for criminal proceedings against her on the grounds of heresy; and as we can see from this novel, Henry changed his mind week by week about what constituted heresy. Bishop Stephen Gardiner (one of the top nasties of the Tudor court, along with the Duke of Norfolk) is assembling a case against Kateryn.
“He’s coming for you, Kat,” warns Nan, “and I don’t know how to save you…. they are changing the law ahead of me. I can’t make sure you obey the law because they are changing it faster than we can obey.”
Thomas Seymour, the man Kateryn loves and believes she has lost, tells Kateryn that he must marry; the Seymours need an alliance at court and he needs a wife who will speak for him; his choice is 12 year old Princess Elizabeth whom Kateryn knows “has a childish adoration for Thomas.”
Alongside this we are constantly brought face to face with the volatile, psychotic King – obese, an addictive over-eater, tormented by the pain of his leg ulcer and his inner demons.
Meanwhile conspiracies continue, and the question of what religion Henry believes shifts daily. A Howard plot to remove Kateryn, replace her with Mary Howard, and bring the country back to Catholicism, is revealed.
When Kateryn is forewarned that Henry has signed a warrant for her arrest, she is able to make her case to him. She submits to him and presents herself as an ignorant, subserviant woman, for the safety not only of herself, but also “of all who depend on this tyrant for their freedom. I can rack my pride. I can dislocate my shame.” Thus the Queen is “tamed”. He then physically abuses her; he whips and humiliates her in a shocking scene (I am not sure if historical evidence exists for this).
But by her willingness to appear “tamed,” Kateryn wins her life, and ultimately survives her marriage to Henry. The novel concludes after Henry’s death with Kateryn exalting in her freedom; she says she is free to be herself at last, may pursue her passions and interests, her commitment to religious reform, and write her books.
I must admit that reading this story I feel surprised that Kateryn didn’t suffer from post traumatic stress disorder afterwards; and perhaps she did. Tragically she only lived a further 18 months because (foolishly, we may believe, taking the long view) she married Thomas Seymour; and having become pregnant, she died shortly after childbirth. The fate of her little daughter Mary Seymour, following the execution of Thomas the following year, is unknown to history. It is thought she died around the age of two; but no evidence of this exists. Perhaps the truth will come to light one day.
Ultimately I found this book an emotionally engaging, enlightening and intellectually stimulating read, and Philippa Gregory’s reputation as ‘the contemporary mistress of historical crime’ is well deserved.
The story of All the Light We Cannot See tells of Marie Laure, a blind girl living in Paris in the 1930s with her father, a museum locksmith and miniaturist. Marie Laure’s father creates a model of the city to help his daughter make her way around the streets; and every birthday his gift to her includes a puzzle box which needs skill and ingenuity for her to open, and find the gift within. Thus she gains skills in orienteering and in construction projects requiring dexterity and ingenuity; both of which will be invaluable to her survival, not only in peace, but during the coming war, the Nazi occupation of France, and especially when she finds herself alone and vulnerable in St Malo during Allied bombing.
The story is told in two time frames, early 1940s, and then on to the final stages of the War, and also shifts back and forth between Marie Laure’s story and that of Werner, a German boy, who is an expert at constructing radios, and who is compelled to join the Military Training Academy for young people, whose methods are often cruel and ruthless and sadistic. We meet Frederick, Werner’s friend at the academy, who openly defies the cruelty, and suffers for it. Ultimately Werner and Marie Laure will meet; grief, tragedy but also love and hope is ahead for them.
The novel creates for its readers an immersive experience, of what it would feel like to be part of the French Resistance in St Malo. I was totally absorbed in Marie Laure’s world, her challenges and threats, her relationships, her courage and resourcefulness.
Werner too aroused my compassion and I understood what it must have been like to be swept along by the Nazi machine, compelled to participate. Even though his sister Jutta shows evidence of a free spirit, people like her within Nazi Germany would have needed to be extremely discrete and subtle about their dissent.
I found the story slow-moving to start with and difficult to get into; then, when the War starts, it becomes totally immersive, as young Marie Laure and her father escape from Paris to her great uncle Etienne’s house in St Malo, while 8 year old Werner in Berlin with his sister Jutta discovers how to make a radio.
In St Malo Marie Laure and her father are cared for by the kindly Madame Manech who gathers together a group of ladies to resist the Nazi occupiers by ingenious means. Madame Manech sets about persuading Etienne to use the one remaining radio in the house – which he has cunningly hidden in the attic, away from the Nazis – to transmit messages to the Allies from the Resistance.
The reader needs to get used to the switches of time-scale from 1940 and then on to 1944 when the Americans are bombing St Malo in a last attempt to flush the Nazi occupiers out, and Werner is hunting for illegal radio operators in occupied France, with orders from the Nazis to kill all those he finds in possession of radios.
In 1944 Marie Laure, blind and totally reliant on her own strength, courage and instincts, is trapped in the house in St Malo. The people who have loved and protected her are absent: Madame Manech has died; her father has been seized by the Germans whilst visiting his Paris Museum; and her great-uncle Etienne has vanished.
Back in 1940 Frederick invites Werner to join him on a visit to his mother at his privileged and wealthy home in Berlin. The two boys are friends; and yet Werner feels powerless to help when Frederick is persecuted for voicing his dissent from the Nazi creed.
In 1944 Werner is told he has been at the Military Training Academy under false pretences, and we fear he will be killed; instead he is sent to “a special technology division of the Wehrmacht.” Werner is pressed into service in France, tracking illegal radio transmissions by members of the Resistance, using his transceiver.
From this point the story moves forward relentlessly, with high emotional stakes and jeopardy for both Marie Laure and Werner. How they come together is something you will discover when you read the book.
This is the kind of book which is so immersive you are with the people of the story, experiencing the danger and the emotional and psychological challenges alongside them; and indeed the kind of book which has you scurrying for Google to refresh yourself on such areas of knowledge as the Allied bombing of St Malo; the activities of the French Resistance; and the shocking facts about systematic rape of German girls and women by Russian soldiers for three years after the 2nd World War ended.
The story shows the resilience of the human spirit and the prevalence of love, goodness and kindness, along with courage and ingenuity; whilst also inevitably opening our eyes to the sheer wickedness and evil of war.
Today I share my review of this enchanting novel by nature writer Delia Owens.
‘Where the Crawdads Sing‘ by Delia Owens is set in the swampland of the North Carolina coast. Kya, the main protagonist, is abandoned by her family members one by one until, at the age of seven in the year 1952, she is left all alone, continuing to live in the family’s “swamp shack ” on the edge of the lagoon. Kya fends for herself, navigating the lagoons and waterways of the wetlands by boat, and living independently into her adulthood, gaining her reputation among the people of nearby Barkley Cove as “the marsh girl”.
I found the descriptions of the wetlands around Kya’s lagoon utterly compelling. Delicate, exquisite, and using the most fluid, inspired, original use of vocabulary, Owens weaves pictures of a breathtakingly beautiful and remote region. I found myself longing to visit those wetlands.
Delia Owens herself is a nature writer, and a wildlife scientist who formerly lived and worked in a camp in Africa for several years. This is her first novel, and it is astonishingly beautiful.
As Kya’s story progresses in 1952, another story runs alongside it in a different time-frame, in 1969-70, when the adult Kya finds herself accused of murder. Although the plot is interesting, I longed to return to the description of Kya’s life as a child fending for herself in the wetlands, which has a spiritual, dreamlike quality.
I think I love this book so much because of the appeal and fascination of the idea of “the wild child.” I have always loved stories which centre upon this theme. High among my childhood favourites, the stories of Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren held my imagination. Pippi is a wild child, and she was my heroine. I was enthralled by the idea of a child who finds herself living an independent life utterly free of the constraints that adults impose upon children. Reading these books as adults, we may read into that situation all the judgements of our social conditioning; yet, in the world of fiction, this trope is powerful and archetypal.
The story goes on to tell of the older Kya’s relationships with two young men, one of whom is found dead in the mud beneath the local fire-tower, and the progress of the murder trial in which Kya is the Defendant. I will say no more about the plot for fear of spoilers bur suffice it to say that very close to the end there is an amazing twist.
Today I share a review of this historical gothic fantasy set in1950s Mexico.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a rich feast for lovers of gothic sinister-mansion stories.
Creepy, disturbing, sensuous, all the tropes are here. The story takes our main protagonist, Noemi Taboada, a lively socialite, into a truly menacing setting in a mountain landscape: a beautiful old house, a place of former grandeur, now showing ever-increasing signs of neglect. She has been drawn here by a frightened plea for help from her childhood friend and companion, Catalina, trapped in the house with her deeply unsettling husband, Virgil Doyle.
Noemi is greeted and ushered into the establishment by Florence, a sinister woman who reminds me of Mrs Danvers; and within the house we find the extremely handsome but unpleasant alpha male, Virgil, who controls the agenda. Above Virgil in the family hierarchy is his father Howard, a terrifying old man mostly confined to his room by an unnamed medical condition, who rarely appears, shows signs of extreme old age in a dead white face with startling intense blue eyes, and appears only to ask Noemi strange and suspicious questions about eugenics. Occupying the archetypal role of frail, vulnerable young victim, Catalina is held captive in the house and fed mysterious medications which alternately send her into manic frenzy or tip her into a drowsy semi-hypnotic state.
The heroine, beautiful and sassy Noemi, arrives as a visitor in this house of nightmares, intent on uncovering Catalina’s true situation and rescuing her. Noemi’s ally, Francis, is Virgil’s cousin, and appears to be the only warm, caring human being in the Doyle family; but we doubt his power to take action or provide any real help.
The story follows Noemi’s journey of discovery as she attempts to unravel the dark mysteries of the house, becoming increasingly persecuted by horrific sleepwalking dreams and waking visions.
She discovers beyond doubt that this is a sick house, emanating a toxic atmosphere which seeps into and distorts her own thoughts and desires. Decadent, depraved and magnetic, Virgil Doyle holds her in his power; Frances offers to help both young women escape, but we don’t know whether we can fully trust him either, as he too is held in the grip of the family’s terrible history.
The novel weaves an intense, compelling atmosphere which explodes in a phantasmagoria of gothic horror. My own taste does not extend to true horror, HP Lovecraft style, but that is what we encounter here. I enjoy trying out different genres, but horror would not be my genre of choice for further reading. If you love the gothic genre, complete with all its tropes, you will find that here, but be warned, the horror element is quite extreme! Nevertheless I enjoyed trying out a new author I had not encountered before.
Today I am pleased to be reviewing an Advance Review copy of the latest novel by author S.L. Russell: The Thorn of Truth.
Having read three of this author’s previous novels I see her as a writer who opens up major ethical issues in our contemporary society, in such a way that they present a spiritual challenge to the main protagonist – and also engage us in our own dilemmas.
In each of S.L. Russell’s previous novels I have learned many new things about a profession which had formerly been a mystery to me: in her novel The Healing Knife I felt I was in the operating theatre with a senior surgeon, understanding all the details of major surgery; in this novel I found myself in a world of barristers and judges and courtrooms and the Inns of Court and the Middle Temple.
Our main protagonist Anna, a barrister, is faced with a direct personal challenge; a corrupt police officer is keen to use a new court case to put away a man he has long believed to be a drug-lord – and Anna is required to defend him in this case which she believes weak, and in which she feels convinced he is innocent. Yet she herself has strong personal reasons to get this man put down for a long time: he may well be responsible for a life-altering tragedy in her own close family.
Anna must put her own personal feelings aside and do what is right.
In this author’s previous novels, I have come to see her as a novelist who always surprises the reader with the direction in which she ultimately takes her story.
Each time, for me, the focus of the story has shifted. I think the novel is about one thing; and then it changes, and becomes something else entirely. Yet the focus on the central ethical issue remains strong.
In The Thorn of Truth, our main protagonist Anna takes a decision to defend Leaman, a man who might be a Mr Big in the drug world. She must do this despite the fact that her family may condemn her for her actions. Then her own personal involvement is complicated by her daughter’s new and growing friendship with Leaman’s own daughter. Later on the story becomes less about the guilt or innocence of this man in regard to the drugs, and instead focuses on the true killer in the current case, and the shocking and unexpected risk to her daughter Millie’s life.
In this story too, S.L. Russell interweaves the lives of three characters from her previous novel, as Anna meets and builds up a relationship with Rachel, the main protagonist of The Healing Knife, and Rachel’s husband Michael and step-son Jasper.
I found Anna’s relationship with her daughter Millie the strongest element of the novel, and was gripped by the crisis that flares up.
Ultimately this is a novel of big moral issues causing agonising ethical dilemmas which test the spiritual values of the main protagonist.
Another challenging and powerful novel from S.L. Russell.
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