Book Review: ‘Half a World Away’ by Mike Gayle

Book cover: Half a World Away by Mike Gayle

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.

SC Skillman

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.

Book Review: ‘An Eagle in the Snow’ by Michael Morpurgo

‘An Eagle in the Snow’ by Michael Morpurgo

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.

Book Review: ‘Reparation’ by Gaby Koppel

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.

Highly recommended.

SC Skillman

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

Book Review: “A Vision of Locusts” by SL Russell

Today I share with you one of my latest book reviews: in fact the last book to which I awarded 5 stars!

Book cover image for "A Vision of Locusts" by SL Russell

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.

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction

author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit & Perilous Path

Book Review: ‘The Magical History of Britain’ by Martin Wall

The period of British history which we call the Dark Ages was not dark at all – according to the author of this book, Martin Wall.The Magical History of Britain by Martin Wall

But we do know the period this term covers, between about 500 and 1000 BC, was marked by frequent warfare. Many of us choose to imagine it best probably through the medium of fantasy, in books, films and TV drama, such as The Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones.

The darkness only refers to our  lack of knowledge of the period. And this author was inspired by the discovery of the Staffordshire Horde, to pour what must have been exhaustive research into the writing of this book.

Reading ‘The Magical History of Britain‘ is a rewarding experience, if you would love to fill in the details of a profoundly obscure period of Britain’s history including the so-called Dark Ages, and the recurrent struggles over many generations between Christians and Pagans. The author states that he was inspired to write this book by the discovery of the Staffordshire Horde. And although I was enthralled, I did from time to time find myself wishing the author had resisted the urge to pack so much information in, often giving a blow-by-blow account of events in long, weighty paragraphs, and filling in the entire life history of every character he featured.

Nevertheless it was still a fascinating book and of one thing we can be sure – through all the centuries on this Island, the Celts, the Romans, the Britons, the Danes, the Pagans, the Christians, the Anglo Saxons and the Normans have all been every bit as bad as each other, when it comes to wholesale slaughter and sadistic punishments.

The author draws through his narrative a thread of myth and magic, and his treatment of the Arthurian mythology is particularly interesting – a mythology that I believe puts down very deep roots in our national psyche. Somehow we can all relate to that longing for the once and future king. I know I have long loved the stories of Arthur and Guinevere, and the knights of the round table, along with the enchantress Nimue and the wizard Merlin.

Towards the end of this challenging read, including a detailed account of the life and work of Aleister Crowley, it was a positive relief to come through to the conclusion of Martin Walls’s narrative and to read his account of the Inklings meeting in Oxford – bringing us back to two of my most beloved authors, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, along with a fellow-member of the Inklings and a great friend of theirs, Owen Barfield.

The book concludes with some astute and discerning remarks about the present state of Britain in regard to its history, its national psyche and its spiritual and magical mythologies.

 

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path

Film and Book Review: ‘Silence’ by Shusaku Endo: and The Film Starring Andrew Garfield

Silence by Shusaku Endo is one of the most compelling and powerful books I’ve ever read.Silence - a novel by Shusaku Endo I wrote about it in this way on my website as part of a blog post about an exhibition at the British Museum, Living With the Gods.

When I first read the book, several years ago, I think one of the most remarkable things about it is that the reader can see both sides and even have some understanding both of the Japanese and the Jesuit priest, despite the extreme cruelty of the torture to which the Christian converts are subjected.

I personally thought the priest Roderigues should apostatise and that it wouldn’t detract from the integrity of his faith at all, because how can we ever eradicate what is in the heart of another, especially in the face of words and actions forced out of them under torture?

But I admired the priest’s determination to stay true to his faith, as he understood it. I also felt I could make sense of the position of the Japanese, utterly determined to stop a foreign religion from adultering and diluting their own culture, from stealing hearts and minds in their own country devoted to their own religions. I saw both sides.

And in the film directed by Martin Scorsese which was released in 2010, I felt the same. Basically the Jesuit priest played by Andrew Garfield would be wisest, I considered, to recognise that the Japanese culture and mindset was utterly alien from his own cultural formulations of religion and utterly set on protecting their own cultural and religious identity.

I feel the same when I read about the Jesuit priests who came to England clandestinely in the sixteenth century to try and turn England back to Catholicism again:  God’s Secret Agents, an excellent book by Alice Hogge.  And also when I visit historical properties which were once strong Catholic houses whose occupants practised their faith against the direct orders of their government, and where persecution of priests is part of the house’s history.

No matter the rightness or the wrongness of their position, when viewed in hindsight, I still admire the priests’ passionate conviction in the face of fierce persecution and the prospect of being hanged drawn and quartered.

England ultimately became Protestant, and I don’t myself believe that the spiritual stakes as they saw them ever existed; or that the fate of anyone’s eternal soul ever stood in jeopardy according to whether they were Catholic or Protestant.

But they believed it. And that’s all that matters.

Were they wrong? This is the big question that hangs over all these heartrending, dramatic stories. And the same question hangs over all our lives, as we struggle for whatever cause or goal or dream we passionately believe in. We’re probably wrong, too. Or at least there’s a high probability we are.

But does that invalidate our passion, conviction, courage and persistence and fierce unrelenting resilience?

No. Because if it does invalidate it, then shall we all just give up now?

I know as a writer I will never give up, whatever the outcome may be.

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path

Coming soon: Spirit of Warwickshire

 

Book Review: “London: A Spiritual History” by Edoardo Albert

I loved this book – attracted to it originally in the shop of the Royal Naval College Visitor Centre, Greenwich, by its delightful, playful cover design.London A Spiritual History by Edoardo Albert

London: A Spiritual History by Edoardo Albert begins by telling the history of London from well before the Roman invasion, and then bringing us through to the present day, interspersed with plenty of personal observations from the author who spent several years as a TV repairman travelling the London streets and working in many different people’s homes.

Albert’s survey of London history is fascinating, and further enlivened by his own personal take on famous characters like Thomas Cromwell, (Henry VIII’s right-hand man), and William Blake, the visionary.

Then the author moves into his own personal spiritual search over many years, which interweaves with London and its multi-faceted character, from Catholicism through atheism and then onto the various magical and mystical groups with which London abounds.

I identified with so much of this, having lived in central London during my twenties, and having tried out many of these groups myself throughout the capital, such as the Theosophical Society and the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain – not to mention a passing flirtation with the Rosicrucians. though I can’t claim to have applied for membership of the Order of the Golden Dawn!

Albert’s final “epiphany” comes with such disarming simplicity it is genuinely moving. A highly recommended book.

 

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal mystery fiction

Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path

Book Review: “Paul: a Biography” by Tom Wright

This is a thorough, vivid and enlightening book about Paul the Apostle, otherwise known as St Paul.Paul a Biography by Tom Wright Tom Wright opens up for us the amazing personality of Paul: formidable, intellectual, resilient, passionate, determined, lyrical, energetic and utterly committed – a former Pharisee and a zealous Jew.

At the age of 23, Paul had his revelation on the road to Damascus. And what we often fail to realise is that after his period of blindness, he went off to Arabia for a couple of years to reflect. Then he spent about 2 weeks with Jesus’ disciple Peter. And after that he returned to his hometown Tarsus for ten years during which we know nothing of him.

It was only then that he began his extraordinary mission of travelling throughout the Mediterranean world, teaching and arguing and persuading first Jews, then Gentiles, that Israel’s God had fulfilled the Jews’ greatest hope, and come to the world as a crucified Messiah – a message many Jews found utterly abhorrent.

Reading this book made me reflect once again how much Christendom owes to Paul. I remember from my schooldays how my imagination was caught by the story of Paul and the riot of the silversmiths – when Paul showed up in town and started to draw people away from their belief in the cult of Diana, goddess of the Ephesians – thus causing uproar among the silversmiths whose livelihood depended on the cult.

As we read this biography we see before us a man powerful in intellect and vision, often vulnerable, who suffers from depression and comes very close to being broken in spirit, yet remains inspired in his actions and in his writing. In those letters, he encompasses his over-arching vision of Christ’s supremacy whilst fully acknowledging the reality of our individual lives and experience in this world.

Many of the passages Tom Wright quotes from Paul are his very greatest; and the strength and power of Paul’s words captivate you – words which have given comfort and strength and courage and renewal of faith to millions over the centuries since they were first dictated to the long-suffering scribe in that prison. The psychological astuteness of Paul’s great paradoxes shine out: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness and When I am weak, then I am strong. And Wright makes the point that throughout Paul’s journeys and his incredibly demanding series of lectures and talks, his imprisonments and his floggings, the one thing that cannot be eclipsed is his deep inner coherence.

Throughout his narrative, Tom Wright insists on the fact that the story of the Christian faith is not and never can be a story cut loose from the story of Israel. Towards the end of the book, when we reach Paul’s arrival in Rome, Wright refers to “the end of the world” which, to the Jews of the time, meant the destruction of the Temple (which was carried out by Rome in AD70).

Paul knew, better perhaps than any of his contemporaries, what reactions such a terrible event would produce. Gentile Jesus-followers would say that God had finally cut off those Jews, leaving ‘the church’ as a non-Jewish body. Christianity would become ‘a religion’ to be contrasted to something called ‘Judaism’. Jewish Jesus-followers would accuse their Gentile colleagues of having precipitated this disaster by imagining that one could worship the true God without getting circumcised and following the whole Torah. And Jews who had rejected the message of Jesus would be in no doubt at all. All this had happened because of the false prophet Jesus and his wicked followers, especially Paul who had led Israel astray.

I feel this is a very cogent summary of what, sadly, did indeed happen. But then Tom Wright goes on to examine the reasons for Paul’s ultimate success – firstly from a theological point of view, then humanly speaking, and then from the impact of his letters. Humanly speaking, Paul’s success may be partially accounted for by his phenomenal energy, his blunt, upfront way of telling it as he sees it, no matter who is confronting him. Also, there is his vulnerability: he loved people and they loved him.

Finally – there are his letters: small, bright, challenging documents. Within them, he draws upon all the philosophies and worldviews around him, sharply aware of and encompassing not simply religion or theology but also politics, ancient history, economics and/or philosophy. And his letters cover so many moods and situations. They take our arm and whisper a word of encouragement when we face a new task, they warn us of snakes in the grass, they unveil again and again the faithful, powerful love of the creator God. And all this with 70 or 80 pages of text to his name in the Bible. He succeeded, says Wright, far beyond the other great letter-writers of antiquity such as Cicero and Seneca.

Wright points out that many of the acknowledged great moments in church history – Augustine, Luther, Barth – have come about through fresh engagement with Paul’s work. His legacy has continually generated fresh dividends.

The Stoics, the Epicureans and the Middle Platonists had serious, articulate and in many ways attractive spokespeople… but Paul’s Jesus-focused vision of the one God, creator of all, was able to take on all these philosophies and beat them at their own game.

Finally, as we reach the end of this book, with Paul under house-arrest in Rome, ready to confront Caesar, knowing that he will before too long face death at the hands of the tyrant, Wright makes a chilling observation:

we have seen the electronic revolution produce a global situation just as dramatically new, in its way, as the one the first-century world had experienced with the rise of Rome.

I think we would do well to reflect upon this, and also consider how long the power and  might of the Roman Empire lasted – until it fell.

 

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction and inspirational non-fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path

Book Review: “The Making of Us” by Sheridan Voysey

Here’s a book which should appeal to those of you who feel as if you’ve reached  a point in your lives where all that you hoped for has not been achieved; maybe it seems you have to let go of your dreams; and perhaps you simply don’t know where to go from here.

The Making of Us by Sheridan Voysey

 The Making of Us by Sheridan Voysey is the story of a pilgrimage on foot from the island of Lindisfarne (Holy Island) to the Shrine of St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral. It’s  also a Christian-inspired self-help book enabling readers to reflect upon their own life journeys. Following the rhythm of the two pilgrims, (the author Sheridan Voysey and his friend DJ), we can visualise the landscape they travel, and feel the spiritual highs and the physical and emotional lows of the journey.

I met Sheridan at an author’s conference a couple of years ago. He told us his story, and spoke about his books and his broadcasting work, and then, having shared his own writing journey, he offered inspiration and guidance to the writers in the audience.

During the day he also offered his expertise as an experienced broadcaster, and asked for volunteers among us, to come up so he could interview us about ourselves and our books. I was one of those who volunteered, and it was a very helpful and enlightening exercise in the art of introducing yourself to a radio audience within a limited time-frame, in the most succinct and engaging way!

Sheridan is originally from Brisbane in Australia, though he now lives in Oxford in the UK.  I find his observations about Brisbane and Sydney particularly poignant as I lived in Brisbane myself for four and a half years before returning to live in the UK.

I have another personal connection with the subject of Sheridan’s book: I visited Lindisfarne (Holy Island) myself three years ago. This island is a very special place, and I felt a strong spiritual presence there; a retreat on the island offers several ways to reflect upon your life and your place in the world and in the universe.  During his promotional videos for the release of this book, Sheridan has included videos of Holy Island and of him walking across to the island from the mainland during low tide.

Through the medium of this physical journey between Lindisfarne and the Shrine of St Cuthbert, Sheridan teaches us much deeper values which may apply to our own lives, especially those of us who may define ourselves by any of the following:

  • who we know
  • our possessions
  • our status
  • our dreams and ambitions
  • our job titles.

Do you, perhaps, suffer from imposter syndrome This is an affliction that often applies to writers – even those whom the world might consider “successful”. Or, do you find that when people ask what you “do”, you respond with what you used to do?

These two pilgrims’ journey through the woods and fields and paths and roads of Northumberland then starts to parallel our own life journeys. During Sheridan’s description of the walk, he reflects upon periods in his own past life story. Places he and DJ visit give rise to memories of people he has known whom he now sees in a new light.

In all this, Sheridan’s purpose seems to be to shift our value systems, our vision of what really matters about our lives here on this earth. He interweaves biographical information about the Celtic saints Aidan and Cuthbert into his pilgrimage, giving us the opportunity to relate aspects of their journeys to our own.

One of the most striking sentences in the book is:

Maybe when identity is lost we can discover who we really are.”

And the most challenging question:

Could you be content having your contribution to the world left unknown or forgotten, yet known by God and pleasing to him?

At the end of the book, Sheridan gives a series of questions to reflect on for each chapter, and several blank journalling pages if you wish to use the book as the basis for a much more in-depth project of self-knowledge. The book could be used as a group resource as well as an individual one; but if you were to study and work with the book as part of a group, that group would need to be one in which you felt safe and secure.

He also offers his own contemporary Creed which you may download from his website sheridanvoysey.com.

I give this book the highest possible rating, 5 stars, and I recommend it to all those of you who resonate with what I’ve written in this review.

I received a complimentary copy of this title in exchange for a fair and honest review.

 

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction and inspirational non-fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path

Book Review: Out of the Forest by Gregory P. Smith

Over Christmas a biography came to me which is one of the most compelling and moving accounts I have ever read. Out of the Forest by Gregory P Smith with Craig HendersonOut of the Forest (published by Penguin Australia) is the memoir of a man who spent ten years living as an alcoholic drug-crazed recluse high in the New South Wales forest, (with occasional forays down the mountain to the local hippy community to sell his crop of marijuana, and spend his income on  alcohol).

This man now holds a PhD and is an academic at the Southern Cross University at their Lismore campus in New South Wales, where he teaches Social Sciences. His name is Dr Gregory Peel Smith, and his story takes him from a severely abusive childhood and period of torment in a Catholic orphanage, through years of mental suffering, self-destructive behaviour, alcoholism and drug addiction and self-imposed isolation, to his present life.

Partly because I know the area Gregory is writing about (having lived in Brisbane for four and a half years myself, and having visited the areas of the New South Wales coastline, and spent time in the very mountains of which he speaks) I read this account with intense interest. But as Gregory describes his journey through the depths of human anguish, into self-imposed exile from human society, and all the gruesome details of what it takes to survive in isolation in the wild, I was totally captivated. This book has a strong spiritual character, despite Gregory’s disavowal of the Christian religion (not surprising when you read of the physical and spiritual and psychological abuse he received from the Catholic nuns in the orphanage.)

And the way in which Gregory rehabilitates himself, upon emerging from ten years in the forest, is deeply moving and inspiring. Although later on he is greatly helped by certain individuals whom he identifies as angels, in the early stages he transforms his life solely through his own inner resources. He describes in detail his method for “mounting a mental counter-insurgency” against his inner demons which I believe would be immensely helpful for anyone who has gone through any experience approximating to his kind of mental suffering and turmoil. Though his case was extreme I believe it will be of great value to many, and not only those who have been through comparable extreme experiences.

Naturally I highly recommend this book, and not only to a general readership but to those interested or engaged in psychotherapy and personal spiritual transformation.