Book Review: When This is All Over 2020 -2021: an anthology of writings about the Covid-19 Pandemic

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.

Book cover: When This is All Over – anthology about the Covid-19 pandemic

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.

Book Review: ‘Miss Graham’s War’ by Celia Rees

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’.

Book Cover Miss Graham’s War, a novel by Celia Rees

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.

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Blog Tour: ‘Scent of Water’ by Penelope Swithinbank

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.

BLURB

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.

Author Photo: Penelope Swithinbank

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.

AUTHOR WEBSITE LINK 

http://penelopeswithinbank.com/

The author and publisher both want to see and share your posts. 

Please include the hashtag #SCENTOFWATER and the below social media handles when you are sharing your posts 

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pjswithinbank  (author) 

Insta: @penelopeswithinbank     

twitter: @minstriesbydsgn  

Linkedin: Penelope Swithinbank

Blog Tour: ‘Bloodstone (The Curse of Time book 1) by MJ Mallon

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:

AUTHOR BIO

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!

Author MJ Mallon in front of the Corpus Christi Clock, Kings Parade, Cambridge

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.

UK Book Link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bloodstone-Curse-Time-Book-1-ebook/dp/B097QZBKNY/

US Book Link: https://www.amazon.com/Bloodstone-M-J-Mallon-ebook/dp/B097QZBKNY/

Universal book Link:http://mybook.to/bstmm

And the 2nd in the series coming soon

Golden Healer – The Curse of Time Book 2

Her eclectic blog shares her love of reading, reviewing books, writing, and photography: https://mjmallon.com/

Articles:

https://lightboxoriginals.com/difficult-times/

https://lightboxoriginals.com/lollipop-leaves/

https://sachablack.co.uk/2018/04/08/prologues/

AUTHOR SOCIAL MEDIA DETAILS

Authors Website: https://mjmallon.com
Authors Amazon Pagehttps://www.amazon.co.uk/M-J-Mallon/e/B074CGNK4L
Twitter: @Marjorie_Mallon

#ABRSCAuthors Bloggers Rainbow Support Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1829166787333493/
Goodreads:https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/17064826.M_J_Mallon

BookBub: https://www.bookbub.com/profile/m-j-mallon 

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/mjmallonauthor/

Spiritual Sisters: https://www.facebook.com/5SpiritualSisters

Kyrosmagica Publishing (MJ’s Imprint)

Pandemic Poetry:  Lockdown Innit

https://mybook.to/Lockdowninnit

Poetry, Prose and Photography: Mr. Sagittarius

http://mybook.to/MrSagittarius

An anthology: This Is Lockdown 

Kindle: mybook.to/Thisislockdown

Shorter version – Paperback: mybook.to/Thisislockdownpb

Excerpt

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.

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Book Blog Tour for ‘Beyond the Hills’ by Maressa Mortimer

I’m pleased to be hosting a stop today on the blog tour for Maressa Mortimer’s new Young Adult novel Beyond the Hills.

Beyond the Hills is book 2 in the Elabi Chronicles series, and it was published on 18th June 2021. I read the opening book in the series on 8th February this year, and here is the first paragraph of my review.

This is an intriguing Young Adult novel set in a dystopian world which employs some curious combinations of futuristic technology and elements from the distant past. Gax enters the controlled, conformist society of the City of Elabi, on a mission from the free world to bring love, emotion and a spiritual vision back to the repressed people of this city state.

In the sequel, Beyond the Hills, our main protagonist is Macia, and here is the blurb:

Macia Durus, daughter of the well known Brutus Durus AMP, works hard to achieve a life of honour and prestige in her beloved Elabi. When a so-called “friend” challenges her priorities, Macia’s confusion threatens her carefully constructed plans. And her decision to investigate a forbidden book could have serious consequences for Macia as well as her family, turning their lives upside down.

Maressa Mortimer, young adult author, and author of Books 1 & 2 in the Elabi Chronicles series both published 2021:
Walled City and Beyond the Hills

In Walled City, I was particularly struck by the compelling description of life inside a repressed society. The novel is set in a dystopian future, but the society the author shows us reminded me of what I imagine life to have been like in East Berlin or indeed for some people today in North Korea. It is a society from which all emotion and religion has been stamped out. The society is run by a shadowy “council”; it values physical fitness and compliance highly but keeps all its citizens closely watched and controlled with some very sinister methods of punishment and social control, especially in regard to areas like marriage, disabilities and weakness and euthanasia. This results in a society of tense, closely watched, sullen, withdrawn, guarded, joyless people, and the author presents this very well, with some quite chilling moments.

MARESSA MORTIMER

I have met Maressa, both on and offline, and she is a lovely, bubbly, very supportive and encouraging member of our author community. She inspires us with her prolific output of books and her enthusiastic approach to life and to the whole business of being a writer. Maressa is Dutch; she grew up in the Netherlands, and moved to England soon after finishing her teaching training college. Married to Pastor Richard Mortimer, she lives in a Cotswold village with their four children. She is a homeschool mum, enjoying the time spent with the family, travelling, reading and turning life into stories. Maressa says, “I want to use my stories to show practical Christian living in a fallen world.”

Here’s a Q & A with Maressa, about her life as a writer, and how she came to start writing her series about Elabi.

1.What first drew you to write a novel?

I loved exploring character, and at the same time processing questions I had. Before I knew it, I got to 100,000 words! Home-schooling my children means that for me, sitting down to write is a time to concentrate and focus; to be in the moment.

2.When you first started writing did you find it hard to get publisher interest? 

Yes, because the market for Christian fiction is very small in Britain. After Sapphire Beach, which was done through a hybrid publisher, I decided to self publish.

3.What kind of research have you have to undertake for this novel? 

I used Roman food for Elabi, so I looked into that. Then there was paddle-boarding, so I learned about that. The factories Beyond the Hills are cotton factories, so I read a lot about old mills and the accidents that could happen.

4.Do you have a particular favourite scene in the book and why?

There are a few passages I like, but my favourite is probably about Macia stumbling through the tunnel with the dog, with the old man singing behind her…

5.If you can, would you give us a sneaky peak into any future novels you might have planned?

I’m writing a novel about teens, with under-earth dwellers that kidnap baby girls to combat inbreeding, as well as plotting book 3 in the Elabi Chronicles about Downstream. I’m also plotting a series about Vikings and time travelling. So lots of fun to come!

I look forward to reading Beyond the Hills and hope this has whetted your appetite to buy a copy or download onto your kindle.

Buy Beyond the Hills here.

AUTHOR WEBSITE LINK:

http://www.vicarioushome.com/

AUTHOR’S SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS:

AMAZON AUTHOR PROFILE: Amazon.co.uk: Maressa Mortimer: Books, Biography, Blogs, Audiobooks, Kindle

INSTAGRAM/FACEBOOK @vicarioush.ome

Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire, and Director’s Cut: Works in Progress

Hello! On today’s blog I share what I’m up to at the moment – writing, researching, editing, promoting. I have two books on the go, which makes life interesting!

Firstly, I’m working on my new non-fiction book for Amberley Publishing, Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire. The fully completed manuscript has to be delivered by the end of this year. It will be another highly illustrated volume, including 100 images, as with Paranormal Warwickshire. My tales will cover, amongst others, the following topics: Strange and Spooky Tales, Extraordinary True-life Stories, Tales of Warwickshire Witchcraft, Mysterious Murders and Other Crimes, Intriguing People, Strange Happenings and Mysteries, Curious Place Names, Ancient Legends, Folklore and Folk Customs, Ancient Ceremonies and Strange Rituals, and the Magical Forest of Arden.

I have been out and about gathering photos, interviewing people, and finding new stories. My son Jamie takes many of the photos as he has a good camera and an eye for an excellent view, The other day we travelled up to north Warwickshire in search of one story, and found material for three others, which was very exciting.

Alongside my work on Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire I’ve also been editing my new novel Director’s Cut. This novel is to be the first of a series starring gifted young musical rebel Dylan Rafferty. Director’s Cut is set in south London. I’ve written half of the sequel, which is called Standing Ovation and is set in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Director’s Cut should appeal to all those interested in the world of actors and filming; and in the reputation of actors to be superstitious, sensitive souls. Here is a quote from Geraldine Beskin, owner of London’s most mystical bookshop, Atlantis Books, for the Ghost Club, on 15 May 2021. What she says encapsulates how I feel about actors, and why my fascination with them has fed into this novel.

Geraldine Beskin emphasises the very human side of the acting profession with both its quicksilver triumphs and equally cataclysmic failures. ON and off stage, actors and actresses are known for their sensitive and emotional natures Drama is not confined to the theatre (or the filmset). Many thespians exist in a state of high tension, surviving on the margins, experiencing intense peaks and troughs of personal emotion, often alone.

As I’ve edited the novel, this theme has woven itself more deeply into my plot. Initially, the world of acting was to have simply provided the presenting situation for Dylan; but now, following several interviews during research, and a deeper understanding, it has an organic relationship to the unfolding of the story. The word liminal also plays a central part in the novel. Liminal means: ‘occupying a position at, or on both sides, of a boundary or threshold’.

One of the best illustrations of this theme lies in the closing speech of Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Puck, the mischievous spirit who stirred up all the emotional tumult at the behest of Oberon King of the Fairies, says this as he comes to address the audience:

If we shadows have offended,

Think but this and all is mended,

That you have but slumbered here

while these visions did appear.

During my research for Paranormal Warwickshire, I studied a lecture by Professor Sir Jonathan Bate about Shakespeare’s Ghosts and Spirits.

One of the points he makes is that the word shadows may also be taken to mean actors. Therefore, the interplay between actors and spirits is one that Shakespeare felt deeply. Another famous Shakespeare quote also demonstrates this:

As Prospero the magician says in The Tempest:

Our revels now are ended, these our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits

In Director’s Cut, Dylan, gifted young musical rebel, discovers his favourite actress is filming a TV drama in a nearby Jacobean mansion, and he crashes the set to meet her. Upon arrival at Trident Court he discovers a deeply dysfunctional family haunted by an intergenerational curse, and a troop of ghostly actors in the garden doomed to perpetually rehearse A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Meanwhile actors, directors and film crew in the house are all swept up into the family’s strange world. Dylan comes to believe he alone can save them through the power of his musical genius. But he learns he must team up with the local priest to discover the family’s secrets. As they delve deeper into the family’s traumatic backstory Dylan encounters a supernatural being and finds he must cross the boundary between this world and another dimension.

As I near the end of my editing work on the novel, I seek beta readers before I pitch to publishers. In particular I am unsure about genre, whether the novel is paranormal mystery, magical realism or gothic. So I welcome any offers from prospective beta readers who may be able to clear up the mystery for me!

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Thoughts on ‘Witch Child’ by Celia Rees

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.

Cover design for Witch Child by Celia Rees – 20th Anniversary edition

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.

Thoughts on the Tudors and ‘The Taming of the Queen’ by Philippa Gregory

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.

The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

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.

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Book Review: ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr

Today I share with you my review of this immersive vision of life among the French Resistance in the 2nd World War.

Book Cover: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Review

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.

A very highly recommended book.

Book Review: ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ by Delia Owens

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.

A highly recommended book.

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