Book Review: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Today I share a review of this historical gothic fantasy set in1950s Mexico.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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.

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Book Review: The Thorn of Truth by S.L. Russell

Today I am pleased to be reviewing an Advance Review copy of the latest novel by author S.L. Russell: The Thorn of Truth.

The Thorn of Truth by S.L. Russell published by Lion Fiction 21st May 2021

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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Book Review: ‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell

I waited quite a long time for Waterstones to send me this book; and having received it, I spent the next few hours devouring this story of William Shakespeare’s family and the tragic death of his 11 year old son Hamnet.

Book cover of Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Living as I do near Stratford-upon-Avon I have visited all the Shakespeare properties a number of times. I will never experience Shakespeare’s Birthplace the same way again, now I have read this book. As I enter the rooms, I will imagine Ann Hathaway giving birth here, to her twins Judith and Hamnet; and in another room I will think of her laying out Hamnet’s body with loving care, sewing him into his shroud; and in another, of John Shakespeare browbeating William, or of his sister questioning or advising him.

Ann in this story is called Agnes; William himself is never named but called either ‘the Latin Tutor’ or ‘her husband’ or ‘their father / brother’. So we think of him in his relationships as an ordinary family man, rather than being distracted by the weight of his awesome reputation, over five centuries later.

The story initially moves back and forwards between two time-frames: the time of Agnes’ pregnancy with Suzanne, and the turbulent reaction of the families, and her subsequent marriage to Will; and then to the final 24 hours of Hamnet’s life, 13 years later as he falls victim to the Bubonic Plague. Life and death, beginnings and endings, are constantly interwoven, folding back on each other.

I found the book very intense, full of exquisite moment-by-moment accounts of highly emotional events, and the long period of Agnes’ grief, while her husband is in London on one of his long absences.

Will’s sister Eliza is the go-between in that she, unlike Agnes, is literate and can write the letters Agnes dictates and read the letters Will sends in return. Some have thought William Shakespeare very unloving to his wife and family, spending so much time away from them; but in this story we are offered a much more sympathetic picture. Will asks Agnes to come to London to live with him but she refuses as she fears Judith’s delicate health will suffer in the disease ridden city streets.

Ultimately with his London money Will is able to buy the gracious mansion at New Place; and I loved the descriptions of Agnes creating her dream garden there, planting many fruit trees and medicinal herbs and keeping bees and a host of cats.

The epiphany in this story comes with Agnes’ realisation of the true significance of her husband’s new tragedy ‘Hamlet’.

This is a book which will certainly have you scurrying to Google to check up on the known facts of William Shakespeare’s life and family members. You will see him in a new light and may also be deeply moved by the reality of life and death in 15th & 16th century England. A very highly recommended book.

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Blog Tour and Book Review: The Healing by Joy Margetts

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

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

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

Joy Margetts, author of The Healing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

Joy’s social media links are as follows:

Website

Facebook Page

Book Reviews: The Poetry of Phil Hill

Today, I’m pleased to be able to bring you my reviews of a collection of poetry books written by local Leamington Spa poet Phil Hill, which will be of interest not only to all those who love cutting edge contemporary poetry, but also to those who wish to gain a deeper insight into mental health issues in our society.

The books are as follows and may be purchased through Phil’s own poetry website Phil Hill Poetry – Books, Amazon Books, Books, Poems

Beyond the Wilderness by PM Hill pub 2018 chipmunkapublishing

Love/Resistance/Rebellion by PM Hill pub 2020 chipmunkapublishing

The End of A Rainbow by Phil Hill pub Jem Stone Publications

Hero by Phil Hill pub Jem Stone Publications

The Heroine by Phil Hill pub Jem Stone Publications

The Heroine

This is a very touching, insightful and vivid collection of poems commemorating the life of Geraldine, the author’s wife, who suffered much from mental illness, and from whose struggles we can all learn, described in spare, unsentimental lines of poetry by Phil Hill.

The poems chart Geraldine’s life from the time she and Phil met through their growing relationship, through some of the challenges of their twenty year marriage and Geraldine’s eventual tragic death, too young.

I found many of the poems very touching and poignant, often giving real insight into how it feels to go through the ill health that Geraldine suffered, with such distressing experiences as panic attacks and obsessive eating binges.

Yet within the poems there are flashes of humour, in the poet’s sharp observations of daily life. His admiration and love for Geraldine shines through. Highly recommended to all those who like the Own Voice genre of literature and who value poems which shine a light on areas of life many may fear to contemplate or would prefer to avoid. If we have never suffered as Geraldine did, we can count ourselves blessed and we can learn from reading of her brave life.

The Hero

Phil Hill is a poet whose observations of contemporary society are both sharp and discerning. He covers major themes such as loss, regret, integrity, conformity and commercial manipulation.

His voice is sensitive, emotionally stirring and both raw and vulnerable. In these poems we see our society reflected back to us, with all its irony, its disposable values, social conditioning and its shaky hold on truth. With touches of humour and flashes of anger, this poet’s voice is one to listen to, and he offers a testimony  from which we may leamany orn much.

In many of Phil’s poems, his own voice shines through: strong, powerful and challenging: often showing us how the judgement and labels of others is the very worst thing of all.


Greater education and communication and knowledge and understanding are still  desperately needed, although mental health issues are becoming much more prominent on the public agenda. There is a long way to go, for this to infiltrate people’s minds throughout society, but the more people learn about it and gain new understanding and share imaginative and engaging media about it, the more things will improve: ignorance is our greatest enemy.


Phil’s poems are often very emotionally stirring: sharp, and relevant to  the emotional and psychological landscape of the times we are living through. 

His poem about lockdown conveys the feeling of insecurity, fear, disconnection, uncertainty, with very few words. It opens our eyes to the profound psychological effect this will have on so many, long after we have got R down to zero (if we ever do).  I look forward to Phil’s first poem when he clearly sees light at the end of the tunnel!

Other poems are sad and yet touching, written with Phil’s characteristic simplicity and economy of words.  These are dangerous and uncertain times for all of us.

And Phil writes from a deep place within himself.

The books may be purchased from Shop | Phil Hill Poetry

I recommend Phil’s poetry to you, and to all those who wish to gain a deeper insight into mental health issues.

Book Review: Lockdown Innit: Poems About Absurdity by MJ Mallon

During the Covid-19 pandemic I have, like many others, have been writing a Covid Diary. Early on, I knew we were entering into such an extraordinary period of history that I felt compelled to record this journey. My own Covid diary since February 2019, perhaps, should be turned into a long narrative poem like The Ancient Mariner! Certainly the virus has been like an albatross around our necks!

Fellow-author MJ Mallon has chosen to write about the lockdown in a very distinct, individual way, and she has recently published a collection of poems called Lockdown Innit: poems of absurdity.

In this collection of poems, MJ Mallon has given us a wry series of vignettes of our society during a very strange year in history; it reminded me in part of theatre of the absurd, and she carries it out with an admirable lightness of touch.  She conveys the folly, the irritability, the absurdity of people’s behaviour, along with a feeling of being lost and adrift.

The reader has a sense of having opened various windows, to see how other people have coped with lockdown. We find honest observation of life: people doing foolish things in supermarkets; quirky observations of nature that may well have gone unnoticed in other, busier times; or which may not have been there for us to see, but for the fact that wild animals too have felt the strangeness, and strayed into the urban environment. Examples given are the appearance of a swan by a dustbin.

We also find gems of delight in all this: the author’s observation of the horses like statues, and the violin player on a tightrope; and I loved the poem about the local village community library. We have a pop-up lending library at the bottom of our road. It demonstrates how human beings can react so differently to crises, and while some withdraw into themselves, doing things that seem selfish or stupid to others, we also find those who come up with inspirational ideas to make life better for those around them.

The poem about breast cancer explores the subject beautifully, showing the author’s relief set against her poignant awareness of others who are not so lucky.  Through the entire volume, there floats a sensation of oddness, simply noted and preserved in a poem.

I feel these poems are written by someone who sees life at an angle, shifted one degree by the quiet act of observation.

Highly recommended.

BLURB 

Lockdown Innit is a poetry collection of eighteen poems about life’s absurdities and frustrations during lockdown. Wherever you live in this world, this is for you. Expect humour, a dollop of banter and ridiculous rants here and there. Amongst other delights, witness the strange antics of a swan posing by a bin and two statuesque horses appearing like arc deco pieces in a field. Check out the violin player on a tightrope, or the cheeky unmentionables wafting in the lockdown breeze!

AUTHOR BIO

My alter ego is MJ – Mary Jane from Spiderman. I love superheroes!

On the 17th of November I was born, in Lion City: Singapore, (a passionate Scorpio, with the Chinese Zodiac sign a lucky rabbit.) My early childhood was spent in Hong Kong. During my teen years, my parents returned to my father’s birthplace, Edinburgh, where I spent many happy years. As a teenager, I travelled to many far-flung destinations. It’s rumoured that I now live in the Venice of Cambridge, with my six-foot hunk of a Rock God husband. My two enchanted daughters have almost flown the nest, but often return with a cheery smile to greet me.

During the day, I work in an international sixth form with students from around the world. I’m the meet and greet lady who welcomes them to their new college and issues them with late slips when they don’t get to their lessons on time!

I write YA fantasy, paranormal, horror/supernatural short stories, flash fiction and short form poetry. More recently, I have produced and compiled an anthology/compilation set during the early stages of COVID-19 entitled This Is Lockdown. Following on from this, in February 2021 I will be releasing Lockdown Innit, poems about absurdity. 

I’ve been blogging for many moons at my blog home Kyrosmagica, which means Crystal Magic. From time to time I write articles celebrating the spiritual realm, inspiration and my love of nature, crystals and all things magical, mystical, and mysterious.

My eclectic blog shares my three loves: reading, writing, and creativity. I adore reading and have written over 150 reviews on my blog: https://mjmallon.com/2015/09/28/a-z-of-my-book-reviews/

AUTHOR SOCIAL MEDIA DETAILS

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

#ABRSC – Authors Bloggers Rainbow Support Club on Facebookhttps://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/

BOOK LINKS 

Kindle Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08VW81Q53/

Kindle Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08VW81Q53/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/56949934-lockdown-innit

Universal link for kindle: https://mybook.to/Lockdowninnit

Spring 2021 Writing News


Spring is almost with us and new hope is rising.

What’s new here in Warwick, during what we hope will be the final months of the final lockdown?


I’m following lots of online courses  – Pilates classes; online song rehearsals with community choir Songlines; a writing course with the amazing sitcom scriptwriter Paul Kerensa, which I do with my comedy blogger son Jamie; and a Write Funny course from the very talented and laugh-out-loud writer Fran Hill.  And on top of that, I’m doing a Dream Interpretation course – fascinating, challenging, and with plenty of potential for future novels too!

I’ve also taken up acrylic painting. Having been inspired by the Grayson Perry Art Club I’m painting new pictures regularly in a naive style. Lockdown art has been my salvation. Now I have my eyes on the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition…. in my dreams at least!

I’m also well on my way through the last revision of my magical realist novel Director’s Cut.
I hope soon to start working on a new non-fiction book for Amberley.  This will be Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire. The sequel to Director’s Cut is half-finished; it’s called Standing Ovation.

In other news, I’ve been recording readings from my books Paranormal WarwickshireMystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, and Perilous Path, and uploading the videos to my You Tube channel.  Do listen to the stories here.  The videos have been edited by my film  and video expert daughter Abigail in Australia; on the film and video editing scene you can work for anyone anywhere in the world!

I hope you are all feeling the new hope in the air, and looking forward to good things yet to come, in a few months’ time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s my own review of the book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What other things do you love besides writing?

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

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

Here is the blurb for Ruth’s book:

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

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

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

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

Revisiting the Christmas List

We’ve reached the time of year for the Christmas List.

Candle, Christmas tree and sherry
Candle, Christmas tree and sherry

I’m revisiting my subject of the Christmas List for several reasons. Amongst these are the sheer poignancy of the subject, and the fact that since then I have published a revised version of the piece in a Christmas Anthology – available here to buy on Amazon.

Who else finds writing Christmas cards the cause not just of gladness but pain and sorrow? I put off “doing” my Christmas list until I’m in the mood – and light a candle and have a glass of sherry or wine to help create that mood. Why? Because each year I have to engage with the major change in people’s lives; the gap of a year between communications throws those changes – for good and for bad – into sharp relief.

There are those who must now be addressed The … Family, because a new baby has been born. You remember the mother as a tiny blonde cherub herself. Then there are the divorces, where you refer back to the previous year’s Christmas newsletter and gaze at the photo of the mother with her two tall sons, and remember when you rejoiced at her marriage, at the news of the arrival of their first baby… and now “he” has disappeared from their lives, and is no longer referred to. Then there’s the lady whose previous husband beat her up – a fact she communicated to you in a Christmas newsletter 5 years ago – and who sent you the news 3 years ago that she was marrying someone else she only referred to by his first name – and hasn’t been in touch since. You’d like to try and restore the lines of communication, but you only have the surname of the ex-husband. You presume she’s now living with the new man – unless that relationship too has broken up – but you’re not quite sure, and you have to address her  in such a way that takes account of different possible scenarios.

And there are the couples whose children have now grown up and left home and started their own families, so you can now revert to sending cards to the couple alone, without their children’s names… and that feels sad too, despite the fact that this has been in many ways a happy change.

Then there are the people who have died, and whose names have to be crossed off your Christmas list and out of your address book – a task that always feels callous to me, every time I do it. And the people you’re going to send a card to who may well have died, but nobody has told you, so you won’t know, unless your card is returned to you by some helpful relative in the New Year.

So much change for good or bad. Then it occurs to me that at least my own family unit is “the same as last year” and perhaps that fact alone is a cause for at least one small flare of gladness and relief in the hearts of those who receive our greetings.

But should it be? For those on our Christmas list often only communicate the stark facts that will affect the way we address our envelopes to them next year. Behind it all lies the complex reality of their lives. As a novelist I know what is in my characters’ hearts; but not in the hearts of everyone on my Christmas list –  the new parents, the newly-bereaved, the freshly-betrayed, the lonely, the divorced, even those who superficially appear to have everything in order, even those who claim success and triumph all round for every member of the family… their lives are far more complex than can ever be conveyed in the artificial confines of the Christmas card or newsletter.

Perhaps the candle flame is there  to remind me of that.

Paranormal Warwickshire Extracts Part 5: Stoneleigh Abbey, Kenilworth

This is the fifth in a series of ten posts which will take us up to the date of publication of my new book Paranormal Warwickshire, out from Amberley Publishing on 15th November. This richly illustrated compilation of strange tales from Shakespeare’s county can be pre-ordered now from all online bookstores, and from Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books.

Stoneleigh Abbey seen from the other side of the River Avon, showing the Orangery (photo credit Sheila Robinson)

I love Stoneleigh Abbey, near Kenilworth, and have visited it several times. The history tour and the Jane Austen tour are both excellent; the Humphrey Repton grounds and gardens enchanting; and the afternoon tea in the Orangery is to be highly recommended!

Originally the home of an order of Cistercian monks,who were granted the land by Henry II in 1154, the abbey saw the twists and turns of fortunes through the centuries, emerging from the dissolution of the monasteries in a sorry state and spending 25 years as a roofless ruin before Rowland Hill and his protegee Thomas Leigh purchased the building and set about building an Elizabethan manor house in the ruins.

Stoneleigh Abbey – the approach from the gatehouse (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

The full story of the history of the house, through the generations of the Leigh family, how they gained and nearly lost their Baronetcy, how further extensions to the building were made, and how the Abbey emerged from a devastating fire a few generations ago, but has now been sensitively restored, may be heard in a lively and engaging history tour through the grand rooms. Stoneleigh Abbey claims a close connection with Jane Austen, who in 1806 formed part of a family party invited by her mother’s cousin Revd. Thomas Leigh of Adlestrop to view his new inheritance. Jane drew several inspirations for her novels from her visit to Stoneleigh Abbey.

Many curious tales cling to the abbey; and my favourites are associated with the library.

Stoneleigh Abbey – view of the 14th century gatehouse. Photo credit Jamie Robinson

Here is an extract from Paranormal Warwickshire (published 15th November 2020).

Who haunts this room? We cannot be sure, but it may be Chandos Leigh, poet, first Baron Leigh of the second creation. Chandos loved this room and spent many hours writing and studying in here. He was the only son of James Henry Leigh (1765–1823), MP, of Adlestrop, Gloucestershire, and subsequently of Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire, by his marriage with Julia, eldest daughter of Thomas Fiennes, tenth lord Saye and Sele.

   Chandos during his lifetime was a very well-known poet. His first publication was ‘The Island of Love,’ a poem, published in 1812; he published ‘Trifles Light as Air,’ in 1813; ‘Poesy, a Satire,’ in 1818; ‘Epistles to a Friend in Town, Golconda’s Fate, and other Poems,’ in 1826.  His poems reflected the influence of Horace, Virgil, Pope, and Byron, and were much prized by the scholarly few.

   But for the room’s paranormal stories, we must let the Abbey’s history guide take up the narrative. “I was doing a tour here,” he says, “and while I was speaking, the handle on that door over there started moving violently. It was really loud so I said, ‘Stop!’ And it stopped. So I said to the manager, ‘somebody’s trying to get through that door and you need to have a word with them as it really put me off my tour.’ He said, ‘that’s impossible.’ I said, ‘I know it’s impossible, the grandfather clock’s standing in front of it, so they can’t come in.’  He said, ‘no no no, the other side of that door’s a wall, the handle is only on your side.”

from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman

Preorder Paranormal Warwickshire here.