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

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

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.

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

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.

Book Reviews: Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell Trilogy

Having just finished reading the third in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, rather than posting one review here, I thought I would bring together my three reviews, each originally posted online soon after I read the book.

Hilary Mantel, Man Booker Prize-winning author of Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and The Mirror and The Light

Book 1 – Wolf Hall

Now I’ve finished Wolf Hall, I feel as if I’ve been an insider, in the world of Henry VIII. I bought the book following a friend’s recommendation. She said she found it so powerful that she couldn’t read anything else for quite some time after she’d finished it.

And certainly I’ve changed the view I previously held of Thomas Cromwell, whose mind we occupy throughout the novel. Upon reading Hilary Mantel’s account of this man, I admire him and can understand his role in relation to Henry, and his extraordinary gifts as he navigated Henry’s changing whims.

As to Henry himself… what was his prayer? That he might have a healthy, long-lived, legitimate male heir to take over the English Throne for the Tudors, and carry their dynasty well into the future. Of course, in the end, his dynasty only lasted for 118 years, considerably less than the Plantagenet dynasty which had gone before.

I can imagine now how he must have felt each time Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn miscarried a child. He felt professionally devastated and personally anguished; frightened that he had incurred the displeasure of God; afraid that after having been in his hands the throne would go where he did not want it to go; afraid his hopes and dreams would never be fulfilled; afraid that this was God’s punishment. After all, the English Throne was his professional business, his livelihood, his calling.

Now, of course, with historical hindsight, we can judge him as wrong and foolish and deluded, if we wish: see he was wrong to have Anne Boleyn beheaded; and wrong to have various people brutally slaughtered for not agreeing with his divorce, and for not thinking the right things at the right time about religion, and for thinking he, Henry, was wrong.

But what should he have done instead, according to us with our historical hindsight? Some may think he should have stuck with Anne Boleyn, forgiven her, and lived out his life married to her.

What actually happened? Ultimately the English throne became strong and proud under Elizabeth I – though she died childless and thus failed to extend the Tudor dynasty, she is still considered by many to have been England’s greatest monarch

So we may well say that God answered Henry’s prayer – but not in the way he expected.

This philosophical rumination has been inspired by Wolf Hall simply because so many of us are familiar with the Tudor story – but in fact the narrative of this novel only goes as far as the execution of Sir Thomas More leaving the downfall of Anne Boleyn still in the future.

Perhaps the thing that most fascinated me about Wolf Hall is the way the reader follows through delicate, graceful, civilised conversations – gentle, balanced, measured… and then out of them comes a decision to burn someone alive, or have them hanged, drawn and quartered.

One sentence in the book goes as follows: “all that youth, beauty, grace and learning, turned to mud, grease, and charred flesh.”

Emotionally stirring, moving, shocking and instructive, what you learn here of human nature will stay with you.

Book 2 – Bring Up the Bodies

When it comes to the art of making momentous decisions on the basis of throwaway remarks, idle boasts, gossip and loose talk, the Tudors gave us a masterclass. But isn’t this in some measure the story of our own lives, though we never know how momentous any of our decisions may be? Perhaps that’s part of the reason why we are so fascinated by the Tudors.

In language sometimes poetic, elegant and stylish and at other times crude, ribald and cruel, to match her subject matter, Hilary Mantel continues to chart Thomas Cromwell’s course through the treacherous marshes of Henry VIII’s bizarre emotional and mental life, to the downfall and execution of Anne Boleyn.

Whilst reading Mantel’s compelling narrative, I felt as close as I possibly could be to the personal experience of “Master Secretary” Cromwell himself. (In fact I wondered if he ever suffered burnout or stress from working for an unstable boss like Henry.) In such an environment, the news that you’ve got your own final appointment at the Tower must almost come as a blessed relief.

I look forward to being guided through Cromwell’s journey to that final appointment in the next novel in Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy.

Book 3 – The Mirror and the Light

A highly satisfying conclusion to the trilogy: from my experience of Hilary Mantel’s skills as a storyteller, I had come to expect the most lyrical, musical and graceful writing, covering all registers, along with the horror, spiteful gossip, cynical manipulation, brutality, paranoia, religious extremism, lies, betrayal and twisted thinking.

Yet I also felt moved and touched by Thomas’s relationships with his loyal lieutenant Rafe Sadler and his son Gregory. (Afterwards I couldn’t resist looking up all Gregory’s many descendants, from his marriage with Elizabeth, Jane Seymour’s sister). In this book I particularly enjoyed Thomas’s conversations with Ambassador Eustache Chapuys, who always speaks his mind about Henry; he cannot be a traitor to this king but only to his own master, beyond England’s borders.

Sadistic cruelty, jaunty chat, razor-sharp observations: all is recounted, and intermittently we are uplifted by the most fluid, entrancing, poetic prose, which somehow draws the events from micro to macro, rippling backwards and forwards in time, as the high stakes, the pity, and the terror stalk these pages along with the merciless, paranoid king.

Hilary Mantel’s genius is to make us feel sorry for Henry as a human being, whilst his monstrosity is plain to us; and also we feel compassion for Thomas Cromwell himself, navigating the power games and political marriages; and even for the Lady Mary, daughter to Henry by Katherine of Aragon, despite the fact that we know what her future held for her.

The story is told ‘looking over Thomas Cromwell’s shoulder’. In the final part of the book, recounting the Anne of Cleves crisis, the reader feels such a sense of impending doom as Henry behaves like a spoilt, dangerous child, whilst Thomas Cromwell and Hans Holbein try so hard in good faith to make this all work. But Thomas is now on his inexorable downward slope, finally toppled by his refusal to promise anything he does not believe he can deliver, and criticised for not being firmer with Henry when the king shares his plan to take a disastrous course of action.

Henry is described in various places as ‘mutable… mercurial…. impulsive.’ Yet, at times of greatest peril to those he once loved or counted as friends, when a word from him would save them, he remains hard and stubborn.

I feel that Hilary Mantel has done great honour to Thomas Cromwell in telling his story as she has – with such grace, wisdom and discernment.

Finally, two examples of her inspired turns of phrase:

Thomas moves close to his moment of execution:

He feel netted by the past, suspended in some high blue instant, strung up in air.

And this, as Thomas, incarcerated in The Tower, takes his leave of The Queen’s Lodgings, to be transferred to the grim and austere Bell Tower: He says goodbyes to the goddesses, a last flitting glance over his shoulder. No trace of Anne Boleyn. He remembers her saying – was it in this very room ? – ‘Be good to me’. He thinks, if I see her again, perhaps this time I will.

Rest a Little – a post by author Maressa Mortimer

Rest a little

Today I reblog a lovely post by fellow author Maressa Mortimer who recently launched her 2nd novel ‘Walled City’. With the help of her children and husband, Maressa enjoyed her special book launch cake on a very entertaining Facebook Live. I so admired her for doing that! I’m saving my ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ cake till my 1st opportunity for a physical event in 2021! My copy of ‘Walled City’ is winging its way to me now, and I look forward to reading it.

Rest a Little

Sometimes, Maressa says, resting is necessary:

Rest a Little

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 4: St Mary’s Church Warwick

This is the fourth 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.

Gothic Tower of St Mary’s Warwick at night. Photo credit Jamie Robinson

The gothic tower of St Mary’s Church Warwick is the defining feature of the town of Warwick, which can be viewed from miles away, especially by those approaching from the direction of Stratford-upon-Avon along the A429. I can imagine that in past centuries travellers would have reached the top of the hill and said, “Ah! here’s Warwick!”

From the top of the church tower you may obtain an excellent view down onto Guy’s Tower in Warwick Castle; and likewise, from Guy’s Tower, one of the very best views of St Mary’s Warwick may be obtained.

St Mary’s Church, Warwick, as seen from the top of Guy’s Tower, Warwick Castle. Photo credit Abigail Robinson.

At St Mary’s you may find one of the greatest medieval treasures in the UK, retaining the glorious craftsmanshp of pre-Reformation England: the magnificent, richly ornamented Beauchamp Chapel.

The Beauchamp Chapel, St Mary’s Church Warwick. Photo credit Jamie Robinson

The Chapel contains several tombs of the Earls of Warwick and other famous historical individuals, such as Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and his wife Lettice, and their infant son who tragically died young, and was known affectionately as the Noble Impe.

Here is an extract from my book Paranormal Warwickshire.

The Beauchamp Chapel was consecrated in 1475.

   Within it you may find the tomb of Ambrose Dudley (earl from 1561 to 1590), who was granted Warwick Castle by Elizabeth I and whose brother Guilford married Lady Jane Grey. Also entombed in the Chapel is Sir Robert Dudley, [image] Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite, who died in 1588 and here lies alongside his second wife, Lettice Knollys; and also the tomb of their son, the Noble Impe, (image) who died in infancy in 1584.

   Of particular note, too, are the long scrolls of plainsong music carried by angels, while the feathered figures of other angels play musical instruments of the period. They may be seen high in the tracery of the side windows, and on occasions St Mary’s hosts concerts by musicians such as the York Waits, who play replicas of the very medieval instruments – shawms, rebecs and sackbuts among others – played by the angels.

   On a number of occasions visitors report the sound of a ghost choir singing psalms in the chapel when there’s nobody there.

   If you stand in the nave and looks toward the chancel and altar, you may admire the vaulting of flying ribs, one of the finest examples on this scale in England. There are many memorials in this part of the church, and underneath it is a vault which was commonly called the bone-house or charnel house.

   A mysterious dark figure is often seen at the altar in the evenings when the verger comes to close the church. When the verger moves down the aisle to ask him to leave, the figure disappears into the choir stalls and doesn’t reappear. A search of the choir stalls shows them to be empty. So far no research has uncovered the history behind this figure.

from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman

Find out more by preordering Paranormal Warwickshire here.

Paranormal Warwickshire Part 17: Coughton Court, Alcester

This is the seventeenth in a series of glimpses into my new book Paranormal Warwickshire which will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.

Coughton Court Alcester Warwickshire
First view of the house at Coughton Court, Warwickshire (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

The Tudor house at Coughton Court, for centuries the family seat of the Throckmorton family, is one of the loveliest National Trust properties in Warwickshire and it has a variety of gardens, both formal and natural, including an enchanting bog garden.

view gazebo bog garden Coughton Court Warwickshire
A view along the path to the gazebo in the bog garden at Coughton Court Warwickshire

The grounds slope down towards the banks of the River Arrow.

river Arrow at Coughton Court Warwickshire
The River Arrow at Coughton Court Warwickshire
garden Coughton Court Warwickshire
A view of the garden at Coughton Court (National Trust), Alcester, Warwickshire

The grounds are particularly notable for a stunning walled RHS garden which was designed by two members of the Throckmorton family, Clare and her daughter Christine, professional garden designers.

Nearby are two churches: the nearest, St Peter, is Anglican and was built in the late 15th century by Sir Robert Throckmorton. It began life as a Catholic church but after the reformation became Church of England.

The paranormal tale which I recount in my book Paranormal Warwickshire is connected to the graveyard of the Anglican church.

Anglican church of St Peter and graveyard at Coughton Court Warwickshire
The Anglican Church of St Peter at Coughton Court, Alcester, Warwickshire

Beyond that the Catholic Church of St Peter, St Paul and St Elizabeth was built in 1855, when the family could at last worship openly as Catholics. The family have remained true to their Catholic faith for many generations, and in the sixteenth century they found their way around Elizabeth I’s religious laws, as so many Catholic recusants did in those dangerous and turbulent times.

Catholic Church Coughton Court Warwickshire
The Catholic Church at Coughton Court National Trust, Alcester, Warwickshire

Another curious anecdote relates to the coat of arms which formerly hung over the front entrance. To find out more, do preorder Paranormal Warwickshire here.

View towards Front entrance Coughton Court Warwickshire
View towards Front entrance Coughton Court Warwickshire

The Throckmorton name is of course linked to the Gunpowder Plot and a fascinating exhibition in the house tells the full story.

view gazebo bog garden Coughton Court Warwickshire
A view along the path to the gazebo in the bog garden at Coughton Court Warwickshire

Discover more about the intriguing history, the curious anecdotes, and the many poignant associations with the most dramatic periods of English history at Coughton Court in my book Paranormal Warwickshire.

Do check out my other posts in this series, which I began on 14th August 2020 with Shakespeare’s Ghosts and Spirits, and which brings us up to the publication date of my book Paranormal Warwickshire – 15th November 2020.

Warwick Castle

Guy’s Cliffe, Warwick

Gaveston’s Cross and the Saxon Mill, Warwick

St Mary’s Warwick

Kenilworth Castle

Abbey Fields, Kenilworth

Leamington Spa

Baddesley Clinton

Stoneleigh Abbey

Thomas Oken’s House and Lord Leycester Hospital, Warwick

Rugby locations

Nuneaton locations

Ettington Park