Today I share with you my review of Spirited by Julie Cohen, published by Orion July 2020.
I loved this book; I found it enchanting, and it gripped me throughout. Set in the mid nineteenth century in England and India, the story covers spiritualism, so-called “spirit photography”, the oppression of women in Victorian times, and the power of women to assert their identity and to triumph over suffocating prejudice.
The novel reminded me of Affinity by Sarah Waters, published by Virago, another book which captivated me.
Fans of that book will love this one. Curiously, the colour and design of the covers on both books is very similar.
Julie Cohen’s mastery of atmosphere is compelling and as she builds the sense of mystery, the sympathy of the reader must surely rest with all three main characters, with Jonah who has returned to England from tragic events in India; with Viola, who responds to her grief at her father’s death by giving herself heart and soul to her photography; and to Henriette, strong and resilient, who rises above the cruelty and abuse she has received in the past.
Blended into all this is an intelligent and powerful debate about life after death and the various things we cling to in order to uphold our beliefs. Very highly recommended.
I was fascinated to see this Maori meeting house in the grounds of Clandon Park, Surrey. It immediately attracted me as I loved learning about the Maori culture in New Zealand during my November 2019 visit.
I discovered that the original meeting house, Hinemihi, had been sited in an area of New Zealand’s North Island which suffered a catastrophic volcanic eruption. Several people were killed, and the meeting house was damaged and abandoned.
The Earl of Onslow, then Governor of New Zealand, rescued a number of precious Maori carvings and had the damaged meeting house dismantled then transported back to his house and parkland at Clandon Park, Surrey.
Clandon Park itself has suffered disaster – major fire damage had nearly destroyed it but its structure remained intact and it is now the centre of a massive renewal project by the National Trust.
So here at Clandon Park our minds and imaginations are strongly focused on rescue, renewal and new life. An uplifting and inspiring visit.
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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.
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.
This is a book which will probably arouse many different emotional reactions in the reader: fascination, inspiration, astonishment, disgust, anger, depression… you name the life situation the reader is in, and that will determine his or her response to On This Day She by Jo Bell, Tania Hershman and Ailsa Holland.
Many different women, across all periods of history and many nations, continents and cultures, are represented in this book. Their lives and achievements encompass the full range of human endeavour, and the vast majority you may never have heard of, because history chose not to include them in its pages. But the cumulative effect of reading their biographies, all arranged under days of the calendar, is disturbing and uplifting by turns.
Some of these women were enormously successful and influential in their own individual spheres; others were treated with gross injustice and / or met untimely and tragic deaths. Some of them are indeed now acknowledged and recognised for their achievements – for example, the woman who invented the game of Monopoly (Lizzy Magie) but who never received either the credit or the income from her invention, which instead went to Charles Darrow.
I do believe there are signs of encouragement. In our world today, we all know about Greta, Malala, An Sang Su Chi, Nicola Sturgeon, Jacinda Ardern, Angela Merkel. Looking at history, we all know the names of such women as Elizabeth I, or Agatha Christie, or Florence Nightingale, or Jane Austen, or Mother Teresa. We do have a number of prominent women in the world today, whom we need to support and honour. This book reminds us that there have been many, many gifted women throughout history who have not been so honoured; in fact, far from that, they have been crushed and denigrated and marginalised. There is still a very long way to go before all members of the human race are treated equally, regardless of gender, and the many other factors which divide us.
Whilst reading this book, one of the many thoughts that came to my mind was this: JK Rowling, whom many admire, is strongly opinionated. She expresses her opinions fearlessly in the public arena, which she has every right to do. But would her opinions receive the same response if she was a man?
This book makes you see history differently and through a new lens. Hard-hitting, discerning and sharp, the authors show us the way exceptional female movers and shakers have been rendered invisible by history. Much of this, the authors claim, is the consequence of a lazy use of “generic” language, and sentences framed to denigrate women and represent their role and purpose negatively. They give an example of this in the way in which Catherine of Aragon is summarised by history books as having “failed to provide Henry VIII with a male heir”. This can be rephrased as “Catherine and Henry had no surviving sons.” It’s still accurate, but the balance has been changed. Language needs to evolve to redress this false view of human life.
One astonishing quote in the book, from a man, explains that by ‘person’ he did not of course mean ‘woman’ – he only meant ‘man.’ This is certainly a step further from the assertion that of course the term ‘man’ is always taken by us all to mean ‘human beings.’ Personally I try to use the term ‘humankind’ as much as possible or ‘we’ or ‘human beings’. I do believe language has power; it determines our unconscious presumptions. The words we use do matter; they condition our attitude to the world, and lie behind all our prejudices and false judgements of others.
Among the entries in this books you will find archaeologists, nuclear physicists, mountaineers, peace activists, poets, novelists, artists, anti-slavery campaigners, environmentalists, human rights lawyers, anthropologists, fighter pilots, Viking warriors, nuclear scientist and many more. This book doesn’t presume that women have always been good. Tyrannical rulers are also included. The thesis of the book does not include moral judgements on that level; simply the invisibility of women in our histories.
You will find a woman who completed a course of undergraduate study at Cambridge University but were told she could not be awarded a degree because of being a woman; a female artist who created a famous self-portrait which was by default attributed to her husband; and numerous women who have been defined as ‘muses’ or ‘assistants’ to the more famous men in their lives, when they were in fact equal creators in their own right.
I highly recommend this book to all.
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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.
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.
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’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 Warwickshire, Mystical 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Entering through the courtyard coach-house tea-rooms, we emerged out on the path to the castle.
Powerful beams intermittently bathed Guy’s Tower and the ramparts in mauve and green and blue, and the stalls of the Christmas Market were decked out in myriad lights.
As we entered the path to the light trail, I felt every trace of the anxiety and low spirits and fear and disappointment of this Covid-oppressed year melt away, and in its place all the excitement and wonder of childhood, at the magical vision that had been created in this iconic castle and its grounds.
We walked past the market stalls and along the trail, entering the castle courtyard through the arch to behold the battlements and gatehouse, Caesar’s Tower, the State Apartments, Time Tower and Elfrida’s Mound all washed by waves of alternating colours.
The voice of an actor broadcast around the courtyard the story of Sir Fulke Greville who after his arrival in 1604, transformed the castle into a grand palatial residence and created exquisite gardens here. He also, as a poet, entertained many famous literary figures here, among whose numbers William Shakespeare would have appeared.
Through the windows of the State Apartments we saw glimmering Christmas trees. Although visitors were not allowed to enter the Castle due to Covid restrictions, nevertheless we were able to gaze at the gorgeous decorations within the rooms.
Having circled the coutryard we left through the arch and made our way around past the Mound and down the slope and across the bridge to the island. In every aspect the castle and its grounds was transformed into something beyond this physical world. It is a beautiful, magical sight anyway, in broad daylight; but with the play of lights it was truly dreamlike.
Traversing the island and returning across the bridge we all climbed the slope to the left leading out into the fields beyond the Peacock Garden.
The giant trebuchet was irradiated with purple light, and the boathouse seemed like a gingerbread house from a child’s storybook.
All the while the full moon perfectly harmonised with the man-made light displays. The backdrop of trees glittered with rich colour, floodlit to set out in sharp relief the ones in front.
Every detail of the monkey puzzle tree glowed with crimson light.
There we passed numerous brightly coloured illuminated tents; and then a field of what looked like giant luminous fungi – in reality multi coloured open umbrellas on the grass.
We headed across the field to the illuminated tunnel where several couples couldn’t resist taking romantic selfies surrounded by the glittering lights.
We emerged into the peacock garden with is glowing Christmas tree and every feature of the garden delineated in lights.
Within the Orangery glittering Christmas Trees could be seen.
As we completed the trail and made our way out of the castle, an then on the long walk through the illuminated woodlands back to the car park, we took with us the joy and enchantment of this wonderful light trail.
Here’s another of my haunted locations for Paranormal Warwickshire.
Abbey Fields in Kenilworth is much loved by the local people and I have continuously visited this atmospheric place ever since my children were young.
The ancient abbey ruins, the beautiful old church of St Nicholas and its enchanting churchyard, the view of Kenilworth Castle, the lovely lake and the Finham Brook that runs through Abbey Fields – all combine to make this a place that draws many back again and again.
Recently I walked along the path beside the Finham Brook, noticing how high and lively the waters ran, and an old lady turned to me and said she had come out from her home where she lived alone, and setting aside all worry about the ongoing pandemic, she found joy and consolation in gazing at these tumbling waters. She always finds it in Abbey Fields. She echoed my thoughts exactly.
A place haunted by many happy memories… and by other curious tales too which you might find in my new book Paranormal Warwickshire.
Out now, it may feed a curiosity about atmospheric places, enhance your knowledge of English history, and also provide a welcome retreat from the current woes of the UK, as you enjoy the many photographs. An ideal gift this Christmas, it’s available everywhere good books are sold.
I loved what Hilary said about the process of writing. It seems that she does not subscribe to the belief that we must create a structure beforehand, and plan out our work in detail. In regard to her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, the idea she caught was the notion that the truth behind an apparently “evil” character in English history may be far more complex. And then her curiosity and her love of historical research took her on a long and compelling journey. She talks of catching ideas, and of writing scenes and chapters out of order, and I loved it.
In the past I have indeed tried to create a structure beforehand, and I found it not at all helpful. So personal experience has taught me that Hilary Mantel’s way of writing is more to my taste.
When you begin to write a novel, it can often be impossible to say from which source the inspiration has come – and how far back in the past that inspiration had its source.
Now my latest book Paranormal Warwickshire has been published, I am getting back to work on my next novel Standing Ovation.
Thsi is the second in a magical realist series starring Dylan Rafferty, young musically gifted rebel.
The first book, Director’s Cut, sees Dylan tackling a very troubled family in a large house in south London haunted by a family curse.
Dylan seeks to escape the overwhelming influence of his own family and the conventional path they want him to follow through education and his future career. He discovers his favourite actress is filming a TV drama in a nearby Jacobean mansion. He sets off, eager to crash the set and meet her. He succeeds; and she’s delighted by this unusual, intense, talented boy. But Dylan discovers a deeply dysfunctional family who believe themselves afflicted by an inter-generational curse. The house is haunted by ghosts of previous generations. Dylan comes to believe he alone can save these people through the power of his own musical genius As he plunges deeper into the spiritual and psychic deadlock in the house, he encounters a supernatural being, and finds that he must cross the boundary between this world and another dimension.
The story awaits further editing, and I’d also welcome any willing beta readers!
Meanwhile I’m completing the sequel.
In Standing Ovation, Dylan has moved forward from the position he was in at the end of Directors Cut, but he now seeks a quantum leap in his career.
He’s in Stratford-upon-Avon, staying with his friend Xavier, a stage manager at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Then he lands a post as personal assistant to his idol, Konstantin Kosoff, mentally and physically fragile concert pianist, currently controlled by his two highly dubious brothers. Dylan enters another highly dysfunctional and dangerous household and plunges into a position only vacant because the two previous post-holders died in mysterious circumstances.
There are several people who might inspire me for some aspect of my fictional great pianist. I already have in mind the central inspiration; but that may change as I continue the novel, because when writing we may find elements entering the story from the subconscious. I won’t be able to tell how strong a part any of these elements may play until the story decides for itself, and reaches completion.
Do you other writers out there find Hilary Mantel’s approach rings a bell for you? Or do you rely on creating structure beforehand, and planning out the novel in detail? I’d love to know your own creative practice!