A Poignant Story from Charlestown, St Austell Cornwall

We recently visited Charlestown, a beautiful little Cornish seaport, which opened up several stories for me. Not only did we explore the moving and compelling tales of numerous historical shipwrecks and recovered artefacts  in the Shipwreck Treasure Museum: but also I learned the poignant story of the man who created, designed and built Charlestown: Charles Rashleigh.

Along with the history of Charles Rashleigh’s rise and fall, we have numerous heartrending accounts of shipwrecks in the museum. As we wander through the museum gazing at the recovered treasures and reading of the sea tragedies  we may reflect once again on the high risks humans take, for the chance of adventure and the dream of making their fortune. Some succeed; others perish. In no other sphere of human aspiration can we best reflect upon fate than in the realm of sea voyages. The sea remains powerful, mysterious, cruel and merciless: yet a source of unending wonder and attraction.

Charlestown Harbour  St Austell Cornwall

Charles started building the seaport in 1790. It was completed by 1804 and  has changed little since: now it is popular among film location scouts and has appeared as a film location on several occasions.

Views of Charlestown Harbour

The poignancy of Charles’s story lies in the fact that he created Charlestown out of his own personal wealth and was a hugely gifted man, for the port was highly successful: yet in later life he formed an attachment to 2 young men, Joseph Dingle and Joseph Daniel, who betrayed him and brought him to bankruptcy.  The whole story is told in the book ‘Charlestown: a guide to Charlestown and the Shipwreck Treasure Museum’ by Richard and Bridget Larn.

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

Today I share my review of ‘Miss Graham’s War‘, the latest novel by Celia Rees, which has been released in a new edition, having spent some time on sale as ‘Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook’.

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

Miss Graham’s War‘ is a very complex and gripping account of life in Germany in the immediate aftermath of the Allied victory over Germany in 1945. The main protagonist Edith Graham, a lover of recipes and cooking, goes out from England to take part in what is known as the Control Commission, in the British Zone, to try and help the education system in Germany recover. However she is also asked to act as a spy seeking out wanted Nazis in hiding. I learned a huge amount about this period, of which I had previously known very little. It opened my eyes to how the ordinary people of Germany suffered in the first few years after the War, both those who still sympathised with Nazism, and those who had not agreed with Hitler’s ideology, but who had kept quiet to save their lives.

The structure of the book, interspersed with recipes from the time, was fascinating. The recipes and ingredients were very revealing; some horrifying, as they revealed the desperately low rations for people in Germany at that time.

 For instance, one recipe was for Moltkestrasse Tea: pine needles chopped fine, and boiling water.  Used to ward off hunger by those who have nothing else.

Another minimal recipe for the near-starving, deprived of rations, involved finely-cut-up human hair, to provide some element of minerals and vitamins.

A third example is Prison Camp Soup – fish bones and skin; water; and buckwheat, or whatever else you can get.  Note: we have no equivalent, unless you count the Irish a hundred years ago reduced to eating grasses in the Famine.

Other recipes evoked another world entirely: I loved the German cake recipes, especially one for Bee Sting Cake, which is essentially sweet dough, baked, topped with honey, butter, sugar and almonds, and filled with a custard cream.  In wartime circumstances, with rations low, but with the ingredients cunningly sourced from somewhere and hoarded out of sight, a slice of that would have been pure heaven.  Such cakes of course belong to the famous ritual Kaffee und Kuchen.  Another recipe, for asparagus flan, sounded gorgeous; some of the recipes I thought I really must try out myself (but not the ones with human hair, fish bones and pine needles).

The book gives many harrowing details of war crimes committed by the Nazis. It is packed with characters who have different motivations, which can be confusing to the reader, but ultimately we are carried along with the decency and goodness of Edith’s character, and the passion of Harry, whom she loves, and who will later go to Israel and become a member of Mossad. Fate intervenes, along with tragedy. Depending on your point of view it may be said that Edith’s quest ultimately results in poetic justice, or not. Here on earth, we have no final answer to the mystery of human wickedness, or a perfect resolution to the quest for justice. But this story is very compelling and there are many chequered characters to arouse our emotions.

It is the kind of story which may haunt you for some time afterwards, as you wonder about war, and about the aftermath of war, and the disastrous decisions that are made in such times, that attempt to correct injustices but only sew new tragedy and pain for the future, even after the actual fighting has ended.

A highly recommended book for those who can’t get enough of historical fiction and books about the history of the 20th century.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If we shadows have offended,

Think but this and all is mended,

That you have but slumbered here

while these visions did appear.

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

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

As Prospero the magician says in The Tempest:

Our revels now are ended, these our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits

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

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

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Thoughts on ‘Witch Child’ by Celia Rees

Today I share my review of ‘Witch Child‘ by Celia Rees, now out in a special 20th Anniversary edition. This is a compelling historical novel of the arrival of a group of Puritans in New England in 1650, of their encounters with the Native Indians, and a tale not only of religious intolerance but of the deep-seated fear human beings have of anybody who dares to be different.

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

Having just finished reading The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory, about Catherine Parr and the dangerous path she trod through religious fanaticism and intolerance, I feel my senses have been sharpened to this theme of rejection of women for being different. It seems that historical fiction is an excellent vehicle for this theme but sadly the theme is also highly relevant in today’s world.

Witch Child is a Young Adult novel and has been firmly established on the schools curriculum for the challenging issues it raises, vital for children to wrestle with, themes of intolerance, the true nature of freedom, the forces of conservatism, spirituality and female independence.

The book opens with a horrific account of the persecution of a woman in late 17th century England. Through the eyes of a young girl, we learn how her grandmother is dragged away – feared and reviled as a witch for her role of village “wise-woman and healer” – tortured then hanged for witchcraft. We are confronted with the intense hatred, fear and hysteria that flares up among the local ‘authorities’ (often self-appointed); their fanaticism aroused by another opportunity to publicly shame, humiliate and destroy a woman for being different.

As I read the story of Mary’s departure for the New World with a group of Puritans, I was keen to refresh my knowledge of this period of English history. As it happened, the Puritans sought freedom in another land to practice their own brand of religion freely. Ironically they took all their own prejudices and narrow-mindedness with them and transplanted it into the communities they built in New England.

I was moved by Mary’s growing connection with her two allies from the local Indian tribe, White Eagle and Jaybird. They too knew what it meant to be ostracised for bring just what they were. The themes of nature-connection are strong between the girl trained in ways of herbalism and intuitive healing, and the native people with their deep spirituality and knowledge of the earth and their environment, as with all First Nation peoples.

I loved the overriding structure of the book, pages of an authentic historical journey, found sewn into a late 17th century quilt, and the mystery with which the book ends. I know the author wrote a sequel, but this book left the way wide open for me to imagine exactly how I wanted it to end and what I hope happened to Mary next.

A compelling story from an author who has just brought out a new book, this time for adults, called Miss Graham’s War. Set in Germany in 1946, and published by Harper Collins in May 2021, this will be my next read.

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

The Tudors have been popular for the last few years, in books and films and TV programmes. And whatever we think of Henry VIII as a man, he was certainly a gift to history. For he must be one of the most memorable of all characters in the story of Britain. Never mind that he was a monster and a psychopath. It seems that Tudor propaganda has won out through the centuries, and many prefer to think of him as a colourful over-the-top character who started up the Church of England, ate an enormous amount, and killed a few wives on the way.

The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

Although I myself love history, and read history books as well as historical fiction, I know that many, perhaps, learn most of history through reading historical fiction. That is why I believe our high quality historical novelists are so important to us, because they engage us in history and encourage us to imagine what it must have been like to be there, and to deal personally with characters like Henry VIII.

Such is the case with ‘The Taming of the Queen’ by Philippa Gregory which is the story of Henry’s last wife, Kateryn Parr. This novel was published in 2015 and although I have read several books of historical fiction by other authors, I haven’t read many Philippa Gregory novels, other than ‘The Boleyn Girl’. However I found this story of Kateryn compelling, and Gregory drew me in so that I felt I was there with Henry’s sixth Queen, navigating the mercurial character of the monster she was forced to marry, while keeping her love for Thomas Seymour a secret.

I was also captivated by Kateryn’s passion and intelligence, and her commitment to religious reform, as she led a theological study group in her palace rooms. Kateryn’s tragedy was, in the world of the Tudor court, “Nobody likes a clever, passionate woman.” We see that in the case of the religious reformer and courageous preacher Anne Askew who was ultimately tortured on the rack then burned at the stake.

One of my favourite characters in the novel is Will Somers, the King’s Fool. He is so witty and clever, an acrobat, a juggler, a commentator and observer of the action rather like the Chorus in ancient Greek tragedies. He made the King laugh, he lightened the mood, then when his political satire became too close for comfort, he acted silly to relieve the tension.

“It is easier to stand on your head than keep the king in one mind,” he says. At another point, he remarks, “If I were a wise man I would be dead by now.”

In reading the story of Kateryn, I think the best safeguard any Queen of Henry might have would be her ladies-in-waiting and her gentlewomen of the bedchamber. All the queens depended on their ladies’ 100% loyalty and trustworthiness, their ability to sniff out danger ahead, and to warn of conspiracies in the making. Kateryn relied on Catherine Brandon, Anne Seymour, and her own sister Nan.

Nan, we are told, has served six of Henry’s queens and buried four. Nan forewarns Kateryn she is being targeted for criminal proceedings against her on the grounds of heresy; and as we can see from this novel, Henry changed his mind week by week about what constituted heresy. Bishop Stephen Gardiner (one of the top nasties of the Tudor court, along with the Duke of Norfolk) is assembling a case against Kateryn.

“He’s coming for you, Kat,” warns Nan, “and I don’t know how to save you…. they are changing the law ahead of me. I can’t make sure you obey the law because they are changing it faster than we can obey.”

Thomas Seymour, the man Kateryn loves and believes she has lost, tells Kateryn that he must marry; the Seymours need an alliance at court and he needs a wife who will speak for him; his choice is 12 year old Princess Elizabeth whom Kateryn knows “has a childish adoration for Thomas.”

Alongside this we are constantly brought face to face with the volatile, psychotic King – obese, an addictive over-eater, tormented by the pain of his leg ulcer and his inner demons.

Meanwhile conspiracies continue, and the question of what religion Henry believes shifts daily. A Howard plot to remove Kateryn, replace her with Mary Howard, and bring the country back to Catholicism, is revealed.

When Kateryn is forewarned that Henry has signed a warrant for her arrest, she is able to make her case to him. She submits to him and presents herself as an ignorant, subserviant woman, for the safety not only of herself, but also “of all who depend on this tyrant for their freedom. I can rack my pride. I can dislocate my shame.” Thus the Queen is “tamed”. He then physically abuses her; he whips and humiliates her in a shocking scene (I am not sure if historical evidence exists for this).

But by her willingness to appear “tamed,” Kateryn wins her life, and ultimately survives her marriage to Henry. The novel concludes after Henry’s death with Kateryn exalting in her freedom; she says she is free to be herself at last, may pursue her passions and interests, her commitment to religious reform, and write her books.

I must admit that reading this story I feel surprised that Kateryn didn’t suffer from post traumatic stress disorder afterwards; and perhaps she did. Tragically she only lived a further 18 months because (foolishly, we may believe, taking the long view) she married Thomas Seymour; and having become pregnant, she died shortly after childbirth. The fate of her little daughter Mary Seymour, following the execution of Thomas the following year, is unknown to history. It is thought she died around the age of two; but no evidence of this exists. Perhaps the truth will come to light one day.

Ultimately I found this book an emotionally engaging, enlightening and intellectually stimulating read, and Philippa Gregory’s reputation as ‘the contemporary mistress of historical crime’ is well deserved.

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Naturewatch in St Nicholas Churchyard Kenilworth

Last Sunday St Nicholas Church Kenilworth held a ‘Naturewatch’ in the churchyard.

The church is close to the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey and Abbey Fields, which feature in my book Paranormal Warwickshire. The Naturewatch took us on a walk around the churchyard identifying a variety of beautiful and curious things – flowers, trees, gravestones, herb garden, secret steps, Celtic cross, abbey ruins, fallen wall and old tree which have become wildlife havens. This churchyard has long been one of my favourite places, and yet I learned many new things. An enchanting and fascinating churchyard hunt.

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

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

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

Review

The story of All the Light We Cannot See tells of Marie Laure, a blind girl living in Paris in the 1930s with her father, a museum locksmith and miniaturist. Marie Laure’s father creates a model of the city to help his daughter make her way around the streets; and every birthday his gift to her includes a puzzle box which needs skill and ingenuity for her to open, and find the gift within. Thus she gains skills in orienteering and in construction projects requiring dexterity and ingenuity; both of which will be invaluable to her survival, not only in peace, but during the coming war, the Nazi occupation of France, and especially when she finds herself alone and vulnerable in St Malo during Allied bombing.

The story is told in two time frames, early 1940s, and then on to the final stages of the War, and also shifts back and forth between Marie Laure’s story and that of Werner, a German boy, who is an expert at constructing radios, and who is compelled to join the Military Training Academy for young people, whose methods are often cruel and ruthless and sadistic. We meet Frederick, Werner’s friend at the academy, who openly defies the cruelty, and suffers for it. Ultimately Werner and Marie Laure will meet; grief, tragedy but also love and hope is ahead for them.

The novel creates for its readers an immersive experience, of what it would feel like to be part of the French Resistance in St Malo. I was totally absorbed in Marie Laure’s world, her challenges and threats, her relationships, her courage and resourcefulness.

Werner too aroused my compassion and I understood what it must have been like to be swept along by the Nazi machine, compelled to participate. Even though his sister Jutta shows evidence of a free spirit, people like her within Nazi Germany would have needed to be extremely discrete and subtle about their dissent.

I found the story slow-moving to start with and difficult to get into; then, when the War starts, it becomes totally immersive, as young Marie Laure and her father escape from Paris to her great uncle Etienne’s house in St Malo, while 8 year old Werner in Berlin with his sister Jutta discovers how to make a radio.

In St Malo Marie Laure and her father are cared for by the kindly Madame Manech who gathers together a group of ladies to resist the Nazi occupiers by ingenious means. Madame Manech sets about persuading Etienne to use the one remaining radio in the house – which he has cunningly hidden in the attic, away from the Nazis – to transmit messages to the Allies from the Resistance.

The reader needs to get used to the switches of time-scale from 1940 and then on to 1944 when the Americans are bombing St Malo in a last attempt to flush the Nazi occupiers out, and Werner is hunting for illegal radio operators in occupied France, with orders from the Nazis to kill all those he finds in possession of radios.

In 1944 Marie Laure, blind and totally reliant on her own strength, courage and instincts, is trapped in the house in St Malo. The people who have loved and protected her are absent: Madame Manech has died; her father has been seized by the Germans whilst visiting his Paris Museum; and her great-uncle Etienne has vanished.

Back in 1940 Frederick invites Werner to join him on a visit to his mother at his privileged and wealthy home in Berlin. The two boys are friends; and yet Werner feels powerless to help when Frederick is persecuted for voicing his dissent from the Nazi creed.

In 1944 Werner is told he has been at the Military Training Academy under false pretences, and we fear he will be killed; instead he is sent to “a special technology division of the Wehrmacht.” Werner is pressed into service in France, tracking illegal radio transmissions by members of the Resistance, using his transceiver.

From this point the story moves forward relentlessly, with high emotional stakes and jeopardy for both Marie Laure and Werner. How they come together is something you will discover when you read the book.

This is the kind of book which is so immersive you are with the people of the story, experiencing the danger and the emotional and psychological challenges alongside them; and indeed the kind of book which has you scurrying for Google to refresh yourself on such areas of knowledge as the Allied bombing of St Malo; the activities of the French Resistance; and the shocking facts about systematic rape of German girls and women by Russian soldiers for three years after the 2nd World War ended.

The story shows the resilience of the human spirit and the prevalence of love, goodness and kindness, along with courage and ingenuity; whilst also inevitably opening our eyes to the sheer wickedness and evil of war.

A very highly recommended book.

Book Review: Spirited by Julie Cohen

Today I share with you my review of Spirited by Julie Cohen, published by Orion July 2020.

Spirited by Julie Cohen

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.

Affinity by Sarah Waters

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.

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Rescued Maori Meeting House in the Grounds of an English Stately Home

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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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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