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

I found this an immensely varied collection of pieces, both prose and poetry. It was very moving to reflect upon how differently people react to the onslaught of Covid-19 upon the world.

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

The range of moods and outlooks among the 220 writers is fascinating: funny, sharply satirical, melancholy, fearful, heartbreaking, hopeful.

Some of the lively contributions from very young writers stood out for me: for instance ‘Riddle’ by 9 year old Cailin Abercromby Gemmell:

“Look out, look out, one and all, whether you’re big, or whether you’re small / Because I cannot be seen at all, and I won’t catch you when you fall.”

I admired some exceptional observational writing, for example in this piece by Angela Cheveau:

“A man walks down the street, hands in pockets, his dreams emptying onto the pavement like loose change.”

Many of the writers give us precious insights into their lives and circumstances, as in the case of Nick Cox who volunteers in a shelter home in Snehalaya, India. All through the pandemic he has remained there, protecting and supporting women and children rescued from slum and red light areas.

We are given glimpses into so many different worlds: for some positive, for others negative: a kaleidoscope of the human heart, here a terrible struggle, there a gift, elsewhere, new opportunities; but very close by, grief and loneliness.

Some have lost weight, some have gained weight, because of the same event. The experience of one writer has been heartrending, as in “A Dog’s Life” by Alexa James; and for another writer a time of longing, as in the beautiful poem by Sheila Johnson, “A Piece of Thyme.”

Every one of the contributions is a window into the lives of others: sad and touching; philosophical; desperate; chilling; witty; satirical; moving.

The book ends with a few harrowing accounts from health professionals: doctors, nurses, a hospice nursing director. Their courage, strength and compassion shine through.

A highly recommended book. Every sale supports the Rennie Grove Hospice Care.

Thoughts on ‘Witch Child’ by Celia Rees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A very highly recommended book.

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

Today I share my review of this enchanting novel by nature writer Delia Owens.

Where the Crawdads Sing‘ by Delia Owens is set in the swampland of the North Carolina coast. Kya, the main protagonist, is abandoned by her family members one by one until, at the age of seven in the year 1952, she is left all alone, continuing to live in the family’s “swamp shack ” on the edge of the lagoon. Kya fends for herself, navigating the lagoons and waterways of the wetlands by boat, and living independently into her adulthood, gaining her reputation among the people of nearby Barkley Cove as “the marsh girl”.

I found the descriptions of the wetlands around Kya’s lagoon utterly compelling. Delicate, exquisite, and using the most fluid, inspired, original use of vocabulary, Owens weaves pictures of a breathtakingly beautiful and remote region. I found myself longing to visit those wetlands.

Delia Owens herself is a nature writer, and a wildlife scientist who formerly lived and worked in a camp in Africa for several years. This is her first novel, and it is astonishingly beautiful.

As Kya’s story progresses in 1952, another story runs alongside it in a different time-frame, in 1969-70, when the adult Kya finds herself accused of murder. Although the plot is interesting, I longed to return to the description of Kya’s life as a child fending for herself in the wetlands, which has a spiritual, dreamlike quality.

I think I love this book so much because of the appeal and fascination of the idea of “the wild child.” I have always loved stories which centre upon this theme. High among my childhood favourites, the stories of Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren held my imagination. Pippi is a wild child, and she was my heroine. I was enthralled by the idea of a child who finds herself living an independent life utterly free of the constraints that adults impose upon children. Reading these books as adults, we may read into that situation all the judgements of our social conditioning; yet, in the world of fiction, this trope is powerful and archetypal.

The story goes on to tell of the older Kya’s relationships with two young men, one of whom is found dead in the mud beneath the local fire-tower, and the progress of the murder trial in which Kya is the Defendant. I will say no more about the plot for fear of spoilers bur suffice it to say that very close to the end there is an amazing twist.

A highly recommended book.

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

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

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

Having read three of this author’s previous novels I see her as a writer who opens up major ethical issues in our contemporary society, in such a way that they present a spiritual challenge to the main protagonist – and also engage us in our own dilemmas.

In each of S.L. Russell’s previous novels I have learned many new things about a profession which had formerly been a mystery to me: in her novel The Healing Knife I felt I was in the operating theatre with a senior surgeon, understanding all the details of major surgery; in this novel I found myself in a world of barristers and judges and courtrooms and the Inns of Court and the Middle Temple.

Our main protagonist Anna, a barrister, is faced with a direct personal challenge; a corrupt police officer is keen to use a new court case to put away a man he has long believed to be a drug-lord – and Anna is required to defend him in this case which she believes weak, and in which she feels convinced he is innocent. Yet she herself has strong personal reasons to get this man put down for a long time: he may well be responsible for a life-altering tragedy in her own close family.

Anna must put her own personal feelings aside and do what is right.

In this author’s previous novels, I have come to see her as a novelist who always surprises the reader with the direction in which she ultimately takes her story.

Each time, for me, the focus of the story has shifted. I think the novel is about one thing; and then it changes, and becomes something else entirely. Yet the focus on the central ethical issue remains strong.

In The Thorn of Truth, our main protagonist Anna takes a decision to defend Leaman, a man who might be a Mr Big in the drug world. She must do this despite the fact that her family may condemn her for her actions. Then her own personal involvement is complicated by her daughter’s new and growing friendship with Leaman’s own daughter. Later on the story becomes less about the guilt or innocence of this man in regard to the drugs, and instead focuses on the true killer in the current case, and the shocking and unexpected risk to her daughter Millie’s life.

In this story too, S.L. Russell interweaves the lives of three characters from her previous novel, as Anna meets and builds up a relationship with Rachel, the main protagonist of The Healing Knife, and Rachel’s husband Michael and step-son Jasper.

I found Anna’s relationship with her daughter Millie the strongest element of the novel, and was gripped by the crisis that flares up.

Ultimately this is a novel of big moral issues causing agonising ethical dilemmas which test the spiritual values of the main protagonist.

Another challenging and powerful novel from S.L. Russell.

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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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Perfect Cottage Retreat in the Surrey Hills

Hello – I write on the first day of the relaxation of the lockdown here in the UK and we have travelled from Warwick in the Midlands to the lovely Surrey Hills, close to Leith Hill Tower with its wonderful views.

 

This early 18th century cottage was originally a gamekeeper’s cottage and is hidden amongst dense woodland down steep, narrow winding lanes and is like a storybook dwelling. It stands beside a beautiful sparkling pond which often attracts swans, geese and ducks and other wildlife.

It is so peaceful here, with a sense of stillness and tranquility, a gentle subdued light lending a dreamlike quality to the scene as we move towards the end of the day.

Only the delicious sounds of a bubbling brook, an enchanting variety of birdsong, buzzing insects and the numerous calls of other wildlife can be heard. The cool breeze and the receding golden glow of the sun highlights the long shadows across the grass. This is indeed the perfect place for a retreat, in the heart of nature.

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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A Walk in Jephson Gardens Leamington Spa to Lift the Spirits

We are lucky to have many beautiful places to walk, in Leamington Spa Warwick and Kenilworth, with gardens, rivers, castles, historical houses and parklands. Each time I walk in Jephson Gardens, Leamington Spa, I see new delights. Throughout this pandemic, the natural world has upheld the spirits of so many – and the imagination, hard work, dedication and creativity of gardeners.