Book Review: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a rich feast for lovers of gothic sinister-mansion stories.

Creepy, disturbing, sensuous, all the tropes are here. The story takes our main protagonist, Noemi Taboada, a lively socialite, into a truly menacing setting in a mountain landscape: a beautiful old house, a place of former grandeur, now showing ever-increasing signs of neglect. She has been drawn here by a frightened plea for help from her childhood friend and companion, Catalina, trapped in the house with her deeply unsettling husband, Virgil Doyle.

Noemi is greeted and ushered into the establishment by Florence, a sinister woman who reminds me of Mrs Danvers; and within the house we find the extremely handsome but unpleasant alpha male, Virgil, who controls the agenda. Above Virgil in the family hierarchy is his father Howard, a terrifying old man mostly confined to his room by an unnamed medical condition, who rarely appears, shows signs of extreme old age in a dead white face with startling intense blue eyes, and appears only to ask Noemi strange and suspicious questions about eugenics. Occupying the archetypal role of frail, vulnerable young victim, Catalina is held captive in the house and fed mysterious medications which alternately send her into manic frenzy or tip her into a drowsy semi-hypnotic state.

The heroine, beautiful and sassy Noemi, arrives as a visitor in this house of nightmares, intent on uncovering Catalina’s true situation and rescuing her. Noemi’s ally, Francis, is Virgil’s cousin, and appears to be the only warm, caring human being in the Doyle family; but we doubt his power to take action or provide any real help.

The story follows Noemi’s journey of discovery as she attempts to unravel the dark mysteries of the house, becoming increasingly persecuted by horrific sleepwalking dreams and waking visions.

She discovers beyond doubt that this is a sick house, emanating a toxic atmosphere which seeps into and distorts her own thoughts and desires. Decadent, depraved and magnetic, Virgil Doyle holds her in his power; Frances offers to help both young women escape, but we don’t know whether we can fully trust him either, as he too is held in the grip of the family’s terrible history.

The novel weaves an intense, compelling atmosphere which explodes in a phantasmagoria of gothic horror. My own taste does not extend to true horror, HP Lovecraft style, but that is what we encounter here. I enjoy trying out different genres, but horror would not be my genre of choice for further reading. If you love the gothic genre, complete with all its tropes, you will find that here, but be warned, the horror element is quite extreme! Nevertheless I enjoyed trying out a new author I had not encountered before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: 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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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.

Book Review: ‘On This Day She’ by Jo Bell, Tania Hershman and Ailsa Holland

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?

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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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Blog Tour and Book Review: The Healing by Joy Margetts

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

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

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

Joy Margetts, author of The Healing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

Joy’s social media links are as follows:

Website

Facebook Page

Book Review: The 99th Koala by Kailas Wild

This account of the koala-rescue campaign in bushfire-ravaged Kangaroo Island is gripping and very emotional. Accompanied by superb photos, arborist Kailas Wild tells a story sometimes dramatic and inspiring, and at other times sad and heartrending, packed with tense and harrowing descriptions of koala rescues.

As one of the few professional tree-climbers/ experienced koala handlers called to Kangaroo Island following the wildfires that swept through parts of Australia in 2019, Kailas used his rope climbing equipment to scale 30 metre high burnt trees to flag down traumatised koalas, bundle them into pet carriers, and drive them to the animal hospital for treatment – or sometimes to be euthanised.

As you read the book you feel amazed he didn’t suffer long-lasting mental health difficulties following this incredibly harrowing and challenging time on Kangaroo Island. He is, indeed, very open about his emotional distress and his mental trauma. Throughout the book the reader is moved by his skill and courage, in this dangerous and tough work.

Kailas Wild with rescued koala

Kailas gives many fascinating details of his work, including for example his knowledge of how to test the structural integrity of a fire damaged tree before he starts climbing; his endurance of scratches from the claws of frightened koalas; and the best way to handle them, to avoid the very real danger of being bitten by their knife-sharp teeth. The photos are often dramatic and impactful; shots of him up a tree trying to reach a koala on an adjacent tree, images of a burnt koala, photos which make clear his own mental trauma, visible in his face.

His working days among the burnt plantations involved 10-12 hours of physically and emotionally draining labour. He spent “days alone amongst burnt trees and dead animals… and even the successful rescues are traumatic.”

After a considerable time in which he feels a lack of co-ordination and resources, he finally gets the help he needs from two other wildlife rescue experts – Deb and Fraya. The efforts they go to as the terrified koalas resist capture is astonishing. Their own stress is compounded by the knowledge of the stress to which they are subjecting the koalas – and then at the end the rescued animals may have to be euthanised.

The author is very open about the toll this takes on his mental health. He also considers the ethics of human intervention in the lives of wild animals suffering an environmental disaster; does his work compromise the ability of the wild animals to live independently when released back to the wild, having become over-reliant on humans? He also describes the moment when they realise the risk of injury to the koalas themselves outweighs the benefits of attempting rescue.

Finally the time comes when Kailas and his colleagues realise they have done everything they can, and the remaining koalas, having already survived this long, will most likely thrive.

A deeply moving book for all those who love animals, care about environmental issues and are interested in wildlife conservation, but also an account of courageous human endeavour and compassion, in the face of ethical dilemmas.

Book Reviews: The Poetry of Phil Hill

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

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

Beyond the Wilderness by PM Hill pub 2018 chipmunkapublishing

Love/Resistance/Rebellion by PM Hill pub 2020 chipmunkapublishing

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

Hero by Phil Hill pub Jem Stone Publications

The Heroine by Phil Hill pub Jem Stone Publications

The Heroine

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

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

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

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

The Hero

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

And Phil writes from a deep place within himself.

The books may be purchased from Shop | Phil Hill Poetry

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