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.

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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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: 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: 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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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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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.

Warwickshire Lockdown Walks

Curious how when we are instructed by the government to stay at home and only venture out for a very few clearly defined purposes, those of us who didn’t do enough walking prior to the pandemic suddenly find ourselves seizing the opportunity to get out every day.

And I am one of those. Living in Warwick we have several lovely walks not far from our home. We can head for Leamington Spa, and Jephson Gardens; or to Abbey Fields in Kenilworth. Both are very special places and water is in abundance there and in many other local places – either the River Leam or the River Avon or the Finham Brook or the Grand Union Canal….

Views of Jephson Gardens Leamington Spa, and Abbey Fields, Kenilworth.

Do you have lovely places to walk, close to your home? I’d love to hear about them! Do share in the comments below.