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.

Favourite Feel Good Action Heroes in Books and Cinema: TinTin and his Universal Appeal

During the Covid-19 Pandemic and throughout the three lockdowns in the UK, many have sought the consolation of escape – into books or films.  Every so often I return to one of my top favourites – The Adventures of TinTin: the Secret of the Unicorn. To my mind this film exemplifies classic story structure; but above all it centres upon a likeable, engaging young hero.  Each time I watch it I know again why I loved TinTin so much on TV during my teenage years.

The Adventures of TinTin movie poster
The Adventures of TinTin movie poster

The Adventures of TinTin: The Secret of the Unicorn (directed by Peter Jackson & Steven Spielberg) was released in 2011. So it’s been out a while.  But I write blog posts when something inspires or excites or moves me, and haunts me at night. And that’s what this TinTin story did.

I asked myself again, exactly what is the appeal of TinTin? He’s a totally beguiling hero. He’s Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Spiderman all rolled into one fresh-faced boy hero – and of course his intrepid dog Snowy (originally named Milou by his creator, Herge).

As a child I loved adventure stories. I started with Enid Blyton and later I moved onto King Solomon’s Mines by Rider Haggard, and Prester John  by John Buchan and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. These stories have everything – at their best they not only excite and thrill, but also they move, and they teach you about this life, and they convey archetypal truths about human nature.

You can draw parallels with your own life, even if you don’t do exactly the same dangerous things. You can use the action hero’s experiences as a metaphor to help you clarify what has happened to you, and what attitude to take. This is the power of a great story.

Take the archetypal villain, who pursues his obsession to its bitter end.

There are people who live their lives like this. They’re all around us. They express it in their relationships. People who have never learned the art of letting go.

Their obsession leads to such things as ‘unfinished business’ when family members die; ‘skeletons’ that stay in cupboards for generations; vendettas that last decades, family members who don’t talk to each other for years.

The lesson the archetypal villain and his fate teaches is this: ‘People matter more than things’.

In this life, what matters most of all, above ‘due recompense’, above ‘getting satisfaction’, above ‘being right’, is human relationships – and of course this is the lesson the archetypal villain never learns, and which the hero instinctively honours, or the story wouldn’t satisfy us.

A hero learns, and changes. A villain never learns, and never changes.

TinTin is a hero who’s open to all that life has for him; he’s never held back by self-limiting beliefs; he’s ready to live on his wits, yet has an unerring instinct for a just cause, personified by a character who is flawed, but whose heart’s in the right place; then he throws in all his gifts on that character’s side.

Does this excite, inspire and move you, as it does me?

Magical light trail at Warwick Castle

On Wednesday 30th December at the end of the Covid year 2020, we visited the Light Trail at Warwick Castle.

As a local resident I have long been a frequent visitor to Warwick Castle, and of course it features in my latest book Paranormal Warwickshire.

Tonight the castle was especially magical. Merlin Entertainments really had excelled themselves.

Entering through the courtyard coach-house tea-rooms, we emerged out on the path to the castle.

Powerful beams intermittently bathed Guy’s Tower and the ramparts in mauve and green and blue, and the stalls of the Christmas Market were decked out in myriad lights.

As we entered the path to the light trail, I felt every trace of the anxiety and low spirits and fear and disappointment of this Covid-oppressed year melt away, and in its place all the excitement and wonder of childhood, at the magical vision that had been created in this iconic castle and its grounds.

We walked past the market stalls and along the trail, entering the castle courtyard through the arch to behold the battlements and gatehouse, Caesar’s Tower, the State Apartments, Time Tower and Elfrida’s Mound all washed by waves of alternating colours.

The voice of an actor broadcast around the courtyard the story of Sir Fulke Greville who after his arrival in 1604, transformed the castle into a grand palatial residence and created exquisite gardens here. He also, as a poet, entertained many famous literary figures here, among whose numbers William Shakespeare would have appeared.

Through the windows of the State Apartments we saw glimmering Christmas trees. Although visitors were not allowed to enter the Castle due to Covid restrictions, nevertheless we were able to gaze at the gorgeous decorations within the rooms.

Having circled the coutryard we left through the arch and made our way around past the Mound and down the slope and across the bridge to the island. In every aspect the castle and its grounds was transformed into something beyond this physical world. It is a beautiful, magical sight anyway, in broad daylight; but with the play of lights it was truly dreamlike.

Traversing the island and returning across the bridge we all climbed the slope to the left leading out into the fields beyond the Peacock Garden.

The giant trebuchet was irradiated with purple light, and the boathouse seemed like a gingerbread house from a child’s storybook.

All the while the full moon perfectly harmonised with the man-made light displays. The backdrop of trees glittered with rich colour, floodlit to set out in sharp relief the ones in front.

Every detail of the monkey puzzle tree glowed with crimson light.

There we passed numerous brightly coloured illuminated tents; and then a field of what looked like giant luminous fungi – in reality multi coloured open umbrellas on the grass.

We headed across the field to the illuminated tunnel where several couples couldn’t resist taking romantic selfies surrounded by the glittering lights.

We emerged into the peacock garden with is glowing Christmas tree and every feature of the garden delineated in lights.

Within the Orangery glittering Christmas Trees could be seen.

As we completed the trail and made our way out of the castle, an then on the long walk through the illuminated woodlands back to the car park, we took with us the joy and enchantment of this wonderful light trail.

Do check out more photos and many curious tales surrounding Warwick Castle in my book Paranormal Warwickshire.

The Avon in a wild mood at the Saxon Mill Warwick

Wild water at the bridge over the River Avon at the Saxon Mill Warwick

Many of us share a fascination with the power of nature, and we love to gaze at storms and mighty waterfalls and erupting volcanos and turbulent seas and raging rivers – as long as we are in a safe viewing spot, and not in the middle of them.

Saxon Mill Warwick

And so we were among those drawn once again to the Saxon Mill, near to my home in Warwick. Our purpose: to gaze in wonder and exhileration, and experience the drama of the swollen river Avon. I felt as if we were on an island surrounded by the dynamic power of racing water.

Swollen river Avon at Saxon Mill Warwick

The Saxon Mill is of course one of my haunted locations in my new book Paranormal Warwickshire. Do check it out here: http://bitly.ws/8xJJ

Abbey Fields, Kenilworth – haunted by English history, natural beauty and happy memories

View across the churchyard of St Nicholas Church Kenilworth from Abbey Fields

Here’s another of my haunted locations for Paranormal Warwickshire.

Abbey Fields in Kenilworth is much loved by the local people and I have continuously visited this atmospheric place ever since my children were young.

The ancient abbey ruins, the beautiful old church of St Nicholas and its enchanting churchyard, the view of Kenilworth Castle, the lovely lake and the Finham Brook that runs through Abbey Fields – all combine to make this a place that draws many back again and again.

Recently I walked along the path beside the Finham Brook, noticing how high and lively the waters ran, and an old lady turned to me and said she had come out from her home where she lived alone, and setting aside all worry about the ongoing pandemic, she found joy and consolation in gazing at these tumbling waters. She always finds it in Abbey Fields. She echoed my thoughts exactly.

A place haunted by many happy memories… and by other curious tales too which you might find in my new book Paranormal Warwickshire.

Out now, it may feed a curiosity about atmospheric places, enhance your knowledge of English history, and also provide a welcome retreat from the current woes of the UK, as you enjoy the many photographs. An ideal gift this Christmas, it’s available everywhere good books are sold.