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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The Nature of Creative Inspiration and Practice – Inspiration from Hilary Mantel

Recently I watched and listened to Hilary Mantel speaking at an online event from the Stratford-upon-Avon Literary festival, following the publication this year of her two newest books The Mirror and the Light and Mantel Pieces.

Hilary Mantel with portrait of Thomas Cromwell

I loved what Hilary said about the process of writing.  It seems that she does not subscribe to the belief that we must create a structure beforehand, and plan out our work in detail. In regard to her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, the idea she caught was the notion that the truth behind an apparently “evil” character in English history may be far more complex. And then her curiosity and her love of historical research took her on a long and compelling journey. She talks of catching ideas, and of writing scenes and chapters out of order, and  I loved it.

I’ve read the first two novels in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and plan to read the final book of that trilogy, The Mirror and the Light.

In the past I have indeed tried to create a structure beforehand, and I found it not at all helpful. So personal experience has taught me that Hilary Mantel’s way of writing is more to my taste.  

When you begin to write a novel, it can often be impossible to say  from which source the inspiration has come – and how far back in the past that inspiration had its source.

David Helfgott performing in Sydney
David Helfgott performing in Sydney

Now my latest book Paranormal Warwickshire has been published, I am getting back to work on my next novel Standing Ovation

Thsi is the second in a magical realist series starring Dylan Rafferty, young musically gifted rebel.

The first book, Director’s Cut, sees Dylan tackling a very troubled family in a large house in south London haunted by a family curse.

Dylan seeks to escape the overwhelming influence of his own family and the conventional path they want him to follow through education and his future career. He discovers his favourite actress is filming a TV drama in a nearby Jacobean mansion. He sets off, eager to crash the set and meet her.  He succeeds; and she’s delighted by this unusual, intense, talented boy. But Dylan discovers a deeply dysfunctional family who believe themselves afflicted by an inter-generational curse. The house is haunted by ghosts of previous generations. Dylan comes to believe he alone can save these people through the power of his own musical genius As he plunges deeper into the spiritual and psychic deadlock in the house, he encounters a supernatural being, and finds that he must cross the boundary between this world and another dimension.

The story awaits further editing, and I’d also welcome any willing beta readers!

Meanwhile I’m completing the sequel.

In Standing Ovation, Dylan has moved forward from the position he was in at the end of Directors Cut, but he now seeks a quantum leap in his career. 

He’s in Stratford-upon-Avon, staying with his friend Xavier, a stage manager at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Then he lands a post as personal assistant to his idol, Konstantin Kosoff, mentally and physically fragile concert pianist, currently controlled by his two highly dubious brothers. Dylan enters another highly dysfunctional and dangerous household and plunges into a position only vacant because the two previous post-holders died in mysterious circumstances.

There are several people who might inspire me for some aspect of my fictional great pianist. I already have in mind the central inspiration; but that may change as I continue the novel, because when writing we may find elements entering the story from the subconscious. I won’t be able to tell how strong a part any of these elements may play until the story decides for itself, and reaches completion.

Do you other writers out there find Hilary Mantel’s approach rings a bell for you? Or do you rely on creating structure beforehand, and planning out the novel in detail? I’d love to know your own creative practice!

Glimpses of Paranormal Warwickshire Part 3: Guy’s Cliffe

This is the third in my series of glimpses into the subject of my new book Paranormal Warwickshire which will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.

Guy’s Cliffe claimed its hold on my imagination from the first time I saw it, not long after I moved to Warwickshire twenty six years ago.

Guys Cliffe seen from Saxon Mill photo credit Abigail Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
Guys Cliffe seen from Saxon Mill photo credit Abigail Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman

Clinging to a cliff alongside the river Avon north of Warwick, this ruined gothic mansion nearly fulfilled Shakespeare’s words in Two Gentlemen of Verona Act 5, Scene 4:

Leave not the mansion so long tenantless,

Lest, growing ruinous, the building fall

And leave no memory of what it was!

As in the case of all grand historical houses, this one has been vulnerable to the changing fortunes of the families who held it over the centuries, and in particular the use to which it was put, and the way it was treated, during the two World Wars. Some of these grand houses were saved, others not.

Guys Cliffe courtyard photo credit Jamie Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
Guys Cliffe courtyard photo credit Jamie Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman

In this case, the mansion at Guy’s Cliffe, first built by wealthy landowner Samuel Greatheed in 1751, has survived the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune – but only in a ruined state. Today it teases and haunts those who view it, with its gothic architectural flourishes, thanks to the romantic imagination of its most colourful owner, Bertie Greatheed, whose influence is felt everywhere in Warwick and Leamington Spa.

Guys Cliffe entrance courtyard photo credit Jamie Robinson. Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
Guys Cliffe entrance to the Courtyard photo credit Jamie Robinson. Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman

The full story is told in my book Paranormal Warwickshire, in which I repeat many curious anecdotes about this atmospheric ruin and its environs. During the course of my research, I interviewed the custodian Adrian King whose love of the history and the spiritual ambiance of this location is very evident; not least in the facts that he currently leads a major fundraising effort to restore the site, and also hosts popular ghost-hunting tours at this location.

The present ruinous condition of the mansion serves only to feed the imagination of all those who view it from the Saxon Mill, further down the river, and all those who tour the ruins as I did, with Adrian’s expert guidance.

Guys Cliffe 1900 photo credit Warwickshire County Record Office SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
Guys Cliffe as it appeared in 1900 photo credit Warwickshire County Record Office SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire

The land on which Guy’s Cliffe is built attracted ancient Celtic people and Christian hermits long before any structures existed here. According to 16th century historians, the combination of an idyllic glade with many clear streams above a steep rock full of caves… washed at the bottom by a crystal river proved irresistable to the Romans, cave-dwelling hermits, the Earl of Warwick, and chantry priests; and to many others.

The enduring legend of Guy of Warwick is centred upon this location, and the tragic tale of his wife, the lady Felice, and her fateful plunge from the cliff has imbued the site with its poignant aura.

John Rous historian chantry priest guys cliffe Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
John Rous, medieval historian and Chantry Priest at Guys Cliffe, writing in the year 1440, tells us of the Celtic monk St Dubritous who established the St Mary Magdalene Oratory here in the year 600

Now, the grounds of Guy’s Cliffe receive loving attention; clearance work and restoration of the formal gardens is underway and in the not too distant future, visitors may gain greater access to this beguiling location with its ruined mansion, the Chapel of Mary Magdalene with its statue of Guy of Warwick, its mysterious grounds and outbuildings, which never cease to deliver curious experiences and strange stories, right up to the present day.

Check out my previous posts on the subject of Guy’s Cliffe estate.

The walled garden which was formerly the kitchen garden for the mansion

and

romantic ruin in a dreamlike state

If you are interested in supporting the fundraising project headed by Adrian King do look here for further details.

You can read much more about Guy’s Cliffe in my book Paranormal Warwickshire which will be published on 15th November 2020 by Amberley Publishing. Pre-order the book here.

Cover Reveal: ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ by SC Skillman

I’m delighted to be able to bring you the cover reveal for my new book, Paranormal Warwickshire, which is due to be released by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.

PARANORMAL WARWICKSHIRE by SC Skillman
Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman

I’ve been looking forward to this for several months, as I wondered which of the photos (taken either by myself, by my son Jamie or my daughter Abigail) would be chosen for the front cover! Would it be the very atmospheric night shot of St Mary’s Warwick against an inky blue sky, the path into the graveyard to the left, and light spilling out from the windows? Would it be that iconic view of Warwick Castle that everyone sees as they cross the bridge into Warwick? Would it be one of our moody images of mysterious Guy’s Cliffe?

Well, now I know, and I’m thrilled with the cover. I hope you too find that it intrigues you, and stirs your imagination.

Warwickshire is a county steeped in the supernatural, as befits the county of Shakespeare and the many ghosts and spirits that he conjured up in his works.

The towns and villages of Warwickshire, its castles, houses, churches, theatres, inns and many other places both grand and everyday have rich and complex stories to tell of paranormal presences.

In this book I investigate the rich supernatural heritage of this county at the heart of England in places such as Guy’s Cliffe House, the Saxon Mill, Kenilworth Castle, Warwick Castle, St Mary’s Church in Warwick, Nash’s House in Stratford-upon- Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and Stoneleigh Abbey, as well as in the towns of Rugby, Nuneaton and Leamington Spa.

I explore the spiritual resonance of each location, recounting the tales of paranormal activity associated with it and examining the reasons for this within the history of the place.

Paranormal Warwickshire takes the reader into the world of ghosts and spirits in the county, following their footsteps into the unknown. These tales of haunted places, supernatural happenings and shadowy presences will delight the ghost hunters, and fascinate and intrigue everybody who knows Warwickshire.

I hope that whets your appetite for the book; and don’t forget to get your pre-order in! You can choose Amazon UK or Amazon US or Waterstones or Amberley’s own website. But as an alternative, as a tribute to Warwickshire, may I encourage you to order from our lovely indie bookshops, Warwick Books or Kenilworth Books.

Enchantment in the Natural World in this Time of Lockdown

As the days of the lockdown pass, I’m becoming more aware of a new and powerful sense of renewal in the natural world.

Not only have I noticed this on my daily walks but I am hearing it from other people too.

“It’s like going back 50 years. Everyone is so much more ‘together’ and more friendly.”

“The sky is much bluer, the water in the River Avon is much clearer. The birdsong is outstanding.”

“Air quality has improved. There are no longer any chem-trails from planes flying over.”

I myself on my walks feel that nature is much brighter and more intense and more abundant than I have ever known before.

The light keeps shining on delicate buds and new baby leaf sprays about to burst open. The green is rich, the white is intense. It is all very spiritual.

I find myself being constantly ‘surprised.’ As I returned home from one walk, everything became more golden and more green until it was almost overwhelming.

Nature has flourished because human activity has been subdued.

This isn’t just the open countryside, it’s the pockets of green and the pathways and small areas of parkland nestled in between and alongside houses and canal and roads.

This is how it appears to me because we are all slowing down, the streets are quiet, we are not all engaging in frenzied activity and chasing achievement and Doing and Aquiring Things as we normally do.

“May this heal us from the sickness that brings death to the body; may this heal us from the sickness that brings death to the soul.”

Remembering Binna Burra Lodge, Glorious Mountain Eyrie in Queensland, Australia, Destroyed by Fire, September 2019

In South East Queensland, Australia, high in the mountain ranges that rise up behind Surfers Paradise, forming the Gold Coast hinterland, you will reach the small town of Canungra. And there you will find the road to Binna Burra.

Photos taken at Binna Burra, in the Lamington National Park, Gold Coast hinterland, South East Queensland, Australia

At the end of the road is Binna Burra Lodge, set in lush rainforest, high in the glorious mountain ranges of the Lamington National Park. Or at least, you could find it until 7th September 2019 when raging bushfires burned all the cabins and buildings to the ground, felling massive rainforest trees and sending them crashing down across the only road to the site, preventing firefighters from reaching the grounds of the lodge.

Rich with wildlife this rainforest eyrie is a paradise location I visited at least four times during the few years I spent living in Australia 1985-1990, and then visited again when I returned to Australia in 2007 – and was planning to visit again in November 2019. But everyone had to evacuate the site in the face of encroaching fire on Friday 6th September.

The first time I visited Binna Burra on my own, I was delighted with the warm welcome, the conviviality with others who had also come alone, the joyful meals together in the Lodge, the immensely knowledgable tour guide whom I dubbed ‘Peter the Rainforest Host’, the walks through the rainforest, the many magical discoveries and the sublime views.

Binna Burra has special memories for me. Birdsong echoes from peak to peak, the blue haze of eucalyptus vapour often veils the richly forested slopes, and the lure of the Coomera Falls on the 22 kilometre Coomera Circuit awaits keen bushwalkers who love majestic views from rocky outcrops.

I remember feeling as if I was in another dimension up at Binna Burra, the atmosphere so rarefied, the air wine-sweet, a magical presence separate from the world. Here it was I had one of the few mystical experiences of my life.

Another with memories of the Lodge, Cecilia O’Grady, who worked there 1982-1986, said: “I feel quite emotional thinking about it, the history of the place. It’s very spiritual. It’s beautiful.”

The cycle of life in Australia, well known to the aborigines, involves controlled burn-offs. The periodic apparent cataclysm of fire turns the fertile landscape into a devastated waste of blackened stumps, where you would think all life had been eliminated. And yet life returns. The rains come, the green shoots spring up, and the fertile land renews itself.

But for Binna Burra fire is unknown. It is a lush, green, wet environment normally resistant to such fire. “It’s a rainforest, it’s a lush wet green place, how can it be burning?” said Professor Darryl Jones, Griffith University ecologist.

It is impossible to look anywhere else other than climate change for the reasons behind this tragedy. Nevertheless I hope that the rainforest will demonstrate once again its miraculous power for the renewal of life, and I have faith in the restoration of this glorious mountain top eyrie with the construction of a new lodge and accommodation.

I’ve previously written on this blog about Binna Burra: read it here. Also I’ve written about another rainforest lodge in Lamington National Park, OReilly’s, which you may read here.

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal, mystery

fiction and non-fiction

My next book ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ will be published by Amberley Publishing in 15th June 2020

I’m pleased to announce that I have signed a contract

I’m pleased to announced that I have signed a contract with history publishers Amberley Publishing for a book about Warwickshire to be published in June 2020. This will be a highly illustrated book full of stories arranged under themes from Shakespeare’s ghosts and spirits.

St Mary’s Church Warwick at night. Photo credit: Jamie Robinson.

The book will explore some of the supernatural and spiritual stories in the region. It describes a number of Warwickshire’s most iconic locations which I believe have spiritual resonance and which I’ve visited many times.

These include Guy’s Cliffe House and the Saxon Mill in Warwick; Hall’s Croft and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon; Warwick Castle and Kenilworth Castle among other locations.

I’m weaving into this insights from Shakespeare’s ghosts and spirits. And I’ve also been out and about interviewing and listening to people closely associated with the properties who have rich and fascinating stories to tell.

More news on this to follow!

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit & Perilous Path

Book Review: ‘The Magical History of Britain’ by Martin Wall

The period of British history which we call the Dark Ages was not dark at all – according to the author of this book, Martin Wall.The Magical History of Britain by Martin Wall

But we do know the period this term covers, between about 500 and 1000 BC, was marked by frequent warfare. Many of us choose to imagine it best probably through the medium of fantasy, in books, films and TV drama, such as The Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones.

The darkness only refers to our  lack of knowledge of the period. And this author was inspired by the discovery of the Staffordshire Horde, to pour what must have been exhaustive research into the writing of this book.

Reading ‘The Magical History of Britain‘ is a rewarding experience, if you would love to fill in the details of a profoundly obscure period of Britain’s history including the so-called Dark Ages, and the recurrent struggles over many generations between Christians and Pagans. The author states that he was inspired to write this book by the discovery of the Staffordshire Horde. And although I was enthralled, I did from time to time find myself wishing the author had resisted the urge to pack so much information in, often giving a blow-by-blow account of events in long, weighty paragraphs, and filling in the entire life history of every character he featured.

Nevertheless it was still a fascinating book and of one thing we can be sure – through all the centuries on this Island, the Celts, the Romans, the Britons, the Danes, the Pagans, the Christians, the Anglo Saxons and the Normans have all been every bit as bad as each other, when it comes to wholesale slaughter and sadistic punishments.

The author draws through his narrative a thread of myth and magic, and his treatment of the Arthurian mythology is particularly interesting – a mythology that I believe puts down very deep roots in our national psyche. Somehow we can all relate to that longing for the once and future king. I know I have long loved the stories of Arthur and Guinevere, and the knights of the round table, along with the enchantress Nimue and the wizard Merlin.

Towards the end of this challenging read, including a detailed account of the life and work of Aleister Crowley, it was a positive relief to come through to the conclusion of Martin Walls’s narrative and to read his account of the Inklings meeting in Oxford – bringing us back to two of my most beloved authors, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, along with a fellow-member of the Inklings and a great friend of theirs, Owen Barfield.

The book concludes with some astute and discerning remarks about the present state of Britain in regard to its history, its national psyche and its spiritual and magical mythologies.

 

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path

Book Review: “London: A Spiritual History” by Edoardo Albert

I loved this book – attracted to it originally in the shop of the Royal Naval College Visitor Centre, Greenwich, by its delightful, playful cover design.London A Spiritual History by Edoardo Albert

London: A Spiritual History by Edoardo Albert begins by telling the history of London from well before the Roman invasion, and then bringing us through to the present day, interspersed with plenty of personal observations from the author who spent several years as a TV repairman travelling the London streets and working in many different people’s homes.

Albert’s survey of London history is fascinating, and further enlivened by his own personal take on famous characters like Thomas Cromwell, (Henry VIII’s right-hand man), and William Blake, the visionary.

Then the author moves into his own personal spiritual search over many years, which interweaves with London and its multi-faceted character, from Catholicism through atheism and then onto the various magical and mystical groups with which London abounds.

I identified with so much of this, having lived in central London during my twenties, and having tried out many of these groups myself throughout the capital, such as the Theosophical Society and the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain – not to mention a passing flirtation with the Rosicrucians. though I can’t claim to have applied for membership of the Order of the Golden Dawn!

Albert’s final “epiphany” comes with such disarming simplicity it is genuinely moving. A highly recommended book.

 

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal mystery fiction

Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path

Book Review: “The Making of Us” by Sheridan Voysey

Here’s a book which should appeal to those of you who feel as if you’ve reached  a point in your lives where all that you hoped for has not been achieved; maybe it seems you have to let go of your dreams; and perhaps you simply don’t know where to go from here.

The Making of Us by Sheridan Voysey

 The Making of Us by Sheridan Voysey is the story of a pilgrimage on foot from the island of Lindisfarne (Holy Island) to the Shrine of St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral. It’s  also a Christian-inspired self-help book enabling readers to reflect upon their own life journeys. Following the rhythm of the two pilgrims, (the author Sheridan Voysey and his friend DJ), we can visualise the landscape they travel, and feel the spiritual highs and the physical and emotional lows of the journey.

I met Sheridan at an author’s conference a couple of years ago. He told us his story, and spoke about his books and his broadcasting work, and then, having shared his own writing journey, he offered inspiration and guidance to the writers in the audience.

During the day he also offered his expertise as an experienced broadcaster, and asked for volunteers among us, to come up so he could interview us about ourselves and our books. I was one of those who volunteered, and it was a very helpful and enlightening exercise in the art of introducing yourself to a radio audience within a limited time-frame, in the most succinct and engaging way!

Sheridan is originally from Brisbane in Australia, though he now lives in Oxford in the UK.  I find his observations about Brisbane and Sydney particularly poignant as I lived in Brisbane myself for four and a half years before returning to live in the UK.

I have another personal connection with the subject of Sheridan’s book: I visited Lindisfarne (Holy Island) myself three years ago. This island is a very special place, and I felt a strong spiritual presence there; a retreat on the island offers several ways to reflect upon your life and your place in the world and in the universe.  During his promotional videos for the release of this book, Sheridan has included videos of Holy Island and of him walking across to the island from the mainland during low tide.

Through the medium of this physical journey between Lindisfarne and the Shrine of St Cuthbert, Sheridan teaches us much deeper values which may apply to our own lives, especially those of us who may define ourselves by any of the following:

  • who we know
  • our possessions
  • our status
  • our dreams and ambitions
  • our job titles.

Do you, perhaps, suffer from imposter syndrome This is an affliction that often applies to writers – even those whom the world might consider “successful”. Or, do you find that when people ask what you “do”, you respond with what you used to do?

These two pilgrims’ journey through the woods and fields and paths and roads of Northumberland then starts to parallel our own life journeys. During Sheridan’s description of the walk, he reflects upon periods in his own past life story. Places he and DJ visit give rise to memories of people he has known whom he now sees in a new light.

In all this, Sheridan’s purpose seems to be to shift our value systems, our vision of what really matters about our lives here on this earth. He interweaves biographical information about the Celtic saints Aidan and Cuthbert into his pilgrimage, giving us the opportunity to relate aspects of their journeys to our own.

One of the most striking sentences in the book is:

Maybe when identity is lost we can discover who we really are.”

And the most challenging question:

Could you be content having your contribution to the world left unknown or forgotten, yet known by God and pleasing to him?

At the end of the book, Sheridan gives a series of questions to reflect on for each chapter, and several blank journalling pages if you wish to use the book as the basis for a much more in-depth project of self-knowledge. The book could be used as a group resource as well as an individual one; but if you were to study and work with the book as part of a group, that group would need to be one in which you felt safe and secure.

He also offers his own contemporary Creed which you may download from his website sheridanvoysey.com.

I give this book the highest possible rating, 5 stars, and I recommend it to all those of you who resonate with what I’ve written in this review.

I received a complimentary copy of this title in exchange for a fair and honest review.

 

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction and inspirational non-fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path