Thursday, 14 October 2021

CREATION by Bjorn Larssen @bjornlarssen #RBRT

(Subtitle: Why Odin Drinks Book #1)

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.  But I also bought the paperback, because I was fairly sure I'd like it!

In a Nutshell: In the beginning there was confusion...

I read Bjørn Larssen's debut novel, Storytellers, which made some references to Norse gods and featured a certain subtle humour in places.  I also read his second novel, Children, which is about the children of Norse gods and contains far more funny bits.  I've read many of his blog posts and follow him on Twitter; the conclusion I've come to is that Mr Larssen is a terrific comedic writer, first and foremost, so I'm delighted that he's actually written A FUNNY BOOK!

Creation is a novella, a slim paperback (beautifully presented), is hilarious, and made me laugh out loud on several occasions, which books rarely do.  It's about Odin and his brothers, Vili and Vé, creating the world.  Except they're not very good at it and don't really understand what they're doing.  They wonder how to get the food out of Audhumla the cow, why words like 'anvil' 'laptop' and 'algebra' keep popping into their heads, how the flying water happened and why the wolf bit off the peacock's head.  Odin discovers that, along with man and woman, he has created irony. 

I think it's the sort of book you find screamingly funny or you don't, depending on your sense of humour.  I echo the words of Bjørn's husband, when he finished reading it: 'When can I get more?'

Tuesday, 12 October 2021

LINE by Niall Bourke

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I read a review of it on Mairéad Hearne's blog, HERE

In a Nutshell: Dystopian. Speculative Fiction.  From the blurb - Line pushes the boundaries of speculative, high concept fiction. Deeply moving, it also touches on many of the pressing issues of our turbulent world: migration and the refugee crisis, big data and the erosion of democracy, climate change, colonialism, economic exploitation, social conformity and religious fanaticism

At some unspecified time in the future, Willard lives on the Line - a constantly moving tented community that stretches as far as the eye can see in either direction.  Line dwellers subsist on the bare essentials, their faith that what lies at the end is worthy waiting for, and the fear of consequences should they dare to leave; away from the Line there is nothing.  A failed attempt to escape means a fate worse than death, as is attempting to skip one's place.  It has existed for generations, and children know of the sacrifice made by their parents and their grandparents to afford them their current place.  Nobody knows why it began or where it goes, just that they are heading towards some better unknown.

I loved the first part, with a restless Willard questioning his life.  The writing was great, most absorbing; I was so impressed by the whole concept of the Line and looked forward to finding out how the people had been coerced into living according to its rules, believing in the myth of the end, and how the Line had developed its own code of law and become its own society.

Around half way through, we leave the Line and surrounding nothingness, and are presented with what feels like a different book, detailing the wider truths about the world.  Much of it appears in the form of a printed handbook, about the current economic situation, about technological progress and philosophy.  It's extremely dense and complex, and rather dull; you know when you read a text book because you need to learn about something, but the way in which it is written makes your brain shake its head and say, 'Nuh-uh, not storing all these words'?  That was how this was.  I kept trying to take it in but it didn't want to stay.  I felt as though the ideas had not been developed enough; the whole middle section about the new London seemed disjointed, and I just didn't buy it.

During the last one fifth of the book we come to the whys and hows of the Line: the psychology of how and why people queue and wait, of hope, faith, religion, generational beliefs passed down, of the vision behind the line and the whole truth about it—so up my street I welcomed it in with coffee and cake, and loved it all over again.  Fascinating.  The end was sad and bleak, but right for the story.  I like those sort of endings.

To sum up: a first class idea and I'm glad I read it, but I felt there needed to be more.  More background, more detail, more attention to 'readability', more character-based narrative and fewer pages out of the handbook.   And thanks again to Mairéad for introducing me to it :)

Friday, 8 October 2021

NEAR DEATH by Richard Wall @writinblues

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: Twitter; I'd seen a few tweets about it from the author, then one day I took a look.

In a Nutshell: Murders most brutal, with a paranormal theme.

The story is set in the early 1960s in New York and rural South Carolina.  John Henry Beauregard, a Korean War veteran, is working as the chaplain in Sing Sing prison, when he is called to give last rites to Joseph Hickey, a vicious murderer whose crimes were so horrific that details are withheld from most.  Hickey taunts John, and promises that he'll see him again, even though he is about to be frazzled on Old Sparky.

As other similar murders begin to take place, John and his friend, NYPD cop Eugene, begin to explore possible theories that sound insane even to themselves.  They are both psychologically damaged and at times just trying to hang onto the threads of their lives.

I enjoyed this book all the way through.  Throughout the main story, mostly told by John in the first person, are short chapters that hint about why events are taking place, with the reader being left to piece it all together, gradually.  The pace and drip-feeding of information worked so well, and made the story a real page-turner.  Lots of unpredictable events; I do love a novel in which I can't guess what's going to happen.

The characters of John and Eugene were very likeable, as was Vinnie, the hard-nosed lawyer who flips the bird at convention and authority, and I loved the writing style, which was clear, simple and effective.  I only had one problem with it: 'black', as in the colour of a person's skin, was spelled with a capital B in most but not all cases.  I know this is favoured by the politically correct in this day and age, but it was not so at the time John was telling this story, and it looked out of place.  Similarly, John uses the phrase 'people of color', which was not introduced and popularised until at least a decade later.  I wouldn't usually nit-pick about stuff like this that wouldn't bother most people, but they really stood out to me.

Paranormal is not my usual genre of choice, but it totally worked in this story, seeming possible and believable, and I liked the author's take on what happens after death.  The book is clever, humorous in parts, touching, terribly sad and fairly brutal, with gory and shocking detail, so it's not a book for the faint of heart.  I'm very glad I stopped on that tweet, clicked the link to Amazon and downloaded it on Kindle Unlimited.  At some point I shall take a look at the rest of Mr Wall's work.  Nice one.

Monday, 4 October 2021

MISTRESS CONSTANCY by Gemma Lawrence @TudorTweep

5 GOLD stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: One of my favourite authors, and have been looking forward to this since I knew she was writing it.

In a Nutshell: Book 1 of The Armillary Sphere series, about Lady Jane Rochford

A terrific few days' reading!  Like Ms Lawrence, I have always felt sympathy for Jane, wife of George Boleyn—I think she had a raw deal and, though enjoying the privilege that came with noble birth, was dealt a marked card, i.e., a husband who would never consider her as he did his family or his own requirements.  Her whole life with him was like having a visitor's pass to a club she would never be allowed to join.

This first episode of The Armillary Sphere series takes us from Jane's childhood to the moment of Henry VIII's avowal to make Anne Boleyn his next queen.  Jane's view of court life is different yet again from those in Ms Lawrence's series about Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, but most interesting of all was the 'second sight' that has been given to her for the purpose of these novels—flashes of insight into a future that might be.  So clever, and so sad that she had to hide this gift for fear of being thought insane.  Jane's life seemed full of fear; the passages about her despair at George's lack of interest in her, and the way she felt empathy with Katherine's over the King's indifference, were heartbreaking; in those days, of course, women could not just walk away and find a better life.

Something I hadn't read about before that I found horribly fascinating—it's common knowledge that Katherine of Aragon wore a hair shirt, but I didn't know about the effects of such practice.  This, and the details of Katherine's fanatical religious devotion, made me wonder if she was possessed of certain psychiatric maladies that she passed on to her daughter, considering the progress of Mary's reign.  I realise that we can't judge the actions of those who lived over five hundred years ago by the standards of these days, and that they both suffered a great deal at the hands of the men who ruled their lives, but the behaviour is not dissimilar.

In this book, more than any other of Ms Lawrence's historical novels, Jane says much about how women were viewed as a subspecies completely under the control of men.  Unlike Anne and Empress Matilda, though, Jane had neither the mettle to fight against it nor the disposition to accept it, which added to her unhappiness.  I loved reading about her mixed emotions towards Anne, her accounts of their day-to-day lives—and, especially, the scenes set in Hever Castle and Penshurt Place, because I visited them two years ago, so could picture them so clearly!  There is one account of festivities held in the Baron's Hall at Penshurst, a place I found fairly mind-blowing, so that was a real treat. Also, when I read about Henry's bedroom being prepared at Hever—I have been in that room!

I thoroughly enjoyed this excellent book, and am so looking forward to reading about how Jane's relationship with her husband and his family progresses, and her part in the rise and fall of Anne.  Highly recommended!

Pictures from my trip to Hever and Penshurst HERE

Thursday, 30 September 2021

I Jonathan, A Charleston Tale of the Rebellion by George W B Scott #RBRT

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

In a Nutshell: Historical drama about Charleston during and after the American Civil War.

Jonathan Vander is marooned in Charleston on his way back to his hometown of Boston, just as the Civil War is brewing.  Circumstances leave him with nothing but the shirt on his back, but he makes himself a life there.  He does not fight in the war; this is more of a social than a military history, showing how the war affected the people during and for many years after.  

The book is written as though a third hand true story; as an old man, Jonathan gives his account to his great-great nephew, who then gives it to the writer.  It is one of those novels that you're aware of being a heck of an achievement, all the way through; the research that has gone into it is evident without one ever feeling that one is reading research.  It's highly readable, and I loved the writing style; it was a delight to read an author who uses the language so well, and is acutely aware of the words and phrasing that would have been used in this period in history.

I particularly liked Jonathan's observations about the futility of war; there is a good section about this in the chapter Laurels of Glory.  And I loved this:

'Duty to an abstract government whose purpose was to use the heroic idealism of youth to forward the goals of the venal wealthy.  Is it not always so?'

The observations and accounts of the attitudes towards the slave trade and segregation were most interesting; I was surprised by some of them.  'Several fine hotels on Broad Street by St Michael's Church were owned by free blacks, serving only whites.  Some freemen were themselves slaveowners, buying them to use as labourers'.  As always with historical events, though, you cannot judge them by the outlook and culture of today's world.

I found the end of the book, about the aftermath, most emotive, not to mention the moment when the reader is told what the 'I' in the title means - it is not as I'd assumed.  Now and again I felt the story meandered a mite too much; it is a very long book and I felt it could have been edited down just a little. However, I could not give it anything less than five stars, and highly recommend it to anyone with a particular interest in the American Civil War, or historical fiction generally.

Sunday, 19 September 2021

DESIRE & DECEIT by Carol Hedges @caroljhedges #RBRT

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member, but I bought it anyway because I adore this whole series!

In a Nutshell: Victorian Murder Mystery

I've just finished the final outing in this series of stand-alone Victorian murder mysteries, and every one has been a winner.  Frankly I could carry on reading them ad infinitum, but I understand that a writer needs a change now and then!

We enter once more the world of Detectives Stride and Cully, in mid-nineteenth century London, and are introduced to a fine array of characters, many new faces and others whom we have met before.  Of the latter, I particularly like Miss Lucy Landseer, private detective (or 'detector' as the owner of a exclusive tobacconists calls Cully and his protegée Tom Williams), who is the star of one of the secondary storylines; the main one centres around a dead body without a name, the questions being who is he, who killed him, and why?

Ms Hedges' excellent plotting and characterisation shines out on every page, with her familiar themes rippling through the story: the massive chasm of difference between the haves and the have-nots, the pretentiousness of the aspirational lower middle class, the lot of women of all classes, corrupt MPs with their 'jobs for the boys' (no change there then) and complete disinterest in and disregard for the scum of humanity that floats beneath them (i.e., everyone in the country apart from their families and peers).  Then there are the music hall artistes, the conmen, and those who think they can get away with murder.

I very much liked the parliamentary clerk known only as 'the Replacement' (the MP for which he works never does bother to find out his name), and Euphemia Harbinger, an elderly lady facing the end of her life, once celebrated in society, who is more wise and experienced than her grasping, inheritance-chasing family could ever imagine.  I also loved Harriet Harbinger, a young girl being constantly overlooked in favour of her twin brother, who has her sights set on the high seas and adventure.

As ever, the threads of the story were satisfactorily wrapped up, but this time I finished it with a certain sadness, knowing there will not be any more.  This book is an absolute treat, as are all of the other eight.  If you haven't read any of them yet, I envy you!

Monday, 13 September 2021

IMMORTELLE by Catherine McCarthy @serialsemantic

out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I've read short stories by this author and liked them very much; thus, I bought!

In a Nutshell: Novella, dark mystery/ghost/mild thriller, set in rural Wales about a hundred years ago (I think).

The story is about Elinor, a ceramic artist interested in pagan and supernatural folklore/magic, whose daughter Rowena dies under mysterious circumstances.  In her grief, Elinor starts work on an immortelle (a ceramic, glass-domed wreath, particularly popular in the Victorian and Edwardian eras) as a memento as a memento for Rowena's grave.

Soon, many local people are asking her to make immortelles for their own dead loved ones, and, around a year later, one of the departed recipients appears to her.  Elinor has always had suspicions about Rowena's death, and believes that at some point her fears will be confirmed.

As with the other stories I've read by Catherine McCarthy, this one reeks of Welsh mysticism and secrets hidden in the hills, floating by on the wind or trickling in with the tide.  It is beautifully written, with not a drop in quality all the way through; it is this, and the atmosphere Ms McCarthy creates, that made this a page turner throughout, even in the middle section which is more concerned with emotion than events.  Such was the subtle build up of suspense that I felt, all the way through, as if there might be a truly shocking occurrence just round the corner.

I'd class it as a low-key supernatural mystery rather than horror, though it does have that dark, sinister quality to it that this author pulls off so well; it probably comes naturally, as she was clearly born to write this stuff!  The story totally works; it fits nicely into the novella length with an ending that is pleasing on several levels.

Sunday, 12 September 2021

Guest Post: Tom Williams on the re-release of CAWNPORE #History #IndianMutiny @TomCW99

Tom Williams, writer of historical fiction, has just republished his book Cawnpore, about the Indian Mutiny.  It is the second book in his trilogy entitled The John Williamson Papers, and is available from Amazon HERE.  

I've read the whole trilogy and can most definitely recommend, especially if you have particular interest in the Victorian era.  The first book in the series, The White Rajah, will be of particular interest to anyone who has enjoyed the new Jonathan Rhys Myers film Edge of the World - it is Tom's fictional version of this true story, and does, I believe, pay more attention to historical accuracy!

I hope you will enjoy this guest post from him... take it away, Tom :)

here has been a lot of talk lately about how people in Britain don’t know anything about the history of the British Empire. The ‘Empire Project’, people say, should be looked at afresh. The British should face up to the reality of the things that the country did in the past.

The British Empire in 1837 - British possessions in dark grey.

The problem is that it’s an uncomfortable thing to do. Partly because from a 21st century liberal perspective much of the Empire Project was morally objectionable, but also because it means questioning some of the same 21st century liberal thinking about heroes of the liberation struggle.

My book Cawnpore was first published in 2011, long before the recent resurgence of interest in Empire. It’s set in 1857 and we are immediately mired in controversy.

I refer to the events of 1857 as the Indian Mutiny because my ‘Empire’ stories are written in the first person and that’s what people called the fighting in India then. (For the same reason, I write about Cawnpore rather than call it by its modern name of Kanpur.) Indians tend to refer to the same conflict as the First Indian War of Independence. The Indian name is slightly more accurate but both are misleading. It was definitely not a mutiny, but nor was it a war of Indians vs Europeans. In today’s terminology, it was probably best described as an insurgency.

If there is controversy about the name of the place the book is set and what to call the events at the heart of the story, that’s nothing to the differences in the way that the people in the story are viewed. (Except for my fictional narrator, almost everybody in the book is a real person.)

The story of Cawnpore, whoever tells it, is a tragedy. British forces, surrendering after a long siege, were massacred. The Indian commanders attempted to save many of the women and children who had been trapped in the siege. Later, though, all the women and children were massacred in their turn.

Artist: Jason Askew

It was, by any standards, utterly appalling. It was used by the British to justify reprisals all across India, with the mass murder of men, most of whom were nowhere near Cawnpore and many of whom were not involved in any rebellion.

The Memorial Well on the site of the massacre, photographed in 1860

Both Indians and Europeans have much to be ashamed of. Yet until late in the 20th century, Cawnpore was taught in British history books as a story of native savagery. There was little discussion of why British troops were in India in the first place and nothing about the horrific reprisals against civilians. Now the pendulum has swung. The memorial on the site of the massacre has been removed and the park where it was has been renamed after the man responsible for the killings, Nana Sahib. He has been hailed as a hero of the liberation struggle. His image has even appeared on postage stamps.

The trouble with discussions of the rights and (multiple) wrongs of the Empire Project is that the issues are seldom as ethically clear-cut as modern commentators would like and the details of particular events have often been lost or lack context. In many ways, works of fiction can raise these issues more easily than history books. In my case, Cawnpore describes the events of 1857 as seen by a European who was there but who was horrified by the actions of both sides. The reader sees things as my fictional narrator saw them and then has to draw their own conclusions as to where their sympathies lie.'


Would you like to know more?

Tom's blog, on which you can read more about 19th century history, about his other historical series, thoughts on writing, and much other assorted random stuff!

Tom's Facebook Page

Follow Tom on Twitter

Tom's Books on Amazon UK

Monday, 6 September 2021


4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

In a Nutshell: Unusual family drama.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, which is both entertaining and incredibly sad.  It is set mostly in 1989/90, with flashbacks to the 1930s, and Matty Osborne, also known as Matilda Windsor, has been a resident in psychiatric hospitals for fifty years - since she was around twenty.  The reason given at the time was 'moral turpitude' - in other words, becoming pregnant without being married.  I remember seeing something on television once, a long time ago, about how, in the first half of this century, young girls who were committed to asylums for getting pregnant, and were never let out again.  In this circumstance, Matty eventually lost her mind; her path to this state is not revealed until the end of the book.

She believes that she is in her own stately home - sometimes during the Great War, at other times during World War II - that the other residents are her guests, and the carers are her staff.  The story weaves between three points of view: Matty, a young carer called Janice, and Matty's younger half-brother Henry who doesn't know where she is or why she left home.  The staff of Tuke House have no idea whatsoever what goes on in Matty's head, or probably within the head of any of the residents.  Janice is likable and fun, and I enjoyed the portrayals of the people she worked with, most of them ghastly, grey jobsworths with limited imagination.  She is very much a young woman of the Thatcher years with anti-Thatcher ideals; I felt such a sense of going back over 3 decades when I read about her.

I guessed early on what had led to Matty's dreadful fate, but it's not obvious, and I did change my mind a few times; either way, the fact that we don't know 'how, who and why' adds to the page-turning quality of the book.  When I got to the end of her 1930s story, I could have cried at how alone she was, how there was no-one, anywhere, who would listen to and believe her.  It was so tragic, so shocking, made even more so because you know that this sort of thing happened to so many girls, never mind the stories of some of her friends in the unmarried mothers' home. 

Another element that adds to the suspense is Henry's search for the long lost sister he hardly remembers, and all the near misses when he could have found her but didn't.  They're frustrating; each time I though, oh, they're going to find each other!

I found this book particularly interesting because I've worked at a psychiatric hospital in the past, and because I was reminded of my late mother, who had Alzheimer's for eleven years and lived in a care home for the last seven or so years of her life.  I visited her often; I remember her being under the impression that the place was a hotel, and the carers were waitresses.

Although this story has a certain amount of resolution, I gather there is to be a sequel.  I admit to being a little disappointed as I expected to get to the end and have everything nicely wrapped up - but life isn't like that, and the stories of Matty, Janice and Henry will continue.  I look forward to reading the next book when it appears!

Monday, 30 August 2021

SHIPWRECK by Gemma Lawrence @TudorTweep

5 GOLD stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: a favourite author, and I've read Books 1 and 2 in the series

In a Nutshell: The life of Empress Matilda, shortly before and after her disputed reign as monarch of England.

What a marvellous book this is - I loved every word.  By far my favourite so far of this series.

'All stories begin with Water'.

In line with Gemma Lawrence's many other tales of English women of history, this begins with Matilda in old age, pondering the waters of life and death, God and free will, winter, youth and old age, power and the accumulation of wisdom.  So beautifully written I highlighted far too many passages to add to this review; the two that follow are maybe not the most lyrical, but were some of the first to jump out at me.

We spend our lives trying to forget we are but temporary creatures, that Death will come one day.  All things we accumulate, money, clothes, possessions, houses, even love are but loaned to us, we castellans of all that life provides.  We are here to carry the story on, take it to another page, pass it to another ... what matters is the torch, the light we pass on, the shadows that light casts.

When fools ask why God, all powerful and of goodness made would allow sin and evil to exist, I shake my head...he granted free will so when and if we choose to do good, it is our goodness, worth all the more for we could have worked evil. 
God wanted us to learn, and we learn more from making mistakes.  Without free will there would be no mistakes, and so we, His children, would never grow.

Before reading this book I knew nothing about the fight between Matilda and Stephen for the throne of England, except that she gained recognition as rightful monarch but was never crowned, then the tables were turned and Stephen was crowned a second time.  I was to learn about the part Stephen's wife, another Matilda, played in the strategy of this war; of course, as with the Wars of the Roses, the victories won by the women, away from the battle field, featured little in the history books until recently. Our Matilda talks much about the lot of women, throughout this book - and here's something I learned: long ago, the Queen in chess was all but useless, moving only as the King, sticking by his side.  I wondered who changed her into the most powerful piece on the board, and when this happened; I suspected it was around the time of the Tudor women, so looked it up.  The modern move began in Spain during the time of Queen Isabella I - Catherine of Aragon's mother.

The military strategies and ways of the 12th Century world are fascinating to read about; more than ever, in Ms Lawrence's books of these pre-Plantagenet times, I felt the atmosphere of those castles, could imagine myself in Matilda's shoes, every step of the way.  From when she captures Stephen, the constant sense of foreboding made this such a page turner, as her older self warns the reader that she got so much wrong.  Not least of all, she was not confident enough to be the Matilda that her supporters loved, but thought she must transform into, an almost sexless ruler, cold and hard as steel, rather than be criticised simply for being a woman.

We can't imagine the hardship people lived through in those days, though at times, when I read about Robert and her other friends fleeing cross country on foot, hiding from Stephen's armies, trading even their clothes for a place to stay or something to eat, I thought, maybe this is truly living—knowing danger and hunger and still waking up to walk another day, as opposed to the cossetted lives we live now.  A romantic notion, I know.

I liked this: 'Heinrich once said to me that the appetite often feeds on eating, that when one has not eaten for a while the belly ceases to protest, for it assumes there is no food and there is no sense squalling like a child for what it cannot have'.  Applicable to much.

The devastation that was wreaked on Winchester and Oxford during this war, in particular, made me contemplate how nothing changes or will ever change—those of money, born into power, set apart from the common man, see them as collateral damage when working or fighting to get what they want, even though the good amongst them might regret this.  They send people out to fight and die, laying waste to their homes, food, livelihoods, so that they might wear the crown (metaphorical or otherwise) and gain what they consider to be their rightful seat of power.  Matilda contemplates all this and more throughout the her lengthy and gradual downfall, when she learns so much and becomes, paradoxically, a woman worthy of a crown.

The book ends with the battle all but lost, in Oxford castle under siege and almost out of food, when Matilda and three loyal guards walk out into the snow to they know not what, so that those in the castle can safely surrender.

I can't wait for the next book, in which Matilda campaigns for England in the name of her son, Henry - who becomes, of course, Henry II.  This book works as a stand alone, and I can't recommend too highly.

Sunday, 15 August 2021

CATCH ME IF I FALL by Nikki Rodwell @NikkiRodwell

 5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: The author is a friend of my sister, who I got to know when she joined Twitter.

In a Nutshell: Personal story of psychosis and spine injury

I bought this memoir because I've got to know Nikki on Twitter and wanted to support her, and also because I wanted to read about how she recovered from a devastating spinal cord injury. I expected to find it moderately interesting, but it's riveting, from start to finish.  It's written in such a chatty, engaging way; Nikki definitely has plenty of storytelling talent.  I couldn't stop turning those pages.

I did not realise until I began the book that Nikki has a severe mental health problem - and no, I don't mean the sort that is claimed in many a social media post every time someone has a bit of a bad day or feels a bit anxious.  She suffers from psychosis, something I knew very little about.  Her account of the incident that culminated in her spinal cord injury was harrowing to read about, though more shocking in a different way was the blow-by-blow account of her slow, painstaking recovery.

I'm fascinated by all things psychological, less so by the medical, but I was still gripped all the way through this.  It's written in a very 'warts and all' fashion - now and again it was a bit 'TMI', but my goodness, I take my hat off to anyone who has been through an ordeal like Nikki's and come out smiling.  At the same time, I wondered if she realised how much she has told the reader about herself; for instance, she talks about her daughters frequently not speaking to each other or not speaking to her, as if this is something quite every-day, and, although she talks a little about her relationship with her father, I wondered if she sees how much it has influenced the rest of her life.

There was just one thing missing - pictures!  Nikki talks a lot about the photos she posted on Facebook, throughout, and it would have been so great to see them in the book.  However, if you look here on her blog, there are many posts under 'Hospital 2019' that show some of them, or you can sign up to her newsletter to see them (link in book), and also the video of her learning to walk again.

I so admire Nikki's guts in getting through this life-changing period, whilst turning negatives into positives and using the experience to re-evaluate her life.  I think it should be read by anyone who is going through a long recovery of this type or suffers from psychosis and the stigma attached to severe psychological problems; I hate to use the ghastly buzzword 'inspirational', but it really is.  I highly recommend it anyway, even if you don't think a medical memoir will be your sort of thing.  You won't be able to put it down either, I guarantee!

Monday, 9 August 2021

DEPARTURES by E J Wenstrom @EJWenstrom #RBRT

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

In a Nutshell: YA dystopian, brainwashing, mind control.

I adored the premise of this book - it is set way into the future, after devastating wars, in a part of the world ruled by the 'Directorate'.  Here, citizens live in environmentally safe domes called Quads, where every aspect of their lives is observed, every move they make controlled by their governors.  

To an extent, I saw this situation as a clever take on a world that could be waiting for us: the mildest physical or mental ill health is to be feared, free speech is not an option and the primary objective is safety for all.  No risk taking, no individuality, no strong ideals to make a stand for.  It made me think of a video I saw recently, from the Academy of Ideas (see below; it's worth a watch!).  

In the Quads, extremes of emotion are not allowed, and grief is treated with medication - which brings me to the title of the book.  All citizens have their 'departure' (death) date tattooed on their arm.  Many will live for over a century, but others are allowed far less time on this earth. Evie doesn't know why she is to die at aged seventeen, but, as with every other custom in the Quads, the 'departure' procedure is presented as a kindness; the Directorate wishes to spare the individual any pain or discomfort.

Full compliance is essential; any diversion from the official line, from the prescribed behaviour, is not tolerated.  

'The Directorate would do whatever was necessary to placate its citizens.  There would be an explanation.  A distraction.  And then life would move forward.  A few might question it all for a bit, but the tug of a content, easy life would ultimately lull them back into line.  Because, I realise, here's the kicker: what most people want is not to trust their government.  It's not to build a better world.  All they want is to be comfortable ... and with a sickening twist to my stomach, I realise that I am one of them.'

The problem with Evie's departure ceremony is not only that she doesn't know why she must die when her life has hardly begun. Her departure doesn't happen as it should. She lives. She is one of the few for whom the euthanasia medication doesn't work.

The book alternates between the points of view of Evie, as she finds herself outside the Quads in a strange world that isn't supposed to exist, and her sister Gracelynn, who is confused, hurting over the loss of her sister, and beginning to wonder if their lives are based on lies.  The writing itself is clear and effective, and the compelling plot line flows along.  Evie and Gracelynn's discoveries come to light gradually, with truths unravelling at just the right pace.  

For the first half of the book, Evie and Gracelynn's personalities were well-defined, very different, but as the action ramps up they become more alike.  This novel is YA, not usually my genre of choice as I have not been a young adult for decades, but I couldn't resist the plot.  I felt this was right for the younger end of the YA range; I can imagine liking it when I was about fourteen but finding it a bit too simplistic when older.

I would have liked some sort of explanation about where in the world this was supposed to take place; as this is a couple of hundred years or more into the future, it could be that the author envisions a world in which the countries as we know them no longer exist - fair enough.  There is a little background information, but I would have liked more, and to know how large an area the Quads are supposed to cover, as well as how big they are - I couldn't imagine them.  The only other problems I had with it were a) overuse of the word 'goofy',  and b) the malfunctioning euthanasia process - even now, there exists the means to put people to death quickly and effectively, so it seems unlikely that in a couple of centuries' time they would still be making errors.  However, any books of this genre require some belief suspension here and there, and this didn't bother me too much.  Not as much as all the goofy grins, anyway, or 'Jeeze' being spelled 'Geez' (as an expression of annoyance, it's short for 'Jesus') - repetitions and misspellings are something we all do, but these should have been picked up by the editor.

Departures is a stand-alone, though I imagine there is more to come; I liked the rather uncertain ending (no spoilers!), particularly Gracelynn's outcome.  E J Wenstrom has created a spookily plausible future world, and I'd certainly be interested in seeing what happens next.

Why an Obsession with Safety creates Sick Minds and a Sick Society

Sunday, 8 August 2021

LIFE IS LIKE A MOSAIC by Sally Cronin @sgc58 #MondayBlogs

5 GOLD stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: the author sent me a PDF, but then I bought it anyway because I wanted a proper Kindle copy.

In a Nutshell: Poetry and Pictures

I am somewhat blown away by this book - it's a work of art. 

The first part is a series of pictures - art, landscape, animals, birds, the fantastical, abstract, flowers, random objects, all sorts - each coupled with a short piece of free verse.  The poems are so clever, often just a few lines that encapsulate an idea, convey a piece of ponder-worthy wisdom, or paint a story in a flash-fiction fashion.  It's a delight from start to finish.  I believe Sally Cronin is producing hardbacks in the not too distant future; I will be purchasing several for presents.  And one for myself :)

Some of my favourites are astute comments on the darker side of the life we live now - notable are Scepticism, Westward-Two and The Future?.  Another repeated theme is that of ageing - I love Ageism and the last verse of Birthdays, in particular.  I name Ageism and Scepticism as joint winners!

The lovely Spices takes us into the second part, which consists of longer poems about Sally's life.  My favourite of these is The Lure of the Waltzer, which made me think of my early teenage years.

(reproduced with author's permission)

and spirit
strive not to lose
the urge to explore
outside the barriers
created by young ageists
who dictate terms of existence
for those who have reached a certain age
they forget
who created
the technology
medical advances
and freedoms they now enjoy
are they scared that once set adrift
we might just show them a thing or two?

Take a look on Amazon's 'Look Inside' feature - the book is so perfectly presented.  In an ideal world, the hardback ought to be on display in high street shops at Christmas with all those 'little books of wisdom' type publications, because it's better than any that I've seen!

Sally Cronin is the author of fifteen books including her memoir Size Matters: Especially when you weigh 330lb first published in 2001. This has been followed by another fourteen books both fiction and non-fiction including multi-genre collections of short stories and poetry.

Her latest release, Life is Like a Mosaic: Random fragments in harmony is a collection of 50 + images and poems on life, nature, love and a touch of humour.

As an author she understands how important it is to have support in marketing books and offers a number of FREE promotional opportunities in the Café and Bookstore on her blog and across her social media.

Her podcast shares book reviews and short stories Soundcloud Sally Cronin

After leading a nomadic existence exploring the world, she now lives with her husband on the coast of Southern Ireland enjoying the seasonal fluctuations in the temperature of the rain.

Tuesday, 3 August 2021

THE SILKWORM KEEPER by Deborah Swift @swiftstory

5 GOLD stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: One of my favourite authors, and I loved its prequel, The Poison Keeper.

In a Nutshell: 'a novel of nuns and courtesans, artists and priests, in the shadow and splendour of the Eternal City.'

Isn't it great when you like a sequel more than the first book?  I thoroughly enjoyed The Poison Keeper, which led us through the life of Giulia Tofana, famous poisoner of Naples.  The Silkworm Keeper moves onto her life as a nun in a remote and meagre convent, then the constant side-stepping of danger in Rome.

This is a more involved story than the prequel, one heck of a page turner that gallops along, as Giulia and her companions find artful ways to live their own lives in a world ruled by men.  I enjoyed reading about the many ways women survived in those days, from scams to taking a holy vow to becoming a courtesan living in a luxurious semi-prison (even Giulia's attitude was 'not a bad life if you can get it').  Throughout, Giulia wrestles with what she knows to be wrong in the eyes of God, versus what she must do for the safety of herself and those she cares about.  

My favourite character was Fabio, a man from Giulia's past, now working in Rome and still hankering after the woman he knew; their fraught personal relationship threads in and out of the main story.  I'm usually deeply bored by the romance angle in books (yes yes yes, they're going to end up together, now can we get on with the story?) but not so, with this.  Maybe because I loved Fabio and wanted him to be happy!

Aside from being a wonderful story (suspenseful, dramatic, believable, perfectly paced), I was fascinated by the detail about sericulture (the cultivation of silkworms to produce silk), about leatherwork and sculpture and the way of life of the time; this detail elevated it from being jolly good and worthy of five stars, to something a bit special.

Highly recommend both books!

Tuesday, 20 July 2021


4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book
: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

In a Nutshell: Fictionalised biography, early 20th Century Ukraine.

Even before I began to read this, I was so impressed by what Diana Stevan has done - this is the first part of a partially fictionalised biography of her grandmother, Lukia Mazurets, who Stevan knew as a young child.  In the notes at the back, she writes that her mother told her the story of their lives, and she pieced the rest together by extensive research of the history of that place and time.  The research is evident throughout, without seeming intrusive; the customs and daily toils of such resilient peoples' lives were fascinating to read about.  Also most interesting was the effect of the political situation, from WW1 to 1929, and how little the peasants actually knew; all news about events elsewhere in the country came via word of mouth.  Aside from this, the nature of Lukia's incredibly hard life, with so much tragedy, meant that events happening thousands of miles away were not her immediate concern. 

The novel begins in 1915, with her husband going off to fight for the Tsar just as Lukia has given birth to a sixth child - Stevan's mother.  The story is simply written, very readable, and I flew through the first half.  During the last third, I sometimes felt that events were whizzed through too fast, and the storytelling became a little too simplistic, as if she was racing to the end. Now and again I would have liked a little more depth and detail, and did consider that there might be an excess of material for one novel.  

In itself this is a marvellous book to have written, and I imagine it is greatly treasured by Stevan's family, but it also stands up as commendable piece of historical fiction about the lives of the common people of a country about which I knew little.  I have the sequel, and look forward to finding out what happens next.