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!