The Damask Rose by Carol McGrath

We meet Eleanor of Castille, wife of Prince Edward – the future king of England, as she is taken hostage by Gilbert de Clare, lord of Gloucester. It is the perilous time of the Second Barons’ War against King Henry III. The leader of the pack, Simon de Montfort, controls most of the country and holds the king and his supporters checkmated. Separated from her beloved husband, Eleanor is forced into penury and swears revenge. This is a dynamic and tense introduction to the heroine of Carol McGrath’s biopic novel, The Damask Rose.

The story of her life unfolds in dramatic episodes that defined her and Edward’s rule: the defeat of the barons, his coronation, a crusade and retaking of Acre, an attempted assassination and a whole array of political and diplomatic machinations on the domestic and international front. The main players of the era, such as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, enter the scene. The settings extend beyond the shores of Britain and into France and Italy. European socio-economic dynamics form the backdrop to Eleanor’s story.

McGrath is sympathetic towards Eleanor, but that doesn’t prevent her from being honest about who she was: a smart and tough businesswoman who accumulated an extensive property portfolio and handled it with cunning expertise. She was also a mother who wasn’t motherly, but then again the mortality rate of newborn and young children didn’t allow much room to form emotional attachments, at least not until her children were older. Eleanor of Castile did not bow to the stereotypical female models of the Middle Ages – her strong personality and life skills would stand her in good stead were she to travel in time to the twenty-first century. She could brave our reality with no difficulty, I imagine.

There is another heroine of this story, Olwen. She is a humble herbalist and Eleanor’s companion, confidante and on occasion even her spy. Her loyalty to her mistress is unsurpassed, but she also has her own story which flows in parallel to Eleanor’s but somewhat more idly and with greater intimacy. After all, Olwen doesn’t hold the weight of a whole kingdom on her shoulders.

The Damask Rose is written in beautifully stylised prose. I found myself fully immersed in the language and in Eleanor’s tumultuous life punctuated with many dramatic climaxes. The period detail and descriptions are totally absorbing. McGrath created a sense of immediacy with her heroine and took me on a journey of discovery that will stay with me for a while yet.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

After so many years when I had read it for the first time and found myself fascinated by it and swept into its currents, I re-read “The Master and Margarita” with relish. It is a literary classic because it has stood the test of time and it transcends its original settings and social commentary of the day it was written.

In “The Master and Margarita” Satan, going by the name of Professor Woland, descends on the Soviet Russia, and wreaks absolute havoc. Heads roll, people go insane and events occur that make the reader’s hair stand on end. Yet, the existence of Satan defies not only logic but also the atheistic mantra of the communist state. The citizens cannot afford to believe in the supernatural causes of the goings on. Those who do are dismissed as lunatics and placed in a mental asylum. This is where poet Ivan Bezdomny meets the Master who is the author of a novel about Pontius Pilate and the times of Jesus Christ and his crucifixion. The story is retold from the point of view of a direct observer (the Devil himself) and gives an eerie sense of intimacy with the tormented Procurator of Judea. Still, nobody believes in it. In fact, just in case somebody might, the Master’s book is denigrated and he burns his manuscript in despair. His lover and devotee, Margarita is in despair. Even though she wants to stand by the Master he leaves her and checks himself into an asylum.

This book may be a revered classic but it is also a vivid, engaging, funny and utterly intriguing piece of fiction. The message of condemnation of the soviet regime, human greed, stupidity and narrow-mindedness is masterfully hidden within the plot and brilliant story-telling. The reader is immersed in the supernatural, the surreal, the macabre and burlesque all at the same time. The book bristles with satirical humour. And it is as relevant today as it was in the Stalinist Russia.

Agatha Raisin – Something Borrowed Someone Dead by M.C. Beaton

I think I have become slightly addicted to Agatha Raisin and her world of small, secretive villages scattered around the Cotswolds.


Something Borrowed Someone Dead is yet another foray into one of such village, called Piddlebury. The name alone tells a story! One of its residents, the universally loathed Gloria French, is poisoned. Her claim to fame was her knack for borrowing and never returning whatever tickled her fancy. Such bad habit on its own doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to murder someone, but then this is Piddlebury. The locals are a bit tetchy.

Agatha is engaged by one of the residents, Mr Tarrant to find the murderer so that people stop suspecting each other. The atmosphere in the village is tense. Agatha wades on it with her big personality and makes a few enemies. Soon, the murderer is after her. Her investigating antics follow, peppered with her personal dramas involving James Lacey and the beautiful Toni…

The plot of this instalment isn’t the most elaborate or credible, but this is after all Agatha Raisin, not John Rebus, so a touch of suspended belief is perfectly in order.

Good fun, as always!

The Mystery of the Wailing Woods by Diane Klein and Tim Knight (8-10 yrs)

The Mystery of the Wailing Woods: An Allegheny National Forest Adventure by [Diane Klein, Tim Knight, Korie Klein]

“The Mystery of the Wailing Woods” is a story of two friends, Griffin and Caleigh, stumbling across a weeping mystical creature in the deep wood. At first there is a discord between them as to how to deal with their discovery – whether to keep it secret or reveal it to the world. The children are enthralled and fascinated, but there are flashes of warning of what’s to come thrown into Griffin’s dreams. Talking to his Grandad and researching mythical creatures, Griffin establishes that the creature may be a Squonk. Caleigh is eager to make friends with him. She embarks on a perilous journey into the woods. I won’t reveal any more other than the ending is enchanting and heart-warming.
I loved the sense of place. The woods are vividly drawn. The sense of mystery and magic is woven into them. The prose is lyrical and atmospheric. The descriptions are dreamy and full of suspense. The writers’ love for nature shines through.
The relationship between Griffin and Caleigh is beautifully presented. Their friendship is tested and their values seem to collide at some point, and that makes them both credible as characters.
A wonderful tale of adventure and communion with the wonders of nature. Recommended for children aged 8-10.

The Black Coast by Mike Brooks

The Black Coast: The God-King Chronicles, Book 1 by [Mike Brooks]

“The Black Coast” is a classic specimen of heroic fantasy in the best tradition of David Gemmell’s “Legend”.

I devoured Gemmell’s books in my twenties. I think I read them all. “The Black Coast” brought back the spirit and the flavour of those old fantasy masterpieces.

In this story Mike Brooks introduces us to several richly-drawn characters. My favourites are Saana (the chief of the Brown Eagle clan – Viking-like sea raiders of Tjarokorsha) and Daimon (the adopted son of the thane of Black Keep, a southern province of the kingdom of Narida). The worlds of these two leaders collide – and converge – when Saana leads her people to the shores of Narida as they flee from the bloodthirsty agents of The Golden (a demonic draug). I really appreciated the author’s novel take on gender identity in this book and loved the way Saana referred to herself as “this man” based on her interpretation of Naridan hierarchy. Saana is pure power and compassion – an ideal leader. Daimon has to make heart-wrenching choices between his kin and the survival of his people on the whole. His dilemmas are agonising, and utterly believable. There are huge depths to Daimon’s character.

The worlds/societies/cultures that clash in this book are perfectly realised: the Black Keep setting with its sars-warriors with their strict code of honour on the one hand and its relaxed and tolerant society on the other; the degenerate court of the God-King Natan and his sister’s Talia wicked manoeuvres to destroy her enemies; the hordes of raiders led by Rikkut and so on.

Apart from this being a grand and engrossing epic, it also has a wonderful message of diverse people coming together for their greater collective good.   

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

How much magic, peril and adventure, how many wizards, heroes, dragons and trolls, how much wit and laughter is it possible to squeeze onto a disc carried by just four elephants standing on a single, albeit giant, turtle? The sky is the limit, but only if your name is Terry Pratchett.

The Colour of Magic will take you out of the grim reality of the year of the pandemic and into multiple fantasy worlds where everything is completely other-worldly and belly-laughingly hilarious.

Twoflower, a tourist who arrives in the city of Ankh-Morpork (on its rougher side) acquires special protection from a (failed) wizard Rincewind, primarily because of his Luggage which is filled with riches the criminal fraternity of the city has never seen before. Like a caterpillar, The Luggage travels of its own accord, using its many busy feet, and that’s not even the most puzzling thing about it . Rincewind and Twoflower meet villains, dragons, trolls and all matter of characters who either assist or obstruct them on their travels. And then they come to the edge of the disc. I can’t say anymore but the story doesn’t end there – not quite, not once, and not in the conventional sense of the word.

I reached for The Colour of Magic to shake off the blues of last year. I remembered reading I Shall Wear Midnight many years ago with my daughter, and I wanted to recapture that old magic. I definitely achieved that.

Going Green by Nick Spalding

Going Green by [Nick Spalding]

I have read a couple of books by Nick Spalding, notably my favourite “Bricking It”, and have come to expect lots of anecdotal humour, wild slapstick comedy and tongue-in-cheek observations of the crazy modern world we live in. Spalding always delivers, and “Going Green” is no exception.
At the heart of the story is Ellie Cooke who jumps out of her skin to save her job, inadvertently ending up in the ‘saving the planet’ camp. Her antics at trying to impress her new eco-friendly (and quite dishy) boss Nolan Reece are at times hilarious. The scenes at the protest march in front of the shopping centre had me in stitches. Ellie may be desperate but she is also out of her depth and all her efforts come across as utter non-starters (at least in the eyes of her colleagues). Yet, she gets her point across to her boss and it looks like she has saved her job. But that’s not quite the end of the story. Expect quite a twist at the end!
“Going Green” has a topical storyline, a hapless but in her special way principled heroine and a motley crew of minor characters.
The story is told from Ellie’s point of view and is narrated by her. Spalding makes her believable by reducing her language to colloquial with some curses thrown in to spice things up. Perhaps a touch too many for me, but hey, that’s how most of us would speak if our job was on the line.

Murder Served Cold by Paula Williams

Murder Served Cold (The Much Winchmoor Mysteries Book 1) by [Paula Williams]

Much Winchmoor is a colourful West Country village populated by an assortment of lively characters. They tend to gather for a spot of gossip and some general busy-bodying at such distinguished local landmarks as the hairdressers and Winchmoor Arms public house. Much Winchmoor is full of life and good-natured hustle and bustle, until of course Marjorie is killed. Promptly followed by Doreen.
Kat Latcham is to become a self-appointed village sleuth, as assisted by Will. Just as she thought she’d escaped from the clutches of parochial country living, Kat is dumped (and robbed) by her unworthy boyfriend in London. That misfortune forces her to return to the village, penniless and dismayed. She tries her hand at various menial jobs, but she is really destined for greater challenges such as inadvertently becoming an amateur private investigator. It is Kat who narrates the story and I really enjoyed hearing about her exploits first-hand from her. She is well-fleshed out and likeable young lady.
Williams throws into the mix a few red herrings and there is yet another twist right at the end. I won’t go into any spoilers so will stop here.
I am delighted to have discovered the Much Winchmoor Mysteries. I looking forward to reading the next one.

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library series Book 1) by [Genevieve Cogman]

The Invisible Library is a mystery of a missing book, an extraordinary edition of The Grimm Brothers’ Fairy Tales. The book, which is a unique collector’s item, has been stolen and its owner murdered. Irene (a librarian-cum-spy) and her assistant, Kai, travel to Victorian London to search for the book.
Until this point, a potential reader would be justified in thinking this was yet another historical mystery. But Victorian London is only one of many versions of itself. Cogman’s world consists of many such alternatives. Each universe features an array of beings other than humans: vampires, fairies, shape-shifting dragons, to name just a few. Zeppelins fly overhead. Robotic caterpillars, remotely operated alligators, silverfish and all manner of bizarre creatures get in the way of the investigation. However, finding the book is a matter of life and death, and the librarian’s nemesis, Alberich will not hesitate to resort to trickery, murder and corruption to get his hands on the book. Ancient Language and magic are used, alongside more conventional methods, by all sides to defeat the competition. Alliances are formed slowly and mistrust has to be overcome in action.
I enjoyed the quest aspect of The Invisible Library and found the concepts of the many alternatives of real places and times very intriguing. The idea of magic being a by-product of destructive chaos is original and curious.
I would have liked Cogman to have perhaps fewer magical creatures, but to develop each of them in greater detail and give them more distinguishable features. As it is the vampires are not that different from the fairies, or indeed the dragons.
Overall, a pleasant fantasy read.

Bitter Sky by Tim Stretton

There is something distinctive and distinguished about Tim Stretton’s books. It isn’t just the elegant and precise prose that instantly takes you out of your present location and throws you into something rich, luxurious and intriguing. It is also the setting in time. You open the book and instantly find yourself in an alternative universe and living through alternative history – alternative but very real and believable.

“Bitter Sky” is a steampunk fantasy, but again the setting feels as if it is a snapshot from history – it feels authentic though you can’t quite pinpoint the exact moment in time where it comes from. Despite that, you have this distinct impression that you read about it or studied that period in school. You find yourself somewhere in Germany, perhaps at the turn of the twentieth century. There are hydrogen-powered airships and steam trains/carriages. They would have been experimental in those days, but in “Bitter Sky” they are fully-functional, tried and tested weapons. There is the strife of a small territory to secede from the powerful and dominant empire, to reject tradition and monarchy, and establish its own identity. The small territory, Lauchenland led by its revolutionary elite called Volksbund, has ambitions beyond mere independence: it declares war on the Beruz Empire. The Empire strikes back. I was fascinated with how the author built that world from fragments of history. I delighted in detecting nuanced references to the unification of German states under imperialistic Prussia’s rule, or the degradation of  the lofty principles of freedom and equality of people in the reign of terror and bureaucracy that followed the French and Russian revolutions. “Bitter Sky” is full of historical analogies cleverly dressed as fantasy and presented in a vibrant, action-packed fashion.

“Bitter Sky” is a pacey and dramatic war romp, complete with air battles, morally questionable bombings, tragic casualties and grand victories. But there is more to it. There is the human factor. The von Eck siblings, Erich and Saskia are torn between their aristocratic loyalties to the Empire and their citizen duty to fight for their country, Lauchenland. Erich joins the fusiliers on the side of the Empire and Saskia becomes an airship navigator with Lauchenland Air Corp. Again, historical references spring to mind where nations divided by borders found their people fighting – and killing – each other on the opposite sides in the Great War and WWII. Stretton captures that torturous dilemma between duty and loyalty, between following and questioning orders and between glorifying and dehumanising war. He doesn’t idealise or side with anyone. The Empire has its faults as does the belligerent republic of Lauchenland. There is a thin line between good and evil, victory and defeat.

The conclusion of this book was ingenious – tense and ultimately, very satisfying. It tied together all the loose ends, linked to the opening chapters and neatly encased the story. Tragedy and fatalism, black magic and characters caught up in events beyond their control bring to mind the dark fairy tales of yesteryear. If Hans Christian Andersen was to write a tale for adults, he could well have written “Bitter Sky”.