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.

Contacts by Mark Watson

Contacts: From the award-winning comedian, the most heartwarming, touching and funny fiction book of 2020 by [Mark Watson]

The premise of this story is intriguing: a young man sends a text message to all his contacts, informing them that he is about to commit suicide. And then he puts his phone on fight mode thus blocking people from replying. This isn’t a typical cry for help, and he certainly isn’t craving attention. He is not interested in the world’s reaction to his news. He is factual. He boards a sleeper train to his truly “final” destination.
This book isn’t just about about the main character’s emotional state and his motives; it is also about all those contacts who receive his message and have to do something about it. The title of this book is very deliberate indeed. James’s phone contacts are the collective title character of this book. The moment the message is received and at least partially digested, a flurry of activity follows. A flatmate begins to mount a coordinated rapid response. The sister in the far away Australia starts organising a rescue operation. An ex-best friend changes course and heads for Edinburgh. An ex-girlfriend stops to think and atone. All of the people who once may have hurt James, used or abused his feelings, are united in the effort of saving him.
Contacts is a beautifully written moralistic tale about empathy, second chances, redemption and the value of people simply being there for each other. It isn’t a book about suicide. Quite the opposite.
I quite liked it that Watson brought the topic up to date, straight into the twenty-first century to show that human interaction may have become seriously digitised but that doesn’t mean that technology dehumanised us and left us lonely and hopeless.
I enjoyed Watson’s clear prose. It isn’t emotive. It doesn’t take centre stage and it doesn’t take away from the story and the characters. It treats about emotions by it doesn’t allow itself to get carried away. I also enjoyed the wry humour. A poignant tale about a man and his network of support full of holes but also very many best intentions.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

I felt compelled to revisit Vonnegut’s iconic anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse Five, for two reasons. Firstly, because from time to time (and our times are no exception) we all have to remind ourselves of the macabre of wars.

Vonnegut shows us the true colours of war. He dismantles all the naively romantic notions anyone may have about war, the unrealistic heroism and the false premise of winners and losers. I didn’t enjoy reading Slaughterhouse Five, but then it wasn’t written for anyone’s entertainment. It is stark, cruel and unforgiving. It is a warning. People die – good people, bad people, losers as well as conquerors, soldiers and civilians, youngsters and the elderly, dogs, horses, allies and enemies. No one is exempt. No one is immune. No one is above it. And so it goes. Vonnegut shows it in raw, ugly detail, and that detail is no fiction.

War and death equalise everyone. No nation is idealised and no nation is condemned in its collective totality. Faults and failings befall all. It is a brave concept not to idealise the winners. In fact, Vonnegut shows quite effectively that war destroys everyone and everything. Every construct of what’s right and wrong, good and bad, justifiable and inexcusable is absolutely false. The “victorious” Americans are bombed on par with German civilians in an “open” city of Dresden. The bombs don’t discriminate between “them” and “us”. It is all “us”. And this is the irony of it – wars are started because of divisions, but as they rage everyone pays the same price, feels the same pain and has only one life to lose.

My second reason was to explore the time-travel idea in the book. It is harrowing for Billy Pilgrim to go over and over again through his terrifying war experience. Time doesn’t work chronologically in this tale. The war never really ends. It remains present throughout Billy’s entire life. Events from his birth, childhood, wartime and his post-war civilian life are mingled together. The trauma he has lived through can never be consigned to the past. There is no past. There is no future. Time is not linear. Everything is happening simultaneously, all the time, and Billy jumps in and out of events while they carry on unfolding on an endless loop. Billy’s sojourn into the alien world of Tralfamadore is his brain’s way of coping with the scars left by the war on his psyche. Those who lived through war will never put it behind them. That message really hits home when you think of all those child refugees physically leaving war-affected areas but having to spend the rest of their lives trapped back there forever.

It is such a powerful idea. War is timeless. Once you have unleashed it, it will not end.  Slaughterhouse Five should be a compulsory read for young people to digest before they enter adulthood in order to dispel their childhood “jolly-war” myths and shield them against glorification of war.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini

This book is about the First Contact, but not as we know it. I was fascinated by how this concept evolved in To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. It starts with Kira, a xenobiologist exploring an uncolonized planet, discovering mysterious dust which soon envelops her in a form of an invasive exoskeleton. It is undeniably intelligent but it is also a parasite that uses Kira’s body to come into being and to transport itself. It is able to defend itself against any attempts to examine or destroy it. It can be lethal. In an apparent act of self-defence it kills Kira’s fiancé and her several friends. To start with, this organism appears violent and hostile, and Kira is trapped within it. It can even penetrate her mind and she, in turn, experiences its memories and emotions. Soon the relationship between them begins to transform into something more symbiotic. It isn’t just that Kira has to get used to the creature controlling her. It is also that the creature protects and guides her. This theme of a transforming and transformative relationship between a human and an alien is wonderfully conveyed through characterisation and plot developments.

Another great asset in this book is the prose: it can be fast and action-packed, pacey and dramatic, but it is also lyrical and introspective. A whole universe has been created outside and inside Kira’s fusion with Soft Blade (the alien’s name). This story is a space odyssey both on a macro- and micro scale. The science behind it seems wonderfully real and even though I didn’t follow all of it, it felt credible.

However, there are some disappointments. The story is way too long and too windy. Half of it would be equally effective. I must confess to skipping many sections in the middle as I found them tedious and superfluous. Although the book is classified as sci-fi for adults, I could not shake the impression that it was written with a young reader in mind. The description of Kira’s romantic relationship at the start of the book was too safe, too sugar-coated and too infantile for my liking. The Jellies (hostile aliens) were also a bit cartoonish and stereotypical in their appearance and disposition. Having said that, this is a sci-fi book and it fits well within its genre.

You will need a lot of time to truly be able to indulge in this book and immerse yourself in it, but it will be time well spent.

A Divided Inheritance by Deborah Swift

A Divided Inheritance : Epic historical fiction by [Deborah Swift]

This is a powerful and emotionally captivating story which crossed the boundaries of genre: historical, adventure, romance, tragedy. It is literature with a heart.

I reached for it on recommendation and my expectations were high. The book surpassed them. I found it intriguing to start with and as I went deeper into it I could not put it down.

The story is set in Spain’s Golden Age under Philip the Pious when the country was firmly in the grip of Holy Inquisition and religious intolerance aimed at its Arab population. Moors, once the conquerors, are now persecuted, divested of their rights and property and deported to Northern Africa. In parallel to that, Protestantism has superseded Catholicism in England, and Catholics are forced underground to practise their faith. The persecutors in one country are the persecuted in another, and that irony is not lost on the author. She shows the plight of Moriscos (Arab converts to Christianity) with great empathy. Their rounding up for transportation on ships to Morocco and their futile resistance resonate and bring to mind other similar tragedies in more recent history. The setting of the story in time and place is masterfully delivered.

As are the characters and their personal stories. Swift demolishes stereotypes as her characters develop and leave the comfort zone of what’s familiar and are thrown into the mill of history, misadventure and hardship. I loved the way Elspet transformed from a little English lady into a true heroine. Zachary too underwent his character-building transformation. Two people from two socially irreconcilable backgrounds were ultimately reduced – or rather elevated – to their common denominator, that of just being human.

A wonderful tale.

How the Marquis Got His Coat Back by Neil Gaiman

I must confess I haven’t read Neverwhere and, at first, I was a bit lost in this short story. But I quickly found my way by simply following the Marquis de Carabas who in his turn was following the scent of his extraordinary coat stolen from him in mysterious circumstances. We have traversed most puzzling worlds of Below London where tube stations come to life to become characters in the story. Thus we have the Elephant, Victoria and the frightening Shepherds of Shepherd’s Bush. I found that world bewitching.

The Marquis de Carabas’s quest brought to mind another short story, “Overcoat” by Gogol. There too an owner unlawfully deprived of his precious coat moves heaven and earth to retrieve it, and not even death seems to be able to stop him. The coat represents his life. Here too, the coat has given the Marquis his name, his identity and his direction in life. Without it, he is incomplete. His older brother, Peregrine, is his guardian angel in the (many) hours of need.

I have reached for this story because I loved Good Omens and I wanted to discover a bit more about Neil Gaiman. I am hooked.

Devilishly thrilling Dark London (2) short stories collection from Darkstroke

Dark London: Volume Two by [Mark Patton, Angela Wren, Chris Dommett, Alice Castle, Richard Savin, Alan Taylor, Marie Gault, Tom Halford, Denise Bloom, Harper Channing]

Dark London (Volume 2) is a collection of short stories, each unique and distinct, each different and yet all of them have the same common denominator: London. The stories tell a tale of a city that never sleeps, knows how to hide its darkest secrets in the layers of its past, and is made of the tough stuff of its inimitable people.

There are a lot of shades within Dark London, many different eras and a lot of variety ranging from the contemporary and lighthearted cozy crime in Dulwich to the blood curdling horrors. You will find yourself traipsing London on a night bus in the company of highly-principled illegal aliens and you will end up in the middle of the inexplicable, sinister and freakish Gothic show which may not be from this world but it has London written into it.

Suspend belief, bring your own comfort blanket and have a go. You will find yourself devilishly thrilled.

One for the Baby by Tony Parsons

One for my baby
One for my Baby is Tony Parson’s second book. I was sufficiently impressed that I will go looking for his first.
As someone who often struggles to get into a new book I am impressed when I find one that quickly captures my interest. One for my Baby was one of that rare breed of books.
Beautifully written, it intertwines the tales of many lives and covers a multitude of trials and tribulations experienced by its characters. I think that few people could read this book and not find something that touches their own life experiences. Very moving.
Reviewer, S. Wylie

The Constant Rabbit by Jasper Fforde

You open this book and you find yourself in a world that is bizarrely familiar yet utterly outlandish. It feels like the second coming of Animal Farm. Animals (particularly rabbits) are on a collision course with humans, and if you have a shred of humanity in you, you are on the side of the rabbit.

Fforde’s portrayal of our twenty-first century society is spot on. You recognise the characters, the events and the trends: UKARP, a right-wing party led by a PM going by the name of Nigel Smethwick, a TwoLegsGood movement of middle-class reactionaries, the entrenched perceptions of an “unbridled” rabbit infestation/invasion on the green shores of Britain. We are talking rabbits, the little furry animals native to these isles. They were here before us. They fully anthropomorphised in 1965 and continued to multiply in their usual rampant way. The more they started resembling humans the less acceptable and more inconvenient they became. They had to be separated from humans and ghettoised in a new MegaWarren in the depths of Wales.

This story is hilarious. The world Fforde has created (and based on our very reality) is astounding in its every detail, and it is funny because it is so relatable. There is pure observational comedy there that will leave you with a laugh-out-loud bellyache. But this story also hits a nerve. It is a satire about the decline of our society, the loss of what once was a clear moral compass but has now become a murky moral muddle, about the unrestrained rampage of bigotry and intolerance.  And about good people caught in the middle of it, scared, suppressed, but hopefully still trying to do what’s right.

I loved this book.