Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

Fools-and-Mortals-200x307Kudos to Cornwell for giving the works of Shakespeare their dues, especially A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He dissects the piece, as if it were the hottest new reality-soap in town. Leaving the historical references and importance of Shakespeare’s work aside for a moment, what remains are emotional roller-coasters for the masses. Shakespeare gives us drama, laughter, tears,violence and death. His plays were live television.

Cornwell is an excellent storyteller. The reader becomes so transfixed by the unfolding drama, and drawn in by the strong characters, that you almost forget everything is taking place in the Elizabethan era.

The story is about William and Richard Shakespeare, and their sibling rivalry. At the same time it is also about the existing rivalries between the various playhouses. An original play or new script is worth its weight in gold. People will pay good money to watch a new play being performed. It’s quite interesting to note how many new scripts playwrights had to come up with in such a short period of time to entertain not only the masses, but also the upper echelon of society, including the queen.

Richard struggles with the fact his brother seems to see him either as a hindrance or a complete failure. He wants acknowledgement of his talent and perhaps even an apology for being handed to the wolves by his brother. At the moment he is  always automatically picked to play the role of the pretty woman, because he is known for his striking looks. The kind of appealing physical appearance that tends to be noticed by the wrong people.

I really enjoyed it. I was expecting a story filled with heavy historical references. Instead it is a witty light-hearted entertaining read, which still manages to portray the hardships, the danger, the paranoia and the fear in that particular era, and the way of life in London.

Cornwell combines his talent for historical fiction with his concise knowledge of Shakespeare, which of course makes this a double-treat for bookworms with a penchant for both history and the works of the bard.

Buy Fools and Mortals at Amazon Uk or go to Goodreads for any other retailer.

Follow @BernardCornwell @HarperCollinsUk

Visit bernardcornwell.net

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The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde by Eve Chase

audrey wildeEve Chase has a thing for old houses and families, so it isn’t a surprise that this story has Applecote Manor smack bang in the middle of the plot. Everything is woven around the families who inhabit or used to inhabit this house.

Chase creates a very nostalgic atmosphere, which is part of the charm of this book. The story wanders from past to present, and the chapters in the past are especially good. They evoke a sense of familiarity, warmth and belonging. The reader basks in the sun next to the river and feels the cool water as the girls swim in the river.

Throughout the book there is a sense of a presence watching over every event and word. Audrey Wilde is as much a part of the story, as her disappearance is.

Although this is in every sense of the word a mystery it is also a book about identity and coming of age. It is also a story about non-typical families. The patchwork family of the present is also haunted by their very own personal ghost. In fact the ghosts need to be laid to rest for both families to finally get some peace.

One day Audrey Wilde suddenly vanishes into thin air, and the mystery of her disappearance is something that her cousin Margot never really gets over. At a time when everyone else has accepted the possibility they may never find out the truth, Margot is almost obsessed with discovering what happened to her.

I loved the feel of this story, especially everything about Margot and her sisters. I thought that element of the story was strong enough for the plot without adding Jessie and her family to the mix. I also thought it was intriguing how the crime element never overshadowed the rest of the story, despite it being the thread that held everything together.

The truth isn’t pretty at all, and perhaps that cold breath of brutality should have changed the whole feeling of the story, but it didn’t. It remains a charming tale until the end.

Buy The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde at AmazonUK or go to Goodreads for any other retailer.

Follow @evepchase @MichaelJBooks

A fantastic Q&A with Affinity Konar, author of Mischling

To celebrate the paperback release of of her novel Mischling Affinity Konar agreed to take part in a Q&A and answer some of my questions about her fantastic book. My review might be a tad long, but in my defence, this was such a good read I couldn’t stop talking about it.

About the Author

Affinity Konar was raised in California. While writing Mischling, she worked as a tutor, proofreader, technical writer, and editor of children’s educational workbooks. She studied fiction at SFSU and Columbia. She is of Polish-Jewish descent, and currently lives in Los Angeles.

She dearly misses writing about Pearl and Stasha, and is grateful to any reader who might find the company of the twins.

Visit affinitykonar.com Follow @affinity_konar @leeboudreauxbks @littlebrown

Buy Mischling

About the book

Pearl is in charge of: the sad, the good, the past. Stasha must care for: the funny, the future, the bad.

It’s 1944 when the twin sisters arrive at Auschwitz with their mother and grandfather. In their benighted new world, Pearl and Stasha Zagorski take refuge in their identical natures, comforting themselves with the private language and shared games of their childhood.

As part of the experimental population of twins known as Mengele’s Zoo, the girls experience privileges and horrors unknown to others, and they find themselves changed, stripped of the personalities they once shared, their identities altered by the burdens of guilt and pain.

That winter, at a concert orchestrated by Mengele, Pearl disappears. Stasha grieves for her twin, but clings to the possibility that Pearl remains alive. When the camp is liberated by the Red Army, she and her companion Feliks–a boy bent on vengeance for his own lost twin–travel through Poland’s devastation. Undeterred by injury, starvation, or the chaos around them, motivated by equal parts danger and hope, they encounter hostile villagers, Jewish resistance fighters, and fellow refugees, their quest enabled by the notion that Mengele may be captured and brought to justice within the ruins of the Warsaw Zoo. As the young survivors discover what has become of the world, they must try to imagine a future within it.

Q&A

Before we get started on the Q&A I would just like to say how much I enjoyed Mischling. At times I felt as if I was with those children in the camp and could feel their despair, which is truly the mark of a great storyteller.

It must have been incredibly difficult to immerse yourself into the subject matter of the Holocaust, and perhaps even more difficult, the medical experimentation. Thank you so much Cheryl—it’s always very rewarding to hear such things, but to know that the emotions were very present for you is deeply meaningful to me with respect to this particular book, and its many challenges. So thank you, and thank you for the opportunity to be interviewed, and the lovely, thoughtful questions!—AK

What was it that made you want to write about this particular heinous part of 20th century history? My family was able to leave Poland in 1932,  and one of my grandfathers served in WWII so I always felt naturally drawn to the period as a child. It was a fixation that was unhealthy in many ways, but couldn’t be helped. In the course of touring, I’ve been fortunate to meet many scholars who have devoted their entire lives to the preservation of this history; they often describe this as a choiceless pursuit, one often informed by a personal sense of crisis. While my engagement has been less intense, that description is something I can relate to. All I really know is that when I found the story of the twins in “Children of the Flames” by Lucette Lagnado, I started hearing an imagined echo, a kind of conversation between a pair of twins who were determined to survive. But I didn’t imagine that it would be a book, and I didn’t consciously set out to write it for years.

Do you believe that despite great outcries of ‘We shall never forget, always remember and let’s not make the same mistakes again’ that the world needs books like Mischling to remind people of those sentiments? I very much believe that this is so; I think fiction’s great gift to us is its ability to collapse distance. The testimonies of survivors and witnesses, the art that came from the camps, all the nonfictional accounts—these will always be the most vital warnings. But I like to think that fiction can serve a purpose in this attempt, that it can effectively trail behind history as a kind of shadow, because it can provoke empathy on a level that can force one to imagine this suffering differently, and with a nod to the fact that genocide is not limited to a certain time, people, or place. Such work can remind us to check our language, our actions, and encourage a kind of vigilance; it’s easy for remembrance to become a passive act, even while “never forget” is something that remains a fixture of our consciousness.

You have researched and written extensively in great detail about the Holocaust and Mengele’s atrocities, has it taken its toll on you in any way? I was uncomfortable speaking about this for some time, because I felt that the personal effects of this research had no place in this conversation. But while touring, I’ve been approached by generous people who express concern after hearing me speak. So I guess I don’t hide it very well, especially when Mengele’s crimes are addressed. I suspect that I’ve begun to block certain facts and images, but there are those that will always remain, and should remain. I went into this process with an immense respect for survivors and their descendants–they carry an unimaginable burden–and when my immersion was complete, that respect enlarged to include journalists, social workers, therapists, criminal investigators—anyone whose work requires a relentless attention to trauma, because it forces you to live a double-life, mentally, in order to remain functional.

In a lot of the scenes the reader feels the strange intimacy and bond between the children in the Zoo and the twins. You also described the way each twin dealt with the emotional and physical torture in their own way, which makes their individual status more evident in the story. Was it important to you to show readers the effect on their bonds as twins, and also on the girls as individuals? I love this question, because the portrayal of these bonds, and the individual natures of Pearl and Stasha, was one of the significant challenges of the book. Twins are so symbolic, a built-in cheat—I worried that I might end up fetishizing them in a super-literary way that felt unacceptable within the novel’s aims. My big fear was that one would end up serving as a kind of foil to the other; I was most concerned about Stasha’s very elaborate voice overwhelming Pearl’s. But strangely, this began to fall away as I explored Pearl’s burden to bear witness to these events in a precise fashion. Her personality arose from that need, and met, rather naturally, Stasha’s own posture of lament. I wanted two distinct personalities that joined each other in the need for remembrance, their resistance against Mengele, and their love of family. It’s funny because I often hear from readers that they wished that they had a twin growing up—I always felt that way too. But there’s also a complexity to this bond that we often overlook. So I wanted to allow it all the beauty that such a relationship deserves, while being careful to explore how painful it might be too.

On a lighter note, were and are you surprised by the success of Mischling? I was surprised that I even finished the book at all! It was an intensely private thing for years, so to have it find anyone, much less my agent Jim and my editor Lee—that was hugely disorienting. And I’m disoriented all over whenever I see a translation venture out. “Success” is a hard word for me to relate to, especially with respect to this novel—I tend to think of it just as this object that I started writing when I was really lost and had dropped out of high school. But I find it deeply gratifying to receive letters from people about their families and their histories, and it’s probably the sweetest thing to hear readers refer to Stasha and Pearl with the same affection I’ve had for them for so long. I never expected the book to be real, much less for it to receive such a kind welcome, and I’ll always be shocked by that.  

Review

Mischling is a fictional story based on, or rather Konar took inspiration from, the true experiences of Holocaust survivors.

In particular on those of the twins, who made up the majority of the 3000 children unfortunate enough to end up in the hands of the sadistic Dr. Mengele, also known as the Angel of Death.

He was known to pick twins, triplets and any other people with specific abnormalities, because of his interest in genetics. He shared his findings with his mentor and the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, the predecessor of the Max Planck Institute.

Only a small number of those children survived the experiments and the concentration camp. Many of those have suffered from numerous medical problems, were mutilated and have subsequently succumbed to the repercussions of the experiments inflicted upon them, including eyewitness and survivor Miriam Mozes.

Tragically the medical manipulations have possibly also been passed down to future generations. A few of the very small number of these particular survivors, who are still alive, and their offspring have willingly participated in research to try and understand the future consequences of those experiments and the possible genetic changes caused by the them and the trauma (epigenetics).

The survivors have had to live with the nightmares of being part of Mengele’s sadistic human zoo. They have beaten the odds to survive and tell their tales only to be struck down by the same man at a later date, and the fact his actions may also be making their offspring ill, is truly diabolical. Luckily he isn’t here to pat himself on the back.

Mengele managed to evade any form of punishment for his actions. He lived in comfort with his family for many years in Argentina, as did many war criminals from the Nazi regime.

Mengele used the platform of the concentration camp to live out his cruel, sadistic tendencies all in the hypothetical name of science and research. Fact of the matter is he enjoyed and took pride in the pain he inflicted on others. His victims were nothing more than subjects in his mind. Aside from the horrific and inhumane experimentation, he also often abused, tortured and killed for pleasure, during his reign in Auschwitz.

Pearl and Stasha are the main characters in Mischling. They are Jews with fair hair, hence why Mengele thinks they are Mischlinge (of mixed race). Each twin tells their own story, switching from chapter to chapter. Stasha believes that Mengele views her as special, which is why he makes her immune from death. This belief and her retreat into a world of imagination and denial, is how she deals with the trauma. Whereas Pearl is a realist and remains resourceful throughout her time with Mengele. Stasha seems oblivious to the abuse and experimentation both she, but especially her sister has to endure. The disappearance of Pearl is pivotal in the change in her behaviour. The fact she doesn’t want to accept the death of her twin is ultimately what saves Stasha from giving up. Denial is her coping mechanism.

Stasha connects with a young boy, who has lost his own twin. The loss of the twin was very important to the survival of any the remaining twin in Auschwitz. When one died the other would soon be killed, so Mengele could compare and autopsy the corpses.

survivors

Some of the children who survived the experiments

So, imagine you are faced with death or collaboration. The type of collaboration that kills you inside bit by bit, forced to commit abominations under duress. How guilty does that make you? There is a huge difference between those that collaborated with the regime and helped willingly, and those that had no other choice but death. They tried in their own way to help fellow prisoners. Many children, often not even related, were passed off as twins, in an attempt to give them a greater chance of survival.Pearl finds herself drawn to the Jewish doctor who assists Mengele, albeit unwillingly, and the Czech soldier in charge of the admin. Both of them struggle with the guilt of their actions. One of elements of the Holocaust that Konar alludes to in Mischling is the culpability of those people forced to become part of the systematic extermination. In a life or death situation you make a choice, and in this instance those choices weren’t always about self-preservation. There were family members and fellow victims to consider and the majority wanted to make sure the world knew what the Nazi regime had done.

To be completely frank it isn’t an easy read, if you look at it on a purely emotional level. Even after all these years, having read, watched and listened to many survivor’s relate their stories, I can still can’t fathom the depth and range of the inhumanity of the Holocaust.

Although I loved the read, despite the horrific nature of the topic and the fact it is based on true events, I did feel as if the last few chapters didn’t do the rest justice. I can imagine that even as an author both the writing and the research of not only the Holocaust, but specifically the atrocities committed by Mengele, would take a toll on anyone. Suck the heart and soul right out of you. It felt as if Konar had been weighted down and burdened by all of it towards the end. As a reader and as a Mensch I can completely understand that. Kudos to the author for this powerful, insightful and extremely poignant read.

It is not only a read I highly recommend, it is also one I will be gifting to others.

Buy Mischling at Amazon Uk or go to Goodreads for any other retailer.

Remembering the Mengele Twins at the CANDLES Holocaust Museum

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Blog-Tour: An Almond for a Parrot by Wray Delaney

I have some wicked treats for you today! Included in my stop on the Blog-Tour for An Almond for a Parrot by Wray Delaney is a superb extract from An Almond for a Parrot, my review and a truly revealing and extraordinarily engrossing Q&A with Wray Delaney! Believe me you don’t want to miss her candid answers and intriguing insights.

About the Author

Wray Delaney is the pseudonym of the award winning novelist Sally Gardner. She has sold over 2 million books in the UK and her work has been translated in to more than 22 languages. She has won both the Costa Children’s Book Prize and the Carnegie Medal 2013 for Maggot Moon. She also won the 2005 Nestle Children’s Book Prize for her debut novel I, Coriander. She writes books for children aged seven and upwards.

An Almond for a Parrot is her debut adult fiction novel, and what a great debut it is. It is a fascinating combination of historical fiction with a cheeky touch of soft erotica. Writing as Delaney, Gardner has made her mark on the adult fiction genre with this captivating book.

Visit sallygardner.net Follow @TheSallyGardner @fictionpubteam @HQStories

Buy An Almond for a Parrot

Q&A

Before we get down to business (i.e. talking about your book) I would like to ask a set of questions I call ‘Breaking the Ice.’ (readers love to get to know all about their favourite and new authors)

The last book you read? (Inquisitive bookworms would like to know) The Tryst by Monique Roffe

Books or authors who have inspired you to put pen to paper? Angela Carter, F Scott Fitzgerald, Brothers Grimm, Charles Dickens, Raymond Carver

The last book you read, that left a mark (in your heart, soul, wallet…you name it) Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch. I was blown away by that.

Are you more of a movie night or series-binger kind of person? (Combinations are possible) Series binger

Which famous person (dead, alive, barely kicking) would you most like to meet? Charles Dickens

All of the above questions are actually a pretty elaborate pysch evaluation disguised as random questions. Have no fear here come the real ones. Let’s talk about An Almond for a Parrot!

I have to say I loved the overall feel of his book. It felt as if the universe had conspired to create a perfect book moment. The cover art (even on the review copies), the characters and the plot. It just felt as if all the jigsaw pieces had come together perfectly. Thank you so much for saying that. I had great fun in writing this book and it was something I wanted to do for a long time, and let’s hope the universe conspires to make it sell many copies. To put a bit more magic into sex, a bit more 18th-Century into the setting, a few recipes, cook it all up and see what happens. It was an idea I had for a long time and thought I should have a go, and thoroughly enjoyed writing it. I have been so lucky with my cover designs, both the paperback and hardback have been so outstandingly beautiful. I do think a cover has to be both immediate and grabbing and Almond has that ‘I want to own you’ quality.

I know there is a cheeky wink at your inspirations for the story in your book, and the whole essence of the book certainly reminded me of Hill and Flanders. How much inspiration did you take from Fanny Hill and Moll Flanders and if not where did the inspiration for An Almond for a Parrot come from? I can’t remember what age I was when I first read Fanny Hill. I think I read it after I had read Forever Amber. But I fell instantly in love with Fanny. It was so delicious to meet a character who thoroughly enjoyed sex and was intelligent about its consequences. It is a romance held together by some classly sexual pieces. John Cleveland wrote this book while in prison. And not unlike Daniel Defoe he took a lot of inspiration from his mistress and there’s even a suggestion part was written by her. I have to say I have a preference for Fanny Hill more than I do for Moll Flanders. I was also fascinated to discover the last time they tried to sue Fanny Hill for indecency was in 1963. The only problem being they could not find one rude word in it. Just a collection of images that made your mind do all the dancing.

There is a wonderful story about a musical singer Marie Lloyd. She was brought to trial for indecency for singing a song that went,

Do you think my skirt is a little bit
Well not too much of it
Just a little bit
It’s the little bit the boys admire 

She was referring to her pussy and made that perfectly clear in her performance. Quite a crowd followed this beloved star to court. When asked by the judge what the song referred to Marie Lloyd replied ‘My skirt! I don’t know what was in your dirty little mind.’ The case was thrown out of court. That is the genius of suggestion without being explicit. I also thought I would embrace 18th century language of erotica which was full of vegetables, Maypoles and purses.

I really enjoyed the way you mixed your genres, although admittedly it was done in such subtle and flawless way it seems as if it wasn’t the case at all. Was intentional or did the idea of magic just flow with the characters? Magic realism fascinates me. I think if I’m honest I’m basically a fairytale writer. That is the pot from which I get my best dishes. Magic if used, has to be grounded, earthed like electricity. By that I mean it has to be believable, an essential part of the character not just added on for good measure. I few of the characters in my book have magical or supernatural abilities. But I didn’t want to make it the main feature of the story. And the rest of the characters don’t. I’m not keen on using it just to make everything all right. I’m always very careful when I use magic to make it as believable as possible. I’m not a girl with a magic wand, and no magic can’t make everything better also it often comes at quite a high price.

At the beginning of some of the chapters there are 18th century recipes, such as Hasty Pudding, Hodgepodge or Sheep’s Tongue in Paper. Personally I found them fascinating, although it’s fair to say I won’t be trying tongue in the near future. Are they a subconscious or even a conscious nod to the surrogate mother figure in Tully’s life, the cook? I love the character of Cook she is a drunk, never had children and can’t read, and still hopes there might be a recipe for the bringing up of children . I found a wonderful book from the 18th century with a lot of these recipes in it. They just made me giggle. I definitely didn’t mean them to be tried, I think nearly all of them sound pretty revolting. But their names were just to delicious words ‘Pike in the shape of a Dolphin’ ‘Virgin Eggs’, ‘Tarts, the common or country fashion’- they always refer to something that has happened to Tully. I’m not sure how many people will actually read them I bet they get skipped most of the time. Hopefully they make you laugh. 

An Almond for a Parrot is often a wee bit risqué, but it is also witty and light-hearted, despite that you have also included more serious topics in the tale. Was it important to you to show the lack of power women had in that era, and how vulnerable they were to being exploited and abused because of that imbalance of power? What history teaches us if we bother to look at it is how far women have come and the battle it has taken to get here. Still I believe too many women are imprisoned by the lack of finances by abusive partners and by poverty, By the lack of education. In many parts of the world women are still subjected to the tyranny of their fathers’ and husbands’ rule. I believe we in the West musn’t become complacent about the role of women. There is still a long way to go before women and men play an equal role. 

So it’s quite useful to look back and see what life was like for women of a different time. It was not all gorgeous clothes and handsome men. In the 18th century the hope of a woman earning her own money, being independent from a man was near impossible. Even if she was born with wealth the minute she married it vanished into her spouse’s account. Women were totally subjected to their fathers’ and then to their husbands’ rule . Domestic violence was considered acceptable. Women were bargaining tools in marriage. Marriage at the age 12 was not unheard of. One means of escaping poverty was prostitution.

I wanted to illustrate this with hopefully a cracking good story. We had in London at that time the highest population of prostitutes in the whole of Europe. Those who have watched the series Harlots will know the Harris list became vitally important for anyone wishing to visit a brothel. Most brothels specialised in various things from Molly houses onwards. Every sexual delight was catered for. For a lot of women prostitution was the only way to achieve any independence.

Yes many tragic and awful stories have emerged and we know about the abuse et cetera. But at least the tragedy of the abuse so many young women and children suffered is out in the open. Which is more than can be said for many brutal marriages that took place behind 18th Century closed doors. Things have changed but I still believe there is a long way to go to make that equal for all women around the world. 

I can imagine writing under a pseudonym has been quite an experience for you. Writing as Wray Delaney, has it given you any insights you think you can and will use when writing as Sally Gardner? I very much love my children’s audience and for them I am a gate keeper. By that I mean I am careful of what I give them and how much information. I never patronise, I always think my audience are far smarter than I am. In fact, I’d say the YA audience can accept some very complicated ideas that wouldn’t on the whole appeal to an adult audience as much. The great thing about a book is you can always close it if you do not like it. You do not need to carry on reading it. When I write for adults, there is a freedom because whether you like it or not, the PC police are very much out in children’s literature, and have been for a number of years.

Writing for adults, there’s nothing you have to hold back on, though it’s interesting to see people’s reactions to Tully, who didn’t realise there was going to be so much explicit sex in it.

I was asked by a Sun journalist, wasn’t I a bit naughty to be writing an erotic book for adults now? And I said to him, ‘Where do you think children come from’ Hopefully, joyous and good sex.

I know the book has a pretty tight and well-packed ending, but will we be hearing from Tully Truegood again or perhaps one of the other memorable characters? Perhaps the early life of Mr Crease? I don’t think so. I’d never say never but on the whole I like stand-alones and I really love to idea that maybe you might dream on the characters a bit, and take them further in our head I did a book years ago called I, Coriander which was very successful and I am asked all the time would I write another one. The answer to that is definitely no. I think it’s great if a story inspires someone to tell themselves their own stories. That’s fantastic. Thank you so much for asking me a lovely bunch of intelligent questions. I’m really enjoying my blog tour.

Thank you for answering all of my questions, even some of the odder ones!

Extract

Fleet Marriages

One of the most disgraceful customs observed in the Fleet Prison in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was the performance of the marriage ceremony by disreputable and dissolute clergymen. These functionaries, mostly prisoners for debt, insulted the dignity of their holy profession by marrying in the precincts of the Fleet Prison at a minute’s notice, any persons who might present themselves for that purpose. No questions were asked, no stipulations made, except as to the amount of the fee for the service, or the quantity of liquor to be drunk on the occasion. It not unfrequently happened, indeed, that the clergyman, the clerk, the bridegroom and the bride were drunk at the very time the ceremony was performed.

Chapter One

Newgate Prison, London

I lie on this hard bed counting the bricks in the ceiling of this miserable cell. I have been sick every morning for a week and thought I might have jail fever. If it had killed me it would at

least have saved me the inconvenience of a trial and a public hanging. Already the best seats at Newgate Prison have been sold in anticipation of my being found guilty – and I have yet to be sent to trial. Murder, attempted murder – either way the great metropolis seems to know the verdict before the judge has placed the black square on his grey wig. This whore is gallows-bound. 

‘Is he dead?’ I asked. 

My jailer wouldn’t say.

 I pass my days remembering recipes and reciting them to the damp walls. They don’t remind me of food; they are bookmarks from this short life of mine. They remain tasteless. I prefer them that way. 

A doctor was called for. Who sent for or paid for him I don’t know, and uncharacteristically I do not care. He was very matter of fact and said the reason for my malady was simple: I was with child. I haven’t laughed for a long time but forgive me,

the thought struck me as ridiculous. In all that has happened I have never once found myself in this predicament. I can hardly believe it is true. The doctor looked relieved – he had at least found a reason for my life to be extended – pregnant women are not hanged. Even if I’m found guilty of murder, the gallows will wait until the child is born. What a comforting thought.

Hope came shortly afterwards. Dear Hope. She looked worried, thinner.

‘How is Mercy?’ I asked. 

She avoided answering me and busied herself about my cell. 

‘What does this mean?’ she asked, running her fingers over the words scratched on a small table, the only piece of furniture this stinking cell has to offer. I had spent some time etching them into its worm-eaten surface. An Almond for a Parrot.

‘It’s a title for a memoir, the unanswered love song of a soon to- be dead bird. Except I have no paper, no pen and without ink the thing won’t write at all.’

‘ Just as well, Tully.’

‘I want to tell the truth of my life.’

‘Better to leave it,’ she said.

‘It’s for Avery – not that he will ever read it.’ I felt myself on the brink of tears but I refused to give in to them. ‘I will write it for myself. Afterwards, it can be your bedtime entertainment, the novelty of my days in recipes and tittle-tattle.’

‘Oh, my sweet ninny-not. You must be brave, Tully. This is a dreadful place and…’

‘And it is not my first prison. My life has come full circle. You haven’t answered my question.’

‘Mercy is still very ill. Mofty is with her.’

‘Will she live?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘And is he alive?’

 ‘Tully, he is dead. You are to be tried for murder.’

‘My, oh my. At least my aim was true.’

I sank back on the bed, too tired to ask more. Even if Hope was in the mood for answering questions, I didn’t think I would want to know the answers.

‘You are a celebrity in London. Everyone wants to know what you do, what you wear. The papers are full of it.’

There seemed nothing to say to that. Hope sat quietly on the edge of the bed, holding my hand.

Finally, I found the courage to ask the question I’d wanted to ask since Hope arrived.

‘Is there any news of Avery?’

‘No, Tully, there’s not.’

I shook my head. Regret. I am full of it. A stone to worry one’s soul with.

‘You have done nothing wrong, Tully.’

‘Forgive me for laughing.’

‘You will have the very best solicitor.’

‘Who will pay for him?’

‘Queenie.’

‘No, no. I don’t want her to. I have some jewels…’

I felt sick.

‘Concentrate on staying well,’ said Hope.

If this life was a dress rehearsal, I would now have a chance to play my part again but with a more favourable outcome. Alas, we players are unaware that the curtain goes up the minute we take our first gulps of air; the screams of rage our only hopeless comments on being born onto such a barren stage. 

So here I am with ink, pen and a box of writing paper, courtesy of a well-wisher. Still I wait to know the date of my trial. What to do until then? Write, Tully, write.

With a hey ho the wind and the rain. And words are my only escape. For the rain it raineth every day.

Appendix VI, The Newgate Calendar

Review

I adored the way Delaney mixed an aura of Victorian era with a hint of modern. For me it definitely had shades of Fanny Hill and Moll Flanders, and to be fair the author does give her inspiration a nudge, wink and its dues.

How to give you an idea of what this book is like? Imagine the aura and setting of an old book mixed with themes of urban fantasy, magic, ghosts and necromancy in an 19th century setting. It is a fascinating combination of historical fiction with a cheeky touch of soft erotica. It’s what I would call a bit of naughty wickedness.

The story starts with our main character sat in jail reflecting upon the past and the choices that have led to her facing the noose. The reader is then invited to follow Tully Truegood, as she is taught to control the passion within her.

She is taught the art of pleasure and how to pleasure others, which unfortunately also means heartbreak and disappointment. In her profession it can also mean violence and having to endure or watch violations and intimate betrayals.

Subtly interwoven into the story is a fascinating element of necromancy and ghostly magic. Tully can see the sins of the past, the horrors that haunt us and the mistakes everyone keeps very well hidden. It’s a talent and also a curse. At the beginning of some of the chapters there are 18th century recipes, such as Hasty Pudding, Hodgepodge or Sheep’s Tongue in Paper. Personally I found them fascinating, although it’s fair to say I won’t be trying tongue in the near future.

Delaney also writes with the eloquence of a writer of the 19th century. Her writing goes down like hot chocolate on a cold day. It’s simply a pleasure to read. I have to say I loved the overall feel of his book. It felt as if the universe had conspired to create a perfect book moment. The cover art (even on the review copies), the characters and the plot. It just felt as if all the jigsaw pieces had come together perfectly.

Hopefully this was the first of many for Delaney. I know I will be both recommending this book and looking forward to the next.

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The Stars are Fire by Anita Shreve

the starsIn our day and age the problems Grace encounters might seem conventional and the way she deals with them completely normal. In 1947 her attempts to be independent and raise her children as a single mother would have been frowned upon. In that era the wife was still very much considered to be property of said man. Women were still coming into their own and starting to throw off the chains of their servitude.

Grace has no idea that her marriage isn’t like every other marriage. Gene is her first sexual experience and her first encounter with what she believes to be love.

When Gene disappears in the midst of a terrible fire she gets the opportunity to discover new emotions and real love. She also experiences friendship with both genders and the kindness of strangers.

Faced with a life of abuse, neglect and anger she has to make a choice to either stay and be silent or refuse to endure a life lived on the terms of a bully.

Kudos to Shreve for adding historical facts and for the authentic feel of the story. Grace was and is every woman, regardless of the era.

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Arrowood by Mick Finlay

arrowoodIt’s an interesting concept, viewing Sherlock as the attention seeking famemonger instead of the observant intelligent world famous detective. Arrowood is convinced that Sherlock only points out the obvious, and has just had a really long run of luck. As I said, it is sort of amusing to think of him as the annoying fly in the ointment.

Arrowood considers himself to be equal to Sherlock in every sense, well perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he considers himself to be superior to him. As far as Arrowood is concerned, Sherlock is too interested in fame and being a celebrity. Someone as vane, pompous and enamoured by his own intelligence could never be a decent detective.

Just like the fame-hogging Sherlock, Arrowood has also got a very sensible and capable sidekick. Norman Barnett seems to be more of a general dogsbody and more often than not he ends up in very dangerous situations, courtesy of Arrowood of course.

The main character is certainly the anti-type to Sherlock. In more ways than he might think. Behind all the complaining and the hard-nosed façade there lurks a huge heart, but hey don’t tell anyone, none of us want to ruin his street cred, right?

Finlay has created a detective, who actually represents the dark side of London. Where Sherlock merely dabbles now and again in the murky underworld and streets filled with people trying to survive, Arrowood lives and breathes that stark reality.

It is a fresh and captivating read with a memorable set of characters. Hopefully this won’t be the last we hear of Arrowood & Co.

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The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

the womenWhen you compare how many books are written about the perpetrators of the Holocaust vs books on the brave people who tried to stop the face of evil. Well, the scales are rather imbalanced. Regardless of whether it would have changed the outcome of history or not, at least they tried. Against all odds, they tried.

Marianne thinks she needs to keep her promise to protect the women and children of her husband’s co-conspirators. That in itself is a noble thing to do, and she does in fact save Benita, Ania and their children in her own way, however Marianne can be very judgemental at the same time.

The pain, horror and difficulties of those considered to be the guilty party tend to be swept under the rug. After everything the people of Germany did, and their collaborators of course, why would anyone feel any pity towards them? The author gives the reader a flavour of some of those post-war difficulties. This doesn’t mean she excuses or shifts the blame, she just tries to remind us that in war there is a lot of collateral damage, and the lines between guilt and innocence are often very blurry.

Towards the end of the book there are conversations between Ania and her daughter Mary. They are reminiscent of conversations, questions and clarifications Jessica Shattuck had with her own grandmother about her past.( I loved my grandmother, but she was a Nazi) Shattuck has tried to align the image she has of her grandmother with that of her past as a member of the Nazi party.

Many scholars and historians have spoken of a collective criminality, responsibility and guilt when it comes to the Nazi era. Men and women, who under normal circumstances would never have committed crimes, are guilty of participating in and allowing the worst of atrocities.

No matter how hard Shattuck looks for an explanation there will never be a satisfactory answer. The majority of these men and women weren’t sociopaths, psychopaths or sadists. The majority of them were normal people in the midst of a mass movement of propaganda, patriotism and not so subtle brainwashing, who did condone and commit sadistic crimes. They looked the other way and chose to believe the truth of the concentration camps was merely Allied propaganda. It’s easier to ignore than to accept that you are part of the problem.

The one thing Shattuck can and should take away from all of her literary attempts to alleviate some genetic sense of guilt, is that the descendants are not to blame for the sins, mistakes or crimes of their ancestors.

The Women in the Castle is a well balanced read. It considers both sides of the coin, and most importantly the collaboration of both sides to attempt to rebuild lives after the war. Marianne, Ania and Benita are mothers and friends, there aren’t just women influenced and driven by the choices of their past.

It is tale of friendship, hardship and ultimately one of loyalty. Shattuck delivers the harsh reality of war in a direct and no nonsense way. There is no need for violins or overly dramatic scenes. The truth is sufficient. Definitely an author I will be revisiting again.

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