5 Book Reviews

Looking at the Stars
Author: Jo Cotterill
Published: 30th January 2014
ISBN13: 9781782300182
Goodreads Rating: 4.18 out of 5
Reviewed: June 2014

Looking at the Stars by Jo Cotterill is a beautiful story targeted at older children and young adults. It handles serious themes that most readers would not have and hopefully will never face.

Amina is thirteen years old, living in a country where women have absolutely no power. She is prohibited from going to school, so she spends her days with her sister, Jenna, weaving baskets and rugs, which they sell to stall holders in the local market. The novel begins with the two girls witnessing the arrival of foreign soldiers. They are overjoyed, believing that all their troubles are over now that the liberation has begun. This, however, turns out to be a false hope.

Separated from their family, Amina and Jenna head to a refugee camp where they hope to find their younger sister, Vivie, and discover information about what has happened to their mother. To prevent them from succumbing to despair, both on the journey and living in the camp, Amina makes up stories about the stars in the sky – hence the novel’s title.

Amina and Jenna’s personalities are vastly different, meaning the reader should be able to identify with at least one of the girls and place themselves within the story. It makes us wonder how we would cope in these situations. Amina is the kind of person who asks questions. She wants to know why things happen and constantly asks, “what if?” Despite being a year younger than Jenna, she is the more confident of the two, and it is partly her determination that keeps them alive. Jenna is quiet, anxious, and always wants to do the right thing. Jenna “just wants everyone to be happy”. She is a realist, whereas Amina is a dreamer.

The storytelling aspect of this novel makes it unique from others in this genre. Many books deal with war, refugees and death, but Amina’s stories provide something extra. They are beautiful and bring hope and faith into such as bleak and dangerous setting.

Whilst this story is set in fictional towns in an unnamed country, it is not unlike recent civil wars in Syria and conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of us can distance ourselves from these stories because, for us, they are just that: stories. They are not something we have to deal with every day. This novel, told from the point of view of a thirteen-year-old girl, reveals what it is like for the thousands of innocents caught up in war. The way it is written helps children and young adults understand and learn more about what is happening in these countries.

These is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901
Author: Nancy E. Turner
Published: 3rd February 1998
ISBN13: 9780340717783
Goodreads Rating: 4.34 out of 5
Reviewed: July 2014

These is My Words is a magnificent historical novel by American author Nancy Turner, told through diary entries written by the protagonist Sarah Prine. For twenty years, Sarah wrote about her experiences, both good and bad, beginning when she was almost eighteen years old.

The first entry in 1881 reveals that Sarah and her family are travelling from Arizona to Texas, which proves disastrous, with her father and youngest brother dying along the way. Soon after they arrive, they decide they would be much better off back home and prepare to make the return trek through the “heathen land”. This time they join a train of travellers accompanied by soldiers to make them feel safer, although this by no means makes it any less dangerous. With constant attacks from Indians, many trekkers are killed or wounded, but thankfully Sarah’s family makes it through. Not long after settling back in Arizona, Sarah receives a marriage proposal from a childhood friend, which she gratefully accepts. Unfortunately, the marriage is not a happy one and ends with the untimely death of her husband, who probably never loved Sarah anyway. Later, a potentially fatal incident brings Sarah together with Captain Elliot, a soldier from the journey to Arizona, and her life takes a new direction.

Sarah is a very likeable character. Her innocence makes her a pleasant girl, but she is admired for her independence. Having grown up on a ranch with only brothers, she knows how to fight for herself and can fire a pistol better than any man. As the wording of the title suggests, Sarah has never been to school, and her grammar and spelling require improvement, which is witnessed throughout the progression of the novel. By being written this way, the reader gets a closer insight into Sarah as a person: the way she talks, the way she has been brought up, and her determination to learn and develop her reading and writing skills.

Initially, it is difficult to get into the storyline. The blurb suggests that the book is about the journey to Texas, but that is over in a matter of pages. Once they are on the return voyage, it is easier to understand, and there is a stronger connection with and appreciation of some of the characters. It is fast-paced, and most of the diary entries are short, only becoming considerably longer when something of significance is recorded. Towards the end, entries occur less frequently, resulting in the latter ten years flying by.

These is My Words is both humorous and heartbreaking. There is a romantic theme throughout the book from the very beginning, where it is clear that something is happening between Sarah and Captain Elliot, and the reader can only begin hoping that something will bring them together. This book can either make you laugh, make you cry or both – for a book to cause that amount of emotion, it must be good!

Unremembered
Author: Jessica Brody
Published: 28th February 2013
ISBN13: 9781250040022
Goodreads Rating: 3.68 out of 5
Reviewed: June 2014

Unremembered is the first book in a young adult science-fiction trilogy by American author, Jessica Brody. Set in current-day California, Unremembered is told from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old girl, Seraphina, who has no memory of anything before the first page of the book.

Whilst a first-person narrative by someone who does not know anything may hinder the telling of the story, it connects the audience with the main character. As readers, we also do not know what happened before the first page of the story. We learn everything as Seraphina does, the only difference being that we are aware of what certain items are – particularly technological ones – as well as being able to communicate and understand other people, not just through words but also with sarcasm and body language.

At the start, we learn there has been a plane crash into the Pacific Ocean with only one survivor, an unidentifiable girl with amnesia. Further on, it transpires that there was never any record of her being on the plane in the first place. This is where all the questions and mysteries begin. Temporarily given the name Violet, she is placed with a foster family, the Carson family, whose thirteen-year-old son Cody is intimidated by her flawless beauty. He begins to connect with her more after it emerges that she is a mathematical genius. So, another question arises, how can she remember how to solve complicated equations yet cannot even remember who she is?

There are also mysteries surrounding a peculiar tattoo on her wrist; a boy named Lyzender who keeps appearing, claiming to know who Violet, or should we say Sera, is; her uncanny ability to speak fluently in a range of languages; and the number 1609. What is the significance of this number? Not only is it the year Sera believes it is after recovering from the crash, but it is also engraved onto a locket she was wearing along with the initials “S + Z”.

Unremembered is a fast-paced novel with mysteries that get solved at the same time as more questions develop. It shows us how people with no experience of the modern world would struggle to understand the things we take for granted. It also poses the question of what truly makes us human.

A Song For Issy Bradley
Author: Carys Bray
Published: 19th June 2014
ISBN13: 9780091954376
Goodreads Rating: 3.7 out of 5
Reviewed: June 2014

A Song for Issy Bradley is the captivating debut novel of talented author Carys Bray. Set in modern-day Britain, this heart-breaking story shows a family’s struggle to overcome the loss of their youngest child whilst also adhering to the strict rules of their Mormon religion.

It begins with seven-year-old Jacob’s birthday, and Mum, Claire, is rushing around with last-minute party preparations whilst her husband, Bishop Ian, is off attending to his religious duties. Although Claire is aware that Issy is feeling poorly, she does not realize how serious it is until much later – too much later. After being rushed to the hospital with meningitis, Issy’s prognosis is not good. Despite Ian’s blessings and prayers, no miracles occur, and Issy passes away the following day.

The main storyline is about how the characters cope with this sudden loss. Claire hides away from everyone by remaining in bed for weeks and ignoring her duties and her family’s pleas. Ian, worried that Claire is not grieving in the proper Mormon way, throws himself even deeper into religion by focusing on what is expected of him as a Bishop rather than concentrating on his children’s needs.

Zipporah, the eldest, is expected to become the woman of the house until Claire returns to “normal”. As well as studying for her exams and doing the housework, Ian insists she attends all church events for people her age. Alone, she worries about love, marriage and falling into sin; she would really like to be able to talk to her Mum. Alma, on the other hand, is becoming more and more rebellious. Not only does he have a stupid name (Alma was named after a prophet in the Book of Mormon), his ambition to become a professional footballer is not conducive to living the gospel. Although he makes jokes and rude remarks about religious ideas, there is still a part of him that believes, and despite his attitude, it is clear he is deeply affected by Issy’s death.

Jacob’s reaction is the most heart wrenching of all. Being so young, he believes everything he is told, especially the Bible stories he hears at church. If Jesus can bring people back to life, perhaps Issy can live again? He puts his faith in God and waits in vain for his sister’s miraculous return.

The story is told through each of these five characters’ points of view, which allows the reader to see how each person’s actions affect the others and gives a greater insight into character development. It is gratifying to witness, albeit slowly, the family pick themselves up and begin to work together and carry on.

As to be expected with a story about Mormons, there are a large number of Bible quotations. Many are from the Book of Mormon, but there are numerous biblical references that Christians of all denominations will appreciate. The author was raised as a Mormon, so it can only be assumed that all the details are accurate. Non-believers should not be put off from reading this beautiful book: it is how people deal with loss that is important, and there is no preaching to the reader or attempts to convert.

The Atlas of Us
Author: Tracy Buchanan
Published: 31st July 2014
ISBN13: 9780007579358
Goodreads Rating: 3.68 out of 5
Reviewed: July 2014

It is hard to believe that almost a decade has passed since the Indian Ocean tsunami at Christmas 2004. Tracy Buchanan’s novel The Atlas of Us is set partly in Thailand during the aftermath of the natural disaster. Yet, this is not a story about the tsunami; it is a tale of love, relationships and motherhood, travel and mystery. Stay-at-home Mum of two, Louise, has flown out to Thailand in a desperate attempt to locate her missing mother. Although they did not have a close relationship, Louise is determined to find Nora and bring her home. An unidentified body was discovered with Nora’s bag containing her passport, but also a book titled The Atlas of Us and a necklace belonging to a woman named Claire Shreve. So who is the body? Is there a chance Nora survived? And just as importantly, how did Nora know Claire?

In between accounts of Louise’s frantic search is Claire’s story, starting from 1997 in Exmoor, where she meets Milo, the potential love of her life, and the rest of his family. But there seems to be more than meets the eye. After a disastrous event, Claire gives in to her wanderlust, and her story continues as she moves from country to country, including Serbia, Finland and Australia, where she writes award-winning travel articles. During this time, she slowly discovers the secrets that Milo has been harbouring that threaten to damage their relationship. This continues until she reaches her final destination: Thailand.

Buchanan creates a sense of foreboding as Claire travels and arrives in Thailand. The reader knows what disaster she will face there and that her chance of survival is slim; Claire, of course, is completely oblivious.

Louise’s first-person account gives an insight into the reaction of relatives of the missing as they take in the devastation left by the waves. Although she has not seen or heard from her mother for two years, there is a powerful need to find her. Louise also talks about her children and what it is like to be a mother, which helps her understand her own mother’s past behaviour and discover how much she loves her. By writing Claire’s section in the third person, Buchanan keeps the question of Claire and Nora’s possible survival unanswered until the very end. From Claire comes the perspective of someone who yearns to be a mother but is unable to conceive. She also explores the effects of the relationship with her father, the way she lives her life, and her passion for travel.

Despite the traumatic storyline, The Atlas of Us is a beautiful story with a lot of detail to keep the reader interested. One minute the focus is on relationships, and the next, a whole new world is opened up with descriptions of foreign places that could spark a desire for travel even in those usually content to stay at home. 


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The Woman Who Flew

Declared dead in 1939, Amelia Earhart became famous for her mysterious disappearance somewhere over the central Pacific Ocean. As of March 2022, no one knows what happened to the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and her navigator, Fred Noonan (1893-declared dead 1938). Despite her early death or disappearance, Earhart set many aviation records and helped promote commercial air travel, upon which the world heavily relies today.

Amelia Mary Earhart was born on 24th June 1897 in Kansas, where she developed a tomboy spirit of adventure, frequently climbing trees, collecting insects and hunting rats with a rifle. On one occasion, the girls’ uncle helped them construct a rollercoaster out of a ramp, which inadvertently gave Earhart her first taste of flying. After crash landing, tearing her dress and bursting her lip, Earhart exclaimed, “It’s just like flying!” Ironically, the first time Earhart encountered an aeroplane, she described it as “a thing of rusty wire and wood and not at all interesting.”

Throughout Earhart’s childhood and teenage years, she kept a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings about inspiring women aspiring to become one herself. In 1917, Earhart trained as a nurse’s aide with the Red Cross, which mostly entailed preparing food and prescribing medicine to wounded American soldiers. In 1918, while working at the Spadina Military Hospital in Toronto, Earhart caught the Spanish flu, which developed into maxillary sinusitis. The chronic condition frequently returned, which made travelling in aeroplanes challenging. She often needed a drainage tube to remove excess fluid from her sinuses.

After recovering from the flu, Earhart visited the Canadian National Exhibition, where she watched a flying exhibition. In an attempt to scare her, the pilot dived at Earhart and her friend, but Earhart remained fascinated by the vehicle and felt no fear. In 1920, Earhart had the opportunity to experience flying with Frank Hawks (1897-1938), a WW1 pilot. From that moment, Earhart knew she wanted to become a pilot. After saving $1,000 for lessons, Earhart began training on 3rd January 1921 with Neta Snook Southern (1896-1991), the first woman accepted at the Curtiss Flying School in Virginia.

After six months of gruelling training, Earhart purchased her first plane, a secondhand bright yellow Kinner Airster biplane, which she nicknamed “The Canary”. The Kinner Airster was designed by Bert Kinner (1882-1957) in 1920. It seated two people and could reach speeds up to 85 mph (137 km/h). In 1922, Earhart flew her plane to 14,000 feet (4,300 m), breaking the women’s world record. The following year, she became the 16th woman in the USA to be issued a pilot’s licence.

In 1927, American aviator Charles Lindbergh (1902-74) made the first solo flight across the Atlantic ocean. Female aviator, Amy Guest (1873–1959), expressed interest in becoming the first woman to achieve the feat but decided it was too dangerous. Instead, Guest offered to sponsor the project and Earhart was nominated as the pilot. Inexperienced with aircraft suitable for flying such long distances, Earhart accompanied Wilmer Stultz (1900-29) on a flight from Newfoundland to Wales. Realising she knew little about the plane, Earhart felt like a passenger rather than a co-pilot.

Although Earhart needed a lot of training before taking on the solo challenge, her flight with Stultz gained attention in American newspapers and magazines. Dubbing her “Lady Lindy”, in reference to the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic, the press elevated Earhart to celebrity status, nicknaming her “Queen of the Air” and following her training progress. Soon, Earhart was giving lectures, publishing books and advertising merchandise. Cigarette, clothing and luggage brands paid Earhart to advertise their products stamped with her initials, A.E.

The money earned through advertising helped Earhart finance her flying. She encouraged other women to enter the field and became one of the first aviators to promote commercial air travel. Earhart invested both time and money in setting up flight services between New York and Washington D.C. and acted as Vice President of National Airways, which flew between states in the North East of America.

In August 1928, Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the North American continent and back. Following this, she entered the first Santa Monica-to-Cleveland Women’s Air Derby, nicknamed the “Powder Puff Derby”. Earhart finished third in the “heavy” division after the woman ahead of her crashlanded.

In 1930, Earhart joined the National Aeronautic Association and persuaded them to separate women’s and men’s records to give women a chance to set their own. Subsequently, Earhart set the women’s world record for altitude at 18,415 feet (5,613 m). Although some of these flying stunts were dangerous, Earhart proved flying was not just an activity for men. She became the first president of the Ninety-Nines: International Organization of Women Pilots, which provided mentoring and flight opportunities for women.

Between 1929 and 1930, George P. Putnam (1887-1950), the American publisher that nominated Earhart for the first female solo transatlantic flight, asked her to marry him six times. Despite refusing his many proposals, Earhart gave in, and they married on 7th February 1931, on the condition that they both have “dual control” of their relationship. Earhart also insisted on keeping her surname, causing newspapers to jokingly refer to her husband as “Mr Earhart”.

Finally, the day arrived for Earhart to attempt her first transatlantic crossing. With the help of her technical adviser Bernt Balchen (1889-1973), a Norwegian aviator, Earhart prepared her plane and plotted a route from Newfoundland to Paris. Earhart chose to fly a Lockheed Vega, which could usually carry six passengers. With a wingspan of 41 ft (12 m), the bright red plane could reach a top speed of 185 mph (298 km/h).

The flight, which lasted 14 hours, 56 minutes, did not go exactly as planned. Due to strong winds and mechanical problems, Earhart did not make it as far as France. Instead, the conditions forced her to land in a field in Culmore, near Derry, Northern Ireland. Two farmers witnessed the landing and asked, “Have you flown far?” To which Earhart replied, “From America.”

Following the successful flight, Earhart received many awards as the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic. The US Congress awarded her the Distinguished Flying Cross, officially a military badge given to those who distinguish themselves “by heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.” The French government gave Earhart the Cross of Knight of the Legion of Honor, and President Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) presented her with the Gold Medal of the National Geographic Society.

Earhart’s flight increased her celebrity status, and she became acquainted with many notable people, including Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), who became the President of the USA in 1933. The White House invited Earhart and Putnam to dinner, where Earhart developed a close friendship with the First Lady, Eleanor (1884-1962). During the meal, Earhart spontaneously suggested she and the First Lady take a flight to Baltimore and back, which they promptly did, still wearing their formal gowns.

Earhart continued to conduct solo flights, becoming the first aviator to fly solo from Hawaii to California in 1935. Later that year, she flew solo from Los Angeles to Mexico City, then Mexico City to New Jersey, where crowds turned up to watch her land. She also participated in the 1935 Bendix Trophy Race, finishing 5th after a journey of fog and thunderstorms. By the end of 1935, Earhart had set seven women’s speed and distance aviation records and fixed her eyes on her next challenge: circumnavigating the globe.

Aviators had already flown around the world before, but Earhart planned a longer route that followed the 29,000 miles (47,000 km) equator. In 1936, Earhart ordered a Lockheed Electra 10E to her exact specifications. Earhart asked Captain Harry Manning (1897-1974) to be her navigator. Manning was a mariner as well as an aviator and had captained the President Roosevelt. After a test flight, Earhart’s husband persuaded her to take on a second navigator, so room was made in the plane for Fred Noonan (1893-1937) to join the crew.

On 17th March 1937, Earhart, Manning and Noonan flew the first leg of the journey from California to Hawaii. Also on board was a technical advisor, Paul Mantz (1903-65), famous for his Hollywood plane stunts. After landing in Hawaii, the aircraft needed servicing due to problems with the propellor. After three days, the team were ready to continue their voyage, only for the landing gear to collapse during take-off. Earhart thought the tyre may have blown, but Mantz stated it was a pilot error.

After shipping the damaged aircraft back to the mainland, Manning and Mantz ended their association with the project, leaving Earhart and Noonan to make plans for a second attempt. Unfortunately, they discovered too late that neither was a skilled radio operator.

On 20th May 1937, Earhart and Noonan set off on their second attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Due to weather conditions, they chose to follow the plotted route in reverse. After setting off from California, they travelled to Arizona, Louisiana and Florida before leaving the States and landing in Puerto Rica. From there, they visited Venezuela, Suriname and Brazil, then headed to Senegal in Africa. In Africa, they stopped in French Sudan (now Mali), French Equatorial Africa (Chad), Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (Sudan), and Italian East Africa (Eritrea).

From Africa, Earhart and Noonan made the first-ever non-stop flight from the Red Sea to India. The journey continued to go well as they travelled through Burma (Myanmar), Siam (Thailand), the Straits Settlements (Singapore) and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). A monsoon delayed them for a few days before travelling to another part of the Dutch East Indies. Unfortunately, Earhart fell ill with dysentery on 25th June, so they did not fly that day. Instead, repairs were made to the plane, ready for their trip to Australia.

After landing in Darwin, Australia, where they made further repairs and removed the parachutes to lighten the plane, Earhart and Noonan travelled to Lae in New Guinea (Papua New Guinea). With only three more stops before reaching home, they set off to Howland Island, just north of the equator in the Pacific Ocean. They never arrived.

No one knows for certain what happened to Earhart and Noonan. During the flight, Earhart contacted the United States Coast Guard stationed at Howland Island, but it soon became clear she could not hear their response. The last message they received from the plane said, “We are on the line 157 337. We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait… We are running on line north and south.”

An hour after Earhart’s final message, searches were made in the vicinity of Howland Island for the missing plane. The information Earhart provided suggested they were flying North North West of the island, but the Coast Guard found nothing and extended the search to the North East and North West. After three days of searching, the US Navy arrived to assist. Believing Earhart must have been mistaken about her location, the search and rescue team directed their attention to the Phoenix Islands south of Howland Island. One theory was that the plane landed on or near Gardner Island (Nikumaroro), an uninhabited island, but the naval aircraft sent to scout the area found no signs of life.

After spending $4 million searching for Earhart and Noonan, the search and rescue mission was deemed too expensive and abandoned. They were “declared death in absentia“, but Earhart’s husband refused to give up. Putnam financed a private search of the Pacific ocean and its islands, including the Phoenix Islands, Christmas Island (Kiritimati), Fanning Island (Tabuaeran), the Gilbert Islands, and the Marshall Islands. No trace of the plane or its occupants were found, and Earhart was declared legally dead on 5th January 1939.

The disappearance of Amelia Earhart remains a mystery. Several theories about her fate have developed. The crash-and-sink theory suggests the plane ran out of fuel and plummetted into the sea. By the time search and rescue teams reached the area, the plane may have been deep beneath the surface.

One hypothesis suggests the plane landed on Gardner Island, and the search team failed to notice them. Unfortunately, future searches of the island have not found any evidence to prove this theory. Conspiracy theorists propose the Japanese captured and executed the pair after landing on Saipan in the North Mariana Islands. Again, there is no evidence of this.

Another theory suggests Earhart turned back to Papua New Guinea but crashed before reaching the airfield. A more ludicrous idea is Earhart survived, returned to the United States and assumed a new identity. For a brief time, Irene Craigmile Bolam (1904-82) of New Jersey was accused of such allegations due to similarities of appearance, but after Bolam took legal action, the claim was dropped.

Due to her celebrity status, Earhart’s disappearance shocked the world more than the unknown fate of her flight partner. Following her death, Earhart has received more honours than during her short life, including being listed as a posthumous member of the National Aviation Hall of Fame (1968) and the National Women’s Hall of Fame (1973). Several places are named after Earhart, including the Amelia Earhart Centre And Wildlife Sanctuary in Northern Ireland, the SS Amelia Earhart (since wrecked), the Amelia Earhart Airport in Kansas, the minor planet 3895 Earhart, Amelia Earhart Bridge in Kansas, the Amelia Earhart Dam in Massachusetts, and the North Hollywood Amelia Earhart Regional Library.

Since Earhart attempted to circumnavigate the Earth, several people have completed the circuit in her honour. Ann Dearing Holtgren Pellegreno (b. 1937) completed the planned route in 1967 and dropped a wreath in Earhart’s honour over Howland Island. Linda Finch (b. 1951) followed suit in 1997. In 2013, the aptly named Amelia Rose Earhart (b. 1983) followed the flight path in a single-engine plane. In the same year, the young pilot established the Fly With Amelia Foundation, which grants scholarships to girls ages 16 to 18.

Earhart’s mysterious disappearance remains one of the world’s top unsolved mysteries. There is every chance her remains may be found in the future, but this will not end the world’s fascination with the pilot. Earhart’s achievements were not just for herself but for women as well. She proved that women could be pilots, could fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, could fly non-stop from one side of America to the other, and could circumnavigate the globe. Although she did not achieve the latter, she encouraged other women to attempt the feat. Jerrie Mock (1925-2014) became the first woman to do so in 1964, although following a different route.

Amelia Earhart will be remembered for her disappearance and achievements, whether in books, films or memorials. She remains an inspiration for female pilots around the world. Women make up only 9.02% of pilots and other aviation personnel. Yet, with encouragement from organisations, such as the Fly With Amelia Foundation, this number is destined to rise.


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The Genius of Hard Work

I know of no genius but the genius of hard work.” J.M.W. Turner

Lending his name to the Turner Prize, held annually at Tate Britain, J.M.W Turner is one of the most notable artists in British history. Galleries across the UK and further afield display Turner’s paintings, and Tate Britain devotes their Clore Gallery to a permanent exhibition of Turner’s work. Since 2020, a self-portrait of Turner has decorated British £20 notes, with a backdrop of his painting, The Fighting Temeraire. So, what makes Turner one of Britain’s most loved artists?

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in April 1775 in Covent Garden, London. He preferred to go by his middle name, William, the same name as his father, who worked as a barber and wig maker. Turner’s mother, Mary, gave birth to his little sister in 1778, who passed away shortly before her fifth birthday. Mary suffered greatly from this loss and spent time in St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics and Bethlem Hospital until she died in 1804.

Following his sister’s death, Turner went to live with his maternal uncle and namesake, Joseph Mallord William Marshall, in Brentford. The earliest examples of Turner’s artwork were produced at this time, before being sent to Margate, Kent, in 1786. While in Margate, Turner painted scenes of the town, which his father displayed and sold in his shop for a few shillings each, boasting that his son “is going to be a painter”.

In 1789, Turner started studying with Thomas Malton (1748-1804), an English painter of topographical and architectural views. Malton specialised in views of London and taught Turner by getting him to copy examples of his work and prints of British castles and monasteries. In the same year, 14-year-old Turner entered the Royal Academy of Arts, earning a place as an academic probationer the following year when he submitted a watercolour to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

During his first few years at the Academy, Turner focused on watercolours. He travelled around Britain to produce sketches of architectural buildings, particularly those in Wales and Cambridge. In 1793, he painted a watercolour of Clare Hall at the University of Cambridge. The painting reveals the spires of King’s College Chapel hidden behind the hall and the River Cam flowing in front. Instead of submitting this artwork to the Summer Exhibition, Turner sent in The Rising Squall – Hot Wells from St Vincent’s Rock Bristol, which is now lost. Yet, comments given at the time suggest older artists were impressed with Turner’s “mastery of effect”.

In 1796, Turner turned his hand to oil painting and exhibited Fishermen at Sea at the annual exhibition. The artwork depicts fishermen on a boat upon a rough sea off the coast of the Isle of Wight. On the left, the Needles, a row of jagged, chalk rocks look threatening in the gloom of the stormy sky. The cold light of the moon shines through a break in the clouds, which contrasts with the warm glow of the fishermen’s lamp. Critics commented on Turner’s ability to combine the fragility of human life with the power of nature. The painting helped establish Turner as both an oil painter and a painter of maritime scenes.

Turner gained one of his earliest patrons in 1797 at the age of 22. Walter Ramsden Fawkes (1769-1825), a politician, invited Turner to visit him at Farnley Hall, near Otley in Yorkshire. Fawkes allowed Turner to explore the grounds belonging to the Hall and commissioned a series of watercolours of the area. In one painting, Turner depicted Fawkes and his companions grouse shooting on Beamsley Beacon in the Yorkshire Dales.

Around 1802, Turner travelled to Europe, visiting several countries, including France, Switzerland and Italy. While in France, Turner studied at the Louvre in Paris but also spent some time on the coast, capturing the stormy sea on canvas. He particularly enjoyed trips to Venice, where he combined two of his favourite subjects, architecture and water.

Turner did not always paint the landscape as he saw it. Instead, he imagined scenarios, such as Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps during a snowstorm, which he painted in 1812. Turner took inspiration from several places, including the Alps in Europe and a storm he witnessed while staying at Farnley Hall with his patron. Combining these elements with his imagination, Turner depicted the Carthaginian general, Hannibal (247-182 BC), leading his troops across the Alps in 218 BC. Whilst the general is not visible, the tiny silhouette of an elephant in the background represents his presence. According to the history of the Second Punic War, Hannibal invaded Italy with North African war elephants.

The stormy painting of Hannibal crossing the Alps shared parallels with the ongoing Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France. The conflicts began in 1803, shortly after Turner studied at the Louvre. Turner painted the scene three years before the end of the conflicts when the winning country remained uncertain. It is unusual for a British artist to depict their enemy as Hannibal, but Turner was referencing Napoleon’s crossing of the Alps in 1800. After already taking power in France, Napoleon was determined to seize parts of Italy.

Not all of Turner’s European scenes contained storms and he showed an equal talent for depicting calm skies. In 1817, Turner visited Dordrecht in the Western Netherlands, where he made sketches of the harbour. The following year, Turner produced a painting based on these drawings, which he titled Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort packet-boat from Rotterdam becalmed. Known as The Dort for short, the painting depicted “a canal with numerous boats making thousands of beautiful shapes,” as John Constable (1776-1837) recalled in 1832. Constable also thought it was “the most complete work of a genius I ever saw.”

After displaying The Dort at the Royal Academy in 1818, where critics rated it “one of the most magnificent pictures ever exhibited,” Turner sold the painting to Walter Fawkes for 500 guineas. This is the equivalent of more than £40,000 today.

Around 1820, Turner returned to Farnley Hall, where under the guidance of Walter Fawkes, he produced illustrations for the five-volume Ornithological Collection. Fawkes was a keen natural historian and animal lover, allegedly purchasing a wild zebra to live on his land. Turner’s watercolours of birds and fishes prove his capability for producing detailed, delicate studies, not only expressive landscapes.

Art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) praised Turner’s natural history drawings, particularly “the grey down of the birds and the subdued iridescences of the fish”. Whilst Turner also painted animal studies later in his career, particularly of fish, this style of artwork is often left out of biographies and exhibitions about Turner. Yet, those who come across these animal pictures are struck by the differences between these paintings and Turner’s landscapes. French artist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), for instance, wrote enthusiastically to his son after seeing Turner’s watercolours of fish in the National Gallery.

Whilst Turner’s animal paintings are not amongst the artist’s well-known works, there is more information about them than his personal life. Turner had very few friends and spent the majority of time with his father, who worked as Turner’s studio assistant for 30 years. William Turner Senior’s death in 1829 greatly affected his son, who suffered bouts of depression. Much of Turner’s life is told through letters and accounts by other people, particularly artists at the Royal Academy, who either admired or despised him.

Turner allegedly had an affair with an older woman called Sarah Danby and fathered two daughters, Evelina and Georgiana. According to the 2014 biopic Mr. Turner, Turner refused to acknowledge and support the children. The film also revealed he spent 18 years living with the widow Sophia Caroline Booth. During this time, he went by the name “Mr Booth” to disguise his true identity.

Irrespective of his private life, Turner continued painting expressive landscapes, which became less detailed, focusing instead on colour and light. On the evening of 16th October 1834, a fire broke out at the Houses of Parliament, turning the sky dark with smoke. Thousands of people witnessed the blaze, including Turner, who felt inspired to capture the colours of the fire and sky on two canvases. Whilst the crowds stood on the other side of the River Thames, watching in horror as the fire spread rapidly throughout the building, Turner hired a boat to take him closer to the inferno, where he filled two sketchbooks with drawings from different vantage points. The watercolours on canvas are based on these sketches and were not painted en plein air.

By 1838, Turner’s reputation had spread to the continent, where King Louis Philippe I (1773-1850) of France presented him with a gold snuff-box. In the same year, Turner painted one of his most famous works, The Fighting Temeraire. The watercolour shows the HMS Temeraire, one of the last ships used in the Battle of Trafalgar, being towed up the Thames towards Rotherhithe. Some art historians believe Turner added symbolic meaning to the composition. The famous ship appears almost ghostly in comparison to the dark tugboat, potentially symbolising the ship’s fate. When the Temeraire reached its destination, it was broken up for scrap. The setting sun may also symbolise the end of the ship’s life.

Turner painted The Fighting Temeraire from sketches he made, which was Turner’s preferred approach. Turner’s Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino, completed in 1839, is another example of this method. Turner visited Rome twice, yet spent twenty years painting views of the city. Modern Rome is the final artwork in the series, depicting a mix of Classical, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. In the foreground, Turner included an imagined group of goatherds and other modern workers, going about their work in a city rich in history.

Some of Turner’s landscapes involve events he did not witness, for example, Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, yet he usually combined elements from sketches made throughout his career to produce dramatic scenes. The Slave Ship, painted in 1840, is one such example. Originally titled Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon coming on depicts a scene that only those on board the ship witnessed. In 1781, a slave ship owner ordered 132 sick and dying slaves to be thrown overboard so that he could claim insurance payments. The insurance policy did not cover slaves who died of natural causes onboard the ship.

The crew on the slave ship Zong kept quiet about the incident, but the British public soon learnt of the massacre after one of the surviving slaves, Olaudah Equiano (1745-97), confided in Granville Sharp (1735-1813), one of the first British campaigners for the abolition of the slave trade. Sharp argued with the slave-owner, accusing him of murder, but received the response, “the case was the same as if assets had been thrown overboard.” Whilst a judge ruled that the shipowner could not file for insurance due to lack of evidence, the man got away with slaughtering innocent lives. Nonetheless, the incident inspired abolitionist movements and turned many people against slavery, including Turner.

In hindsight, Turner’s late landscapes bordered on Impressionism, an art movement that did not appear until the 1860s. Yet, Turner is never described as an impressionist, and his style drew mixed reactions from his contemporaries. When commenting on Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842), one critic likened it to “soapsuds and whitewash”, greatly offending the artist. John Ruskin, on the other hand, wrote that the painting was “one of the very grandest statements of sea-motion, mist and light, that has ever been put on canvas.”

To some viewers, Snow Storm is a smear of dark, grey colours, and to others, it depicts a paddle steamer caught in a snow storm. Rather than using watercolour, Turner painted with oils but tried to replicate the same style. Instead of blending colours, Turner built the scene in layers, giving the picture texture. The monochromatic colours emphasise the darkness caused by the storm, but the steamboat is almost lost amid the swirling greys.

Whilst Turner always had a distinctive style, the looser, darker, indistinct paintings of his mature period coincided with the death of painter and clergyman Edward Thomas Daniell (1804-42). Despite the age difference, Daniell and Turner became close friends after the death of Turner’s father. Acquaintances suggest that Daniell provided Turner with the spiritual comfort needed to “ease the fears of a naturally reflective man approaching old age.”

Throughout his life, Turner always refused to let anyone paint his portrait. Before Daniell embarked on a voyage to the Middle East, he persuaded Turner to sit for John Linnell (1792-1882). Turner reluctantly agreed but only stayed long enough for Linnell to observe him during a dinner party. Linnell produced the portrait from memory.

Daniell set off to tour the Middle East in 1840, aiming to capture the foreign landscapes in watercolour. During the return trip in 1842, Daniell fell ill with malaria and passed away at the age of 38. Distraught at the news, Turner declared he would never form such a friendship again.

Turner’s paintings from the 1840s may represent his grief, but they also capture the changes in Britain. Turner lived during the height of the Industrial Revolution, which saw a rise in factories, machines and electricity. In 1844, he painted Rain, Steam and Speed, which depicts an oncoming steam train in the countryside during a summer rainstorm. In 1838, the Great Western Railway, engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), ran its first trains. Turner captured the train travelling over Maidenhead Railway Bridge, also designed by Brunel.

Although the railway and steam train are the main focus of Rain, Steam and Speed, the hazy atmosphere almost obscures them from view. Art historians often comment that Turner was ahead of his time and among the very few painters who considered industrial advancement an appropriate subject of art. The blurred elements of the painting suggest the train is travelling at speed. It also symbolises that modern technology is advancing forwards at a rapid pace. At almost seventy years of age, Turner had seen more changes in Britain than any of his predecessors.

Not all of Turner’s later works were dark and stormy. Norham Castle, Sunrise (1845), for instance, shows an early morning view of Norham Castle from across the River Tweed. Turner visited the Northumbrian castle in 1797, where he produced a highly detailed watercolour painting. His later version of Nordham Castle is based on the original but much less refined with vague outlines of the scenery. The castle appears to be shrouded in mist, which the sunlight is fighting to shine through.

On 19th December 1851, Turner passed away from cholera while staying with Sophia Caroline Booth at her house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. Royal Academician Philip Hardwick (1792-1870) took charge of Turner’s funeral arrangements after writing to friends and family “I must inform you, we have lost him.” Turner is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral near Sir Joshua Reynolds, who played a large part in establishing Turner as an artist.

Turner bequeathed his finished paintings to the British nation, leaving instructions for a special gallery to house them. After 22 years of debating the location of the gallery, the British Parliament allowed Turner’s paintings to be distributed and lent to museums and galleries, thus going against Turner’s wishes. Fortunately, the art collector Henry Vaughan (1809-99) purchased over one hundred of Turner’s watercolours, which he bequeathed to British galleries instructing they should be “exhibited to the public all at one time, free of charge”.

In 1910, a large number of Turner’s paintings arrived at the Duveen Turner Wing at the National Gallery of British Art, now called Tate Britain. In 1987, the gallery constructed a new wing, known as the Clore Gallery, specifically for their collection of Turner’s work. The gallery was met with approval from The Turner Society, established in 1975, who declared that Turner’s will had finally been carried out.

The prestigious Turner Prize, established in 1984 in the artist’s honour, annually awards one controversial British artist £25,000. Whilst many critics debate whether some of the entries count as art, the artists are encouraged to change the course of art history and step away from traditional methods. Turner’s work may appear traditional today, but at the time, many found his style controversial and modern.

In 2005, the BBC conducted a poll to discover Britain’s greatest painting. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire won first place, followed by John Constable’s The Hay Wain. The Bank of England selected the same painting for the background of the first £20 British banknote printed on polymer, which came into circulation on 20th February 2020. The note also features Turner’s self-portrait from 1799.

Whilst Tate Britain boasts the largest collection of Turner’s work, his paintings and drawings belong to galleries throughout the world. In London, the British Museum holds several watercolours, and the National Gallery displays Rain, Steam, and Speed and The Fighting Temeraire amongst others.


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Another Year Over

If you are reading this, you have survived another difficult year. Covid-19 and its many variants have not gone away. Plans have been made, rescheduled and cancelled, causing a lot of frustration and disappointment. Yet, here we are. We survived.

I found 2021 a challenging year. After months/years of chronic pain, the doctor diagnosed me with hypermobility syndrome. Not only are my joints extra “bendy”, but they are also very weak and often in pain. On some days, I can function like a “normal” human being, but on others, even getting out of bed is a physical challenge. I am so tired!! I would like to congratulate myself for keeping this blog going throughout the year, in spite of the fatigue and pain. I thank you. *Bows*

Last month, my world felt like it was turned upside down when my best friend, honorary family member and favourite Martin was diagnosed with Bowel Cancer. Thankfully, an operation to remove the cancer went ahead before Christmas, and Martin is making good progress every day. Six months of chemotherapy may begin in the new year to stop it from coming back. I felt a bit helpless after Martin’s diagnosis because I could not “fix” him, so I started a fundraiser on Facebook for Bowel Cancer UK. Without research by charities like Bowel Cancer UK, the quick diagnosis and operation Martin received would not be available. With generous donations from friends, family and Gants Hill United Reformed Church, I raised £750.

It is always important to reflect on the positives, even during challenging, upsetting times:

  • Blogs Written: 53
  • Word Count: approximately 156,807 (not including this post)
  • Visitors to My Blog: over 17,500
  • Most Popular In: USA (over 9200 visitors) and UK (over 7900 visitors)
  • Most Popular Post Written This Year: The History of Jeans
  • Most Popular Post of All Time: Christian Angelology
  • New Followers: 12
  • Books Reviewed: 6 
  • Books Read: 108
  • Cities/Towns Visited: 2 (Bristol and Grantham)
  • Commissions: King’s Church Upminster
  • Websites “looked after”: Gants Hill URC and Heath and Havering URC
  • Concerts attended: Collabro: Greatest Hits Tour (London Palladium)
  • Theatre shows attended: Les Misérables (Sondheim Theatre), The Phantom of the Opera (Her Majesty’s Theatre) and Frozen (Theatre Royal)
  • Vaccines: Three

This year, I started writing quiz questions for QuizzClub.com. This involves writing an explanation about the answer as well as inventing the questions and answers. At the time of writing, over 460 of my questions have been reviewed and accepted. I also had one of my questions featured in Jay’s Virtual Pub Quiz 2 by Jay Flynn.

When Covid-19 restrictions allowed, I visited many museums and exhibitions in London, some of which I wrote about on this blog. It is hard to choose a favourite exhibition, but some noteworthy ones were Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Experience, Paddington Bear at the British Library, Hogarth and Europe at Tate Britain, Beano at Somerset House, Alice in Wonderland at the V&A, Poussin and the Dance at the National Gallery, Frans Hals at the Wallace Collection, and Tudors to Windsors at the National Maritime Museum.

On Christmas Day, I posted my Christmas card design, but that is not the only drawing I have done this year. I have tried to draw birthday cards for all my friends and family. Here are some of my favourites.

Goals for 2022
Continue blogging
Write more book reviews
Read the 40+ books littering my bedroom floor
Go to exhibitions in London (with Martin when he is well enough)
Go on holidays with friends (ditto)

Thank you for reading my blogs this year. I wish you all a positive new year. Be gentle with yourself.


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Jodi Picoult

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about how to write a book review. While writing, I discovered that I have, to date, written 392 book reviews, of which a list is available here. Many of my reviews are about pre-published books sent to me by the author or publisher via NetGalley or Goodreads, but I also review books of my choice. Examples of the latter include books by American author Jodi Picoult.

Jodi Picoult (born 1966) is the author of over 25 novels that tackle a wide range of controversial or moral issues. She is adept at tackling matters in a sensitive, honest way, whether they involve abortion, assisted suicide, race relations, eugenics, LGBT rights, or school shootings. Geoff Hamilton and Brian Jones, the authors of Encyclopedia of Contemporary Writers and Their Works (2020), described Picoult as “a paradox, a hugely popular, at times controversial writer, ignored by academia, who questions notions of what constitutes literature simply by doing what she does best.”

I first came across Jodi Picoult in 2008 when my A-Level Religious Studies tutor suggested reading My Sister’s Keeper to help with our medical Ethics Module. Not only did I enjoy the book, but it also rekindled my love of reading. Picoult’s writing ability is exceptional, and her turn of phrases are almost poetical. It is no surprise that Picoult has won at least 14 awards and honours.

In 2014, I decided to write reviews of all Jodi Picoult’s novels. So far, I have only managed to write about eight books, but I plan to continue this goal in the future. (Although the 20+ books on my to-read pile suggest this will not be achieved any time soon!)

My Sister’s Keeper (reviewed 2015)

“If you use one of your children to save the life of another, are you being a good mother or a very bad one?”

My Sister’s Keeper was the first Jodi Picoult novel I read. (I have since read all Picoult’s books to date) I was not expecting much when I first picked it up, especially as I was reading it for a Medical Ethics module at college. Yet this book rekindled my love of reading, and suddenly, after only reading one story, I was asking for Jodi Picoult books for my birthday.

Many people may be familiar with the storyline, even if they have not read the book, as My Sister’s Keeper shot to fame when the film version hit the cinemas. Thirteen-year-old Anna Fitzgerald was Rhode Island’s first genetically engineered baby, created to provide her older sister Kate with the means to survive acute promyelocytic leukaemia. However, over the next few years, Kate relapses resulting in Anna going under numerous procedures, such as bone marrow extraction, to save Kate’s life. Now things have got so bad that Kate will die unless Anna gives up one of her kidneys, yet unwilling to do this, Anna hires a lawyer, Campbell Alexander, to sue her parents for the rights of her own body.

From reading a synopsis, the reader can already see that My Sister’s Keeper is going to be an emotional story, but what made me love the author so much?

The story was told from six points of view: Anna, Jesse (older brother), Sara (mother), Brian (father), Campbell and Julie (guardian ad litem). Notice that Kate was not one of the narrators, which leads us to speculate from the very start that Anna wins the case and Kate dies. Within the six main characters, there is no antagonist – unless you count cancer – and in all of them, the reader can find something relatable.

In one of the chapters, Jesse pronounces that Kate is the martyr, Anna the peacekeeper and himself the lost cause. With Anna, we can recognize the struggle to follow the decisions laid down for us by other people – a time when we have no choice of our own. Jesse represents the times when we have been ignored and forgotten because of bigger or more important events, thus resulting in attention-seeking behaviour. Brian, the firefighter, the man who wants to save everyone, cannot put out the metaphorical fire plaguing his family. Sara, whose narrative starts in the past rather than the present day, shows us how easy it is to get wrapped up in one problem (or daughter), ignoring everything (or everyone) else.

One great thing about all Picoult’s novels is that they are not focused on one storyline. Granted, this book focuses on the trial and Kate’s illness, but the inclusion of Campbell and Julia’s voices provide an additional subplot. Julia is not thrilled to discover that she will be working alongside Campbell, a person she knew from school with whom she had a difficult past. Since then, Julia has found herself unlucky in love and blames Campbell for this. Campbell, on the other hand, has troubles of his own and needs a service dog with him at all times. Yet, he is self-conscious about people knowing the reason behind this and often comes up with creative lies to stop people from asking questions. “Maybe if God gives you a handicap, he makes sure you’ve got a few extra doses of humour to take the edge off.”

Another reason Picoult’s books are so great is that the reader learns something every time. My Sister’s Keeper is full of medical and legal jargon, which may go over some people’s heads. Yet, it is also bursting with random bits of knowledge, for example, how to treat a fire, facts about astronomy, and many other interesting details that the characters use as metaphors to describe their experiences.

My Sister’s Keeper is a story that will stay in people’s hearts and minds for a long time. We never learn who the narrator of the prologue was, but we immediately assume that it is Anna and that she wants Kate to die. By the end, we are still unsure who the character was, but if it was Anna, we see it in a completely different light. This is not a book about whether it is ethical for Anna to be Kate’s donor; it is not a cancer story. Instead, it is a message about the right for each person to have choices about their lives.

A warning to potential readers: this book could break your heart, shock you or leave you in tears. My Sister’s Keeper is full of irony. For instance, Jesse’s experimentation with arson, causing fires that are subsequently put out by his father. But the biggest sense of irony and the biggest shock is the ending (FYI this is the complete opposite to the film ending). After everything that Anna has achieved, devastating circumstances result in the same conclusion that it would have had Anna sat back and done nothing. Yet this does not make it a pointless story. Despite Anna’s actions almost tearing the family apart, it also wakes them from the stupor that Kate’s illness has put them in and makes them realise how precious everything else in their life is too.

I highly recommend this book to everyone, and if you have not read a Jodi Picoult novel before, I strongly suggest you begin with this one. It is suitable for adult and adolescent readers, especially those who like to think about hypothetical, moral questions. My Sister’s Keeper gets you questioning your own choices and actions within your own life and may even make you view the world slightly differently.

The Storyteller (reviewed 2014)

Jodi Picoult is the bestselling author of numerous novels, with My Sister’s Keeper being the most well known. All of her stories are well written, although it is still possible to notice improvements in the writing over the years right up until now with her latest, The Storyteller, which quite possibly could be her best yet.

Arguably, The Storyteller does not quite read like a typical Jodi Picoult novel. This is, in part, because of the nature of the story. Most of her previous books deal with medical ethics and/or court cases, whereas this story features neither. The Storyteller contains a combination of past and present – the main focus being on the Holocaust.

Four people narrate the novel: two in the present day and two giving an account of their experience during the Second World War. It begins with Sage Singer, a 25-year-old, hermit-like woman with a disfiguring facial scar – the result of a terrible accident, one that also led to the death of her mother. For the past three years, Sage has been participating in a grief group – a place where people who have lost loved ones can come together and talk about their feelings. After three years, surely Sage would no longer need the help of the group? However, she still attends, not because she finds it helpful, but for the opposite reason. She even says herself: “If it were helpful I wouldn’t still be coming.” It unfolds that she still blames herself for her mother’s death despite the reassurances that it was an accident and not her fault.

It is through the grief group that Sage meets the elderly Josef Weber. After becoming friendly and discovering that Sage comes from a Jewish family, Josef confesses to something terrible – he was a Nazi during the war. He killed people. He wants Sage to represent all the Jews he killed and forgive him. Then he wants her to help him die.

While Josef recounts his experience of being part of the Nazi party, Picoult provides another account. Minka, Sage’s grandmother, describes the terrors she faced as an imprisoned Jew suffering fates such as the deaths of all her family and friends and her time in Auschwitz. Another element of the novel is the vampire story Minka wrote as a teenager. This is interspersed between the other chapters of the book. Unwittingly, Minka’s fictional tale reflects the alienation and destruction of the Jews. The final character is Leo who, like Sage, is narrating the present day and trying to locate ex-Nazi members to be punished by the government.

One thing to praise Picoult for, not just in The Storyteller, but also in all her novels, is the amount of in-depth research she undertakes to make her stories as accurate as possible even though they are fictional. Minka’s account was written in such a way that it was almost believable that Picoult had been there and experienced it herself. She even learnt to bake bread so that she could write from the point of view of a baker. This is pure dedication!

The Storyteller is an amazing, beautiful book that informs, shocks and stays with you for a long time. You will question your morals and ability to forgive. Is anyone entirely evil? Is anyone entirely good? Perhaps we are both, so why should anyone have the right to treat others as inferior to themselves?

Leaving Time (reviewed 2015)

Jodi Picoult keeps getting better and better. Her latest novel, Leaving Time, explores a daughter’s search for her mother, who mysteriously disappeared ten years earlier. Jenna Metcalf is a thirteen-year-old girl living with her grandmother who is determined to discover the whereabouts of her mother, who has not been seen for ten years, since a tragic event at a local elephant sanctuary.

Jenna recruits the help of Virgil Stanhope – an ex-policeman who has gone into hiding – and Serenity Jones – a failed psychic. As the three of them look into the events of a decade ago, they begin to piece together possible scenarios resulting in a woman vanishing without a trace. But just as importantly, they try to explain the reasons for a mother to abandon her daughter.

Jenna’s mother, Alice Metcalf, was a scientist who loved to study the grieving processes of elephants. Although Jenna tells one part of the story, Alice provides the reader with a different story – one of the past, one of Africa, one of elephants. As with many of Picoult’s novels, Leaving Time is not purely a piece of entertainment; it teaches the reader something new. Through Alice, Picoult unleashes a torrent of information about the lives of elephants in Africa and explains their behaviours. She explains what happens to the animals that are captured by circus trainers or zoos, as well as the work a sanctuary may do to save the lives of these creatures.

Alice and Jenna are not the only voices of this story. Virgil and Serenity have chapters to describe things from their perceptions. What is great about this is that although the main storyline is about Jenna’s search for her mother, Virgil and Serenity provide additional stories alongside it. Jenna’s interaction with Virgil helps him deal with his past and come to terms with the mistakes he may have made when investigating the original tragedy at the sanctuary. Likewise, Jenna helps Serenity believe in herself again and to focus less on her past failures.

Picoult’s writing, as always, is beautiful and sucks the reader into the narrative. It is easy to relate to all the characters in some way and understand a little of what they are going through despite having never been in their situation. Through her ability to do this, Picoult engages the readers from beginning to end. Fans of Picoult’s other novels, such as My Sister’s Keeper, will be familiar with Picoult’s surprising plot twists. Leaving Time tops all of those and will leave the reader almost breathless and in awe of Picoult’s imagination.

It is with no doubt that Leaving Time is an excellent novel exploring numerous themes, from a mother’s love to the paranormal. It entertains as well as educates, leaving the reader a lot more knowledgeable by the very end. It makes you think, it makes you hope, and it makes you want to keep on reading. Glamour magazine defies us “not to be gripped” and, after reading it, you will agree that is not entirely possible.

Nineteen Minutes (reviewed 2016)

Your son says the bullying was unbearable. But his revenge was murder. What would you do?

Nineteen Minutes 
is perhaps Jodi Picoult’s most controversial novel, as well as one of the longest. Lots of things can happen in nineteen minutes, including a school shooting resulting in the deaths of ten people. This is what happens at the beginning of this book, leaving hundreds of teachers and students emotionally scarred for the remainder of their lives. Picoult explores the reactions of a community whose ideas of safety have shattered, the grief of the victims and their families and, perhaps most importantly, the heartache of the parents of the shooter.

Seventeen-year-old Peter Houghton has had enough of the bullying that he has endured throughout his entire school life. He has no friends, is constantly miserable, possibly suicidal, and so, on a typical morning in March 2007, he decides to permanently fix the situation, unthinking of the consequences. But why did he go to such extremes? What circumstances in his life led to firing a gun as the only solution?

As the evidence is gathered in the lead up to the court trial, many characters question their involvement in Peter’s life. Firstly there is Josie Cormier, a straight-A student who swapped her childhood friendship with Peter for popularity and her boyfriend Matt, a particularly aggressive bully. Secondly, there is Alex Cormier, Josie’s mother, who destroyed her friendship with Peter’s mother after finding their five-year-old children playing with guns in the Houghton’s basement.

If Peter’s father had never owned a selection of hunting rifles, would Peter ever have thought of guns as a way out of his predicament? On the other hand, Lacy Houghton blames herself for not noticing how badly her son was suffering, not just at school but home as well, where he had to live up to the memory of his saint-like older brother who died in a car crash the previous year.

Naturally, a tragic event such as this changes people, but not always in a negative way. Relationships begin to blossom as characters realize how close they were to losing the ones they love. Alex takes a step back from her demanding job to comfort Josie in the aftermath, thus feeling closer to her than she ever has done before. Alex, a single mother, also opens herself up to a romantic relationship, something she has had no time to consider up until now.

All the while, Defense Attorney Jordan McAfee, who some readers may remember from Salem Falls, fights a losing battle to get Peter acquitted by arguing and prying into Peter’s emotions to discover his reason for committing murder.

What I like about Picoult’s novels is that there is more to them than a simple storyline. While the story plays out and plot twists happen, the reader is learning something new. In Nineteen Minutes, Picoult provides insight into midwifery, psychology and economics – things that are not synonymous with the shootings.

Readers will constantly question whose side of the story they are on. Hundreds of people grow up being bullied and will understand how Peter was feeling, yet they would not pick up a gun. Likewise, by putting themselves in the shoes of the victims, readers will think about how they would feel in the same situation, however, would anyone be willing to admit that they made someone else’s life a living hell? There is no simple conclusion to Nineteen Minutes; someone will always lose. Nevertheless, Picoult’s fantastic writing skills provide an enthralling story of love and loss.

I cannot recommend this book to readers in general due to the nature of the themes found in the story. Gun crime and school shootings are sadly still an occurrence in the present time, particularly in America, therefore, there are thousands of people who have been affected by such an event, whether directly or indirectly, as part of a local community. Some readers may find Nineteen Minutes challenging and upsetting, which is why I am not going to encourage everyone to read this book. However, Picoult has excelled herself with this novel, and it would be a shame for people not to read it. Fans will not be disappointed with her writing and will love all her characters, possibly even Peter!

Small Great Things (reviewed 2017)

Jodi Picoult has been my favourite author since I first came across her novels in 2008. With twenty-three novels under her belt, she continues to delight readers with her page-turning stories. Most of Picoult’s books contain a moral issue, often, but not always, in the form of medical ethics, as well as a hefty court case. Although following along similar lines, Small Great Things is a radical, revolutionary book, which, with great courage, Picoult has written with the intent to expose the reader to truths that most of us, as a society, are intentionally oblivious to.

The gist of the storyline is a baby dies whilst under the care of a nurse, prompting the grieving parents to take her to court with the accusation of murder. Although that sounds like an interesting story, it barely begins to describe what the book is about. The character on trial, Ruth, is an African American labour and delivery nurse. In this day and age, race is not so much of an issue. Yet, the parents of the baby are White Supremacists: seriously racist with the belief that white people are the master race. The father, Turk, refuses to let his wife and child be treated by Ruth, but circumstances result in her being the only nurse available to watch Davis. Unfortunately, it is at this moment that the baby happens to go into cardiac arrest. Although the reader knows that Ruth is not at fault, Turk insists she murdered his child – but is he accusing her of medical negligence or punishing her for being black?

Three characters, all with different views and experiences when it comes to racism, alternately narrate Small Great Things. Ruth and Turk represent the extremes on either side of the scale. Ruth experiences first-hand the negative impact of prejudice in the American system and society, not only through this court case but in everyday life as well. She also reveals the difficulties growing up in a predominately white environment, never feeling like she fitted in with her peers. On the other hand, Turk spent his teenage years attending KKK rallies, participating in a white power movement, and beating up anyone different: black, foreign, gay, Jewish and so forth.

The third character represents the majority of white people living in America. Kennedy is a public defender and the lawyer assigned to Ruth’s case. Like most of the population, she believes that she is not racist and persuades Ruth to leave the colour of her skin out of the argument. However, as she gets to know her client, she realizes that it is nigh on impossible to ignore racial prejudice.

Picoult shocks the reader on two accounts: one, the way that people of colour have been, and still are, treated; and two, the revelation that an invisible empire of White Supremacists is living amongst us. Yet, there is a third way in which Picoult provokes outrage – she indirectly accuses the reader of being racist, too.

There is always something to learn in a Jodi Picoult novel, for instance, medical terminology or how a court trial is conducted. Small Great Things provides more eye-opening information than her previous books, unveiling facts about such a controversial subject.

Through Kennedy, the reader’s eyes are opened to the racial discrimination, to which we all turn a blind eye. Ignored are the difficulties African Americans suffer when going shopping, applying for jobs, attending school, walking down the street, sitting on a bus, and so forth. Picoult asks me as a reader to think about how my life has been affected by racial discrimination: being served politely in shops because I am white, not having my ethnicity questioned when applying for college etc. Living in Britain, I have not experienced openly hateful comments or behaviours towards people with a different skin tone – I used to believe this was primarily an American problem. Yet, Small Great Things has made me think about the hierarchy of power within society, particularly in regards to the ethnicity of those at the top, compared with those at the bottom.

Jodi Picoult sat on the idea of writing a book about racism for well over a decade, yet, it is particularly apt that it is published now, with the current predicaments America is facing. Although we have come a long way in attempts to achieve equality for all – compare the trial in To Kill A Mockingbird to Picoult’s version – recent events have revealed that we are nowhere near.

Small Great Things will shock everyone who reads it regardless of their ethnicity and so forth. Many may find it uncomfortable to read, become upset or outraged, and even feel like they are being directly targeted. If this is the case, then good – it should do that. Everyone needs to read this book. On the one hand, it is a brilliant, well-told story with a beautiful, almost poetic narrative, and, on the other, it causes us to face up to the issues we are forever making light of or overlooking entirely. We have grown up believing that racism is a form of hatred when really it is about power. However Small Great Things makes you feel, it is worth reading, especially for the satisfying ending – one that you do not see coming.

Handle With Care (reviewed 2015)

As with most of Jodi Picoult’s novels, Handle With Care contains a deeply moral issue regarding abortion, especially in the case of the baby having a life-debilitating illness. Willow O’Keefe is six years old but only looks half that age. Suffering from Osteogenesis Imperfecta (Brittle Bones Disease), Willow will never live a normal life.

After a disastrous trip to Disney Land, Sean O’Keefe plans to sue the authorities for the way he and his wife, Charlotte, were treated after Willow broke yet another bone. However, once Charlotte learns about Wrongful Birth lawsuits, she decides to take action against her obstetrician with the argument that Willow’s diagnosis could have been discovered earlier in her pregnancy – the issue with this is it involves suing her best friend.

Picoult explores the arguments for and against what Charlotte is doing, and delves into how it affects the people involved. Friendships are broken, and relationships are damaged. As her family is torn apart, Willow feels unwanted and worried that she is the cause of all the tension. Through it all, Charlotte’s older daughter, Amelia, gets forgotten about and develops harmful ways of coping – bulimia.

The story is not solely based on the O’Keefe family. Picoult includes the character Marin, an attorney, and her search for her birth mother. This contrasts with the theme of abortion and makes the reader question the rights and wrongs of the dilemma.

Throughout the novel, Picoult creates a sense of foreboding. The narrative is written as if being spoken to Willow, however, the use of past tense implies that something horrible befalls her later in the book, regardless of the court case outcome.

Handle With Care is a novel that makes you think and plays with your emotions. Readers have a chance to develop their own opinions by reading the different characters’ perspectives. Another way in which Picoult connects with the reader is with the inclusion of recipes for baked goods. Charlotte used to be a baker before Willow was born, therefore, these extra bits fit well with the story. The recipes are also something readers could try out at home.

Jodi Picoult is a brilliant author with imaginative, thought-provoking ideas. Handle With Care fits in well with her other novels. It is quick to read, gripping and not quickly forgotten. This is a definite read for someone interested in ethical issues and those who like a novel that makes them think.

The Tenth Circle (reviewed 2016)

Admittedly I do not think this is one of Jodi Picoult’s best novels, however, that does not mean that The Tenth Circle is not a good book. Like all her stories, a large part of the storyline is about relationships, in this case, between father and daughter. On the other hand, The Tenth Circle stands out from the others as being a little different.

When Daniel Stone’s fourteen-year-old daughter Trixie accuses her ex-boyfriend of rape, he becomes an overprotective father, determined to keep his child from any more harm. What begins as a rape case spirals into a murder case with Daniel as the prime suspect. Suddenly the police turn to Trixie as an alternative suspect, and frightened of being accused, she runs away to Alaska – a place Daniel grew up as a child; a place he has been running away from all his life.

In a way, The Tenth Circle feels like two different stories: the rape and murder, and the flight to Alaska. Although the rape/murder case is the key focus of the plot, this story is also an insight into the relationship between father and daughter, and husband and wife.

“The real mistake he made was believing that you could lose someone in an instant, when in reality, it was a process that took months, years… lifetime.” Despite the Stone’s world turning upside down after a single event, Daniel realizes that he was losing his daughter a long time before that. She was growing up and keeping secrets. He barely knew the real Trixie. Likewise, his wife, Laura, was also keeping her fair share of secrets.

What made The Tenth Circle different from Picoult’s other novels is the inclusion of a comic book. It is an example of Daniel’s work as a comic book penciler (illustrated by Dustin Weaver in real life). This short graphic story represents Daniel and Trixie’s relationship. A daughter goes missing, and her father goes through hell and back to find her. It is interesting to compare the two stories and understand how Daniel feels. This comic book also allows the reader to have some fun. Within the illustrations are hidden letters, that when put together, spell out a quotation. It is the readers’ job to find and solve this puzzle.

Hell is a theme that kept coming up in this novel. As some may realize, The Tenth Circle is a brief reference to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante believed there were nine circles of Hell, each one representing a sin. Picoult has added a tenth circle, a circle for people who lie to themselves. The topic of Hell is emphasized through Laura Stone, a professor at Monroe College, Maine. She lectures on Classics, particularly on Dante’s Inferno. Picoult constantly alludes to this as a metaphor for the life Daniel and Trixie are experiencing.

Reading The Tenth Circle for a second time, I found I did not enjoy it as much. The element of surprise and plot twists were lost, as I already knew what was going to happen. For first readers, however, all of that is still to be experienced. Some may be put off or triggered by the rape content, but rest assured that Picoult deals with this delicate topic in the best way possible.

As fans will already know, you cannot read a Jodi Picoult book without learning something new. In this instance, you learn about Dante, forensic investigation and Yup’ik Eskimos – including intriguing words in the Yup’ik language. Due to this, Picoult’s writing is interesting to read, as well as delightful and meaningful due to her powerful metaphors.

Before reading this book, however, bear in mind that it contains rape, self-harm, drugs, suicide and murder. If any of the subjects are too upsetting, then I suggest you avoid this novel. On the other hand, if you are okay with delicate topics, I say go for it!

The Pact (reviewed 2016)

“Your son says they both meant to die. But he lived. What would you do?” As fans will already be aware, most of Jodi Picoult’s novels involve a “What if” or “What would you do?” scenario. The Pact is no different. This book contains all the elements you expect to find in a Picoult story: an ethical dilemma, family, relationships, love. However, The Pact is one of her more challenging reads – and it still was for me, reading it a second time.

Bainbridge, New Hampshire is an idyllic town that oozes a sense of security and safeness; it does not seem possible for crime to exist there. For a long time, that was the case, with the Harte and Gold family living as neighbours in a pragmatic family environment. Chris Harte and Emily Gold grew up together. They knew each other from birth and remained friends ever since, becoming intimate on reaching their teens. But suddenly, this serene atmosphere is shattered after seventeen-year-old Emily is found dead after being shot through the head, with Chris covered in blood beside her.

Despite defending himself by claiming that it was a joint suicide pact gone wrong, Chris is on trial for first-degree murder. The defence and the prosecution have to look deeply into the supposed crime and the events that lead up to it. Was Emily suicidal even though no one noticed? Did Chris love her, or was there a motive for murder? Whilst Chris anxiously awaits his verdict, the two families, the Hartes and the Golds, instead of pulling together in their time of grief, begin to crumble apart.

That is the general gist of the story, however, as with any Picoult book, there are smaller, subtle storylines dropped in here and there. The most prominent of these is the life of the defence attorney, Jordan McAfee, and his Private Investigator, Selena Damascus – two names that may be familiar to avid readers. These two are recurring characters in a couple of other novels by the same author. Instead of only being names dropped into a story for convenience sake, they have lives of their own. By reading all the books containing the pair, readers get to know them well and witness their growing relationship – providing they are read in the correct order, of course.

As for the key plot – the botched suicide pact – the story is told from a variety of perspectives, although all in the third person, from both after the event and before, going as far back as 1979, the year Emily was born, up until the present day, 1997. Naturally, the characters are going to reflect on the recent incidents to understand what has happened, but it is necessary to delve deeper into the past so that the reader can understand Chris and Emily’s relationship. It would be rather difficult otherwise to know who Emily was without any background knowledge, especially as she is already dead on the first page.

Picoult tackles the suicide theme delicately, showing full awareness that it is a difficult concept for people to read. She uses her characters to reveal the different ways people or societies react to the idea that someone would want to take their own life. The divide in the belief that suicide is either intrinsically right or wrong is evident from the characters who support Chris and those who accuse him of murder, maintaining that there was no way Emily would willingly take her own life. Some witnesses brought to the stand during the trial speak of suicide and depression from a medical and psychological point of view, fuelled by the in-depth research that Picoult has undertaken. Visiting a prison and experiencing what life is like for the inmates is an example of how far Picoult is willing to go to make her novels as realistic as possible.

As mentioned earlier, The Pact provokes the thought, “what would you do?” By engaging the reader in this way, Picoult encourages people to develop their interpretations and opinions about the storyline. She leaves hints and clues lying around to nudge our minds in a variety of directions. What was it that made Emily suicidal? Could her relationship with Chris, who for a long time was like a brother to her, be confusing the way she feels towards him and her family? Are there other factors? As for the outcome of the trial, readers will take either the prosecutor’s or the defence’s side – despite most of the book written in a way that paints Chris as wrongly accused. Picoult admits in an interview that even she was not sure how it should end and only made the decision by thinking about what the majority of readers would favour and the amount of hate mail she would receive if she did the opposite.

There is no denying that The Pact is a difficult book to read. Anyone who has experienced depression or suicidal thoughts will relate to Emily and Chris’ predicament, which may be too much to handle for some readers. On the other hand, if you have picked up this book knowing what to expect from Picoult’s writing, then you are less likely to be as shocked by the narrative. This is a book that will make you feel many emotions and question your own beliefs and opinions. Although not as beautifully written as her more recent novels, The Pact will suck you into the storyline and not let go until a long while after you have read the last page. Be prepared!


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How to Write a Book Review

There is no right or wrong way to write a book review. For some, writing “I liked this book” is good enough, but many writers prefer in-depth feedback and critique. A friend recently asked me for advice about writing book reviews, knowing that I have written many reviews, and new authors send me copies of their books in exchange for honest opinions. Admittedly, I do not follow a strict method of writing reviews, but I do try to include a few key points. At my friend’s request, I wrote the following instructions.

How to Write a Book Review

Firstly, write a brief description of the book. What is it about? Is it fiction or non-fiction? To what genre does it belong? Do not give anything away, especially the ending, but it is useful to tell potential readers a little about the narrative to entice them. Also, mention whether it is part of a series or a stand-alone. Is this the author’s first work, or are they a well-established writer?

For example:
Ancient Indian knowledge and wisdom have been expressed through storytelling for thousands of years. With this in mind, Limesh Parekh wrote his first business book Cracking the CRM Code in fiction format. CRM, which the author fails to define in the book, stands for Customer Relationship Management and is a useful process for businesses to interact with their customers.

What did you like about the book? Even if you did not enjoy it, try to find something positive to say. Was it well written? Did it contain interesting ideas or characters? What made you keep reading? Mention the emotions you felt, whether the author made you laugh or cry. Could you relate to the subject? Did you learn something new?

For example:
Many business books and manuals are nondescript and boring, whereas Limesh Parekh keeps the reader engaged with anecdotes, stories and quotes. Rather than learning how to use CRM, the characters show the process of purchasing and using the software, which is far more enlightening than a step-by-step guide.

For some, the hardest part of writing a review is mentioning the things they did not like. It is so easy to tell someone you liked their work rather than criticise them. Yet, even if it is unpleasant to hear, authors appreciate honesty and take on advice and comments in their future writings. If you found the book uninteresting, say so. Perhaps you were not the intended audience. Was the narrative easy to follow? Did you dislike any of the characters or ideas? Were there too many mistakes? (Be aware, typing errors are sometimes the fault of the editor and publisher rather than the author.)

For example:
English is presumably not the author’s first language, hence the sentences do not always flow, and the punctuation is far from perfect. At times, it is difficult to work out which character is speaking, making it a little confusing to follow.

Why should other people read this book? Did your reading experience benefit you in any way? Was it entertaining or educational, or was it a waste of your time? To whom would you recommend the book? Was it written for people with particular interests? Is it suitable for older or younger readers? Did it remind you of any other books you had read?

For example:
Cracking the CRM Code is written for business-minded people who understand the jargon and acronyms, many of which are unexplained. As a layperson, some of the information went over my head, but the fiction format helped hold my interest.

The final sentence of your review should indicate your overall impression of the book. You may have mentioned both positive and negative points, but which opinion comes out strongest? Some people find it easier to end their review with a rating out of 5 or 10 to indicate how much they enjoyed the book. 

For example:
Cracking the CRM Code has the potential to be a big hit with small business owners and business consultants. (3/5 Stars)


Below are a few examples of book reviews I have written over the past few months.

Larry, Bush Pilot by Jordan Mierek (2020)

Jordan Mierek, also known as Jordan Elizabeth, usually writes for young adults, but after many requests, she has published her first children’s book. Larry, Bush Pilot is a collaborative effort between Mierek and her father, Lawrence Mierek, who grew up on a dairy farm. Larry, a ten-year-old boy, also lived on a farm during the 1970s with his father, who owns an aeroplane. Despite his age, Larry’s father taught him to fly, which came in handy when his father suffered an accident in the middle of nowhere.

This short story loosely reflects Lawrence Mierek’s childhood. As a teenager, his father taught him to fly a plane on the airstrip behind their barn. The narrative is likely an imagined scenario, placing a young boy in a precarious situation, which many children would not have the means to solve. Only through extreme determination and courage is Larry able to rescue his father.

Larry, Bush Pilot is a short story intended for primary school children. The few illustrations between chapters make it an appropriate step between picture books and teenage novels. Larry’s life on the farm allows modern children to learn about the world before digital technology and the importance of a family working together. The story also tells the reader that if they believe in themselves and their abilities, they can achieve great things.

Jordan Mierek has stepped into the world of children’s literature and proved that she is more than capable of writing for several age groups. Larry, Bush Pilot is the first in a series called Flying Acres, and we look forward to joining Larry on his next adventure. (4/5 stars)

Home at Last: Your Journey of Faith in Challenging Times by Ruth Pearson (2020)

Ruth Pearson wrote Home at Last during the pandemic for those who have felt discouraged and afraid about the future. Suggesting Covid-19 could be a sign of the Second Coming, Pearson focused on three questions to prepare the reader for such an event. 1. How important is God in your life? 2. Do you have a personal relationship with God? 3. Where are you planning to spend eternity?

Using examples from the Bible, Pearson explores the idea of a journey of faith. Several characters in the Bible went on journeys that brought them closer to God. Pearson uses the Parable of the Prodigal Son to explain the notion of “coming home” to God. Readers may have drifted away from the creator, but He will welcome them back with open arms. The story of Ruth and Naomi explores faith, and the story of Joshua and Rahab features truth, about which Pearson also writes.

Whilst the ideas in the book are worth pursuing, the written narrative is poor. Pearson is either more confident verbalising her thoughts, or the English language is not her strong point. Frequent spelling and grammatical errors make the book difficult to read, and it is hard to follow the author’s thought process.

Pearson claims she wrote the entire book in 48 hours, and I believe her. Although some editing must have occurred, it needs a lot more work to make it a successful seller. It appears the author tried to conclude the narrative several times but thought of more to say. Chapter Nine ends by informing the reader that the next chapter is the last. Chapter Ten concludes the book, only for the reader to turn the page to find another chapter headed “Conclusion”.

It is a great shame the quality of writing lets the book down because the ideas could potentially help many new and old Christians. Although she does not reveal her denomination, Pearson’s beliefs suggest she is a Seventh-Day Adventist and emphasises the Second Coming. Some readers may be uncomfortable with this, but Pearson’s ideas are suitable for all types of Christians. (3/5 stars)

This Shining Life by Harriet Kline (2021)

Ollie’s Dad died. Richard had an incurable brain tumour, and before he passed away, he sent everyone a special present. He also told Ollie that “being alive was like a puzzle and it was all falling into place.” Ollie is autistic. He thinks his father left him a puzzle to solve. Could it involve the gifts? Why won’t anyone help him solve the puzzle?

This Shining Life by Harriet Kline is a heartbreaking tale about a family coming to terms with death. Told from several people’s point of view, Kline explores different portrayals of grief. Ollie’s mum wants to stay in bed; his aunt wants life to carry on; his maternal grandmother tries to exert control; his paternal grandmother wishes she could understand her grandson; and his grandfather has no idea what is going on. No one has time for Ollie and his obsession with his puzzle.

Before Richard’s death, Ollie dominated family life. Ollie had a strict routine, always had a few spare pairs of socks with him because he hated dirty ones, and had meltdowns if his parents used the “wrong” tone of voice. Without his familiar habits, Ollie’s life was a mass of confusion – an apt metaphor for the grief the rest of the family experienced.

With a contemporary novel such as This Shining Life, there is no “happy ever after”. People do not come back from the dead. There is no answer to the meaning of life. Grief is a long process and different for everyone. It causes depression, anger and confusion, but hidden under all these negative feelings is love.

Harriet Kline takes death and grief seriously but adds a touch of humour to the narrative for the reader’s benefit. It is not a light read, nor is it markedly profound. Instead, This Shining Life is painfully honest, and for that reason, it is beautiful. (4/5 stars)

Nine Ways to Die by Jordan Elizabeth (2021)

Fifteen-year-old January “Jan” hates the new town she has moved to but loves her new boyfriend, Jean. Her parents are never home, and her sister is in hospital, so she spends the summer days with her new friends. The only people she meets are around her age, and she never comes across any adults. The buildings are decrepit and old, almost like a ghost town. The more time Jan spends with her friends, the more peculiar the town, Memoir Falls, feels.

Nine Ways to Die is a short story by versatile writer, Jordan Elizabeth. The details about Jan’s past gradually emerge until Jan, along with the reader, discovers the truth about the strange town and its inhabitants. There are clues everywhere, but like Jan, readers fail to notice them until they come together in a sudden climax.

Through Jan’s eyes, readers experience the town as though they are also new inhabitants. Although it is a short story, there is so much on offer: suspense, romance, thrills, and the supernatural. For those familiar with Jordan Elizabeth’s work, this is a welcome addition to her vast collection of books. For newbie readers, this is a tempting taste of the author’s full potential. (4/5 stars)

Cracking the CRM Code by Limesh Parekh (2021)

Ancient Indian knowledge and wisdom have been expressed through storytelling for thousands of years. With this in mind, Limesh Parekh wrote his first business book Cracking the CRM Code in fiction format. CRM, which the author fails to define in the book, stands for Customer Relationship Management and is a useful process for businesses to interact with their customers.

Rather than produce a mundane manual about how to purchase and use CRM software, Parekh writes a story about four friends and their journey with CRM. Liladhar Shastri, a successful business owner, is encouraging his friends, Anubhav, Jagdeep and Irshad to consider using CRM to improve their businesses. What follows is a lengthy discussion about buying CRM, using CRM and getting the most out of the software.

As the Indian entrepreneur, Rashmi Bansal writes in the introduction, Limesh Parekh is “not a salesman but a friend.” The author gives advice through the voice of Liladhar, and the other three friends express the reader’s questions and concerns. The book is written for small businesses with the potential to grow with the help of CRM. The story analyses what the friends do wrong and what they need to change.

Cracking the CRM Code is written for business-minded people who understand the jargon and acronyms, many of which are unexplained. As a layperson, some of the information went over my head, but the fiction format helped hold my interest. English is presumably not the author’s first language, hence the sentences do not always flow, and the punctuation is far from perfect. At times, it is difficult to work out which character is speaking, making it a little confusing to follow.

Many business books and manuals are nondescript and boring, whereas Limesh Parekh keeps the reader engaged with anecdotes, stories and quotes. Rather than learning how to use CRM, the characters show the process of purchasing and using the software, which is far more enlightening than a step-by-step guide. Cracking the CRM Code has the potential to be a big hit with small business owners and business consultants. (3/5 stars)

The Boy I Am by K. L. Kettle (2021)

Imagine a world where women are safe from men. Imagine a world where women are in charge. Imagine a world where men no longer reduce women to something to flirt with or dismiss as beneath them. This is the way of life in K. L. Kettle’s dystopian novel The Boy I Am. War has left the Earth in ruins, and it is no longer safe to go outside, yet humanity is surviving in tall, secure tower blocks overseen by the Chancellor. Men and boys are confined to the basement floors as a punishment for their behaviour during the war. To earn their right to live on the upper floors, they must learn to behave like a gentleman, and never look at a woman’s skin without their permission.

The protagonist, Jude, is running out of time to earn the right to live amongst the women. If he does not gain a sponsor, he faces a future in the dangerous mines. Yet, Jude is not sure he wants to live with the women, who have demeaned him for his gender since his birth. He has seen another side to them and believes the Chancellor has killed his best friend. Jude wants to escape, risk the poisonous fog outside and search for a better life. To do this, the Chancellor must die.

The way women treat men and boys is uncomfortable to read. Female readers, in particular, may have experienced similar treatment at the hands of men. Feminists desire an equal world, but there is the risk of going too far the other way. Yet, as Jude discovers, it is not as black and white as Female versus Male. An underground gang of women known as Hysterics are also trying to escape. They want to save themselves and the boys from a society not run by women, but by the elite.

K. L. Kettle explains her intentions behind the novel in a letter to the reader at the end of the book. She quotes Lord Acton’s (1834-1902) proverb “absolute power corrupts absolutely” and questions if everyone is equal, does everyone have the ability to abuse the power they have? What may have seemed a good idea for humanity after the war, has become an oppressive state where no one is safe from those in power, not even the women. The Chancellor controls everyone, but Jude and the Hysterics are determined to take that power away from her.

Telling the story from Jude’s perspective highlights the faults in today’s societies. Many are unaware of the belittling behaviour happening around them, but when the roles are reversed, they are obvious. The Boy I Am is both thrilling and eye-opening, challenging gender roles and power dynamics in general. Those who have read books such as Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman are guaranteed to enjoy K. L. Kettle’s novel. (4/5 stars)

In Picardy’s Fields by Hannah Byron (2020)

Told from two perspectives, In Picardy’s Fields is the story of two brave young women during the First World War. Set mostly in France, the two women put gender stereotypes to one side to help the allied soldiers. Baroness Agnès de Saint-Aubin, a young surgeon from Paris, follows her teacher, Dr Alan Bell, to the Château de Dragoncourt on the front lines in Picardy to help her friends, Jacques and Elle de Dragoncourt care for the injured soldiers. Meanwhile, the youngest Dragoncourt child, Madeleine, is determined to escape from her finishing school in Switzerland to play her part in the war effort.

The author, Hannah Byron, accurately describes the devastation and dangers the characters faced both in Paris and at the front. Flowing seamlessly from scene to scene, Byron paints a dark picture of life in war-torn France at the same time as weaving a captivating story. Agnès is a reticent but strong woman, a stark contrast from the stuck-up Madeleine, used to getting her way. Yet both characters develop, forced to face horrifying circumstances. While Agnès becomes more confident, Madeleine uses her head-strong determination to secretly help the allied soldiers, even if it means putting herself in danger.

Whilst the war is the main feature of the novel, the author weaves themes of friendship and romance into the narrative. Although only two people narrate the story, In Picardy’s Fields shows the importance of working together and putting aside prejudices. The undercurrent of a developing romance brings a sense of hope that everything will end happily, yet the reader also knows nothing is safe during wartime. With each turn of the page, disaster could befall the characters, which makes for a gripping read.

Hannah Byron admits she is not a medic or war expert, yet she undertook extensive research to make In Picardy’s Fields as accurate as possible. She also confesses it is unlikely a female doctor went to the front lines, yet as a work of fiction, this does not matter, especially as Agnès’s profession is key to the story.

Authors have written novels about the World Wars ad nauseum to the point that writing an original story seems impossible, but Hannah Byron proves this assumption wrong. In Picardy’s Fields feels almost modern in some respects, despite being set in the 1910s, which adds a freshness to the story. These women, these characters are just like you and me, living in a time we could not possibly understand.

In Picardy’s Fields is a fantastic debut novel and Hannah Byron is a writer to keep an eye on. (4/5 stars)

The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel by Amanda Hope Haley (2021)

“Finding Noah’s ark … would be fun, but it wouldn’t be instructive… wouldn’t teach us about God or each other.” This is the view of Amanda Hope Haley in The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel, a book about the author’s travels in the land of the Bible. As a Harvard-trained biblical archaeologist, Haley spent time in Israel excavating areas of land where Jesus once walked. Her goal was not to unearth evidence of Jesus but to discover what life was like for the everyday person during Christ’s time on Earth.

Only the first couple of chapters mention items and foundations Haley found on her digs. After that, Haley describes her holiday in Israel with her mother, father and husband. She writes honestly, admitting to tourist errors she and her family made. She describes the places she visited as though speaking to a reader who plans to make the trip too. Yet, it is far from a holiday diary.

In each location Haley visited, she describes the history of the place, the biblical references, the antagonism between the Jews and Muslims, and its current state. She discovers why Jesus chose to preach in certain areas, locates towns and cities mentioned in the Bible, and notes how much places have changed since the 1st century.

It is interesting to learn how the three religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, both merge and alienate each other. Haley visited areas that banned Jews, yet as a Christian, she could enter. She paints Israel as a dangerous place but also highlights its beauty spots.

The title, The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel, is misleading because there is little physical digging mentioned. Haley only documents a few of her finds, and readers do not learn a great deal from them. On the other hand, Haley’s metaphorical dig into the history of Israel proves fruitful, enhanced from her first-hand experience.

Those looking for a book about archaeology may be disappointed with The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel but those wishing to learn more about the biblical land of Israel, past and present, will appreciate Haley’s knowledge. For Christian readers, this book will enhance their understanding of the Bible. (4/5 stars)

The Diamond Courier by Hannah Byron (2020)

Twenty years have passed since the end of Hannah Byron’s World War One novel In Picardy’s Fields. It is now 1939 and the Second World War is just beginning, but all seems peaceful in Kent, England where the narrator, Lili Hamilton, lives with her parents. War is the last thing on Lili’s mind as she contemplates how to get out of an arranged marriage and pursue a career in journalism.

The surname Hamilton may be familiar to those who have read the previous book but Lady Madeleine has left her war achievements far behind in The Diamond Courier where she plays the role of a prim and proper lady of the house. Her daughter, Liliane, feels trapped by her sensible parents’ expectations who thwart her plans to be a political journalist. Yet Lili, encouraged by the handsome leader of the British Communist Party Leo Oppenheim, perseveres, thus estranging herself from her family.

Lili soon learns living in London with Leo is not the life she desired, but feels it is too late to back out, especially after witnessing the treatment of Jews on the continent. The Jewish community need someone to bring their precious diamonds to safety before the Germans get their hands on them, and they believe Lili is the best person for the job. Unless, of course, she gets caught.

The Diamond Courier is much darker than Byron’s previous book. Naturally, war is not a happy topic, but the sense of hope felt in In Picardy’s Fields is missing in this novel. The story is divided into two sections, “Leo” and “After Leo”. The former is lengthier, drawn-out, and not always pleasant to read. The latter, on the other hand, is packed with danger, excitement and adventure.

For Lili, Communism is something new and exciting, which she desires to pursue. The party has clear views about the war, with which all members must agree. Yet, when faced with the horrors of war, Lili realises she must cast aside her political opinions. Whether Communist, Jew, sympathiser or resistance member, no one deserves the terrible treatment delivered by the Nazis.

Although this is a work of fiction, Byron remains faithful to the true nature of the Second World War. She does not gloss over any of the atrocities and, whilst the reader keeps their fingers and toes crossed that Lili will get her “happily ever after” ending, this cannot be possible for everyone in the novel.

Aiming to show the strength of women living in a “man’s world”, Byron has created female characters of whom to be proud and respected. Whilst the storyline may not always be pleasant, it is a gripping narrative that immerses the reader into Lili’s life and experiences. Hannah Byron has a way with words that keeps the reader engaged throughout. She is an author to keep an eye on. (4/5 stars)


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Unicorns: A True Story

Over the past five years or so, unicorns have gained sudden popularity in the Western world. It is almost impossible to go shopping without seeing one of the mythical creatures, whether it be on a t-shirt, a card, a toy, a cake or even chicken nuggets. In popular culture, unicorns are a pretty, make-believe character with which many children (and even adults) are fascinated. This commercial unicorn, however, has its roots in ancient mythology. For hundreds, if not thousands of years unicorns have been described in natural histories and folktales.

Unicorns are the stuff of legends and, as many people agree, probably never existed. Yet, who came up with the idea of the unicorn? How did a horse with a horn on its head become a thing? Ancient accounts of natural history include the unicorn, so perhaps they did exist, or at least something similar to our modern idea of the unicorn.

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The gentle and pensive maiden has the power to tame the unicorn, fresco by Domenichino, c. 1604–05

Whether real or not, unicorns are recognised from a single horn protruding from their forehead. The horn, known as an alicorn, is the source of their magical power, usually used for purification and healing. Typically, they resemble a white horse and have been used as a symbol of purity and grace. Despite their elegance, they are wild, woodland creatures and, according to some legends, only a virgin could tame them.

The earliest written description of a unicorn comes from a book written in the 5th century BC. Indica or Indika contains a mix of dubious stories and myths about the East, possibly India, compiled by the Greek physician and historian Ctesias the Cnidian. Ctesias was the physician to the king of the Achaemenid Empire, Artaxerxes II (c435-358 BC). As part of his role, Ctesias accompanied the king on various expeditions and battles and, therefore, became well acquainted with the neighbouring lands. This allowed the physician to pen treatises on rivers and lands, including Persia and India. Some of the information is based on first-hand experience, however, the rest was pieced together through various stories told by travellers.

Indica, which only remains in fragments, is generally considered to be pure fantasy. It contains many of the strange beliefs the Persians had about India, including that the country was full of riches and gold, artisans, philosophers, god-like people and, of course, unicorns.

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Unicorn IV (Ctesias)- Cecilia Caride

Ctesias’ unicorn is described as a white horse with a purple head and blue eyes. The horn projecting from the forehead was approximately 27 inches long and coloured white at the base, black in the middle and red at the point. As well as being the first person to describe a unicorn, Ctesias was the first to attribute magic to a unicorn’s horn.

“No creature, neither the horse or any other, could overtake it.”
– Ctesias

It is now thought Ctesias’ unicorn may have resulted from a mixture of animal descriptions, such as the Indian rhinoceros and an ass. Alternatively, there is the smallest of chances it may have been real, however, the other creatures described in Indica suggest otherwise, for example, people with one leg and feet so big they could be used as umbrellas, and manticores – red creatures with human faces, three rows of teeth, and scorpion tails. On the other hand, some of the information proved to be true, for instance, Indian elephants, monkeys, Indian customs, a large population and the Indus river.

Indica remained the main source of information about India for people in the Mediterranean until the 2nd century AD when the book was satirised by Lucian of Samosata (c125-c180). Lucian claimed Ctesias to be a liar and depicted him as being condemned to a special part of hell to pay for his sins.

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Although Ctesias may have provided the earliest written description of the unicorn, evidence that the creatures may have “existed” long before then has been discovered in South Asia. Several seals depicting what looks like a unicorn have been unearthed in the land once belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation. They date back to the Bronze Age, which lasted from 3300 BC until 1200 BC.

These seals are thought to have belonged to people of high social rank, however, little else can be gleaned from them. There is also the argument the creature on the seal was not intended to be a unicorn but an auroch. Now extinct, aurochs were a species of large cattle that inhabited areas of Europe, Asia and Africa. Skeletons of the creatures reveal they had two horns, one on either side of their head. Always drawn in profile, the creatures on the seals could have been an auroch with one horn hidden from view by the other.

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Despite the theories that the seals were not unicorns and Ctesias was a fraud, many other ancient texts mention the unicorn. De natura animalium (On the Nature of Animals) was a collection of seventeen books about natural history compiled by Aelian (Claudius Aelianus, 175-235 AD). Aelian was a Roman author and teacher of rhetoric (persuasion, grammar and logic) who was also fluent in the Greek language. The majority of the anecdotes in the collection were taken from other sources, including Ctesias. Aelian stated India produced one-horned horses known as the monoceros. Another name for the monoceros was cartazonos, however, this may be the Greek form of the Arabic word karkadann, which means “rhinoceros.”

Aelian also quotes Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), who wrote the encyclopedia Naturalis Historia (Natural History). Pliny wrote about about “a very fierce animal called the monoceros which has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits [900 mm, 35 inches] in length.” He also claimed the oryx antelope and Indian ox were one-horned creatures, as did Aristotle (384-322 BC) centuries beforehand. The Greek philosopher Strabo (64 BC-AD 24) also mentioned one-horned horses with stag-like heads.

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In the 16th century, Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner (1516-65) produced a Latin translation of Aelian’s work titled Historia Animalium. Although he attempted to sort fact from fiction, Gessner still included the unicorn, which he had only heard about from medieval bestiaries. Gessner made it clear that he doubted some of the information, however, included it anyway since he believed it could teach moral lessons and divine truths. He went into as much detail into mythological creatures as he did about real animals. Mythological creatures that featured in the book included unicorns, mermaids, sea bishops and ichthyocentaur – creatures with the upper body of a human, the front legs of a horse and the tail of a fish.

As early as the 6th century, theories were expressed as to why unicorns were rarely seen. Cosmas Indicopleustes, a 6th-century Greek merchant from Alexandria of Egypt reported, “it is impossible to take this ferocious beast alive; and that all its strength lies in its horn. When it finds itself pursued and in danger of capture, it throws itself from a precipice, and turns so aptly in falling, that it receives all the shock upon the horn, and so escapes safe and sound.” Cosmos also wrote a series of books about scientific geography known collectively as Christian Topography. Cosmas aimed to convince people of his theory that the earth was modelled on the tabernacle described to Moses by God in the Book of Exodus. His view was the earth was flat and the heavens formed the shape of a box with a curved lid.

Cosmas was not the only Christian writer to describe the legendary unicorn. Many authors of bestiaries (books about beasts), including the aforementioned Conrad Gessner, relied on the Christian text Physiologus, which was compiled in Greece during the 2nd Century AD. Although the unknown author introduces each creature by saying “the naturalist says” or something similar, each chapter is told more like a story than a statement of fact. Many of these stories relate in some way to the Bible, particularly the resurrection of Christ, for example, the phoenix, which burns itself to death but rises from the ashes three days later.

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Physiologus devotes entire chapters to individual creatures, some real and some mythological, beginning with the lion and ending with the eel. Other creatures include hedgehogs, ostriches, panthers, elephants, doves, serpents, pelicans, phoenixes and, rather strangely, Amos the Prophet. The unicorn is found in chapter 36 and is the source of the legend that only a maiden can tame the unicorn. This allegory refers to the Virgin Mary upon whose lap the unicorn laid its head and slept.

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Virgin Mary holding the unicorn (c. 1480), detail of the Annunciation with the Unicorn Polyptych

Many religious artworks concerning the Inception of the Virgin Mary are inspired by the story in Physiologus. In some interpretations, the unicorn represents Christ and his relationship with the Virgin, his mother. Secular writers have developed this story into myths about chaste love and faithful marriage. Even the polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) explored the tale of the unicorn, stating in one of his notebooks, “The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.”

The Italian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) also alluded to the myths about unicorns, however, he also called them ugly, brutes, and reported they “spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime.” It appears he may have mistaken a rhinoceros for a unicorn.

The secular take on the myth of the unicorn and the virgin, as noted by Da Vinci, led to the story The Hunt of the Unicorn. The tale involves a group of hunters who are struggling to capture a unicorn until a young maiden offers her assistance. Since virgins can tame unicorns, the creature came and rested its head upon her lap, allowing the hunters to capture it.

The Hunt of the Unicorn was first recorded on a series of tapestries in Paris at the turn of the 16th century. It is speculated they were commissioned by Anne of Brittany (1477-1541) to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII (1462-1515). Each tapestry, seven in total, tells a different part of the story:

  1. The Start of the Hunt
  2. The Unicorn at the Fountain
  3. The Unicorn Attacked
  4. The Unicorn Defending Himself
  5. The Unicorn Is Captured by the Virgin
  6. The Unicorn Killed and Brought to the Castle
  7. The Unicorn in Captivity

Despite being based on a pagan story, scholars have identified Christian symbolism in the tapestries. The unicorn is Christ and its death is the crucifixion. As you will notice from the order of the seven tapestries, the unicorn’s death is not the final stage. In scene seven, despite remaining in captivity, the unicorn has returned to life, similar to Christ’s resurrection.

Another tapestry involving a unicorn is La Dame à la licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn), which was produced in Flanders in the 16th century. Five of the six tapestries depict one of the five senses: taste, hearing, sight, smell, and touch; with À mon seul désir being the title of the sixth. The latter translates as “my only desire” and has left many wondering its true meaning. A possible interpretation is the desire for love or understanding.

La Dame à la licorne does not tell a sequential story like The Hunt of the Unicorn, instead, it presents a meditation on earthly pleasures demonstrated through the five senses. Touch is demonstrated by the lady holding a banner in one hand and touching the unicorn’s horn with the other. Sweets represent taste, flowers for smell, a portative organ for hearing, and a mirror for sight.

The sixth tapestry shows the woman placing her pendant in a box. Some suggest this is an acknowledgement of the passions aroused by the other senses and free will. Others have put forward the idea that it represents a sixth sense: understanding. There is also the argument that there is no way of telling if the woman is putting the pendant in the box or retrieving it. It has been noticed, however, that this is the only tapestry in which the woman smiles.

La Dame à la licorne does not only feature a unicorn but also a lion. Both these creatures are used in heraldry to symbolise a country. The most famous use of these animals are for Scotland (unicorn) and England (lion). One legend claimed the unicorn was the natural enemy of the lion and would rather die than be captured. This represented Scotland’s desire to remain sovereign and unconquered. Of course, this all changed with the 1707 union of Scotland and England.

It is not certain where the idea that lions and unicorns were enemies originated, however, the legend is recorded in a nursery rhyme.

The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn
All around the town.
Some gave them white bread,
And some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake
and drummed them out of town.

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This rhyme featured in Lewis Carroll‘s (1832-98) 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass, a sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. A unicorn and a lion are seen fighting over the crown belonging to the White King. For comedic effect, Carroll alters the traditional characteristics of the animals, making the lion slow and stupid and the unicorn monstrous. When producing illustrations for the book, Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914) made caricatures of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-88) as the unicorn and William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98) as the lion in reference to their frequent parliamentary battles.

There are two common jokes about why unicorns may no longer exist. The first is the unicorns did not get on Noah’s ark in time (see video at the end of this article) and the second that they did get on the ark, but they were both males. Incidentally, unicorns are traditionally believed to be male and none of the myths, legends or bestiaries shed light on how they reproduce. The only claim about their nature is they are solitary creatures and can live for hundreds of years.

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Unicorn mosaic on a 1213 church floor in Ravenna, Italy

So, unicorns may not have been on Noah’s Ark, however, they are mentioned in the Bible. The Hebrew Bible mentions an animal called the re’em, an untamable animal of great strength and agility, with a horn. Unfortunately, it is generally believed the description was based upon the seals belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation, which are now thought to be aurochs. Nonetheless, the King James Version of the Bible, first published in 1611, translates the word re’em as “unicorn”.

There are eight references to unicorns in the Old Testament. They are as follows:

  • “God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” – Numbers 23:22
  • “God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” – Numbers 24:8
  • “His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 33:17
  • “Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee? Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him? Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?” – Job 39:9–12
  • “Save me from the lion’s mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of unicorns.” – Psalms 22:21
  • “He maketh them [the cedars of Lebanon] also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.” – Psalms 29:6
  • “But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of the unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.” – Psalms 92:10
  • “And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with their bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness.” – Isaiah 34:7

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Real or not, what makes a unicorn so interesting is the horn protruding from its forehead. The existence of unicorns was supposedly disproved in 1825 by Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), a French naturalist and zoologist, the father of palaeontology. Cuvier declared it was impossible for any animal with a split hoof, such as a horse, to have a horn on top of its head. Before this claim, unicorn horns were a much sought but rare commodity.

Ancient writers such as Ctesias and Aelian recorded that a unicorn’s horn, made from a substance called alicorn, could be made into a vessel that when drunk from would protect against diseases and poisons. Other parts of the body of a unicorn were also considered to have medicinal properties. The 12th century Abbess Saint Hildegard of Bingen wrote a recipe for an ointment to cure leprosy. The ingredients included egg yolk and foie de licorne, also known as unicorn liver.

In Physiologus, the unicorn is said to be able to purify water with its horn. The book tells the story of a lake poisoned by a snake. None of the animals dared to go near the water to drink, however, when the unicorn appeared, it went straight to the water. With its horn, it made the sign of the cross in the water (remember Physiologus was a Christian text) and the poison was rendered harmless.

Over time, the horn of the unicorn was assigned many medicinal properties. These included cures for rubella, measles, fever, pain and plague (perhaps it could cure COVID-19). Apothecaries across Europe boasted they could sell unicorn horns and elixirs made from ground alicorn. Also for sale were belts made from unicorn leather to protect the wearer from harm.

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Royalty was often given alicorns as gifts. Elizabeth I was said to own a unicorn horn and the Throne Chair of Denmark was said to be made from many horns. Commissioned by King Frederick III (1609-70) in 1662, the throne was made by Bendix Grodtschilling (1620-90) to resemble the Biblical Throne of King Solomon described in 1 Kings 10. The throne was used at coronations until 1849 when the Danish monarchy was replaced by a constitutional monarchy. The unicorn horns, however, have since been proved to be narwhal tusks.

As early as 1638, alleged alicorns were being identified as narwhal tusks. Danish physician Ole Worm (1588-1654) was the first to start making this connection with the medium-sized toothed whales that live in the Arctic waters around Greenland, Canada, and Russia.

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Ole Worm’s beliefs were studied at length by Sir Thomas Brown (1605-1682) in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, more commonly known as Vulgar Truths. Brown was a polymath and author of a variety of subjects, including science, religion, medicine and the natural world. Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquiries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths, to give its full name, challenges the common errors and superstitions of the 17th century. Although Brown tried to be scientifically accurate, he included subtle elements of humour. Of the alleged alicorns, Brown said:

“False alicorn powder, made from the tusks of narwhals or horns of various animals, has been sold in Europe for medicinal purposes as late as 1741. The alicorn was thought to cure many diseases and have the ability to detect poisons, and many physicians would make “cures” and sell them. Cups were made from alicorn for kings and given as a gift; these were usually made of ivory or walrus ivory. Entire horns were very precious in the Middle Ages and were often really the tusks of narwhals.”

Despite, arguments against the existence of unicorns, they have “existed” throughout many cultures and periods. The European unicorn is traditionally believed to have the body of a horse with a pearly white coat and a long, white spiralled horn. In Asia, on the other hand, unicorns are depicted as a scaly, colourful deer-like creature with a flesh coloured horn.

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An Asian legend claims the Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan (AD 1162- 1227) was prevented from invading India by a unicorn. The creature is said to have gazed into the leader’s eyes, which Genghis Khan took to be a sign from heaven and ordered his army to retreat.

The Chinese unicorn, also known as the qilin looks less like traditional descriptions of the magical creatures and more like a chimaera. Although it had a single horn, some sources say it had the body of a deer, the head of a lion, and green scales. Other sources claim it had the head of a dragon. According to legend, the qilin first appeared in 2697 BC during the reign of the legendary Yellow Emperor. The Chinese unicorn’s rare appearances were believed to foretell the birth or death of a wise ruler. Rumour says the qilin appeared to the pregnant mother of Confucius (551- 479 BC) in the 6th century BC and once more shortly before his death. Confucius is also said to be the last person to have seen the unicorn.

“A wise man never plays leapfrog with a unicorn.”
– Tibetan proverb

Most of the original myths about unicorns have been forgotten and yet, unicorns have never been more popular than they are today. Social media has spread the unicorn fad across the world, with tips about throwing unicorn parties, making unicorn art and so much more.

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Every July, the Festa dell’Unicorno (Unicorn Festival) is held in the Italian town of Vinci (where Leonardo was born). Dressed as fairies, elves or characters from fantasy films, visitors can attend three days of magical shows, concerts, competitions and a medieval market.

The unicorn has been rising in popularity since 2015, helped along with companies, such as Starbucks with their unicorn frappuccino, Kellogg’s Unicorn Fruitloops and Unicorn Snot glitter gel. They also feature in recent films, TV shows and books. It has become a symbol of benevolence and happiness, shunning the harsh realities of today.

Although the unicorn craze belongs to the 21st century, unicorns have featured in famous literature of the past. Shakespeare (1564-1616) mentioned unicorns in his plays Julius Caesar, The Tempest and Timon of Athens. The most famous work of fiction involving the magical creatures is, of course, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (b.1939). First published in 1968, the book has sold millions of copies worldwide and has been translated into 20 languages. The story follows a unicorn, who believes she is the last of her kind, on a quest to discover what happened to the rest of her species.

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Detail from James Thurber’s original illustration

Another story is The Unicorn in the Garden by James Thurber (1894-1961). The short, humorous tale is about a man who sees a unicorn in the garden but when he tells his wife, she does not believe him. The more the man insists, the more adamant his wife becomes that unicorns do not exist. In the end, the wife has become so obsessed with proving her husband wrong that she is mistaken for the “loony” one.

This, of course, was only a humorous story but would anyone believe you today if you saw a unicorn in your garden? Are unicorns real? Whilst science puts forward evidence to suggest they are not, mystery still abounds, making the answer inconclusive. The stories and legends told throughout time suggest that it is highly unlikely to spot or capture a unicorn, therefore, if they do exist, we may never know.

Whether or not you believe in unicorns, they are fascinating creatures to research. There are so many different beliefs, myths and legends that it is impossible to fully comprehend the legendary creature. Nonetheless, their presence in popular culture is adding a bit of sparkle to the world. So, to paraphrase the Festa dell’Unicorno, enjoy your life, have fun, anything goes, so long as you do not betray the “spirit of the unicorn.”

“The unicorn is noble,
He knows his gentle birth,
He knows that God has chosen him
Above all beasts of earth.”
– German Folk Song

Staging Magic

Magic, or the art of appearing to perform supernatural feats, has been popular throughout the world since the 16th century. People have been and continue to be fascinated by illusions, entertained by rabbits appearing out of hats and mystified by seemingly impossible acts. This year (2019), the Senate House Library in London has staged an exhibition containing over 60 magical stories that focus on legerdemain (sleight-of-hand) and stage illusions from the past four centuries. Staging Magic: The Story Behind the Illusion, uses books, manuscripts and other items once belonging to the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature to piece together the history of one of the oldest performing arts in the world.

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Studio Portrait of Harry Price

Although not all made it into the exhibition, the Harry Price Library contains over 13,000 items dating from the 15th century until the present related to magic, witchcraft, parapsychology, the occult and other similar subjects. This huge collection was bequeathed to the University of London after the death of its owner, Harry Price (1881-1948), which has been useful for research into “rare, old and curious works on magic, witchcraft, legerdemain, charlatanism, and the occult sciences.”

Harry Price, born in London, was only a young boy when he first became fascinated with magic. At a travelling magic show, Price came across the Great Sequah, a man who he later claimed was “entirely responsible for shaping much of my life’s work”. As a young boy with a toothache, Price was fascinated when the Great Sequah “extracted” his tooth and proceeded to perform a series of other magical wonders. Naturally, Price demanded to know how the tricks were accomplished, for instance, how could an empty hat suddenly contain two doves?

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Modern Magic

Due to his obsessive need to know how the Great Sequah performed such feats, Price was eventually given a copy of Professor Hoffmann’s Modern Magic (1874) in an attempt to satisfy his curiosity. Instead, this book was the small spark that fueled his passion for magic, psychical phenomena and the occult, culminating in an enormous collection of books, some of which can be seen on display today.

Angelo John Lewis (1839-1919) was an English lawyer and professor who went on to become the leading writer about magic of his time under the moniker Professor Louis Hoffmann. Modern Magic, published in 1874, was the first ever encyclopedia of performance magic. The first edition of 2000 copies sold out in seven weeks due to its popularity. Eventually, 15 editions of the book were published by the end of the 19th century and, being the first in a tetralogy, was soon followed by the titles More Magic (1890), Later Magic (1903) and Latest Magic (1918).

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As well as reporting on past and present magicians, Modern Magic became a favourite amongst aspiring conjurors, including Price who became an expert in sleight-of-hand and joined the Magic Circle in 1922. The British organisation was founded in 1905 after 23 amateur magicians met at Pinoli’s Restaurant in Soho, and was dedicated to promoting and advancing the art of magic.

In order to join the Circle, applicants had to qualify through either a performance exam or a written thesis about a branch of magic. Only then could they be designated a Member of the Magic Circle (M.M.C.). Further distinctions were later formed, for instance, Member of The Inner Magic Circle (M.I.M.C), which was limited to a select 300 members.

Although the Magic Circle aimed to promote magic, members had to give their word that they would not disclose any of their magic secrets to the public. The society’s motto indocilis privata loqui, meaning “not apt to disclose secrets” (lit. “incapable [of] speaking [of] private [things]”) emphasises this rule.

Being a magician, however, was not Harry Price’s aim in life. Instead, he would become famous for investigating mediums, hauntings and other supernatural phenomena, exposing numerous fakeries. His most famous investigation took place at Borley Rectory, which was purportedly haunted, its first paranormal event taking place in 1863. Price and a team of 48 “official observers” spent long periods of time at the rectory reporting on any paranormal activity. During this time, a planchette séance took place and two spirits, one who claimed to have been murdered on the site, were supposedly contacted. Six years later, Price discovered the bones of a woman buried in the cellar of the old house. Unfortunately, after his death, Price was accused of faking the phenomena.

As well as collecting books, Harry Price was a keen cinematographer and often filmed his experiments in phenomena. In 1935, the National Film Library compiled a few of these demonstrations and investigations to create a short film. The Senate House Library plays three examples on a loop as part of the exhibition. The first, known as the Indian Rope trick, was a cause célèbre at the time, involving a boy climbing a rigid rope that had once been limp. The performer Karachi, real name Arthur Claude Darby, was filmed proving the rope’s flexibility before making it stand upright, allowing his son to climb it several feet into the air.

Another experiment involved walking on fire, which Kuda Bux (born Khudah Bukhsh, 1905-81) was filmed doing twice without burning his feet. The twelve-foot long pit of burning hot coals measured a temperature of 2,552 degrees Fahrenheit (1,400 degrees Celsius), which is hot enough to burn steel. Price thought the trick was performed by stepping on “safe spots”, however, a later suggestion claimed that because coal cools rapidly, it would be possible to walk over them quickly without being burnt. Regardless as to the veracity of this statement, when a spectator tried to walk across the coals shortly after Kuda Bux, he severely burnt his feet.

Also in the film, Price debunked a ritual found in a 15th century “High German Black Book.” The ritual claimed that by carefully following the instructions, a goat would be transformed into a man. In front of a crowd, Price performed this ritual but, of course, the goat remained a goat.

Despite the Magic Circle endeavouring to keep their secrets, magical revelations had already been shared with the world. The earliest book in Price’s collection is The Discoverie of Magic by Reginald Scot (1538-99), which was published in 1584. Scot, a member of the English Parliament, wrote the book in order to dismiss the myths about witchcraft. At the time, the majority of the population held beliefs about the supernatural, however, Scot wished to propose a more rational approach. In order to convince his readers, he included highly detailed sections on legerdemain and “the art of iuggling”, which he explained made things appear to be magic but were rather very clever illusions.

At the time, The Discoverie of Magic was a risky book to publish. England was still struggling with the effects of the Reformation, and there was a strong divide between Catholics and Protestants. Scot was a Reformed Protestant, also called Calvinism, and stated in his book that “it is neither a witch, nor devil, but glorious God that maketh the thunder…God maketh the blustering tempests and whirlwinds…”. Catholics held strong beliefs in the power of witches, and later, King James I (1566-1625) condemned the book out of fear that it would stop people from staging witch hunts – a purge that had once caused mass hysteria.

Nonetheless, Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft went on to inspire many people and countless new books were published over the coming centuries. The Whole Art of Legerdemain or Hocus Pocus in Perfection published in 1727, borrowed a lot of its content from Scot. The author, Henry Dean, described a number of different tricks, including magic lanterns, producing eggs and hens from an empty bag and turning water into wine. These were accompanied by woodcut illustrations that helped to further explain the tricks.

Broadsheet newspapers, which could be produced much more cheaply than books, began to appear as forms of mass entertainment. Topics, such as legerdemain, were suddenly available to a much wider audience. One example shown in the exhibition promised to give concise instructions on how to perform acts involving cups and balls, fire-eating and walking on hot iron bars.

Although Harry Price’s books imply that the popularity of magic and illusion began in England, the craze quickly spread across the continent. Price owned copies of books in German (Hocus Pocus: Die Taschenspielerkunst Leicht zu Lernen, 1730), Spanish (Engaños a Ojos Vistas y Diversion de Trabajos Mundanos Fundala en Lícitos Juegos de Manos, 1733), and French (Aracana Mirabilia, ou, Magie Blanche et Tours de Physique & d’Excamotage, 1824).

In the 19th century, magicians and conjurors began adopting Chinese, Japanese and Indian styles of dress and sets in order to make their performances look more mystical. Later, towards the end of the century, Western performance magic spread to Asia, was adapted slightly, and published in books such as Mo Shu Ta Kuan (The Devils Art From Top to Bottom) in 1916.

The fascination with magic tricks was still strong in the 20th century. During the First World War, Charles Folkard (1878-1963), a children’s book illustrator who had a brief career as a professional magician, published a couple of pamphlets under the pseudonym Draklof. Tricks for the Trenches and Wards (1915) was one of the titles, which Draklof wrote with the intention of providing some entertainment to British soldiers. The tricks involved objects that could be found while sitting in trenches, such as matches and coins, and could be easily mastered by those convalescing in hospitals.

As with any increasingly prevalent topic in popular culture, magic was not immune to satire. In 1722, the Anglo-Irish author who went on to write Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) mocked the illusions and language of magic by writing about impossible feats in his pamphlet The Wonder of all the Wonders that Ever the World Wonder’d at (1722). He warned his subscribers to not be taken in by the claims from magicians that would most probably end in disappointment.

By the mid-19th century, magic acts had become successful forms of theatrical entertainment. The period was considered to be magic’s golden age and one performer stood out amongst them all. Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-71) was a French magician who combined sleight-of-hand with technical innovations and is now regarded as the father of the modern style of conjuring.

Robert-Houdin became a magician almost by accident. Intending on becoming a watchmaker, he had ordered a couple of books on the topic, however, they got mixed up during delivery and Robert-Houdin – then Jean-Eugène Robert – ended up with a two-volume set on magic called Scientific Amusements. Rather than returning them, Robert-Houdin curiously began reading and was soon hooked, practising the rudiments of magic at all hours of the day.

Most of what is known about Robert-Houdin’s life comes from his memoirs published in 1859, of which Harry Price owned a copy. Originally published in French as Confidences d’un Prestigitateur (1858), Robert-Houdin describes the many events in his life that led him to become one of the greatest magicians to date. He writes about his introduction to magic and illusion and some of his greatest achievements, for instance, convincing people in Algeria that French magic was superior to their local mystics. There is some suspicion, however, that many of his stories have been embellished or, perhaps, made up in parts.

Another of Robert-Houdin’s books that Price owned was his posthumously published Magie et Physique Amusante (1877), a sequel to Les Secrets de la Prestidigitation et de la Magie. Both books explain and offer explanations to some of the most famous stage illusions of the time. Not only did he include his own Magic Portfolio, but Robert-Houdin also revealed the secrets of other magicians, illusionists and spiritualists.

One of Robert-Houdin’s famous illusions was named The Ethereal Suspension in which he convinced his audience that the pungent liquid ether could cause a person to become as light as a balloon.

Robert-Houdin inspired many people, none more greatly than Erik Weisz (1874-1926), more commonly known as Harry Houdini. With a stage name inspired by his idol, the Hungarian-born American illusionist and stunt performer quickly became known for his incredible escape acts. He first became noticed after challenging police officers to keep him locked up, yet no matter how hard they tried, he always managed to escape. Eventually, his repertoire included being tied up with heavy chains, hanging from skyscrapers, placed in a straitjacket underwater and being buried alive – from all of which he escaped.

Like Harry Price, Houdini was a keen collector of books about magic. Many titles feature and were discussed in their letters of correspondence. In 1921, Houdini sent a portrait of himself to Price signed “To my friend Harry Price, best wishes, Houdini”.

In 1908, Houdini published The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin after discovering that there was not enough evidence about the stories his idol had written about in his autobiography. Initially, Houdini was writing a book about the history of magic, however, it evolved into an exposé of his former hero’s potential dishonesty.

At the age of 52, Harry Houdini unexpectedly died from peritonitis, caused by a ruptured appendix. Despite being unwell, Houdini had continued performing, thus making his condition worse. As a result of his early death, many of his secrets about magic and escapology were taken to the grave. Nevertheless, the magician and author Walter B. Gibson (1897-1985) managed to, with the help of Houdini’s wife Wilhelmina “Bess” (1876-1943), decipher some of Houdini’s notebooks in order to put together a biography: Houdini’s Magic (1932).

Amongst Harry Price’s impressive collection are a number of books aimed at teaching the art of conjuring. The subject of magic was as popular for amateurs and hobbyists as it was professionals. Manuals for beginners were in great demand, hence the number of instruction books Price owned. These types of publications began as far back as 1722 with Henry Dean’s Hocus Pocus that offered to teach “any person that is desirous to learn any part of this art.” Ever since then, books of this genre have continued to flourish.

Aimed at children, The Art of Conjuring from the late 18th century, taught simple tricks involving eggs, cards and coins, whereas, Harlan Tarbell’s (1890-1960) System of Magic provided over 60 lessons for those who were more serious about learning the elements of magic. Lessons in Conjuring (1922) by David Devant (1868-1941) emphasised the importance of knowing how to perform a trick well. Although knowing how to do the trick was, of course, necessary, the success lay in how it was presented.

Ellis Stanyon’s (1870-1951) Conjuring for Amateurs (1897) and Alexander the Magician (Claude Alexander Conlin, 1880-1954)’s The Magic Show Book were written for true beginners, the latter being aimed at 10 to 14-year-olds. With books such as these, anyone could learn a trick or two to impress their friends and family. Stanyon maintained that practising magic as a hobby was “a wholesome and moral one”, but more importantly, these books aimed to amuse the public.

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With so many books on display, it is hard to take everything in at the Senate House Library’s exhibition. Fortunately, visitors are provided with a written guide that contains all the information about Harry Price’s collection, the history of magic and each individual item.

Seeing the books and items in display cabinets does not fully explain the story behind magic and illusions, however, there is so much history hidden within them.

The art of illusion has come on a long journey and, through one man’s book collecting hobby, its development is there for all to see.

Staging Magic is free and open to the public. Tickets are available on-site at the Library membership desk on the 4th floor of Senate House.

Previous exhibitions include Reformation: Shattered World, New Beginnings.

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The Metamorphosis of Narcissus

Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937 by Salvador Dal? 1904-1989

Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937 Salvador Dalí

Eighty years ago on 19th July 1938, two of the most significant and influential figures of the 20th century met for the first and only time. These were Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the father of psychoanalysis and Salvador Dalí (1904-89), a prominent Spanish surrealist painter. In order to mark the anniversary of this event, the Freud Museum in London held an exhibition to explore the connection between the two personalities, particularly Freud’s influence on Dalí and the Surrealist movement in general. The central focus of the exhibition was Dalí’s painting The Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937), which he brought with him to discuss with his idol.

On 27th September 1938, Freud moved into “20 Maresfield Gardens … our last address on this planet” with his wife Martha (1861-1951), sister-in-law Minna Bernays (1865-1941), youngest daughter Anna (1895-1982) and his housekeeper Paula Fichtl (1902-89). Whilst the home was predominantly Anna’s, who lived there for the rest of her life, it has become the Freud Museum as per the wishes of his daughter. Although this is not the house where the meeting between Freud and Dalí took place, it is an appropriate location for the exhibition since it is the place the neurologist moved into shortly after.

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Sigmund Freud by Max Halberstadt

Sigismund Schlomo Freud was born on 6th May 1856 to Galician Jewish parents in the town of Freiberg, which at the time was a part of the Austrian Empire (now the Czech Republic). He studied for a doctorate at the University of Vienna and went on to develop a set of theories and therapeutic techniques known as psychoanalysis. Unfortunately, the rise of Nazism in Germany was to put Freud’s life and his work at severe risk.

In Germany, the works of Freud and other psychoanalysts were publically burned along with any book that contained radical thinking or was written by a Jew. As a result, members of the psychoanalytical community, the majority of whom were Jewish, fled to other countries in an attempt to escape the wrath of Hitler. Freud, on the other hand, was determined to stay in his home country, however, when the country was annexed by Germany in 1938, the harassment he received from the Nazis prompted him to flee to London via Paris.

On arrival in London, Freud moved into rented accommodation in Hampstead Village, which is where he was living when Dalí visited him. Later, on 27th September, Freud and his family moved into the house in Maresfield Gardens, in which, with the help of his son Ernst (1892-1970), he recreated an identical working environment using the same furniture he had brought with him from Austria.

Sadly, the final 16 years of Freud’s life was affected by mouth cancer. Although he continued to work, write and see a number of patients, the pain eventually became too much for him. A year after moving in, on 23rd September 1939, Freud’s doctor at his patient’s insistence, increased the doses of morphine until, finally, Freud breathed his last.

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Dalí photographed by Carl Van Vechten

Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech, 1st Marquis of Dalí de Púbol, known professionally as Salvador Dalí, was born on 11th May 1904 in Catalonia, Spain. Dalí attended drawing school as a child and later discovered modern painting, for instance, Cubism. It was not until 1929 that Dalí began to experiment with surrealist art forms.

Dalí became a fan of Freud after he read the latter’s book The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) while an art student in Madrid in the early 1920s. The book, which introduced the idea of unconscious desire and self-interpretation, inspired Dalí to try to interpret “not only of my dreams but of everything that happened to me.” These new ideas began to have a strong impact on Dalí’s artwork and way of thinking.

Not only were Dalí’s paintings affected by the revelation, but he also began to write. In 1933, he wrote a “psycho-analytical essay” called The Tragic Myth of Millet’s ‘Angelus’ in which he explored his obsession with the painting The Angelus by Jean-François Millet (1814-75). This essay, along with The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, Dalí took to his eventual meeting with Freud.

Dalí was determined to meet and talk with his hero, however, three attempts to meet in Vienna were unsuccessful. Shortly after he finished painting The Metamorphosis of Narcissus in 1937, Dalí tried once more to arrange a meeting with Freud. Rather than contacting the psychoanalyst directly, Dalí wrote a letter to the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), a close friend of Freud’s, asking him for an introduction. Zweig acquiesced, although warned Dalí that Freud was in poor health.

Zweig persuaded Freud to meet Dalí by convincing him of the importance of this meeting. According to Zweig, Dalí was the only genius among contemporary painters, “the only one who will last … the most faithful, the most grateful of the disciples you have among the artists.” So, finally, a meeting took place on 19th July 1938 in which Dalí’s wife and Edward James (1907-84), the owner of the painting, were also present.

Dalí’s painting of The Metamorphosis of Narcissus is based upon a story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses called Echo and Narcissus. Echo is a mountain nymph who falls in love with the beautiful Narcissus, a hunter from Greece. Narcissus, however, spurns her advances causing her to pine away until she is little more than an echo.

In order to teach Narcissus a lesson for the way he treated Echo, the goddess Aphrodite causes him to become obsessively enamoured by beautiful things. After luring Narcissus to a pool of water, Aphrodite leaves him peering at his reflection. Unaware that the image is of himself, Narcissus falls in love with the handsome youth he sees in the water. Unable to leave the alluring image, Narcissus stays there burning with desire until he too, like Echo, fades away. All that remained was a white flower.

Dalí’s oil painting shows Narcissus sitting in a pool looking down at his reflection. A striking landscape resembles the Cap de Creus, a headland located northeast of Catalonia where Dalí was born. The mountains in the far distance, however, also alludes to the Austrian Alps that Dalí saw in Zürs where he painted the canvas.

As well as painting The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, Dalí wrote a poem of the same name. The verse begins with the melting of the snow god, “his dazzling head bent over the dizzy space of reflections starts melting with desire.” This imagery could also be another reason Dalí included the melting snow caps in the distance. The phrase itself, of course, foretells the fate of Narcissus.

Two forms dominate the foreground of the painting. The easiest to see is the stone-like bony hand on the right-hand side of the canvas. On the top of the thin fingers balances a fragile egg or bulb from which an individual white narcissus flower blooms. This is another indication of the fate of Narcissus.

The form on the left, not as easy to make out the first time, is the crouching figure of the golden youth Narcissus. His head is bowed and hidden from the audience by the placement of his knee, however, it is clear from his stature that he is solely focused on what he can see in the reflection of the pool.

The more the two figures are compared, the more obvious it becomes that they share identical contours and structures despite depicting entirely different objects. The index finger on the hand is the same shape and dimension as Narcissus’ left arm. The thumb replaces Narcissus’ left leg on the opposite figure and the egg clearly represents his head.

The Metamorphosis of Narcissus is a show of Dalí’s dexterous skill in being able to employ the use of trompe l’oeil, which literally translates into English as “eye-fooling.” The hand, which appears almost three-dimensional as though it could be physically felt, is more predominant than the figure of Narcissus. The image of the Greek youth is set slightly further back than the hand, resulting in the eye noticing the egg and flower before seeing the main character of the story.

In a clever yet subtle way, Dalí has managed to make the myth of Narcissus play out before the viewers’ very eyes. Being slightly less strong in colour than the hand, the brain begins to dismiss the figure of Narcissus, focusing on the more precise object. Thus, Narcissus appears to fade away.

“If one looks for some time, from a slight distance and with a certain ‘distant fixedness’ at the hypnotically immobile figure of Narcissus, it gradually disappears until at last it is completely invisible. The metamorphosis of the myth takes place at that precise moment, for the image of Narcissus is suddenly transformed into the image of a hand which rises out of his own reflection …”
– Dalí, in the preface to his poem

Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937 by Salvador Dal? 1904-1989

Although the figure of Narcissus may appear to fade away, the more the painting is looked at, the more the eye sees. Relating back to the Greek myth, Dalí has included a group of naked bodies – both male and female – in the background who, like Echo, have also fallen in love with Narcissus. By parading their bodies around, they are attempting in vain to draw Narcissus’ attention away from his reflection in the pool.

The reason Dalí was eager to show this particular painting to Freud was that he had found inspiration from Freud’s own work. The Metamorphosis of Narcissus echoes Freud’s theory of narcissism, which he wrote about in his Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Freud defines narcissism as “the displacement of an individual’s libido towards that individual’s own body, towards the ‘ego’ of the subject.” This, in turn, sums up what has happened to Narcissus through his obsession with his own reflection.

The much-anticipated meeting with Freud was a bit of a let down for Dalí. Prepared to show himself as an example of “universal intellectualism”, Dalí was unnerved by Freud’s passive silence throughout the encounter. Rather than having a two-way conversation, Dalí attempted to talk to Freud whilst Freud, in turn, stared mutely at the artist. Dalí had hoped the psychoanalyst’s interest in narcissim would spark a discussion about his painting, yet nothing of the sort occurred. Similarly, Dalí brought with him a copy of the surrealist journal Minotaure, featuring the essay he had written about The Angelus for Freud to read, however, Freud, “continued to stare at me without paying the slightest attention to my magazine.”

From Dalí’s account of the meeting, Freud appears to be rather rude, causing Dalí to involuntarily raise his voice and become more insistent, practically begging Freud to read his work or even respond to his questions. Reportedly, the first thing Freud said during the encounter after staring at Dalí for some time, was directed at Stefan Zweig, who was also present: “I have never seen a more complete example of a Spaniard. What a fanatic!

Eventually, Freud did engage Dalí in some form of communication, although whether Dalí was satisfied with this, it cannot be certain. Freud told Dalí: “It is not the unconscious I seek in your pictures but the conscious.” Comparing Dalí’s work to the famous masters, i.e. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-19), who Freud wasted no time announcing he preferred, Freud explained that usually an unconscious idea is hidden in a painting, however, Dalí’s work is a mechanism to discover unconscious ideas.

Despite Freud’s behaviour at the time, it appears from written correspondence to Zweig after the event that he was pleased to have made Dalí’s acquaintance and was particularly interested in some of the ideas the painter had attempted to discuss.

“I really have reason to thank you for the introduction … I was inclined to look upon surrealists – who have apparently chosen me for their patron saint – as absolute (let us say 95 per cent, like alcohol) cranks. The young Spaniard, however … has made me reconsider my opinion.”
– Freud in a letter to Zweig

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Sigmund Freud by Dalí

Since nothing overly significant happened as a result of the meeting, there were very little directly related resources the Freud Museum could use for their exhibition – other than the painting of The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, of course, which was lent by the Tate Collection for the occasion. Dalí did, however, sketch a portrait of Freud during the meeting, which permanently hangs in the first-floor landing at 20 Maresfield Gardens.

In display cases around the exhibition room were items related to both Dalí, Freud, narcissism and the myth of Narcissus. This included books and essays written by both men, handwritten letters and a couple of intriguing objects. Unbeknownst to Dalí at the time of painting, Freud owned a small bronze figure of a hand holding an egg, not dissimilar to the hand in Dalí’s painting. Since it is a Roman figurine from the 1st or 2nd century AD, it is thought that Dalí may have discovered another version elsewhere from which he took inspiration.

The exhibition Freud, Dalí and the Metamorphosis has now finished, however, the Freud Museum continues to welcome visitors to see the house. Although Freud only lived in the house for a year, the open rooms pay homage to his life, his work and his legacies. Anna Freud is also remembered through some of the furniture, photographs and paraphernalia that belonged to her. The Metamorphosis of Narcissus will return to the Tate Collection where it may be viewable by the public.

The Freud Museum is open on Wednesday – Saturday from 12pm until 5pm. Admission fees are £9 per adult, £5 per 12-16 year old and free for under 12s. Other concessions apply. Tickets are valid for a year and everyone is encouraged to come back more than once.

Delivering the Unexpected

Since 28th July 2017, the newly opened Postal Museum provides public access to its collections and a highly detailed history of the 500 years of constant progress and innovation. The original National Postal Museum in the City of London opened in 1969 but was forced to close its doors in 1998. Now situated in the Mount Pleasant Mail Centre complex in Central London, the brand-new museum offers an in-depth history of the Post Office suitable for all ages.

Shortly after the opening of the museum, a unique opportunity was unveiled that gives visitors the chance to explore the underground secrets of Britain’s communication network. Closed since 2003, the hundred-year-old Mail Rail allows humans to ride the tracks for the first time. Twenty-two miles of track lie under London that once took letters and parcels from one sorting station to the next at approximately 30 miles per hour. Although vehicles can go much faster these days, the trains sped up the delivery of mail from days to hours. Today, a tiny train is able to show visitors the insides of the narrow tunnels and travel back in time to see the workers of the past century.

The history of the British postal system begins with Henry VIII (1491-1547) in 1512. Previously, individual couriers were sent from one household to another with a message. The king, however, perhaps wanting his correspondence to have more protection, employed Sir Brian Tuke (d. 1545) as Master of the Posts, later Governor of the King’s Posts. Initially, this service was only for the King and those in his palaces but in 1635, Charles I (1600-49) approved an expansion of the network to stretch as far as Edinburgh and be used by anyone, so long as they could afford it.

Postboys as young as 11 were employed to travel on foot or by horse in all weathers, sometimes travelling as far as twenty miles without a rest. Equipped with only a horn to blast every four miles to warn people of their approach, the boys were susceptible to attacks by thieves and highwaymen. Due to this, the time of delivery could not be estimated and many people began to complain about the late arrivals.

As a result of the late delivery complaints, Henry Bishop (1611-91), the Postmaster General in the 1660s, devised the world’s first postmark, or Bishop Mark. “A stamp is invented that is putt upon every letter shewing the day of the moneth that every letter comes to the office, so that no Letter Carryer my dare detayne a letter.” This helped prioritise the order the letters should be delivered.

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Unlike today where the price of sending a letter depends on the size and weight of the envelope, people were charged per sheet of paper used. Not only that, it was the receiver who was charged, not the sender. In order to cut the costs, many letters were “cross-written” where, rather than using an additional sheet of paper, people wrote on top of their writing in a different direction. Unfortunately, this made letters rather difficult to read.

Another way people tried to cut the cost was to read the letter immediately then hand it back to the postboy. Tricks like these continued until the Postal Reform in 1840, which established a better pricing system.

Postmarks were not the only thing introduced to improve the delivery of the mail. In 1782, theatre owner John Palmer (1742-1818) proposed the idea of the Mail Coach to carry all the mail and a couple of armed guards. Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806) approved the plan and a trial journey commenced from Bristol to London that took a total of 16 hours. Horse-drawn coaches were far quicker than individual riders and soon the Mail Coach service was extended to cover the majority of Great Britain.

One of the first things visitors see on entering the Postal Museum is one of the old Mail Coaches. Locked compartments held the letters being delivered to major cities, which were protected by armed guards who rode on the outside of the coach. A guard was recognisable from his scarlet coat with blue lapels and gold braid, and a gold braided black hat, which the museum has examples of for visitors to try on.

The guards were expected to defend the mail with their lives and were, therefore, armed with a blunderbuss to scare off potential thieves or attackers. Soon, passengers were allowed to use the Mail Coach to travel into the cities, the wealthy paying for a seat inside and the poor sitting with the guards outside. These were long journeys and not always pleasant. On one occasion in 1816, the Exeter to London Mail Coach was attacked by a lioness that had escaped from a circus. Although the guard fired his blunderbuss, it was a Newfoundland dog that eventually scared off the beast.

With the developing railways, there was less need for the Mail Coach, therefore, after a final journey in 1846, the service stopped altogether. Trains were far more efficient at transporting mail from one city to another, however, there was still an issue about how best to deliver individual post from the sorting offices to the recipient. Initially, postmen would have walked on foot or used horses for longer journeys but in the late 1800s, a number of alternatives were trialled. A few of these can be seen at the museum.

In 1880, the GPO Carrier Tricycle was trialled in Coventry, which consisted of a large basket on a metal frame supported by three wheels. The postman sat behind the basket and pedalled along. At a similar time, a pentacycle or Centre-Cycle was trialled in Horsham, Sussex. Consisting of five wheels and two baskets, the postman sat high up in the middle to pedal the machine forward. Unsurprisingly, neither of these contraptions were used for long, however, the bicycle was a very popular method of transportation. By the 1930s, postmen were collectively covering 200 million miles a year on their bicycles, a feat they kept up until the bikes were phased out in 2014.

“On a perfectly smooth and level surface, the ‘Centre-Cycle’ may be everything that can be desired – but for ordinary travelling, it is said to be an impractical machine.”
– Feedback from Mr Phillipston, 1882

At the beginning of the 20th century, motorbikes were used to reach the less accessible areas of the country, for example, the rural routes that were more difficult to navigate by bicycle. The First World War brought an end to their use due to petrol rationing, however, they came back into use for a short time at the end of the 1940s.

Prior to Queen Victoria’s (1819-1901) reign, sending a letter could be extremely costly, often costing as much as 12 loaves of bread. This all changed after the 1837 Post Office Reform proposed by Rowland Hill (1795-1979). On his suggestion, postage was paid by the sender, not the recipient, based on the weight of the letter. The only issue was working out how to establish a pre-payment method. A competition was held inviting suggestions from the public, from which the proposal of an adhesive stamp was selected. Only letters containing a stamp would be delivered, so they needed to be designed in a way that would be difficult to counterfeit.

Hill wanted the stamps to be “as beautiful a specimen of fine art as can be obtained.” He suggested a profile illustration of the 18-year old Queen’s head based on a medal that had been minted in 1838. In May 1840, the first stamp in the world was issued. Named the Penny Black, the stamp cost one penny and revolutionised the postal system. A year later, the stamp was reprinted in the colour red so as to be easier to detect. Due to the success of this endeavour, another stamp, the Two Penny Blue was printed for larger and heavier letters.

From here on until the 1960s, stamps featured the reigning monarch’s profile on a variety of different coloured background depending on the cost. In 1965, however, Postmaster General Tony Benn (1925-2014) introduced special commemorative stamps to mark anniversaries or events of national importance, for example, the Olympics, jubilees, charity events or Christmas. Designers were given free rein to experiment with designs so long as the monarch’s head was incorporated in some way and the stamp’s value was clearly shown. Finally, the Queen must approve of the design.

A brief video at the museum shows how the stamps are printed. They also have on display the plaster cast of Queen Elizabeth II’s (b.1926) head produced by Arnold Machin (1911-99) that was used to produce the iconic portrait that has adorned Britain’s stamps since 1967.

Until July 2019, the Postal Museum is exhibiting special Christmas editions of British stamps featuring the iconic duo Wallace & Gromit. With initial drawings from the creator Nick Park (b.1958), the display reveals the design process of these particular stamps. From drawing to photographic production shots, an enormous amount of effort and work is put into making the tiny stamps for people to buy in order to send their Christmas cards.

With no need to collect payment, a postman’s job was far easier and quicker than it had once been. Yet, with more people able to afford to send letters, queues at post offices were considerably long and often in inconvenient places for people who did not live in a town or city. Something needed to be done to improve this situation. The solution came from a Surveyor’s Clerk, Anthony Trollope (1815-82), more famous for his novels, for instance, He Knew He Was Right (1869), who suggested the idea of roadside posting boxes. In order to trial these boxes, green hexagonal pillars were set up in various places on the Channel Islands. After their success, Britain established its first postbox in Carlisle in September 1853.

The colour of postboxes quickly changed from green to red in order to make them more visible in leafy areas. Since then, all British postboxes have been red and contain the regnal cypher of the reigning king or queen at the time they were produced. Attempts to revamp the original design have occurred over the past century and a half, for instance, the economic Wall Box that was introduced in 1857. Pillar boxes were expensive to produce, so these were preferable in some areas of the country.

The first cylindrical postbox was introduced in 1859, although it still had a hexagonal lid. A couple of years later, another hexagonal model was designed, named after its creator John Penfold (1828-1909). Whilst aesthetically pleasing, it was too expensive to produce, thus the production of cylindrical pillar boxes began again. The red and black models known as Victorian Type A and Type B, were the first to combine a cylindrical body with a convex circular lid, just like the ones still used today.

Despite finding a design that worked well, the Post Office continued to try and improve their post boxes, gradually working their way through the alphabet until they reached Type K. The Type K Pillar Box was considered to be a very modern design at the time of production in 1980. Unfortunately, the “cigar-shaped” body was not very popular and was discontinued in 2000. The Type F Pillar Box proved to be more popular, however, its rectangular shape meant it was prone to rust. The last of these boxes were removed in 2002.

The Postal Museum displays many of the different types of post boxes that have been seen in Britain since the 1850s. These include a blue pillar box intended for air mail post and a red cylindrical box with the regnal cypher of Edward VIII (1894-1972). Production began on boxes featuring Edward VIII’s name as soon as his father died, however, only a few had been produced by the time he abdicated, making these boxes very rare.

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London Postal District Map

The invention of the post box encouraged more people to write and send letters. Whilst this was something to encourage, the more post there was, the more difficult it was to sort, especially in London. London was a growing city and was receiving roughly 100 million items of mail a year. Today, London is approximately 607 square miles, meaning that mail sent to the city could be for addressees many miles apart. To tackle this problem, Rowland Hill came up with yet another new idea.

Taking a map of London, Hill drew a 12-mile radius around central London and then divided this into ten sections. Each segment was given an initial relevant to its position on the compass, e.g. N, NE, E, SE and so forth. These he called Postal Districts. People were encouraged to add the relevant area code when addressing letters to London. This was of particular help to the workers on the London Mail Rail which began operating in 1927.

It was not until the 1930s that other cities in Britain began to copy London’s Postal District system. The rest of the country, however, had not yet been introduced to this way of operating. The first modern postcodes were trialled in Norwich in 1959, however, it was not until 1974 that the entirety of Britain was included.

The Postal Museum contains more history than imaginable about the development and continuation of the General Post Office. From early beginnings, through wars and many other changes, the Post Office has continued to function and has had a great impact on modern society not just in Britain but throughout the world. Posters, interactive stations, games, fancy dress and displays of old items help to tell the remarkable story of a service that originated with a king who wanted his correspondence to remain private.

Today, the world would not function without the thousands of post workers and delivery drivers that help to deliver our mail. The popularity of postmen, post boxes and so forth has become ingrained in our culture; they have seamlessly been incorporated into our books and televisions. The 1980s saw the arrival of Postman Pat (1981) who with “his black and white cat, Early in the morning, Just as day is dawning … picks up all the post bags in his van.” In the same year, the cartoon spy Danger Mouse (1981) began operating from a London pillar box.

The Jolly Postman (1986), whose portrait accompanies children around the museum, was the first in a series of books written by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Whilst the story follows the Postman on his daily round, children can open miniature envelopes and read the letters inside.

A more recent book, however, focuses on a particular Post Office employee. This is Tibs the Post Office Cat (2017), a story based on the life of a real cat who lived in the Royal Mail Headquarters at St Martin’s-Le-Grand. Famed for his tremendous weight – he was 10kg at the time of his death in 1965 – Tibs spent his time keeping the building free of mice.

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Benugo cafe at the Postal Museum

The Postal Museum is a place suitable for all ages to visit. There are plenty of things to keep children entertained for hours whilst adults enjoy learning about the history of the Post Office. Make sure to book a place on the Mail Rail to avoid disappointment.

Admission to the Museum and Mail Rail costs £17.05 per adult and £10.45 per child. Those wishing to only visit the Museum can pay a reduced entry fee of £11 with free entry for children. See website for more details.

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