Sweet Adversity by Sheryl Gwyther

Before I review this wonderful, heart-warming novel for Middle-School kids, Sweet Adversity, by Sheryl Gwyther, I need to declare that not only is Sheryl a very good friend of mine, but I have followed this novel’s progress from its inception a few years ago to its terrific conclusion and now reception. It has been such a labour of, not only love for Sheryl (though it is that), but passion as well. Determined to pay tribute to not just Shakespeare, but Australian history and the trials and tribulations of kids and families who fell prey to the vicissitudes of the Great War and the Depression, as well as those hardened souls who exploit hardship and suffering, Sheryl has managed to accomplish this with Sweet Adversity (pun intended there too)

The novel tells the tale of young, smart and feisty Addie McAllister who, when times become hard for her actor parents, they leave her at the Emu Swamp Children’s Home so she can be fed, educated and safe until their fortunes turn for the better. What they don’t know is that the Children’s Home is run by a greedy, soulless woman who sees in the children not so much orphans or young ones needing her care, but talents she can exploit to their full potential. Enter, Stage Left, the villainous Scrimshaw who, in league with the matron, sees in Adversity a chance to make the money they feel they deserve.

Through their avarice, a chain of events is set in motion which sees Adversity leaving Emu Swamp and encountering a series of characters who will work both for and against her. Able to inspire loyalty, Addie is also someone who gives it in spades and there’s no-one who receives it from her more than her pet Cockatiel, Macbeth, the Shakespeare-quoting bird with more character and gumption in his wing feathers than a Harbour-Bridge worker.

A relatively unknown period of Australian history provides a stark but fascinating backdrop as Addie roams the countryside and heads to Sydney, searching for what she thought she might never have again: family. But there are those with other ideas who will stop at nothing to prevent Addie achieving her heart’s desire, including threatening those she most cares about.

Evoking time and place, this is a terrific novel that once you start you’ll find hard to put down. It’s not only young people who will love this, but anyone who enjoys a tale well told, with a good dose of history, Shakespearean and other theatrics, populated with some wonderful, rich characters.

I don’t think it’s too much to say that with Sweet Adversity, Sheryl has “a hit, a very palpable hit.”

 

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Do We Not Bleed by Patricia Finney

I kept reading about Patricia Finney and how good her books were, but because the first ones were not available on Kindle, I confess, I was reluctant to read them (I need to explain this. I am an avid bedtime reader and, before Kindle and ebooks with backlights, I would keep my partner awake or be forced to sit up in another room reading – even the little bed-lights you can get were a nuisance as turning pages and shifting it could be noisy and sometimes, the light was more like sleeping next to a lighthouse as the beam would strike your face occasionally. As a consequence, once ebooks came out, I felt liberated and my partner relieved. He always felt guilty about being unable to sleep when I read, as if he was responsible for cutting me off from that particular avenue of pleasure!). Then I found Do We Not Bleed? The first in Finney’s James Enys mysteries as an electronic book.

Well…

19385258What a wonderful tale. Set in the 1580s it centres on a young lawyer James Enys, who is not all he seems. After discovering a brutally murdered woman in the back alleys of London, the smart but rather quiet and sad Enys is teamed with the Puritan zealot with the marvellous name, Malverny Catlyn (who, it just so happens, was a real person and member of Sir Francis Walsingham’s formidable spy network), in order to track down the murderer. But this is no ordinary one, but a serial killer, preying upon the whores of London and Southwark and dissecting them in a manner that demonstrates both knowledge and a serious perversion.

Also aiding Enys in his mission is the playwright, William Shakespeare, ladies’ man and currently struggling for work.

The strength of this book lies in the detail – of London streets, life, the richness of the language and the way Finney describes everything from someone puking, menstruating, to the interactions between “upright men” (basically, a pimp) and their whores. Descriptions of interiors and exteriors place you in the moment and whether you like it or not, the various sounds, odours and realities of life in this period linger long after the page is closed. There is also a wonderful weaving of actual historical figures and fictional characters – something I love.

I was not surprised to learn that Finney also writes as PF Chisolm, whose series I am also reading at present and thoroughly enjoying – yes, in ebook form.

Having Shakespeare as a character in Do We Not Bleed? is a bonus and there are little poetic asides where we find Shakespeare waxing lyrical or daydreaming and creating and if you’re familiar with his work, you know how that particular moment will manifest in one of his pieces. There is something very “Shakespearian” about the tale (as readers will discover) and one of the lead character’s names (not mentioned here) gestures to this. But the novel itself is very poetic and nuanced. It is a treat in every sense and I cannot wait for the next instalment.

I have also ordered and received the first three of Finney’s books, starting with Firedrake’s Eye as paperbacks and am also loving the style and the way in which you’re drawn into the era. Stay tuned for that review soon!

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Book Review: The Elizabethan World Picture by E.M.W. Tillyyard

This is a gem of a book that basically explores the Elizabethan way of viewing the world by examining popular literature and philosophies oThe Elizabethan World Picturef the period.

Quoting extensively from the likes of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser and Sidney (among many others) and making reference to the Greek philosophers that influenced Elizabethan thought, particularly (pun intended) Plato, Tillyard explains the way people of the 15th and 16th centuries understood their relationship to the corporeal and spiritual world and how they established hierarchies of being from oysters through to lions; from paupers to kings. How these all existed in a complex and simple relationship, a chain of being within the cosmos. How this was all regarded as functioning within very ordered vertical and horizontal planes and within a deep religiosity, is also explored. While anyone familiar with Elizabethan literature and history will not be unfamiliar with Tillyard’s ideas, it’s the way they’re explained and how literature and plays are used to both provide and support evidence that makes this book particularly delightful.

I think the most surprising thing to come out of the text for me was Tillyard’s summation that for all we think of the Elizabethan poets and dramatists as having some special relationship to their muses, the world and imagination, what they produced was quite “ordinary”. What he means by this including the music of the spheres in a poem, or likening the queen to the sun or moon and stars, linking the macrocosm and microcosm – was rather commonplace thinking for the time. He is not diminishing the accomplishments of the poets etc but rather asking us to understand that all Elizabethans read the world in that way, so the language of Shakespeare, Milton and Marlowe etc. was speaking to like-minded people who lived and breathed the allusions rather than grasping at powerful and beautiful metaphors that prove elusive to so many now. While an obvious point, I loved reading it and have subsequently tried to read Spenser with that view of the world in mind. It really does change things and make them easier to grasp. Not as easy as I’d like, but for that to happen, I’d have to step back in time awhile. Now, where’s my Tardis….?

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Book Review: Shakespeare’s Rebel by C.C. Humphreys

I wasn’t at all sure I was going to like this book though I immediately loved the setting, the language and way the two worked together to draw the reader into the intoxicating, dirty, dashing and dangerous world of late Elizabethan England. Part of the reason for my uncertainty was the lead character, John Lawley. In some ways meant to encapsulate the “renaissance man”, albeit, not a noble or an aristocratic one, Lawley is a drunkard who, above all, periodically indulges in month-long benders and consequently lets down anyone17315211 and everyone in his life. He is also an expert swordsman and brave soldier who in the past accompanied Robert Devereux, the Earl Of Essex and the Queen’s young favourite, to Spain and was by his side during other skirmishes, thus earning praise and a reputation as loyal and courageous.

Despite all this, there is something not quite loveable about Lawley. He is neither rake nor rogue, ethical or ideologically driven. In fact, for a man who has done so much and has so many strings to his bow, as well as important and influential people on his radar, he is remarkably bland and, though you don’t dislike him, I found I couldn’t really like him either and that was disappointing as I desperately wanted to.

Lawley stumbles from one bad choice to another. Wanting nothing more than to work with his beloved Will Shakespeare and the players at the globe, prevent the love of his life and mother of his son from making a disastrous marriage, Lawley tries to pick up the pieces of his life and start again. His first effort is to get sober. However, with war in Ireland looming, and the Queen and her sidekick, Robert Cecil determined to use his connections to the Earl of Essex (Devereux) for their own ends, Lawley is just a pawn in a game he has no choice but to play – and it seems lose.

As events spiral out of control, it looks as though Lawley is destined to lose everything he cares about – his love, son, and reputation – even Shakespeare, his most loyal friend, is growing tired of his inconstancy, of his disappearances without explanation or apparent motive (the reader can get annoyed with these too). But we soon learn not to underestimate this man, even when in his cups, as Lawley has resources and skills that no-one (save his closest friend) know about and if he can just suppress his desire for whiskey long enough, evade those who seek him, and rescue those who need him, he might even get the chance to prove himself and, as the blurb on the book promises, save England as well.

This is a good book that has some really exciting parts and some, for me, frankly dull ones as well. C.C. Humphreys manages to capture the period so well. His use of language, the rich dialogue and manner of the characters simply flows and captivates. The streets of London, of Southbank, the wilds of Ireland and the darkened offices of Cecil and other grisly locations are all beautifully realised. The life of the actors and theatre associates as well as the inner workings of the theatre are also fabulously woven (not surprising when you read about the author’s background which also explain his wonderful use of language and why sword fights dominate the book). What dragged a bit for me were the sword fighting scenes which I’ve no doubt someone who understands fencing would greatly appreciate, but for an ingénue, they went on far too long and were hard to imagine. They interrupted the flow of the narrative. Likewise, the descriptions of Lawley on benders or the constant refrain of his desire for alcohol were overdone to my taste (pardon the pun). Likewise, the love story resolved itself far too quickly in relation to the tensions that were set up, but I am being very picky.

Overall, I enjoyed this action-driven book and really appreciated the way a period I am growing to love very much was brought to life.

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Book Review: The Elizabethans by A.N Wilson

After some quite shaky moments where I wanted to hurl this book from my sight, I ended up thoroughly enjoying and learning from A.N. Wilson’s, The Elizabethans, a rigorous and highly entertaining study of England and its people throughout the long reign of Elizabeth the First.

The book commences with a statement that rapidly needed explication: that is, that we are only now, in the Twenty-First Century, seeing the end of the Elizabethan world. Startled by this observation at first, I then understood what was meant, as in the first two chapters Wilson quickly covers Elizabeth’s disastrous campaigns in Ireland and attempt to oppress and subjugate its peoples before examining the beginnings of English expansion and colonialism in the New World. Shocking the reader with some cold, hard facts about E11733162nglish geographical growth and plans for domination (I think one of the terms used was “Seeding” – but that may have been another book) it soon becomes clear that Wilson is being deliberately provocative in order to insist the reader suspend contemporary judgement and the sins of “isms” (racism, sexism, classism etc.): that we view the Elizabethan world through Elizabethan eyes, politics, religious upheavals and belief systems and that we, as far as possible, withhold judgement (and for the sake of better words, “politically correct” assumptions and thus criticisms about actions and decisions – though this is very, very hard) and instead seek to immerse ourselves in this rich, brutal, decadent, paranoid, artistic and amazing time.

While I initially struggled with some of Wilson’s assumptions (and though he is an historian, he makes many, liberally sprinkling the text with terms like “possibly” and “maybe” and words that, as one chapter is titled (borrowing a quote from Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queen), lie “twixt earnest and twixt game”, sitting somewhere between fact and writerly elaboration) – let me give you an example of one of the worst.

It happens on page 207. This is where I almost put the book down never to pick it up again. In chapter 17, when writing about Sir Philip Sidney and Ireland, Wilson discusses William of Orange and the Protestant upheavals in the Netherlands:

“English involvement in the Low Counties was something about which Queen Elizabeth nursed ambivalent feelings. In the years 1585-6 the English soldiers serving there, and the people of the Netherlands, suffered acutely from an excess display of all her worst character traits – vacillation, tight-fistedness, hysterical rages. Presumably [another one of those twixt words] the ill-fated campaigns in which thousands of Englishman, including Sir Philip Sidney, perished coincide with her menopause (my emphasis).”

Yes, you read it right. I was astounded. Elizabeth’s menopause was the reason so many men died and suffered needlessly? Good God.

After my initial shock at this blatant, frankly offensive and bold postulation, I found myself reconsidering how to read and respond to the book. The information is wonderful, the scope wide and fascinating and the characters that people this landscape so interesting. Sure, Wilson peppers the history with his observations and witticisms and, frankly, obvious adoration for as well as somewhat misogynistic attitude towards Queen Elizabeth, but it was like being in the presence of a really, really knowledgeable professor at university who discourses freely around a subject about which he knows a great deal and isn’t afraid to offer his own opinion and interpretation of people and events. I imagined him pausing or raising an eyebrow, daring a response with a twinkle in his eye (yeah, I know, I am now twixting). In other words, I felt he was challenging us to think, pushing us to move outside known historical squares and ruminate on what might have been… even menopause, I guess…

Instead of continuing to be offended or concerned, I chose to sit back and go along for the ride, enjoying the gossip, his asides, the facts, the summations and learning more about Elizabeth, Dudley, Dee, Essex, Burghley, Hawkins, Walsingham, Marlowe, Jonson, Sidney, Harrington, Lyly, Campion, Raleigh, Burbage and so many more than I might have from a more, shall we say, circumspect book or author (and I have read and enjoyed many).

The times are beautifully evoked – from the narrow dirty streets of London, the sermons at St Paul’s, the lawlessness of Bankside and the Stews, the piracy and profligacy – and not just of Drake, Raleigh et. al., to the dreadful conditions of the poor who suffered more than any others through plagues and failed harvests and the ravages of constant threat of invasion and wars offshore. The religious schism of the times, the ideological fracturing that occurred and the people that both fell into and profited from the cracks that followed are beautifully and imaginatively rendered.

By the time I finished, I found I really, really liked this book. Furthermore, I liked Wilson and his historical chutzpah – comments about women and menopause and the attribution of blame (as well as other problematic and taxing statements) aside. That he concludes the book by referring to Elizabeth as a distinguished monarch (even with all her flaws and faults) who the British can thank for the country (or, I guess, curse) they live in now reveals the esteem in which he holds this woman of history, but it’s not an esteem that is without qualification or, as I said, awareness of her very real failings. Wilson wears his little British heart on his leather-padded elbow sleeve and I admire him for it.

Wilson is the sort of bloke I wish I’d had as my history lecturer – and I had some marvellous ones. If you want to take a confronting, rollicking and always interesting ride through Elizabethan times, then this is the book for you.

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