A Plague Among Us

The Black Plague is not a thing of the middle ages, as I had imagined. It is still claiming the lives in many countries as I discovered after doing some research following my reading of Geraldine Brooks’ novel Year of Wonders.

My research uncovered for me this article showing the active areas of the world where new plague cases are recorded:

https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/865581/Black-Death-Madagascar-plague-Congo-Peru-United-States-bubonic-pneumonic

Apparently the plague is as deadly as ever, if not recognised and treated by antibiotics early. Part of its viciousness is the bacteria’s necrotising (flesh rotting) effect. This is graphically portrayed in Brooks’ well-researched novel of a village that sacrifices itself to contain the disease and protect those in the surrounding areas.

Based on real events in the village of Eyam, which can be uncovered here: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-35064071, Brooks has created some three-dimensional characters, but other real people listed among the dead, appear in the novel under their real names, including the first victim (above) tailor George Viccars, who is presumed to have contracted the disease from fleas contained in a bolt of fabric received from a stricken area of London.

Brooks, a former war correspondent, has an easy to read, compelling writing style that sweeps you along with the tale.  As she writes about the reality of life in draughty stone cottages, with water that had to be fetched and heated over open fires, and sleeping in bedding of hay, she also reveals many of the beliefs of the Middle Ages. We see the women who were village herbalists being persecuted as witches and the wealthy dismissing loyal servants without thought of them having human needs.

The glimpse into Medieval times and living conditions makes one realise how “soft” we are in our Western lives.  But my thanks go to those scientists, like Alexander Fleming et al, for discovering antibiotics and rescuing us from leeches and blood-letting.

Heather Sylvawood
Amazon Author

King Rich–by Joe Bennett

Review by Heather Sylvawood

A daughter aches to find her missing father – a father whom her mother has blamed and bad-mouthed most of her remembered childhood.

The trigger for the search?

The 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

Annie returns from Britain and begins her search under first the guidance of her cynical nursing friend, Jess, and later her father’s old friend Vince, uncovering along the way the underbelly of a powerful family intent on protecting the family business.

KingRich

Alongside this story Bennett reveals a man, beset by demons of his own making. Apparently not a likeable character, yet as the story progresses we gain a sneaking regard for the broken alcoholic.

Familiar streets and events

Readers who know Christchurch will recognise familiar streets, familiar sites, familiar people and events. In fact, I found some of his characters so close to known people that I wondered if they might have been speed-dialling their lawyers. But then, would they bother objecting to such fiction?

Bennett’s writing is clean and crisp, and his observation of human reactions is succinct. He resists the Hollywood ending, while tying the ends comfortably together. A good read especially for those for whom the memory of the broken city of Christchurch touches the heart as much as it does mine.

Book: King Rich, by Joe Bennett, published by Fourth Estate, www.harpercollins.co.nz

Heather Sylvawood, Amazon Author

We are star dust and space

It’s amazing, isn’t it? How we are in awe of the heavens, the stars, the collections of them in the Milky Way? We lean back and stare and wonder where “it” ever ends.

For that is a human condition: to look for limitation.

A NASA view of the Milky Way

How we learn limitation

We start as infants stressing about when our mother is there or not there and move onto larger things such as whether our sibling will eat more of the favourite pudding than we will get. There is always limitation – a limited amount to go around.

Then we are loaded with the stress of success.

  • Are we going to pass that dance or music exam, make the team (after all there are only 4/11/15 places)? Can we win this job because there are not many other jobs going?
  • We limit ourselves by stressing about costs. We only have a limited amount of money.
  • We limit ourselves by stressing about friendships. There are only a few people around who meet our expectations of “worth having as a friend”.

Universe too large for our limits

So when we stare in awe at the stars we are flummoxed by the enormity of the universes it contains. We cannot comprehend how something might have no beginning and no end. It must have been created by “some THING”, we think. And then: if “some THING” created this endless galaxy of stars, where does IT exist?

Human research has uncovered much of the universe that exists within us, right down to particles within atoms, the communication between cells, and the space between them. And here again we encounter a mystery: if space exists between every particle, every atom, every cell, we must all be connected by … space. There is nothing that limits my space from your space – only our belief that within my skin I am “me” and within your skin you are “you”.

The atmosphere is no protection

At this point, we must not deceive ourselves into believing in separation (limitation) from the heavens by defining atmosphere as “not space” and beyond our planet as “space”. Space is simply an area where objects of any kind do not exist. Even this is too simplistic a definition because star dust or cosmic dust “from out there” exists in space as groupings of a few molecules to much larger particles.

Our atmosphere, that we see as separated from space, does not protect us from up to 40,000 tons of space dust that settles on our planet every year (see here).

Therefore star dust reaches through space to our planet. Our internal spaces, however, connect outward into the space around our planet and that connects with the space in our solar system and that connects to interstellar space – so we are all one.

Now, there’s a concept bound to challenge our brains built on limiting beliefs.

Heather Sylvawood, Amazon Author

Welcome to the Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club

The Fairvale Ladies … by Sophie Green

Don’t be put off by this extraordinarily long title  – there is much to recommend it for its glimpse of the authentic lives of women in the outback of Australia.

This novel, set in the late 1970s, weaves together the lives of five outback women through the unlikely excuse of meeting to discuss various books. As they discuss well-known novels their lives unfold and friendships develop between these dissimilar women.

The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club

It’s an interesting tale of life in the Australian outback, where the wet and dry seasons weave circumstances that impact on each of the women through the four years over the duration of the novel. If I was to pinpoint my lasting impression from this book it would be the skilful portrayal of the environment of the Northern Territory.

Characters are a bit too nice

I felt few of the characters developed into three-dimensional beings and that their beliefs and outlook was ‘’’told’ rather than demonstrated by their actions. The character of Della, in particular for me, did not develop any roundness or believability as a young, diffident Texan who falls in love with an Aboriginal stockman. They were all such ‘nice’ people, even the emotionally abusive husband reforms near the end of the tale.

The book’s saving grace is the brilliant portrayal of the harsh realities of outback life. So if you’re looking for a novel with an unusual setting, then join the Fairvale ladies as they handle what life throws them in their outback corral.

Heather Sylvawood, Amazon Author

Review: Mother’s Milk

A few pages into Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn, and I was well aware that this is a challenging novel. St Aubyn juxtaposes child characters on the edge of believability with adults who struggle with the realities of relationship changes. It demands that you “suspend your critical eye” until you reveal the gems within.

MothersMilkj

Edmund White from the Guardian is quoted as saying in a review: “Mother’s Milk is a dazzling exploration of the troubled allegiances between parents and children, husbands and wives …” and that sums up the novel for me. Despite the child characters who seemed far too perceptive for their ages, the novel exposes the rocky landscape of relationships in moments of brilliant truism.

It begins with laugh out loud caustic wit such this example of the father commenting on situations and dialogue related to parenthood.

The nanny instructs the new parents: “Give him plenty of water, dear. It’s the  only way to cool them down. They can’t sweat at that age.”

“Another amazing oversight,” said his father. “Can’t sweat, can’t walk, can’t talk, can’t read, can’t drive, can’t sign a cheque. Foals are standing a few hours after they’re born. If horses went in for banking, they’d have a credit line by the end of the week.”

As the book progresses through the realities of the characters’ experiences this humour disappointingly ebbs. It’s as if the strains of fatherhood wear the father, Patrick, down and smother his light-heartedness.

Told through the eyes of first-born Robert, and later his father Patrick, we’re introduced to Robert’s feelings about his mother’s absorption in second son, Thomas, his eccentric grandmothers, and the relationship between his parents. At times his perception feels too old for his years.

Yet there are gems of dialogue throughout, including this in the last pages of the novel:

“Am I being childish?” asked Thomas, approaching his father.

“No,” said Patrick. “You’re being a child. Only grown-ups can be childish, and my God, we take advantage of the fact.”

I can see why Mother’s Milk was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2006. What I didn’t realise was that it was Book 4 in a series about the Melrose family. That aside, I suggest you read it and be prepared to feel a sense of personal déjà vu from St Aubyn’s clever pen/computer/writing.

Heather Sylvawood, Amazon Author