The Physic Garden by Catherine Czerkawska

physisI may be stretching the truth only a little when I suggest that in days gone by mainstream literary publisher types dismissed this novel as ‘just an old man’s havers’. But dismiss it they did and it’s just another indication of the fact that ‘no one knows anything’ is all too prevalent in mainstream publishing.

Here in the world of indie publishing I DO know something and I believe I can spot good writing and a great novel when I see one. That’s why I write reviews, to share this knowledge with you, the potential reader. And for my money, if there was any justice in the world I reckon The Physic Garden would (and should) win the Orange Prize for Fiction – or similar.

I have read a lot of Catherine Czerkawska’s output over the past year (and known her for many years) but believe me my comments on The Physic Garden would stand whoever had written it.  Knowing the writer and some of the ‘history’ around the non publication of it, I feel confident in stating that it has become clear to me that while some writers may well need editing, other writers write best when unfettered by the constraints of the mainstream demands and fashions.  Catherine is clearly one of these writers. As a longstanding professional she is more than capable of structural editing and with developing confidence I hope that she will finally realise that work such as The Physic Garden is not in the bestsellers list purely because they are served by marketplace fashion rather than by any real understanding of what makes good novels.

This is not just a good novel. This, I contend, is a great novel. It’s reminiscent to me of The Mill on the Floss and Tess of the D’Urbevilles BUT it’s better because I cheered when the Tullivers were drowned they annoyed me so much and however much I know I should have sympathy for Tess I just want to give her a slap and tell her to grow up. In constrast I had such a feeling of emotional engagement and empathy for William Lang that it actually broke my heart a bit when the denoument was revealed. Yes it’s true. I kept telling myself, it’s only a story but WHAT a story. It is a beautiful, elegant at time elegaic expression and exploration of betrayal.

And the construction is so great too.  In the beginning it seems incredible to the reader that William can have much of a secret, and one cannot imagine what the ‘betrayal’ which caused the lack of friendship would be. I guess it’s at this point that the superficial reader would dismiss the story as ‘an old man’s havers.’ It may be an old man’s havers. If so, what havers. And actually, what we have is yes, an old man, but he’s telling the story of his life, so it’s not ‘old’ in any sense at all.  Perhaps the combination of an old man looking back on his life in a historically distant time is too much for the superficial reader?  But the skill with which Czerkawska keeps the reader on the hook, getting right to the end of their tether asking ‘why’ and ‘what’ and ‘how’ (active engagement in such questions is a great way to draw an audience through a story in much more depth than simply feeding them a plot which answers specific questions at every small step of the way) and one has a constant unease because one realises it must be something really bad if William is still so obsessed with Thomas even all these years on. And yet, the old man William, how can he have any really dark secret?  We are played with in the best way possible. It’s not a ‘thriller’ but it keeps you asking questions and so keeps you engaged.

Then, we find out part of the reason. And it’s shocking. And sympathy with William is firmly established. However, one still can dismiss William (the young William) as simply being too ‘moral’ for the world he finds himself in and conclude that he’s bound to be let down by Thomas – but you’ve still only got a small part of the whole story under your belt. There’s so much more.  One becomes as obsessed with finding the answers in the story as William is with Thomas. That is really clever writing.

There is so much domesticity that one is completely tricked into thinking the ‘bad’ thing will have to be small and William’s response will have to be over-reaction.  You think?  Czerkawska pulls us along towards some truly grim and awful resolutions and even when you think you’ve cracked the ‘why’s’ they suddenly become less important.  When you know why there is still more.  It’s not just about the reasons. It’s about the effects. It’s a deep study of betrayal and how that impacts over a lifetime.  I was being manipulated by the writer all the way along in the best of ways.  I felt like Czerkawska was completely in control of her story and that I was privileged to have it fed out to me in the way it was. No editor could have done a better job, believe me. This is writing from the heart and with the skill of a lifetime’s experience as a creative individual.

The history is also very interesting. There’s plenty of wee gems of information regarding gardening and publishing – the impact of the printworks on the garden is a very clever and very powerful image throughout and works on the reader on a subliminal level to show the connectedness of things which otherwise one dismisses as quite diverse.

But most of all I have to commend the power of the writing which can get a reader to care so much (about an old man’s havers.)  When the denoument is finally revealed and it all comes crashing down around the reader’s head, Czerkawska is not finished. She has consideration for the bombshell she has dropped and gives us time to fully get to grips with what’s happened by the final section which patiently explains life ‘after’ the end and pulls all those questions together and leads to understanding. This section contains the most eloquent and deep exegesis of betrayal I think I’ve ever read.  It touched me deeply. And it got me thinking about betrayal in a whole new light. Which again has be great for a novel – it connected directly with my lived experience.  It’s a novel written by a very good writer and written for readers. It may not have passed through the filter of mainstream editors but I think it’s all the more powerful for that. This is truly an ‘authored’ piece and the committee work a publishing company looking for that elusive ‘bestseller’ would have destroyed it.  If you ever want an example of how writers can achieve great things without intervention – this is it. This is as good (and better) a novel as many I have read, including classics.  But what do I know – after all, this review would be dismissed by the mainstream as just an old woman’s havers wouldn’t it?

Reviewed by Cally Phillips

The Physic Garden is available in Kindle format

Find out more about Catherine Czerkawska. 

And this is our last IEBR review. It’s been a busy and exhausting, but extremely rewarding smallREADINGyear’s work.  For those mourning the passing, don’t fear – we have evolved into a more flexible, less admin hungry review collective and in future if you’re looking for a great read, why not try the evolved site READING BETWEEN THE LINES on Facebook. All you have to do is like the page to get news of the latest reviews.

If you don’t ‘do’ Facebook you can also find out about Reading Between the Lines HERE 



The Sun’s Companion by Kathleen Jones

suns companionThis is a SECOND OPINION review. An earlier review is on IEBR HERE.

Kathleen Jones understands the art of story and how it works.  By the end of the first couple of ‘The Sun’s Companion, her effortless-seeming prose had me completely engaged.  Tamar Fell is a schoolgirl who has moved home too many times.  In her new school she meets Anna, who has moved as well, though not because the rent is due, as is Tamar’s case.  Anna is a German Jew.  The Second World War hasn’t yet broken out, but Anna has experienced terrible things, and she’s fled with her mother and can’t ever go back.

Despite their very different backgrounds, a friendship is forged between these two girls. This part of the book, charting the girls’ growing years against a background of approaching war, is completely gripping.  Unfortunately I cared more about the girls as children than I sometimes found myself caring later about their adult selves. Anna’s single-mindedness in pursuit of her dreams, for example, failed to strike a chord with me and I was sorry to see Tamar’s story – and, indeed, the whole book – culminate in an ending that came across as too pat.

This sounds like a gripe, but don’t let that put you off. This was a book I read for pleasure, and which had me hooked all the way through. The real strength of the story lies in its detail. Here we have life in an England overshadowed by war, skirmishes with the arts establishment, robust experiences as a Land Girl and so much more.  And everything is written as if from experience.  You can’t believe Kathleen Jones hasn’t been there. So much rings true.

Kathleen Jones is fine writer.  Her use of language is skillful and precise and has the beat about it of real life.  Hardly surprisingly, I recommend ‘The Sun’s Companion’.

Reviewed by Pauline Fisk 

Available in Kindle Format  

Find out more about Kathleen Jones 



How do you Voodoo? by Janice Horton

Voodoo-Cover-Sm-jpegThis is quite a short book – 70 pages – and I started reading it because I needed something short to read and, although I don’t really read much romance, the title intrigued me.

Nola, a high-powered, glamorous model, with an inflated opinion of herself, came off the page as particularly unlikeable. Not a good start for a romantic story. She is on her way from the Caribbean to London for an important photo shoot, when she falls foul of a Haitian woman who puts a curse on her. From then on, things start to happen to Nola, which causes her to lose her looks. Her skin changes from a healthy tan to a greyish colour, with a healthy, or should I say an unhealthy, eruption of pimples. Her blonde hair turns mousy brown, and she loses two of her front teeth. Doctors indicate she is suffering from a virus, but Nola is convinced she is cursed.

She seeks out the Haitian woman’s son, Louis, in an attempt to reverse the curse, and from then on things get very interesting. There is a trip to Glasgow, a creepy cemetery visit, a reunion with her mother, and a growing attraction to Louis.

I must admit I had mixed feelings when Nola suffered her loss of looks. I swung between feeling sorry for her, and feeling she deserved all she got. The scene in the NecropolisCemetery was full of the kind of suspense you would expect in a Stephen King book, and I feared for her, expecting the worst. If I had been writing the story, this would have been the lead-in to some nasty happenings. However, this is a romance, therefore blood and gore cannot be part of the menu. The suspense did continue though, but now it was romantic suspense, and it had a different feel.

By the end of the story, Nola had become a very different, and much more likeable person, and I was rooting for her to succeed in capturing her man, if not her career.

I must say, I enjoyed this story much more than I expected to, and consider it an enjoyable read.

Reviewed by Chris Longmuir

Available in Kindle format 

Find out more about Janice Horton

Maids of Misfortune & Uneasy Spirits by M Louisa Locke

maidsI’m not sure what online site first directed me to these historical novels, set in 19th century San Francisco, but I’m very glad I found them and glad too that the author is at work on the next book in the series. Written by a retired professor of US and Women’s History, and based on her doctoral work on late 19th century working women, these entertaining, character driven novels are an engaging amalgam of cosy crime with a little romance on the side. In addition, they are set at a fascinating time, within a milieu which is very nicely evoked by a writer who wears her research lightly. This is no mean feat. I’ve written historical fiction myself – am engaged on a historical novel right now – and the temptations of such research are legion, especially if you’re somebody who finds the process itself beguiling. One enticing discovery leads you onwards to the next until at some point, you have to stop and give yourself permission to fictionalise. But the best historical novelists are so immersed in their chosen time and place that they avoid the dangers of stodgily ‘bolted on’ research altogether and simply write as if they were there, taking the reader with them, and only including such details as are necessary for the story. Which is exactly what Locke does in both these novels.

The premise upon which they are based is fascinating for me, on this side of the Atlantic. 19th century San Francisco seems to have been a hotbed of ‘mediumship’ with a great many advertisements for their services in the local press, some of which Locke uses as chapter headings. There was, of course, a similar passion for spiritualism in Britain at that time. And many of these mediums and clairvoyants were enlightened women who supported causes like suffrage and the abolition of slavery.

The central character is a young widow called Annie Fuller. She is in possession of a small boarding house, which she runs with the help of a couple of loyal servants, but she is badly in need of an additional income. Due to a perfectly credible set of circumstances, she is an educated young woman, interested in and knowledgeable about finance. But at this time and in this place, she cannot possibly become a financial advisor. So, she sets herself up as a ‘clairvoyant’ instead. She doesn’t claim to commune with the spirits of the dead but, disguised as ‘Madame Sybil’, she offers advice. ‘The advice is actually based on my experience and skills in the world of business and finance, as well as a modest understanding of the human condition,’ she tells a friend who has asked for her assistance, in Uneasy Spirits. ‘Unfortunately, I found I was taken more seriously if I said I was aided in obtaining that advice from palmistry or astrology.’

She has built herself a client list which includes businessmen who – finding the ‘messages’ to be well informed and helpful – keep coming back to her for more advice. In Maids of Misfortune, a client dies in mysterious circumstances and because of her own regard for him, Annie is driven to investigate, facing considerable personal danger in the process. Uneasy Spirits focuses closely on the presumably widespread practices of fraudulent mediums, with an intriguing and delicately handled nod in the direction of the possibility of real communication with the Other World. Without including any spoilers, there is also a fascinating plotline which touches on a phenomenon which still puzzles us, even now. In both novels, headstrong Annie’s love interest, in the shape of Nate Dawson, a young lawyer trying to make his way in the world, is well handled as is the often turbulent relationship between them. Nate is a thoroughly likeable and vividly realised character in his own right. I like the way Locke’s characters move through what is a familiar landscape to them, but an unfamiliar one to many of her readers. The city is a very real presence, almost as though it were another protagonist, in both stories.

Personally speaking, my only stipulation when I’m reading and reviewing a novel is that I must believe in it. This has nothing whatsoever to do with reality or fantasy. I can read the most wild and off the wall fantasy, the most impossible romance, and believe every word of it. Conversely, I can read something firmly rooted in contemporary reality and believe none of it. Locke passes the belief test with flying colours. I just loved visiting this time and place in her company. If the holy grail of publishing is the convincing series, these are surely prime candidates. I want to know what happens to Annie and Nate next and I’m already looking forward to book three.

Reviewed by Catherine Czerkawska

Available in Kindle format 

Find out more about M Louisa Locke

Embraced by Darlene Jones

I was drawn to this book for two reasons. Reason number one was – the author is a member of the group on the web, and I am a member as well. So I suppose you could say we might be virtual colleagues who only ever met in cyber space. The second reason was – the book intrigued me. I already had Embattled the first of Darlene Jones books in my Kindle, although it was still on my ‘to be read’ list, and in retrospect I wish I had read it before I read Embraced.

Embraced was an unusual book with an unusual premise. It was part sci fi and part love story, although this was not the kind of love story where everyone lives happily ever after.

I’ll try to give a flavour of the story without giving too much away. It starts with Abby, a school headmistress. She is a likeable character but she has a problem that is somewhat unusual. She is troubled with clicking sounds in her teeth and is convinced that these are alien messages which she is desperate to decipher. She enrols the help of one of her students, Curtis, a rather unlikely sidekick who is overweight, has acne, bad hair, and body odour, however he is also a geek who helps her unravel the messages.

Cut to an alien environment now. I’m not sure whether this is a planet, or some kind of mythical MountOlympus, or maybe even Heaven, but it is inhabited by Supreme Beings who are the Guardians of the Universe. In their world Earth is simply a speck that one of their number is assigned to watch over.

The person assigned to watch over Earth is Paul, a trainee Power. Paul, however, is a badly behaved adolescent who is enjoying himself by playing games on Abby. The clicking sounds in Abby’s teeth are his doing, and they actually mean nothing. Paul is supervised by Yves, an Adjunct, who is in despair at Paul’s bad behaviour because he is in love with Abby, despite it being against the rules for a Supreme Being to become involved with an earthling.

Paul continues to mess around with Abby and his interference in her life increases with drastic results. I don’t want to go any further because that would involve revealing spoilers. Suffice to say that Abby becomes more distressed, Paul’s games increase, and Yves becomes more disturbed.

The two interlinking storylines worked well, seamlessly moving between each other, and both held the interest. I did, however, relate better to Abby than the supreme beings, although I really wanted to take Paul by the scruff of the neck and give him a good shake. On the other hand I felt that Yves was a bit distant, and I was more concerned with Abby’s bereavement over the loss of her love interest than I was with Yves unrequited yearning for her.

On balance, I enjoyed reading Embraced, although I would have liked a little more information about the Supreme Beings’ world. I felt the storyline was different, unusual and intriguing. I was saddened by the ending, although there was a note of hope for Yves, if not Abby, and I had the distinct feeling there would be another book to come.

This is was a well written novel with themes of control, adolescent behaviour, thwarted love, reincarnation, and godlike supreme beings. And now I’m off to read the first book in this series Embattled’. I wonder if it will answer the questions I was left with about the Supreme Beings’ world?

Reviewed by Chris Longmuir

Embraced is available in kindle format and as a paperback

Find out more about Darlene Jones

Fast Movin’ Train by Pam Howes

Middle-aged Mandy is running a successful interior design business. Her husband works hard and her daughters have their own lives to lead. But something is missing – there’s no spark in her marriage and she’s bored and restless.  With a silver anniversary coming up that she doesn’t really want to celebrate, Mandy knows that something will have to change… And it does, when an old family friend lets slip that he’s in love with her.

I’ve read several other books by Pam Howes, so picked this up knowing exactly what I was getting. I wasn’t disappointed.  There’s no Darcy in this book – no bronzed Adonis waiting in the wings to sweep our Mandy off her feet and make her realise what she’s been missing. Just Rod, the man she turned down as a teenager, who still hasn’t really grown up despite his own marriage and children, and spends as much of his life as he can on the road as a professional  singer with a band. And yet middle-aged sex sizzles, as Mandy and Rob embark on an affair that can only bring heartache to everyone involved.

This isn’t chick-lit – for a start the characters are older with established lives, but it’s also deeper than chick-lit and has the knack of making you re-evaluate your own life in the context of Mandy’s turmoil. Brief snatched moments of pleasure become days and then weekends; small lies become big lies as lives are falling apart around her. And when the emotional fallout crosses several generations, when friends and loved ones are battling illness, is it selfish to want what’s best for yourself?

Thoroughly recommended. A romance with depth and passion, but one that also makes you think.

Reviewed by Debbie Bennett

Available in Kindle format

Find out more about Pam Howes

Ice Dancing by Catherine Czerkawksa

It’s no secret I’m a massive fan of ice hockey. And interestingly enough there aren’t a lot of novels which feature it. So of course I’m going to want to read a novel with Ice Hockey as a central plot-line.  Catherine Czerkawska’s Ice Dancing is, on the face of it a standard romance story, maybe even an Aga saga (I’m still not sure what one of those is) but there are hidden depths which strike you like ‘a puck to the head.’

Let me reassure you, you don’t need to be up on ice hockey to read this book. Though once you’ve read it I bet you’ll at least be thinking twice about finding somewhere to see a live game!

In this contemporary romance, Helen is approaching her 40th birthday in a life she admits she ‘hates.’ It’s not that there’s anything wrong with her life, she has a decent husband and lives in what might be considered a ‘rural idyll.’ Her teenage daughter shows just the right amount of rebelliousness but there’s really nothing to rock the boat of the averageness of it all.  It’s the sort of life you think you should be happy with. But Czerkawska shows us from the off that appearances can be deceiving.

The small rural community characters are beautifully and realistically drawn – I felt like I was back in the village I lived in for 12 years prior to my current abode.  The characters are not stereotypes because they are too real for that, but they do it seems inhabit more than one village in Scotland!  The landscape and the relationship of the people to the land is also well drawn without sentiment but with an awareness that rings true for anyone who lives in rural lowland Scotland.

I particularly liked the way the women do the rounds of evening entertainment in the long winter evenings moving from one hobby to another. At the time of the novel Helen goes to Line Dancing and Helen notes the isolation of this kind of dancing which contrasts with the fast paced ‘dancing’ of ice hockey and this becomes an underlying motif for the novel.  Helen’s life is Line and she wants Ice.  And with the arrival of Joe, she gets her opportunity.

Embarking on an affair is something that inevitably may cause the reader to lose a bit of sympathy for the central character but Czerkawska manages to tread the line very carefully – retaining enough sympathy that we sort of ‘want’ Helen to get what she wants, despite knowing that (as she acknowledges herself) she’s morally ‘wrong’ in doing this.  It’s the real life moral depth of her dilemma which makes the story so compelling.  The reader’s moral judgement and emotions are pushed around the pages like a puck round a rink.  And of course, underneath, all is not as it seems, which changes the game once more.

Everyone, it seems, carries a skeleton in their closet, a secret which they hold from their nearest and dearest. Joe is no exception and one unforeseen consequence of his ‘affair’ with Helen is that his past is revealed in all its horror. But Czerkawska doesn’t overdo this, it comes out piecemeal and then with a tsunami, and then life goes on – but changed. Just like in reality.  You take the hit and you carry on. Damaged, changed but you carry on. Because that’s what people do.

It’s very interesting to follow Helen through what is little more than a year in her life, because it’s a rites of passage I suspect many middle aged women will feel empathy for, the realisation that life isn’t what they hoped it would be, the looking for something different, not necessarily more exciting, just more fulfilling now they are different people than they were when they were misty eyed teenagers.  We all get stuck in relationships and trying to forge new adult relationships is difficult when the last ‘romantic’ experience one had was as a young adult. Lives change, people change, even hopes and dreams change but Czerkawaska shows that while hope may be dashed, a rush of blood to the head is still possible for the middle aged woman. Yes of course there are consequences to any recklessness but the notion that a woman makes her bed aged twenty and lies in it for the rest of her life is now long outmoded and this novel shows the twists and turns of an ordinary woman in a rural environment and how she copes (and doesn’t) with her changing emotions and circumstances.  There is romance but there is also reality. There is Line and there is Ice. We just have to decide what dance we want to do – and then do it.

Reviewed by Cally Phillips 

Ice Dancing is available in Kindle format 

Find out more about Catherine Czerkawska