Pompeii by Robert Harris

Pompeii author Robert HarrisSeveral books by Robert Harris have been recommended to me, and The Fear Index is reviewed on this site: https://bookreviewstoday.info/2017/07/20/the-fear-index-by-robert-harris/ . However, I the first read Pompeii when it was book of the month in our local book group. Robert Harris is a British author and previous journalist and BBC television reporter. Pompeii was originally published by Random House in 2003. The ability to disguise the outcome is held to be a vital part of the thriller writer’s art. Robert Harris, though, has built a major career in the form through open defiance of this rule. Indeed, Harris is successful in making us flinch and fear for characters who are going to a doom which we know before them.Pompeii 3

Pompeii, although it is an ancient story, is one which still holds fascination for us. Robert Harris is an author who can comfortably shoulder the mantle of the old fashioned storyteller. Pompeii is the story of Marcus Attilius Primus, the aquarius, or chief water engineer, who is sent to the Bay of Naples to manage the water supply to all of the towns in the area.Pompeii1

The main artery of the supply is the aqueduct, Aqua Augusta, which Attilius’s grandfather may have built under the supervision of the great Agrippa. Water engineering has been the career path of Atillius’s family back through at least four generations. However, Attilius is up against it. His predecessor disappeared mysteriously, and neither his team of engineers and slaves nor the masters who govern Naples and the surrounding area, are inclined to trust him as the new aquarius. Pompeii 4

From the first chapter the reader is gripped by the horrendous execution of a slave who has been held responsible for the death of one of the local lord’s prize fish. The lord’s daughter, accompanied by the unfortunate slave’s mother, urgently seek the help of Attilius. He quickly discovers that it is something in the water that has killed the precious fish. Unfortunately, it is too late to save the wretched slave.Pompeii 2

Events unfold and develop during the two days leading up to the famous eruption which buried Pompeii. There are many dangers to overcome, and, the reader wonders who will survive and who will not: it does not become clear until the final pages.Pompeii book

I do not often go back to a book, but I reread this marvellous book when my husband and I recently visited the ruins of the city Pompeii. That is a sign of how well Robert Harris engages the reader with the characters in this book.

If you enjoy historical fiction, or thrillers, I highly recommend this book.

Val Penny




The Last Plantagenet? by guest author Jennifer C. Wilson

It is a great pleasure to welcome my friend, Jennifer C. Wilson to my blog today, to talk about her most recent publication, the novella, The Last Plantagenet?. It is available to purchase from Amazon.

Hi Val, and thanks so much for inviting me along to your blog today.

I cannot believe it’s been a whole month since The Last Plantagenet? was published. It’s absolutely flown by!

TLP (easier to type!) first came to light as a concept years ago, as an idea for a new Mills and Boon imprint, but I soon realised that wasn’t going to happen, and so in January this year, I decided to push ahead, and try it as an experiment in self-publishing. Since starting the North Tyneside Writers’ Circle, I’ve wanted to do different bits and bobs, writing-wise, just in case anyone asks about it, and I knew I had enough people I could ask for help, if needed, so it seemed a good idea!The Last Plantagenet Book

Weirdly, other than tackling Amazon’s tax system (thank you Liz Hurst!), the process itself was actually quite good fun! Picking out cover art ideas, talking to Soqoqo Design about how the finished work should look, and going through the edits from Elementary V. Watson – it was so much fun, I’m tempted to do it again as soon as I can.

It was also, oddly, a slightly calmer process than for either of the Kindred Spirits novels. I think, because I couldn’t let anyone down… If, heaven forbid, I’d only sold one copy and that had been torn to shreds by a reviewer, I would have been distraught, yes, but only for myself, if that makes sense?

So, we’re now a month in, and what’s the latest? Well, I’ve had seven (at the time of writing) lovely reviews, including my favourite quote of every review of my work ever: “Whimsical, but historically sharp”. I think I’ll have that put on a t-shirt. And the Amazon rankings haven’t been too bad either; at one point, I made it to the Top Ten position in two of my sub-categories. That was such a thrill! Even more thrilling, even though I know nothing for certain, the rankings of the two Kindreds also seem to have jumped up a bit since the launch on 2nd October.

Putting all of this together, and it’s proved that: 1) I can do this; 2) I’ve enjoyed doing this; and 3) it’s been a not-so-unsuccessful process.

It’s also been an educational one; with every book now, I’m learning more, and feeling more confident going about the preparation, the launch, the whole process. Being responsible for the whole thing this time around has, I think, made me feel as though if I get the chance to do all of this again, I’ll manage it more smoothly again.

I suppose the main thing for it now then, is to keep writing, and get the WIP knocked into shape. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do it all again soon!Jen Wilson

About Jennifer

Jennifer is a marine biologist by training, who spent much of her childhood stalking Mary, Queen of Scots (initially accidentally, but then with intention). She completed her BSc and MSc at the University of Hull, and has worked as a marine environmental consulting since graduating. Enrolling on an adult education workshop on her return to the north-east reignited Jennifer’s pastime of creative writing, and she has been filling notebooks ever since. In 2014, Jennifer won the Story Tyne short story competition, and also continues to develop her poetic voice, reading at a number of events, and with several pieces available online. She is also part of The Next Page, running workshops and other literary events in North Tyneside.

Jennifer’s debut novel, Kindred Spirits: Tower of London, was released by Crooked Cat Books in October 2015, with Kindred Spirits: Royal Mile following in June 2017. She can be found online at her website, on Twitter and Facebook, as well as at The Next Page’s website. Her timeslip historical romance, The Last Plantagenet? Is available for download from Amazon.

‘The Emporium’ a short story by guest author Andrew Roberts

Andy RobertsToday I am delighted that my friend Andrew Roberts is visiting my blog to share his short story, ‘The Emporium’. Andy is an accountant by profession and a writer by choice. We share a love of telling stories and attending Swanwick Writers’ Summer School. We both very much hope you enjoy this tale.

The Emporium

I have always been very bad at buying gifts. My cousin’s birthday was two days away and I still had no idea what to get him, and then I saw the shop. I had not seen it before, had not heard ‘word on the street’ about it, either. I was simply walking home from work and there it stood on the corner: ‘The Emporium of Strange Delights’.

It was hard to ignore when its somewhat gothic facade stood out from the rest of the shops on the High Street. As always, curiosity getting the better of me I stepped inside in the hope of finding some interesting gift. My cousin had a profound interest in all things horror so I figured there should be a good find or two to be made.

The interior was dark with thick cobwebs adorning every shelf, every nook and every cranny. I don’t how many of them were decorative. Perhaps none of them. A man stood behind the counter, a pallid-looking figure with dark-rimmed eyes that hinted at an aversion to natural light. Maybe he was a hard-core gamer

Welcome,’ he looked me up and down as if I were a museum exhibit. That look along with his Vincent Price voice sent shivers down my spine. ‘May I be of assistance?’

Hi … I’m just browsing.’ I mumbled.

He didn’t react to my comment, didn’t even move, but I could feel his gaze following me around the room.

As unnerving as the shopkeeper appeared, as eerie as the Emporium felt, I was impressed by the variety of weird and wonderful items filling the shelves and peeking from behind the veils of cobwebs. Like my cousin, I too was a scholar of the arcane, so I recognised much of the paraphernalia, and there were trinkets aplenty suitable for any birthday. Some Voodoo dolls and chicken feet; myriad charms used in Ancient Egyptian funeral rites; forbidden tomes of eldritch power. They all appeared to be real.

There were many assorted boxes of bric-a-brac, and as many more filled with those trashy things most folks use for Halloween decorations. And for no explainable reason a box of selfie sticks!

One of our more … nefarious products,’ the shopkeeper said, eyeing my reflection in a pock-marked mirror. I snorted in disbelief.

Knowing my cousin’s predilection for the unusual I felt something magical would be a good choice, and my sights were soon set on gnarled, wrinkled hand, more animal than human.

What’s this?’ I asked.

It is … an appendage, which grants your every desire.’ The shopkeeper was suddenly standing behind me, his cold breath raising the hairs on my neck. I hadn’t heard him move across the room.

It does?’ I paused, searching my mind for a certain memory. ‘That reminds me—’ I started to say. ‘That is I am sure that I have once read of this … a monkey’s paw? But I cannot recall… How much?’

monkey paw

I shall accept whatever payment you deem appropriate. But take care what you wish for, because you should know that every wish carries with it a heavy price.’

I thought for a moment. The Emporium was in an up and coming area so I didn’t think the shop would be trading for very long. I had to take the opportunity to buy now else the opportunity would be lost. Despite my better judgement I could not resist buying the ugly old paw.

After all, I thought, what could possibly go wrong?

Andrew Roberts

Sunday Sojourn with Val Penny by guest author Jennifer C. Wilson

Last year at Swanwick, I was excited, but nervous. Would I make friends, would I fit in, would I enjoy it at all after years of wanting to go? Within minutes of arriving at Derby station, I met Val Penny, who took me under her wing, and looked after me that week, introducing me to folk and helping me find my feet. I’m so chuffed then, that she’s become an official Cat, and has joined me today on the blog to talk about her writing, and her reviews.

This article was first published on 22 October 2018 by Jennifer C. Wilson at  https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/36523528/posts/1636139629.


When did you start writing?

I remember when my younger sister and I were little girls our Mum used to make time to sit and read us stories on a Sunday afternoon. These were not like bed-time stories, on a Sunday we would get to sit in the ‘good’ living room and she would read us books including ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens, ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ by H. Rider Haggard,’Swallows Amazons by Arthur Ransome and ‘Emma’ by Jane Austin.

We loved listening to the stories but after we were in bed, having heard another story, my sister often could not get to sleep right away, so I would make up my own stories to tell her until she fell asleep. The first book I ever wrote was one of these stories, an adventure entitled ‘The Douglas Family’. I was about 9. I always planned to write a sequel, maybe one day I will.

What drew you to start writing restaurant and hotel reviews?

It is often said that when we are teenagers we rebel and when we grow older we become ourselves again. It was certainly true of me! I have always read voraciously but my writing, for many years was confined to studies, work and journals. However, when I was older, I contracted breast cancer. My way of coping was to revert to type. I read all I could about the disease and began to blog about my journey at www.survivingbreastcancer.com.

However, I have also always enjoyed good food and loved to travel. It is said I would go to the opening of a paper bag! So I decided to start another blog to encompass these interests. Whenever I go anywhere, or go out to eat, I will share the experience here at www.hotelandrestaurantreviews.com – to date it has not resulted in free meals, but I live in hope.

What about your book review?

It was also during the time that I was recovering from cancer that I began my book review site. For almost a year I was too ill, first from the disease and then from the cure, to do very much. However, I could read: and I did, even more than I ever had. It seemed sensible to extend my blogging to include reviews of the books I was reading, so my third blog, www.bookreviewstoday.info was born. I began to get asked by writers to review their books and I am always happy to do that. I do not make a charge, but I receive many excellent novels and biographies in return for my honest reviews.


I always enjoy reading books by writers that are new to me, as well as those with whose work I am familiar. I just like to read. I have always found that reading can take you to a all kinds of places to meet different people. Perhaps it is my love of travel, this time through the medium of the written word. This was a great way for me to escape, especially from myself, when I was ill.

Any tips for aspiring writers looking to give good, constructive and readable reviews?

When I am reading a book review, I am looking for an honest opinion about the book. I also like to learn a bit about the author, their background and how they came to write the novel. It is also important that any review, like any other piece of writing holds my interest but please, please don’t spoil my enjoyment of the story by telling me what happens! That really upsets me.

My own debut crime novel, ‘Hunter’s Chase’ is to be published by Crooked Cats Books in February next year, so I will have to get used to being on the other side of reviews. That is a daunting feeling.

What would be your ‘dream review weekend’: where to stay, where to eat, what book to read? (The restaurant and hotel don’t need to be in the same place – it’s a dream, after all!)

The most fabulous hotel I have ever stayed in was a Holiday Inn in Beijing. It was enormous, with beautiful well appointed rooms, several restaurants, a bowling alley, a swimming pool and spa, marvellous shops and a fabulous sense of space. I would definitely stay there.


However, one of the best meals I have ever had was in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. My husband and I had driven up from the Red Sea and decided to treat ourselves to dinner here. We dined in the King Garden Restaurant which has spectacular panoramic views of Jerusalem and the Old City from the terrace above hotel gardens, however as it was late evening, we chose to sit inside in the stylish interior hall. The menu reflects the diverse culinary heritage of the region. We had a variety of starters including grilled vegetables and the best hummus I have ever had. My mushroom risotto was marvellous and my husband chose the sea breen and thoroughly enjoyed it. The wine cellar is par excellence but the ambience cannot trump the views of the city.

For my Sunday Sojourn theme, can you tell me about a place which either inspires you as a writer, acts as a setting to your writing, or means something to one of your characters?

Setting is very important to me in my writing, even when I wrote ‘The Douglas Family’ for my sister all those years ago, I could visualise the house the family lived in, each room and the garden in which they had so many of their adventures.

eboro In ‘Hunter’s Chase’ my story is set in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. I did consider creating an imaginary town for him. However, I know the city of Edinburgh well as I lived there for many years and it has everything a writer could need. It is a diverse city with all different kinds of buildings and people. It is small enough that characters can move around it quickly and large enough for it to be credible that anything I want to happen there, could happen.

Edinburgh is also a beautiful city with a castle, a palace and a cathedral, wealthy homes, horrible slums, fine restaurants, fast food outlets and idiosyncratic pubs. It is home to an Olympic size pool, the National Rugby Team and two famous football teams. What more could I or my characters want?

Thank you for inviting me to visit with you today. I always enjoy your company.

Little Gray Dress by Aimee Brown

Aimee Brown BookVery rarely have I read a book in one sitting. It happened with The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly. I reviewed that at https://bookreviewstoday.info/2016/10/11/the-poison-tree-by-erin-kelly/. I still tease Erin that she owes me a night’s sleep! Recently, my husband and I went on holiday and I took a book with me was by a new author to me, Aimee Brown. Anyone who reads the blog regularly will know that my main love is the genre of crime, mystery and thrillers. So it may surprise you that I chose chick lit. However, I am always interested in reading books by different authors, and also reading out of my comfort zone.

I had heard lots of good things about Little Gray Dress by Aimee Brown and read some good reviews, so I decided to give it a try. The main protagonist is Emi Harrison who has suffered the break down of her relationship and successfully avoided her ex-fiance for five years. However, she is going to have to face him when she is bridesmaid at her twin brother’s wedding.Aimee Brown

I do not want to spoil this novel for any readers, but the character detail is delicious. Emi and Evan were adopted, they have unusual first names and Emi is not a stick thin caricature, she is a real woman with fears and flaws that make her realistic and fabulous.

So, there I was on a week’s holiday relaxing in the sun and I was constantly toting around Little Gray Dress, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it. It would be an excellent book club read. Aimee Brown is a writer and avid reader, often blogging her thoughts on chick lit books. Little Gray Dress is her first published novel. I look forward to reading other novels by Aimee Brown. Aimee grew up in Oregon but is now a transplant living in cold Montana with her husband of twenty years, three teenage children, and many, many pets. I read it in one day, so, by my reckoning this author now owes me a day’s vacation!

Val Penny

Writing Historical Romantic Fiction by guest author John Jackson

john'sMy friend John Jackson joins me today to answer the question: What are you doing Here? (A mere Male in a woman’s world)

This is a question I ask myself from time to time. Luckily, the answer comes back the same every time. “Having fun!”

I have never had a typical male “look-down-the-nose” type of attitude towards romantic fiction. I was brought up on Georgette Heyer from an early age, thanks to my father, who got every new book of hers as they came available.

Then, as time passed, I found myself on a ship in some far flung foreign sea with NOTHING to read on board except a few paperbacks – among which was a copy of Mary Stewart’s “Touch Not the Cat!” I enjoyed it – slightly to my surprise, and then she brought out the Merlin books (The Crystal Cave, etc.) and I loved those.john's heart of stone

More time passes, and purely by chance, I met a couple of Romantic Novelists Association members, now both firm friends. They were really, REALLY nice, and through them I got to meet several other members and authors. They, in turn, were, almost to a woman, unbelievably welcoming and friendly! I also found that I enjoyed reading their books. All of a sudden, I found that I was friends with some very talented people.

I was also facing an imminent collision with retirement, and was looking for things to help occupy my time. Writing – something I had tried before in a very minor way – loomed ever larger on the horizon. I was also getting some pressure from my new friends, “Go on, John – you know you want to give it a go.” This was a siren song I was quite willing to listen to.john's street team

Any possible doubts I had evaporated after meeting the much-missed Roger Sanderson at the Festival of Romance in Leighton Buzzard. Roger was famous after being featured in a documentary on Mills & Book on the BBC. He was (then) Mills & Boon’s only male contract author, and wrote almost 50 medical romances under his wife’s name of Gill Sanderson.

Shortly after moving to Yorkshire and joining the RNA I also met the wonderful Jessica Blair. In real life, Jessica Blair is Bill Spence, who, when I met him, had just signed another two-book deal with Piatkus – at the age of 92. Bill used to be a bomb-aimer in Lancaster bombers in WWII, and if HE could write in the romantic genre, then anyone could.

So I knew I wanted to write – but – the eternal writers’ question – What about the story?

As it happened, I had, for many years, been a fan of historical novels, from Robert Louis Stevenson right through to Georgette Heyer, and on to Bernard Cornwell.

I had also long had an interest in genealogy. While Jackson is too common to be traceable, my mother’s maiden name was Dumaresq. This is an old Jersey name, and is as rare as it looks. Back in the day, the Dumaresqs married well. Several married “Peer’s Younger Daughters / Sons” etc. and when this happens, it all gets easier, because of volumes like Debrett’s and Burke’s.

Looking back through the old family details I suddenly realised just how much material there was for any number of books. Most people throughout history have led boring, humdrum and frequently brutally short lives, but on my family tree, there were a good number of real characters. Some were total scumbags, and lots did “interesting things.”john's book

So I hope you enjoy Heart of Stone, and I hope to write at least four more about different “acorns on the tree” over the next few years. 

If there is a moral here, it can only be that if you WANT to write, go ahead and write – in any genre you choose. You will get far more support then you could dream of.

Heart of Stone by John Jackson is to be published by Crooked Cat Books on 24th October 2017. It is a story of love, passion, blood, famine, prison and jealousy. A perfect read as the nights grow longer and colder – as cold as a Heart of Stone! Have a look at http://viewbook.at/Heartofgoldlink

John Jackson

An Evil Mind by Chris Carter

An Evil MindMy local library was selling some discontinued books in aid of Macmillan Cancer Nurses and the novels by author Chris Carter had been recommended to me. So, when I noticed that one of the books for sale was An Evil Mind by Chris Carter, I decided to buy it to take on holiday. Carter is a criminal psychologist and this novel was based on subjects he encountered in his professional capacity. It is a chilling thought and makes for a disconcerting read.

The main protagonist, Robert Hunter, is a detective with LAPD who becomes enlisted to work with the FBI when his friend, Lucien Folter, from his days at Stanford, attracts the attention of law enforcement after a random traffic accident finds two severed heads in the trunk of his hired car. From the very start, the reader is absolutely shaken and stirred by the events that follow. For my money, Carter has written one of the finest opening chapters that I have read in terms of shock value. The transition from languid breakfast time in an all American diner to the impact (literally) of a freak occurrence that heralds a shocking opening to the book, is beautifully played out.

Lucien, says that he will only speak with his former friend and detective, Robert Hunter, and so the game is afoot. What follows is a titanic mental battle between the evil, clever and highly manipulative Folter, and Hunter, a man incredibly pre-disposed to navigate and decipher the actions and motivations of some of the most disturbed individuals with his innate intuition in relation to the darkest human psyches. As quickly as Hunter appears to break down the twisted actions of Folter, in a series of claustrophobic encounters with fascinating and entertaining verbal sparring, Folter begins to resemble an evil onion, with layers of perversity and wickedness that are revealed piece by piece. Folter has prepared a whole series of unique and nasty surprises for both Hunter and the FBI team, that Carter unleashes with a superb sense of pace and timing, so much so that as each chapter ends only the strongest reader will resist the temptation to stay firmly rooted to the spot to continue reading.

As the book rattles towards an incredibly tense, violent and exciting ending, the torment that Folter projects on Hunter and the team is nerve shredding and simply brilliant. I liked this book very much, providing as it does, not only a tense and disturbing thriller, but in its perfect placing of brutal shocks reveals itself as a violent flight of fancy, that entertains throughout. I highly recommend An Evil Mind and, although this was the first novel by Chris Carter that I have read, but it certainly will not be my last.

The author was born in Brasilia, Brazil where he spent my childhood and teenage years.An Evil Mind author After graduating from high school, he moved to the USA and studied psychology with specialization in criminal behaviour. He worked as a criminal psychologist for several years before moving to Los Angeles, where he swapped the suits and briefcases for ripped jeans, bandanas and an electric guitar. After a spell playing for several well known glam rock bands, he decided to try my luck in London, where he played for a number of famous artists. He then toured the world several times as a professional musician but a few years ago he gave it all up to become a full time writer. I, for one, am glad he did.

Val Penny

Death in Dulwich by Alice Castle

death in dulwichI had not read any books by Alice Castle before, but as those who follow my blog will know, the crime and mystery genres are amongst my favourites, when her new novel, Death in Dulwich, was published by Crooked Cat Books and recommended to me, I decided to buy it to take on holiday with me. Holiday reads are always a struggle in our house as both my husband and I have to agree the titles, so we can swap books. Negotiations complete, Death in Dulwich packed, off we went.

The story revolves around Beth Haldane, a young widow with a son at junior school who secures a job as an archivist at a local, well thought of secondary school. Beth is an engaging character and I cared about her from the start, and was disturbed by her feelings towards her boss, the senior archivist, Dr. Jenkins. When she found him dead, on her first day in her new job, I was almost relieved because Beth had come to no harm.death dulwich

However, when Beth is amongst those suspected of committing Dr Jenkins’ murder, the real investigation and mystery begins. I do not want to spoil the read for anybody, or to give anything away. I will just say that there are lots of twists and turns as Beth struggles to prove her innocence and moves to find the murderer.

I also enjoyed the relationship that Beth developes with the Detective, York. His responses to her investigating efforts are often very funny.

death aliceAlice Castle lives in South London with her two children, two stepchildren, two cats and her husband. She was a feature writer on the Daily Express for many years and has written for most other national newspapers. She has a degree in Modern History from St Andrews University, is the British Royalty expert for Flemish TV, and lived in Brussels for eight years. Her first novel, Hot Chocolate, sold out in two weeks and her second, Death in Dulwich, was published in September 2017 as the first in the London Murder Mystery series.

This is not a long novel, but it has everything: mystery, crime, humour and vitality. It would be an excellent book group read too. I highly recommend it, and hope you will enjoy Death in Dulwich too.

Val Penny

‘Orrible ‘Ooligans by Harry Hunter

Harry HuntMy friend, Harry Hunter, kindly gave me a copy of his new book, ‘Orrible ‘Ooligans, and it seemed only right to prepare a review, but as ever, it is an honest review. Harry’s first book, Taking the High Road, a book of short stories, is also reviewed on this site at https://bookreviewstoday.info/2014/10/22/taking-the-high-road-by-harry-hunter/.'orrible 'ooligans

The new book, ‘Orrible ‘Ooligans, cleverly takes the idea of acrostics and uses that to unite a series of spiritual and meaningful reflections. It is an interesting book to keep close. It is also useful for those who require to provide prayers or spritual thoughts for meetings. Those might include scout leaders, Women’s Institute leaders and religious leaders. Many of the themes are Christian.

I enjoy delving into this modest little book. It is a most worthwhile addition to my library.

Valerie Penny

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey reveiwed by guest author Brenie Gourley

Kenneth Elton “Ken” Kesey was an American novelist, essayist, and countercultural figure. He considered himself a link between the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. He was born on 17 September 1935 at La Junta, Colorado, USA and died on 10 November 2001 in Eugene, Oregon, USA. His most famous work is the allegorical novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

This article first appeared on Bernie Gourley’s website Stories and Movement on 20 September 2017 the same month that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was book of the month at my book group. The original article is at https://berniegourley.com/2017/09/20/book-review-one-flew-over-the-cuckoos-nest-by-ken-kesey/ .

ken keseyWhen a sane man, Randle McMurphy, enters an insane asylum to get out of prison, he turns life in the ward upside-down. The book’s fictional narrator is the patient who sleeps next to McMurphy. He’s an American Indian of giant stature, named Chief Bromden, who’s become convinced that he’s shrunk. Besides childhood problems stemming from his father’s emasculation—i.e. having to take his white mother’s name (hence, Bromden) instead of the more usual family name of the father—Chief is haunted by war. Our narrator has the hospital staff convinced that he’s a deaf-mute (and probably mentally deficient, as well) and thus has a unique view of the ward, the staff speaking freely before him.

McMurphy is everything the other patients are not. He’s gregarious, confident, and risk-loving. He’s also a con-man extraordinaire—hence, his ability to trick the authorities into shifting him out of hard labor and into the mental hospital. But he’s not completely lacking in morality, and displays a kind of hard-nosed compassion. While the patients are occasionally distressed by McMurphy’s behavior, they find his willingness to stand up for them (at least when it’s in his best interest, though later a sense of justice or camaraderie guides him) worth the price of his wheeling and dealing.

McMurphy’s real opposition is Nurse Ratched, a former Army nurse who runs a tight ward. Nurse Ratched is used to controlling the patients through a combination of soft power (maternally convincing them that she acts in their best interest), bullying, and fear of the treatments she can get the doctors to rubber stamp (namely electro-shock and—in extreme cases—lobotomy.) However, she’s met her match with McMurphy. He can play patients and doctors as well as she. He, too, is capable of being cool and cunning at the same time. He’s able to provide a counterbalance to the authoritarian democracy in which she asks the patients for votes after telling them what to think. The reader doesn’t know how, but knows this conflict between McMurphy and Ratched must come to a head to be resolved once and for all, and it is (but I’ll leave the how to the reader.) At times McMurphy seems to be ahead, and at other times Ratched has the lead.

The book was influenced by Kesey’s discussions with patients at Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital, where he worked as a night aide. Interestingly, Kesey volunteered for a study of hallucinogens during the same period (funded by the CIA as part of MKUltra), and, thus, for some of the conversations he was baked on LSD. At any rate, the experience had profound impact on him, and he became convinced that not all the patients were insane. Many, he believed, just didn’t fit well in society or families, and were pushed into institutions. The themes of the book are that differentiating sanity from insanity isn’t always easy and that mental healthcare professionals had too much power–and often wielded it unwisely.ken kesey book

The story is well crafted with an intense ending. The characters are developed, and this isn’t easy for the mentally insane—though Kesey’s experience with LSD may have helped on that end. Though we only really experience the insanity of Chief, because the perspective is his and he’s one of the few patients that legitimately seems to have trouble differentiating reality from illusion (at least through much of the book.) But we don’t really know how much of Chief’s problem is from his medication, and how much is the illness. There’s a beautiful descriptive scene in which Chief comes off his meds and is looking out the window watching a dog and the world go by. It’s vivid.

I’d highly recommend One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s an evocative story with insights into mental health, some of which—sadly—are as valid today as they were then.