The Story of Twenty One Books

That’s the sum of this month’s book shopping – it was an exceptionally good month.

This may be a long post, but I resolved to record all of my purchases this year.

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20150328_171336These were ‘library building’ purchases. I have a dozen or so authors whose books I am gradually collecting as and when affordable copies appear.

I knew that I wouldn’t be able to give back the library’s copy of The Flowering Thorn back until I had a copy to keep – that’s always the way with Margery Sharp – and I spotted a Fontana edition that was if not cheap then at least much less expensive than many. I do like Fontana paperbacks, but I have to say that in this instance the image and the tagline suggest that the artist and the writer haven’t read the books.

And the rather nondescript book that one is resting on is an first edition of ‘Return I Dare Not’ by Margaret Kennedy!

* * * * * * *

The next round of shopping was not at my expense – because I won £50 of books from Harper Collins! At first I was overwhelmed by the choice, but when I saw Vintage on the list of imprints my path became clear.


  • ‘A Long Time Ago’ filled another gap in my Margaret Kennedy collection.
  •  Remembering Darlene’s words of praise, I picked ‘Here Be Dragons’ to add to my Stella Gibbons collection
  •  ‘A Street Haunting and Other Essays’ by Virginia Woolf looked too lovely to resist
  •  Several people recommended ‘The Black Count’ by Tom Reiss after I fell in love with The Count of Monte Cristo’ so I took their advice.
  • And of course I was going to have a copy of Victoria Glendinning’s much lauded biography of Anthony Trollope!

I’d say that was £50 very well invested.

* * * * * * *

Visits to two charity shops I hadn’t been into for a long time paid dividends.


I remember my parents reading Nevil Shute and Howard Spring, I loved the books from their shelves that I read years ago, and so I was delighted to find two titles I didn’t know in lovely editions.

I saw ‘Death of an Avid Reader’ by Frances Brody in the library and though I liked the look of it I didn’t pick it up because I knew that I had copies of earlier books in the same series at home unread. But when I spotted a like new copy I had to bring it home.

I was always going to pounce on a book by Francis Brett Young that I didn’t have on my shelves. I love his writing. I hesitated over this one because it’s a history of England in verse, but in the end I decided that I didn’t pick this one up I might never see another copy and I might live to regret it. When I came home I remembered that I loved the extract I knew, and I knew that I had made the right decision.

* * * * * * *

I picked up two more books when I dropped off several bags of books to another charity shop.

20150328_171629A lovely hardback edition of the collected stories of Jane Gardam that was only published last year for £2 was a wonderful bargain.

I don’t know much about R C Hutchison – and the dust jacket of this book doesn’t give much away – but I picked the book up because it was in condition and it clearly dated from one of my favourite eras. I found some 1950s leaflets from the reprints of society, that somebody must have used as bookmarks inside, adverting authors including Winifred Holtby, Somerset Maugham, Howard Spring and Margery Sharp. I too that as a sign that I should buy the book. When I got home and looked up Hutchinson I found that he had been reissued by Faber Finds and by Bloomsbury Reader, which has to be a good sign.

* * * * *

And then there was the Oxfam Shop.


I can only assume that someone with very similar taste to me had been clearing out, because among lots of books I already own I found:

  • Two more by Jane Gardam
  •  Two British Library Crime Classics I I hadn’t meant to start collecting but now I have four and I think maybe I am.
  • Childhood memoirs by Marcel Pagnol, whose books inspired two of my favourite films – ‘Jean de Florette’ and ‘Manon Du Source.’

I looked in again next time I was passing, just in case there were any more. There weren’t, but I found this.

I know the library have copies, but it was such a nice set.

* * * * * * *

Just one more – a brand new hardback that I just had to run out and buy – another  ‘library building’ purchase.


“The winter of 1924: Edith Olivier, alone for the first time at the age of fifty-one, thought her life had come to an end. For Rex Whistler, a nineteen-year-old art student, life was just beginning. Together, they embarked on an intimate and unlikely friendship that would transform their lives. Gradually Edith’s world opened up and she became a writer. Her home, the Daye House, in a wooded corner of the Wilton estate, became a sanctuary for Whistler and the other brilliant and beautiful younger men of her circle: among them Siegfried Sassoon, Stephen Tennant, William Walton, John Betjeman, the Sitwells and Cecil Beaton – for whom she was ‘all the muses’.

Set against a backdrop of the madcap parties of the 1920s, the sophistication of the 1930s and the drama and austerity of the Second World War and with an extraordinary cast of friends and acquaintances, Anna Thomasson brings to life, for the first time, the fascinating, and curious, friendship of a bluestocking and a bright young thing.“

* * * * * * *

I’ve stayed out of bookshops today, so that is definitely it for March.

It’s been a bit mad – some lovely review copies have landed too – but there won’t be many months like that.

Though we’ll be visiting one or two bookshops when we have a week’s holiday in Devon next month …..

Alone We Embark by Maura Laverty

A few years ago I picked up a small beige book in a second-hand bookshop. It was a wartime edition so it was plain, simple and unadorned, but I picked it up because I had spotted the name of a Virago author Maura Laverty. I hadn’t read any of her books before, though I had the two that were reissued as Virago Modern Classics on my shelves, but I decided it was worth taking home.

Not long after that I picked up the first of those two green Viragos – Never No More – and I fell in love. I saved up the sequel for a while, but not so very long after that I fell in love with that sequel - No More Than Human – too. Those two books – and their lovely heroine, Delia Scully – became particular favourites.

That was the end of that particular story, but  Reading Ireland Month, felt like the right time to read the third novel in my Maura Laverty collection.

It opens in 1928 in the Irish village of Tullynawlin, at a time when excitement was in the air.

“The Bohemian Concert Party, fresh from their successes in all the principal towns in Ireland, pledged themselves to appear in the Temple, Tullynawin, for two weeks, commencing June 3rd. Admission one and six, one shilling and ninepence. Children half-price”

“For weeks before they came, children saved their pennies, boys issued invitations, husbands were cajoled into making promises, and those who let lodgings scrubbed floors and aired sheets.”

Julia Dempsey was one of those landladies. She didn’t make much money from the players, but she loved to cook and entertain and so she was happy. It was said that she had been a cook in Dublin in her youth, before she came home to look after her aged parents, that she was a fine woman who could have had a fine job or a fine husband; but she chose to stay in Tullynawlin because she loved the place and she loved the people.

I loved Julia!

When she saw Mary, the daughter of her good friend Peggy Sheehy, talking with one of the players Julia was concerned. She was right to be concerned: Mary abandoned her childhood sweetheart when she was swept off her feet by Rowan O’Keefe. They ran away together, but they would not live happily ever after. It was not long before Mary found herself back in Tullynawlin, a widow with a young child.

Julia supported Mary as she re-established herself; going out to work while Peggy watched the shop and her little boy. But Julia was away, visiting another friend who was expecting her first child, when Peggy fell ill Mary struggled to cope, and because she couldn’t bear to leave her mother in an institution far from home, she accepted the offer of middle-aged businessman Johnny Dunne, to provide a home for her other and her son if only she would marry him.

Mary accepted his offer, but she would regret it when she found that her husband was jealous and controlling, when her mother died not long after their marriage, and when Denis Dunne, her childhood sweetheart came home from America and they found that there was still a spark between them.

Julia counselled Mary to tread carefully, but because she felt for her she helped the lovers to meet.

Both women knew that  Johnny found out the consequences could be terrible.

Other stories weave in and out of this sad tale. Young lovers are separated when one takes action to support the Republican cause.  Julia takes in the young daughter of a friend who has died and whose father is struggling to cope, and does what she can to bring the unhappy child out of herself.

All of this comes together in the end, and a chain of events will lead to a terrible tragedy.

This is an unhappy story, but it is made  readable by Maura Laverty’s wonderful grasp of character and community, by the care she gives to the small details and the characters with smaller roles to play, and by the compassion and warmth in her writing.

She understands that word and actions have consequences; that lives have joys and sorrows; and that things are rarely black and white.

She drew me into Tullynawlin; she made me feel involved; she made me care about the people who lived there.

.I could even feel for Johnny, and realise what he was as he was, why he behaved as he did..

I have to say that the structure of this book is a little odd, but as a study of lives  it is both moving and memorable.

There are so many details of character, of plat of dialogue that I could pull out to share; but there are so many of them and they are so well woven together that I can’t quite do it.

Maeve Binchy wrote introductions to the Virago editions of Maura Lavery’s novels, and in this book I saw that Maura Laverty influenced her writing. I’m also reminded that Maeve Binchy described Maura Laverty as a ‘food pornographer’. There’s a lovely chapter near the end of the story when Julia makes a cake she knows is very difficult to make perfectly because she understands how important it is for Teedy, the young girl she took in to have something really special on her birthday.

“”With a knife she loosened the spun sugar around the lower rim of the bowl. Very, very carefully she lifted off the feather-light mesh and put it over the flummery. It slipped into place, fitting as perfectly as the hull fits the hazel-nut. The creamy flummery showed through the web as the shoulders of a Spanish girl will gleam through a lace mantilla. Julia realised that the golden web was a complete success.. Only then did she look at Teedy.

The child stood before the blue dish as before an altar. Her face was pale and her dark eyes were enormous.

“Well Teedy? Do you like it love?”

The sensitive mouth worked, but Teedy did not speak. She made a little whimpering sound and rushed straight into Julia’s ready arms.”

Rise by Karen Campbell

It was the setting that drew me to this book: Kilmarra, a small community in the Highlands of Scotland, close to standing stones that had been there so long that all memory of how and why they had been placed there was long gone.

The story that played out there was like nothing I’ve read for a long time, but that story – and the telling of that story -always had me wanting to keep turning the pages to find out a little more and to live a little more with everything that was happening.

It was absorbing and it was intriguing.

Justine Strang fled Glasgow on a bus to anywhere. She was desperate to escape from Charlie Boy, who had been violent and abusive, who had drawn her into a life that she didn’t want. When she caught sight of the standing stones at Kilmacarra she was drawn to them; she didn’t now why, but she decided to get off the bus.RiseMichael and his wife Hannah moved to Kilmacarra in an attempt to rebuild their lives after her affair. He had been a minister, but he had become a councillor, though he still who preached at the local church.

Hannah was looking to the future; working on a novel and campaigning against plans for wind turbines. Michael was finding things more difficult. He was having a crisis of faith, he was struggling to come to terms with his wife’s infidelity, he was finding it difficult to play all the roles that life was calling him to play, and the ‘ghost’ that spoke to him was becoming more insistent, more human, and much more troubling.

Justine appeared as Michael was faced with a crisis – one of his sons had been badly hurt in a road accident – and so she was able to find herself somewhere to stay – at least for a while – by presenting herself as someone who had worked with children, someone who was willing and able to step into the breach and look after his other boy.

She meant no harm, but Charlie Boy was looking for her, and for the money she had stolen from him; and that might do a great deal of harm.

The story shifts between the different protagonists, always with an unusual and strangely engaging mix of dialogue, stream of consciousness and descriptive prose, and yet always carefully delineated so there is never any doubt who each moment belongs to.

There’s a lot going on – in the background and in the foreground – and Karen Campbell handles it all deftly. There were just a few moments when the drama felt too much, when the elements felt a little unbalanced, but they didn’t really undermine the story.

The style is literary and the reality that underpins the characters, their situations, their worlds, made this feel like a thriller. I was drawn in, I cared, I believed, even though I wasn’t sure that I liked these people, or would care to meet them in real life. Because, I think, the text was underpinned by the author’s love for her characters and their concerns, for their country’s history and its future

It helped that she balanced the seriousness of the story with some lovely wit, the kind that comes naturally when people live and work together and know each other well.

The contrasts are what really struck me. Local dialect is mixed with 21st century profanity. The ugliness and violence found in the big city contrast with the beauty of the village in the glen. The past – in the standing stones and an archaeological dig – it set against the future – the referendum is to come, and a wind farm may be coming too.

That, together with the gloriously expressive prose and the unfolding human drama, held me from start to finish.

The Wild Geese by Bridget Boland

‘The Wild Geese’ was my third book for Reading Ireland Month, a historical novel set early in the eighteen century.

Britain and Ireland by the House of Hanover, but the throne was contested by Jacobite rebels, supporters of the descendants of the deposed King James II. Catholics were repressed by their Protestant rulers: they could not own land, enter many trades and professions, educate their children in their faith, or worship as they chose.

Many could not live with those laws, and this story tells of the implications of those laws for one family

It’s a story told entirely in letters.

The Wild Geese


Gerald Kinross and Garrett Ahearne were cousins; one Catholic and one Protestant. There was an understanding between them, with the Ahearnes legally owning the estate where the Kinrosses lived and worked, but treating it in every was as the Kinross estate. There was friendship too; the first exchange of letters has one man telling of his decision to send his two sons to France so that they could be given a Catholic education and the other expressing his concerns but acknowledging and accepting his reasons.

Those two sons lose their father while they are in exile. Brandan – the elder – comes home to run the family estate, and his brother, Maurice, joins an Irish regiment abroad ; becoming one of the Wild Geese who, for conscience’s sake, will fight for the Jacobite cause. While his uncle lives Brandan is secure, but when his uncle dies things change.

Thomas Ahearne, his father’s only son, inherits everything that had been his father’s, but he doesn’t see the world as his father did. He is the owner of the Kinross estate and he sees his cousin as his tenant; he questions his failure to pay rent, he questions his management of the property, and he ultimately decides that he must bring Brandan’s tenancy to an end.

Letters between the brothers illuminate Maurice’s experiences abroad and Brandan’s life on the estate. Letters between the cousins track Brandan’s journey from frustration into black despair as Thomas is unmoved and immovable. And threaded through this correspondence is the story of the coming of age of Catharine, the youngest of the Kinrosses, and her falling in love with a friend of her brothers’, another of the Wild Geese.

That this story is told in letters is both its strength and its weakness.

The letters tell the story very effectively and bring the characters to life while remaining utterly believable as correspondence. They caught the emotions of the writers, and I felt for them and reacted to them. But they also limited the story, and stopped it opening out as it might have.

I would have liked to spend more time with Catharine and her friend Mary, who Maurice loved and who Thomas courted. That the cover shows a woman is a little misleading, because they have secondary roles in a story of men. This is a story of history and its consequences rather that  a story of a family and emotional lives.

I would have loved to have Catharine tells her family’s story; and I would have loved Bridget Boland, who became a very successful screenwriter, to have turned The Wild Geese into a film with her at its centre.

I did like the book, as a story of a time in history and as the story of a family.

But I have to say that it’s a ‘pick it up if you see a copy’ book, rather that a ‘go out and find a copy’ book.

Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope

‘Lady Anna’ was published in 1874 after, quite remarkably, Trollope wrote it from start to finish on a voyage to Australia.

He said:

“‘Lady Anna’ is the best thing I ever wrote! Very much! Quite far away above all others!”

I’m not sure that I agree with him, but I do understand why he thought that it was special, and I did like it very much.

“Lovel Grange is a small house, surrounded by a small domain,—small as being the residence of a rich nobleman, lying among the mountains which separate Cumberland from Westmoreland, about ten miles from Keswick, very lovely, from the brightness of its own green sward and the luxuriance of its wild woodland, from the contiguity of overhanging mountains, and from the beauty of Lovel Tarn, a small lake belonging to the property, studded with little islands, each of which is covered with its own thicket of hollies, birch, and dwarfed oaks. The house itself is poor, ill built, with straggling passages and low rooms, and is a sombre, ill-omened looking place. When Josephine Murray was brought there as a bride she thought it to be very sombre and ill-omened; but she loved the lakes and mountains, and dreamed of some vague mysterious joy of life which was to come to her from the wildness of her domicile.

 Lady Anna’s mother, Countess Lovel, the former Josephine Murrayhad risen in the world when she married the dissolute Lord Lovel, but it wasn’t long before she tumbled down again:

“She had not lived with him six months before he told her that the marriage was no marriage, and that she was—his mistress. There was an audacity about the man which threw aside all fear of the law, and which was impervious to threats and interference. He assured her that he loved her, and that she was welcome to live with him; but that she was not his wife, and that the child which she bore could not be the heir to his title, and could claim no heirship to his property. He did love her,—having found her to be a woman of whose company he had not tired in six months. He was going back to Italy, and he offered to take her with him,—but he could not, he said, permit the farce of her remaining at Lovel Grange and calling herself the Countess Lovel. If she chose to go with him to Palermo, where he had a castle, and to remain with him in his yacht, she might for the present travel under the name of his wife. But she must know that she was not his wife. She was only his mistress.”

The countess – who anticipated the birth of a heir – was not going to accept that!

Now you might think that a lady who had been seen to marry in church and who had been cast off like that would have the sympathy and support of her family, friends and neighbours. Not this lady. The world saw her as someone who had been too ambitious, too proud; someone who had got her just desserts.

Lady AnnaAnd so Countess Lovel and her daughter were left with nothing. Her one friend was Thomas Thwaite, a tailor. He gave her sympathy, he gave her respect for her station, and he gave her practical and financial support as she pursued her husband through the courts of justice.

Anna, the Countess’s daughter, and Daniel,  the tailor’s son, became playfellows; and as they grew up they fell on love.

All of this is set out, quite beautifully in the opening chapters, before the event that will set the plot proper into motion.

The Earl dies, and he leaves no will. His title and his estate are entailed of course, and they are inherited by Frederick Lovel, a distant cousin. But who inherits his personal property, his vast fortune.  Well, if the Countess can prove the validity of her marriage it will come to Lady Anna, the Earl’s legitimate daughter; if she can’t, well then the new Earl takes everything.

It seemed that the legal battle would continue, but a very simple solution presented itself: a marriage between Lady Anna and the new Earl could unite that title, the estate and the property to the satisfaction of all!

The Countess was delighted with the idea; the Earl’s family was horrified; the Earl was himself was willing though; he saw the sense of the plan and he had become very fond of his cousin.

Lady Anna was not willing, because she had become secretly engaged to the tailor’s son.

“It was all very well that lawyers should look upon her as an instrument, as a piece of goods that might now, from the accident of her ascertained birth, be made of great service to the Lovel family. Let her be the lord’s wife, and everything would be right for everybody. It had been very easy to say that! But she had a heart of her own, — a heart to be touched, and won, and given away, — and lost. The man who had been so good to them had sought for his reward, and had got it, and could not now be defrauded. Had she been dishonest she would not have dared to defraud him; he she dared, she would not have been so dishonest.”

And so Trollope spins a wonderful story around the court cases, around the people involved in those court cases, and most of all around the escalating battle between mother and daughter.

The telling of the story and the drawing of the characters was simpler than I have come to expect from Trollope, but I was pulled right into the heart of the story.

I was very taken with the two young lovers. She was a young woman with principles, true to herself, but sensitive to the feeling of others. He had similar qualities, and he wad both respectful of others and prepared to stand his ground. I liked them both and I understood why they loved each other, and why there relationship would – given the chance – work.

The star of the story though was the Countess, who, when she found herself unable to set her daughter on the path she wanted, became obsessive and unbalanced, and in the end is driven to a desperate act. It’s a measure of Trollope’s skill with characters that even when I knew she was wrong I understood why she felt and acted as she did, and felt for her.

I would have liked to see a little more of some of the other characters, especially the new Earl. I would have liked a little more shape to the plot. I would have liked to spend a little more time in this world.

But I found much to enjoy, in what Trollope had to say about money, family and class, and in the very human story he had to tell

The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp

Oh, this is lovely.

Margery Sharp’s 1933 novel – her fourth – is light, bright and witty, and it’s thoughtful, emotional and profound too. Not many authors can do all those things, and I don’t think anyone but Margery Sharp could wrap them up in a book as engaging and readable as  ‘The Flowering Thorn.’

‘The Flowering Thorn’ tells the story of Lesley Frewn. She was a Londoner, and you could probably call her a bright young thing. She had private means – not enough to make her fabulously wealthy, but more than enough to give her a very nice lifestyle. She had a lovely flat, her wardrobe was full of the latest fashions; she loved, art, music and theatre and partying with her circle of friends and suitors.

But one day something went wrong.

“The image she sought there–so curiously, eagerly, as though for the first time–was tall, poised and precisely as slender as fashion required. Gown, gloves and single orchid were impeccably chosen, while the dark, smooth shingle, close as a silken scalp, set off a certain neat elegance of head and shoulders. A lady, one would say, of at least sufficient income, enjoying considerable taste, and not more than twenty-eight years old….Without the slightest warning, Lesley Frewen burst into tears.”

A man was to blame: the one suitor Lesley really, really wanted didn’t want her.

Now experience has taught me that one Margery Sharp heroines, a wonderfully diverse group of women, have in common is that they don’t waste time feeling sorry for themselves; they get up and carry on.

the-flowering-thorn-margery-sharp-001Lesley was no exception, and she was inclined to be bolshie.

That goes some way to explaining why she offered to adopt an unwanted infant who had been left on her aunt’s hand after the death of a servant, saving him from being sent to an orphanage.

The other part of the explanation was that she thought that the experience would proved her with a fabulous stock of anecdotes.

She had doubts, but she had been taken with the child and she didn’t want to lose face. So she told herself that in four years time he would be going to school and she could resume her old life.

Lesley quickly realised that her income would only stretch so far, and so she decided that she would move her household to a cottage in the country. It takes time for her and her little boy – Pat – to learn to live together. The relationship they form is more much elder sister left in charge and little brother than mother and child, but they make it work.

Margery Sharp handles this beautifully, with understanding but without the faintest hint of sentimentality.

Along the way Lesley learns to be a countrywoman, forming friendships with her neighbours, joining in village life, and eventually realising that she could dine very well on local produce and didn’t need to have meals sent down from Fortnum and Mason.

“All through the summer Lesley’s household consolidated itself. In now included besides Patrick, Mrs Sprigg, and Pincher; a fine ginger cat who was sometimes called Alice; and of its tiny universe – as variously inhabited, for all its size as the island in ‘The Tempest’ – Lesley herself was the natural and undisputed centre. Within it, whatever she said or did was of extreme importance: goddess-like in her meanest activities, she dispensed food, favour, justice and protection. She had scraps for a dog, milk for a cat, bread for a child, a wage for an old woman: she had a roof and a fire and a door to shut or open. She was beginning to be beloved, and she was already essential.”

The journey to that point wasn’t simple: there were ups and downs and lots of lovely details, characters and incidents.

Lesley became great friends with the vicar’s wife; she charmed her elderly, aristocratic landlord; she rose to the occasion magnificently when called upon in a crisis.

And yet the obvious resolution was far from inevitable. There would be visitors from London, and there would always be a part of Lesley that felt the pull of her old life.

She was aware that the country life had changed her, as the good country food had changed her waistline, and she really didn’t know when Patrick went away to take up the school place that Lesley had inveigled her godfather into providing.

It was lovely spending time with these characters and in this world. There were so many times when I smiled, when I felt a tug of emotion, as I read.

There would be a lovely twist before the ending.

And that’s all I’m going to say.

The whole book is lovely, it’s as fine an entertainment today as it must have been in 1933, and I a still hoping that someone somewhere will reissue Margery Sharp’s books ….

In The Vine Country with Somerville and Ross

I have been to the south of France, for the grape harvest, with two Anglo-Irish Victorian lady writers, and I loved it.

Œnone Somerville and her cousin “Martin Ross” (actually Violet Martin – of Ross House) wrote novels, short stories and travelogues together as “Somerville and Ross”. I remember an adaptation of ‘The Experiences of an Irish R. M.’ being very popular when I was a child, I’ve noted that Virago reissued ‘Through Connemara in a Duchess Cart’, I remember seeing ‘The Real Charlotte in some very good company on a list of forgotten classics, and I know that Lisa rates them very highly.

But that’s about all I know. Except that they share a biographer with Margaret Kennedy, and that has to be another positive thing.

I’ll find out more one day, and I’m sure there’s a great deal of interest to be learned, but for now I just want to enjoy their excellent company.

In the Vine CountryEarly in their writing career the cousins were commissioned by a weekly publication -The Lady’s Pictorial” – to travel to the vineyards of the Médoc,” to write a series of articles about their experiences. Some time later, those articles were collected and published as ‘In the Vine Country.’

There is much to be enjoyed here: accounts of travel by train and by boat; observations of people, places and so many things that the ladies see long the way;  time spent at vineyards, where they saw the harvest and the treading of the grapes; visits to chateaux, where they were most impressed by the great barrels that lay maturing.

Along the way they sketched, and they were very proud of their Kodak wherever they went. The sketches illustrate and illuminate the text; what happened to the photographs I don’t know. Well I know that some were lost when they forgot to remove the lens cap, and only realised when they believed it lost and went to put something else in its place to protect the delicate lens.

There are lots of things like that; the kind of little things you would remember from a holiday. And this is a book that feels rather like hearing about somebody’s holiday. One of the lovely things is that the teller knows exactly how much to tell; enough to keep things interesting but not so much as to lose the attention of a listener without a particular interest in what is being said.

(I have to say ‘the teller’ because there is no indication of who the first person narrator is, or of whether it the pair took turns. Maybe I’ll find out, because I shall definitely be reading more of their work, and more about them.)

That the tale of this adventure was so very well and so very engagingly told speaks volumes for Somerville and Ross’s careful observation and genuine interest. It can’t have been usual for two 19th century ladies to travel to the continent unescorted, but they managed things nicely, smoothing their path with acceptance and understanding, and with good humour laced with a lovely sense of the ironic.

That reminds me to say the the writing style made me think of the Provincial Lady. It was smoother and calmer though; as she might of written had she had all the time in the world to make such a trip herself.

It was a lovely trip, and I hope to be spending more time with my two new friends.

I think maybe it should be ‘Connemara in a Duchess Cart’ next; because I’m delighted that Reading Ireland Month.led to our introduction.

The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer

At first glance I thought that ‘The Girl in the Read Coast’ looked like a crime novel, but when I looked more closely I found that it was rather more than that: a story of a mother and a daughter, and of the practical and emotional consequences of the crime that separates them.

23289469Beth is a woman adjusting to a as a single mother to her adored daughter; because her husband left her for another woman.

Carmel is eight years-old; she is bright, sensitive, a little bit dreamy, a little other-worldly even, and she is very close to her mother.

Now every mother is thinks her daughter is special, and Beth is no different; what is different is that there really might be something – a special gift – that sets Carmel apart.

All of this becomes clear as the narrative moves backwards and forwards between them. Their two voices were distinctive, they were engaging, and they both rang true. I found it easy to turn the pages quickly.

What would happen was foreshadowed:

‘”You realise, Mum, that I won’t always be with you,” she said, her voice small and breathy in the fading light.

Maybe my heart should have frozen then. Maybe I should have turned and gathered her up and taken her home. Kept her shut away in a fortress or a tower. Locked with a golden key that I would swallow, so my stomach would have to be cut open before she could be found. But of course I thought it meant nothing, nothing at all.’

At a local storytelling festival Carmel drifts away when her mother is distracted for a moment. Beth looks for her, sure that she will be able to pick out her daughters red coat from the crowd – Carmel adored the colour red. She couldn’t; Carmel had vanished and her worst fears became her new reality.

That red coat had made it very easy for somebody else to pick out Carmel. She was tricked into believing that she was being fetched for a reason by a person who would spin a very clever web of lies.

The story continues to move between mother and daughter, as one must deal with overwhelming grief and guilt, her ex-husband’s accusations of not having looked after their daughter properly, the pain of separation and not knowing; and the other must deal with a new and very different life, with the loss of everything she had ever known, and with the fear that she would lose the little girl that she knew she was.

‘I start talking and I say it real fierce. I have to say it before it all gets forgotten.

“This is what you must remember. My name is Carmel Summer Wakeford. I used to love in Norfolk, England. My mum’s name was Beth and my dad’s name is Paul. He has a girlfriend called Lucy. I lived in a house with a tree by the side and a spider’s web my the back door. My mum had a glass cat she kept by her bed. There was a picture that said ‘There’s No Place Like Home’. The curtains downstairs were orange. My teacher’s name was Mrs Buckfast. One time my dad took me sailing. My name is Carmel. My name is Carmel Summer Wakeford”

I stop and look around me.

I’m Carmel. I’m alone.’

Though there is a crime this book doesn’t follow the investigation: it follows the lives and the emotions of Beth and Carmel. Their voices ring true, and their stories continued to engage my heart as I followed episodes of their lives over a period of years.

23289469So, is this a good – or maybe even a great – book?

Well, the heart says ‘yes’ but the head says ‘I’m not so sure’.

The writing style is lovely, it’s haunting and images of stories and storytelling are very effectively through; but sometimes that softens the impact of emotions and events. The episodic story structure loses some significant moments – and leaves some major practical points unexplained.

There are times when the story slows and there are times – particularly at the very end – when it feels rushed.

It was were unanswered questions, but I felt that there were rather too many of them; and I wish that the question of Camel’s ‘specialness’ had been handled differently.

And yet I was engaged, I was involved; I cared from the first page to the last, and I had to know what would happen.

This is a good book; it’s very readable, and it would be a lovely holiday read.

My reservations stem simply from the fact that it could have been more.

Broken Harbour by Tana French

Though Broken Harbour is a classic police procedural, the quality of Tania French’s writing and her depth of understanding of her characters make it much more than that. I might call it a state of the nation novel. I might call it a wide-ranging human drama. I might call it a psychological study.

But maybe I should just call it a very, very good book.

And say that I’m very pleased that I began Reading Ireland Month.with such a good contemporary novel, set in a very definite time and place.

“I remember this country back when I was growing up. We went to church, we ate family suppers around the table, and it would never even have crossed a kid’s mind to tell an adult to fuck off. There was plenty of bad there, I don’t forget that, but we all knew exactly where we stood and we didn’t break the rules lightly. If that sounds like small stuff to you, if it sounds boring or old-fashioned or uncool, think about this: people smiled at strangers, people said hello to neighbors, people left their doors unlocked and helped old women with their shopping bags, and the murder rate was scraping zero.

Sometime since then, we started turning feral. Wild got into the air like a virus, and it’s spreading. Watch the packs of kids roaming inner-city estates, mindless and brakeless as baboons, looking for something or someone to wreck. Watch the businessmen shoving past pregnant women for a seat on the train, using their 4x4s to force smaller cars out of their way, purple-faced and outraged when the world dares to contradict them. Watch the teenagers throw screaming stamping tantrums when, for once, they can’t have it the second they want it. Everything that stops us being animals is eroding, washing away like sand, going and gone.”  

I have to say that there are times when this book feels very dark and very bleak, but it isn’t ever gratuitous; everything is there for a reason, and this is a story of real lives where terrible things can happen when

Broken Harbour was meant to become Brianstown, an estate of houses by the sea, just outside the city, with all of its own amenities. Building began when the economy was booming, but when the recession began to bite the developers abandoned their project, leaving the handful of buyers who had been enticed by expensive advertising trapped in substandard homes with no way out and without recourse.

Broken Harbour
The Spains were one of those families, and they were viciously attacked in their new home. The two young children, Emma and Jack, were found dead in their beds. Their parents, Pat and Jenny, were found in the kitchen, in puddles of blood, after being stabbed viciously and repeatedly. Pat was dead, but Jenny was clinging to life by the thinnest of threads.

Mick ‘Scorcher’ Kennedy is the Murder Squad Detective assigned to the case, alongside a new partner, Richie Curran, who was new to the squad.
Kennedy seemed to be the perfect man unravel the story of this seemingly inexplicable crime: his crime solve rate was exceptionally high, he was a model professional, and he took a pride in his work and placed it at the centre of his life.

“One of the reasons I love Murder is that victims are, as a general rule, dead… I don’t make a habit of sharing this, in case people take me fore a sicko or- worse-a wimp, but give me a dead child, any day, over a child sobbing his heart out while you make him tell you what the bad man did next. Dead victims don’t show up outside HQ to beg for answers, you never have to nudge them into reliving every hideous moment, and you never have to worry, and you never have to worry about what it’ll do to their lives if you fuck up. They stay put in the morgue, light-years beyond anything I can do right or wrong, and leave me free to focus on the people who sent them there.”  

His narrative voice is perfectly realised, he became a very real man, with just enough foibles to balance his obvious strengths. I was intrigued as I saw the crime scene through his eyes. And it was clear that there was something strange going on in the Spain household: holes carved carefully out of the walls, baby monitors deployed where you would never expect them to be, barbed wire over the loft hatch and a trap in the loft ….

This would be a difficult case for Scorcher:  he was trying to support a sister with serious mental issues, he had an inexperienced partner to train guide, and it was at Broken Harbour his family had been scarred by a terrible tragedy, years earlier.

The story moves slowly, because details of people and places, observations of the world, are as important as the painstaking police work that will uncover details of the Spain family’s lives, past and present, and identify suspects.

The characters and the intrigue held me. Though the field of suspects was small I really had no idea who was guilty and what had happened on one terrible night. I really couldn’t see how all of the pieces would fit together, but they did. The resolution was horrifying, but it made a terrible sense.

The balance of all of the elements in this book is close to perfect; there were just a few moments when my interest dipped, when I wished things would move along a little.

My fears that the detective’s backstory would be too prominent, that there would be something too far-fetched in the premise – both of which have problems for me with Tana French’s work in the past – proved to be unfounded.

I read quickly, because I had to keep turning the pages to find out more, and I know that I will go on thinking about what I found out for quite some time

And I definitely think that this is her best book to date

Set in Stone by Linda Newberry

A pastiche of a Victorian sensation novel, written for younger reader, and wrapped in a lovely cover was such an enticing proposition. I raced through the opening chapter, part of a framing story, set in an art gallery some years after the events at the heart of the book, eager to reach the story proper.

I was drawn into that story by gorgeous writing, and I saw echoes of wonderful writers of the gothic, the sensational, the romantic. Wilkie Collins, the Bronte sisters, Mrs Radcliffe ….


In 1898, aspiring young artist Samuel Godwin is hired by a Mr Farrow as tutor for his daughters, Juliana and Marianne, at their country house home, Fourwinds.

He found the two sisters to be very different: Marianne was a passionate free spirit while Juliana was quiet, demure, and clearing clinging to secrets that troubled her. And he found that Juliana had reasons to be unhappy. The girls’ mother had died in a tragic accident, their father was cold and remote, and their beloved governess had been taken away from them. But he believed that there was something else.

Maybe that something was the young sculptor who Mr Farrow had commissioned to create statues of the four winds, one for each side of his house. There were just thee glorious statues, somehow both pagan and classical, because the sculptor had been sent away before his work was complete.

Or maybe there was an even darker secret at Fourwinds.

The story is told, in alternate chapters, but Samuel and by Charlotte, who has been hired as governess/companion to the two sisters. She is attentive to her charges, she is clearly fond of them, but she will say nothing at all of her family or her history.

The storytelling is effective and evocative, the plotting is intricate and clever, and the suspense is lovely.

But that falls away as the story advances. I saw where the story was going, and it became a little too predictable.

Of course I could say that this story is written for younger readers, and that I worked things out because I have read a great many gothic romances over the years. But that brings me to another concern. The dark secret concerns incest. It isn’t explicit, and it happens ‘off stage’ before this story begins. But it is clear what happened, and of course the consequences can be seen.

It doesn’t sit well on a book written for young adults; there were other paths that the author could have – I think should have – taken.

I loved the art, and the artists fascination with and hunt for the sculptor. But when he is found suspense is lost, the story loses its impetus, there was a very obvious and unlikely contrivance, and it takes far too long to play out to its conclusion.

There are some really lovely and clever touches, there are moments of high drama, but it wasn’t quite enough.

An overlong – and improbable, maybe even fantastical – conclusion to the framing story was the final straw.

It was such a pity, because Linda Newbery writes very well, and there were any good things on this book.

If only it had been a little leaner, a little less obviously written for young readers, it could have been so special.

As it stands I’m sorry to say that it was a disappointment, and I think I must be much more selective when I pick up literary pastiches in the future.


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