Ten Books for Cornish Holidays

I’ve spotted a lot of Top Ten Holiday Reads  lists lately. Fascinating reading, and they set my mind spinning in a direction that was similar but different.

Ten books to transport you to Cornwall. Or to read on holiday in Cornwall.

I’ve picked books that are in print – and I think they are all available electronically – and I’ve picked wonderfully readable books, old and new, that I can happily recommend.

And her they are …


Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

“The road to Manderlay lay ahead.  There was no moon.  The sky above our heads was inky black.  But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all.  It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood.  And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.”  

Daphne Du Maurier fell in love with a house named Menabilly on the north coast of Cornwall. In Rebecca she calls that house Manderlay, and she spins a wonderful tale of suspense intrigue and romance, with lovely echoes of Jane Eyre around it.

Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Lucy Wood comes from Cornwall, she understands, really understands what makes it so special, and she mixes myth and real life to fine effect in this wonderful collection of short stories.

The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley

“Crossing the Tamar for some reason made me feel different inside. It was only a river, yet every time I crossed it I felt I had stepped through some mystical veil that divided the world that I only existed in from the one that I was meant to be living in.”

Susanna Kearsley captures the magic of crossing the Tamar Bridge, leaving Devon and coming into Cornwall, and she captures the magic that draws so many people here in this lovely story of a house, a garden, history, time travel, and above all romance.

Rambles Beyond Railways by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins crossed the Tamar by boat, a few years before the bridge was built, and he and his friend, the artist Henry Brandling, set out on a 214 mile walking tour.  This account of their travels holds a wealth of  material, wonderful vivid writing and extraordinary insight.

Love in the Sun by Leo Walmsley

“Leo Walmsley gives the reader a true story, classic in its simplicity, of a man and a girl who possessed nothing in life but love for each other and faith in the future, and because of these things, were courageous and happy…”

So said Daphne Du Maurier, in her introduction to a story that is vividly and beautifully written. The man and the girl are utterly real, every detail rings true, and it is so easy to be pulled in, so easy to care.

Tales of Terror from the Black Ship by Chris Priestley

A visitor tells two children stories of the sea as they wait in their home, and Inn on a Cornish cliff, for the storm to abate and for their father to come home. Tales are deliciously twisted, and the final revelation – who the visitor is and why he has come – is perfect.

The Burying Beetle by Ann Kelley

This is the story of twelve year-old Gussie, who has a head full of films and books, who is fascinated by nature and the world around her home in St Ives. She is ill, waiting and hoping for a heart transplant, and that makes life all the more precious, and her story all the more life-affirming. I loved Gussie, and I loved seeing Cornwall through her eyes.

Peril at End House by Agatha Christie

On holiday at a Cornish hotel Poirot encounters an accident-prone heiress, and  he soon realises that her accidents are not accidents at all. A solid mystery, a very nice setting; all in all, a lovely period piece from the 1930s.

Penmarric by Susan Howatch

A wonderful family saga, spanning half a century, telling their story and the story of Penmarric, their grand Cornish home, in five voices. The house, its inhabitants, the world around them come to life in a dramatic, compelling story. I had no idea when I first read it that it was inspired by real mediaeval history ….

The First Wife by Emily Barr

The story of a girl from a Cornish village who loses her home when her grandparents die, moves to town, and finds herself caught up in a story elements of chick lit, strands of a psychological thriller, and echoes of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. It’s wonderful fun!

I’m waiting now for Emily Barr’s new book, the story of a woman whop disappears from the train between Penzance and Paddington. A train I have travelled on so many times …

There are more books of course, by these authors and by others.

Have any of these books, or have any other books, transported you to Cornwall, I wonder … ?

Inchworm by Ann Kelley

Last autumn I met Gussie, a 12 year-old girl with a congenital heart defect, whose life is constricted, because she is quickly short of breath, and who can’t go to school for fear of picking up an everyday illness that would compromise her heart.

That might sound depressing, but it isn’t, because Gussie is so curious and so bright, because she finds so much to love in life. Family. Books. Birds. Films. Friends. Cats. Nature. Her head and her heart were full, and the knowledge that her life would be short made it all the more precious.

Through The Burying Beetle and The Bower Bird I followed Gussie as she and her newly divorced mother settled in St Ives, formed new relationships, and lived their lives.

Two books full of lovely details and observations; wonderful celebrations of life, seen through the eyes of a child who understands just how precious those things are.

At the end of The Bower Bird it seemed that a match had been found, that Gussie would have the heart and lung transplant that she and her mother had hoped for.

That makes Inchworm, the third installment of Gussie’s story, a very different proposition.

The story opens after Gussie’s surgery, as she is slowly regaining consciousness. This emergence is beautifully captured. As is the cacophony of thoughts and emotions in her head: from concern that she might acquire new characteristics with her new organs to the joy of looking in the mirror and being pink instead of blue.

It was wonderful to watch Gussie’s progress.

Her friendship with another transplant patient from Zimbabwe was beautifully observed, and his very different life and experiences brought a new dimension to the book.

And I saw Gussie’s  mother’s experiences through her eyes. I saw how much life had thrown at her, and I worried that she was neglecting her own health as she focused on her daughter’s treatment and recovery. I wanted a happy ending for her as much as I did for her daughter.

There was much here, for both head and heart, and yet Inchworm began to lose me when Gussie left hospital.

Because Cornwall is so far from London and because Gussie had to go back to hospital for regular cheques, she and her mother stayed in a London flat. And because of the high risk of infection Gussie’s life was terribly constrained.

Gussie missed Cornwall, and I missed watching her in Cornwall and her reactions to the world around her. The writing was still lovely, Gussie was still engaging, there was still much to enjoy, but, for me, a vital ingredient had been lost.

For the first time I thought that I was reading a book about a 12 year-old that was maybe better suited to readers closer to Gussie’s own age.

At the end of the book, with her health improving, Gussie and her mother were able to return to Cornwall.

I realised then that it was time for me to let Gussie go, to wish her well, to let her simply live her life in St Ives …

But I have loved following her story over the course of three books, and I am so, so glad that I met her.

The Bower Bird by Ann Kelley

Late last year  I read The Burying Beetle, and I fell in love with twelve year-old Gussie. I am so glad that it was the first of the series because I really wasn’t ready to let Gussie go.

Gussie is so alive, but unlike most twelve year-olds, she has had to consider her own mortality.

Death: I know, or I think I know that death will only be nothingness, but I don’t want oblivion yet.  I want to smell honeysuckle in the dark, I want to hear my cat greet me with her special purring.  I want to smell old books.”

Gussie has a serious heart condition and her life expectancy isn’t great. A heart and lung transplant would give her a little more time and maybe  a little more freedom, if only a match could be found.

The Bower Bird picks up the threads of Gussie’s life just a few weeks after The Burying Beetle ended, and moves things gently forward.

She and her mother have moved to a new home in St Ives. Gussie is trying to find out more about her father’s family connections in the town, while observing her mother’s new relationship and still pondering her parent’s failed relationship. She has her own relationship to ponder too, with her closest friend who now has a girlfriend to consider too.

Those are the broad strokes, but the joy of this book is in the detail.  Gussie is  intrigued by the world around her, interested in everything and everyone.

The Bower Book is a wonderful celebration of life, seen through the eyes of a child who understands just how precious those things are.

A child who loves books – from Winnie the Pooh to Katharine Mansfield – and loves the library.

Desert Island Discs is on the radio. I think there should be a Desert Island Books where the guest tells us which books he/she would take.

I have started by list of favourite books for when I am famous and invited on the programme.

Jennie, by Paul Gallico
The House at Pooh Corner by A A Milne
The Collected Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield
White Fang by Jack London
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger
Fabre’s Book of Insects
Lord of the Flies by William Golding

That’s nine and I’ll only be allowed to take eight, so I’ll have to think about which one I could live without…”

(What a great list – though  I’m not sure that I could have appreciated Middlemarch at twelve  – I’m thinking about my desert island books now.)

A child who loves nature and the world around her. Some people might just see seagulls, but Gussie sees their characters and watches their lives unfold. A mother watching her child as it finds its feet and learns to fly, squawking horribly if her child is threatening. And a child finding its place in the world.

“Our adolescent gull is still wheezing and jumping up and down on the roof flapping his speckled wings. He wanders all over the roof, spends most of the time on his own, though one parent perches on the chimney pot watching over him while the other parent is fishing for his supper, or is out having a good time. I feel like that young gull: songless and ugly, unable to fly; totally dependent on my parent.”

(There are many moments like that. Wonderful observations beautifully expressed mixed with very real emotions.)

A child who is pleased to meet people, eager to ask questions, observant, and thoughtful.

And she catches Cornwall perfectly.

“Mornings in mid September smell fresher than August, and there’s lots of swirling white mist over the water, hiding the dunes and the estuary. But the air is still and somehow you know that it’s going to be sunny later. The heavy band of mist is chrome and silver; the clouds are the colour of lavender leaves and steamed up mirrors. The sea is hammered pewter and the low waves are mercury creeping up the beach. Where the sun breaks through, it explodes on the water in a firework burst of sparkling stars. On the other side of the bay, battleship clouds float above the dunes and hills of Gwithian and Godrevy. September is like a wonderful monochrome photograph or the opening credits of an obscure French movie. Like the ones Daddy used to take me too.”

So many details, all perfectly caught, with every observation, every emotion pitch perfect, to build a picture of a lovely, complex child and her world.

A child so determined to live, but so often not being able to go as quickly as she wanted, having to pause for breath, having to be careful. How I felt for her.

In the end it seemed that the match Gussie and her mother had hoped for had finally been found. I so hope that it has, and I shall be breaking all of my own rules about spreading out great series and bringing the next book home as soon as I possibly can.

Bookish Thoughts on Boxing Day

In our house, Boxing Day is a day for fun, relaxing, and a little contemplation.

And I’ve had a little fun contemplating this year’s reading, with the help of a set of questions that I borrowed from Verity, who borrowed from Stacy, who found it at The Perpetual Page Turner …

Best Book of 2010

I read many wonderful books this year, but if I have to pick out just one it must be Love in the Sun by Leo Walmsley. Daphne du Maurier wrote an introduction to her friend’s book, and she can convey its charms much better than I ever could:

“”‘Love in the Sun’ will make other writers feel ashamed. And, curiously enough, old-fashioned too. It is a revelation in the art of writing and may be one of the pioneers in a new renaissance which shall and must take place in our time if the novel is to survive at all. While we struggle to produce our complicated plots, all sex and psychology, fondly imagining we are drawing modern life while really we are as démodé as jazz and mah jong, Leo Walmsley gives the reader a true story, classic in its simplicity, of a man and a girl who possessed nothing in life but love for each other and faith in the future, and because of these things, were courageous and happy…”

Worst Book of 2010

Luckily I didn’t read anything this year that was bad enough for me to give it the label “worst book.”

Most Disappointing Book of 2010

There were a few that I didn’t finish, but their names escape me now. The most disappointing book that I did finish was Trespass by Rose Tremain. Not a bad book by any means, but it didn’t live up to its potential or to the high expectations that Rose Tremain’s earlier work created.

Most Surprising (in a good way) Book of 2010

The cover of Diamond Star Halo was eye-catching, but it really didn’t look like my sort of book. That title rang a bell though, a tune lodged in my head, and the next line just wouldn’t come. I only picked it up to look for an answer, but the synopsis grabbed me, I remembered that I had really liked Tiffany Murray’s previous novel, and so the book came home. It proved to be a gem.

Book Recommended Most in 2010

I was a little disappointed when I saw The Winds of Heaven listed as one of the new Persephone Books for autumn. It wasn’t that I didn’t love Monica Dickens, but I already had The Winds of Heaven and many of her other books on my shelves , and I had hoped to discover a new author or two. I read The Winds of Heaven on holiday, loved it, and saw that it fitted into the Persephone list perfectly. And I’ve been saying that ever since!

Best Series You Discovered in 2010

I met Gussie just a few weeks ago when I read The Burying Beetle, and I fell in love with the gravely ill but wonderfully alive twelve-year-old, who so loved books, films, the whole world around her. I am so pleased that Ann Kelley continues her story in three more books, and the next one has already found its way home from the library.

Favourite New Authors in 2010

It has to be a writer from the first half of the century who is only new in that she if new to me: Sheila Kaye-Smith. I read Joanna Godden in the summer, and it pushed her creator on to the “I must find all of her books” list.

Most Hilarious Read in 2010

I am not a great lover of comic writing, but there are one or two authors who combine wit with intelligence and warmth who I love dearly. L C Tyler is one of them and his most recent book, The Herring in the Library, was a delight.

Most Thrilling, Unputdownable Book of 2010

Poem Strip by Dino Buzzati, an Italian graphic novel that retold the classical story of Orpheus and Euridyce, was unsettling and utterly compelling. I read it in a single sitting.

Book Most Anticipated in 2010

Aran Knitting by Alice Starmore was the Holy Grail for knitters for a long time. Copies were so scarce and changed hands for ridiculous sums. I could only dream of finding a copy and being able to knot some wonderful designs that had been in my Ravelry queue since day one. But then a reissue was announced and I am pleased to be able to report that I now own the new, updated edition, with wonderful patterns and so much information about Aran knitting, and that it every bit as wonderful as I had expected.

Favourite Cover of a Book in 2010

I was completely captivated by the cover of The Still Point by Amy Sackville as soon as it caught my eye. Now I just have to get past that cover and read the book!

Most Memorable Character in 2010

There are a few contenders, but I think it has to be Martha. I met her in The Eye of Love a couple of years ago and I read more of her story in Martha in Paris and Martha, Eric and George this year. Martha is both ordinary and extraordinary, and completely her own woman. And the incomparable Margery Sharp tells her story with such warmth and wit that it is quite impossible to not be charmed.

Most Beautifully Written Book in 2010

The Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson was just perfect.

Book That Had the Greatest Impact on You in 2010

Beside the Sea by Veronica Olmi still makes me catch my breath whenever I think about it.

Book You Can’t Believe You Waited until 2010 to Read

I fell in love with Colette’s writing years ago and read everything of hers I could lay my hands on. How did Gigi slip through the net? Why did I wait until this year to meet her? I really have no idea!

Reading Cornwall: Past, Present and Future

Twelve months ago I set off on operation “Read Cornwall”, because there were so many wonderful books from and about my own particular corner of the world that I wanted to read and celebrate.

I set myself a target of twelve books a year, and I am pleased to say that I have done it and that I loved it.

I knew that I would, but I had to set the target so that I wouldn’t be distracted by other things.

Here are the books I read:

Rambles Beyond Railways by Wilkie Collins in a restored Victorian edition was heaven, and a book that I could quite happily read over and over again.

Snapped in Cornwall by Janie Bolitho was a mystery built on classic lines, and it captured West Cornwall perfectly. A very solid start to a series.

Bell Farm by M R Barneby was a family tale, simple but very effective, and it painted wonderful pictures of the countryside and a seaside farming community.

Archelaus Hosken’ Dilemma by F J Warren was a little comic gem, cleverly constructed and a masterful piece of storytelling.

Love in the Sun and Paradise Creek by Leo Walmsley were my books of the year, telling stories and catching the magic of real lives absolutely perfectly.

Roots and Stars by C C Vyvyan was a memoir of fascinating twentieth century life. Lady Vyvyan was a writer, traveller and nature lover, and I was charmed. i’ll definitely be reading more of her work.

Sarah Strick by Randle Hurley was lovely collection of comical tales set in my hometown in the 1940s. I was charmed and I could quite believe that my grandparents had known these people.

Manna From Hades and A Colourful Mystery by Carola Dunn were cosy mysteries set in a rather idealised 1960s. That threw me for a while, I liked the cast and the stories (well the first story, the second was weak) and so I kept reading.

An Unsentimental Journey Through Cornwall by Mrs Craik was another wonderful Victorian travelogue. I loved the author and I loved seeing Cornwall through her observant and perceptive eyes.

The Burying Beetle by Ann Kelley was a gem. The day-to-day life of a twelve-year-old girl who is both seriously ill and wonderfully alive, perfectly observed and beautifully written.

I’m delighted with my dozen for 2010 and there will definitely be another dozen in 2011.

I’m going to tidy up my Cornish Reading page too, and, if anyone else is interesting in joining me, I might just set up a Cornish Reading blog. Let me know …

But back to the books. I already have three lined up:

Framed in Cornwall by Jane Bolitho is lined up for letter B in my crime fiction alphabet.

From East End to Lands End by Susan Soyinka is an account of the wartime evacuation of the pupils of the jews’ Free School in London to a Cornish fishing village. There is a wealth of detail and it is so engaging: a book for both head and heart.

The Bower Bird by Ann Kelley has already found its way home, because I so want to meet Gussie again.

And there are many, many more …

The Burying Beetle by Ann Kelley

Gussie is a 12 year-old girl.

Her parents are divorced and Gussie’s mother has moved the two of them to a cottage on the outskirts of St Ives on the North Coast of Cornwall. She hopes that the milder Cornish climate and the better air quality will help Gussie’s health.

Because Gussie has a congenital heart defect. Her life expectancy isn’t great, but a heart and lung transplant offers some hope, if only a match can be found.

Gussie’s life is constricted, because she is quickly short of breath and she can’t go to school for fear of picking up an everyday illness that would compromise her heart.

It could be depressing, but it really isn’t.

Because Gussie is wonderfully alive, her thoughts dashing here and there, because there really is so much to take in, so much to think about.

Her head is full of films and books. And she observes the world around her, and in time the everyday wonders of nature that she sees but so many people miss captivate her, even pushing those films and books to one side.

It was wonderful to spend time with her.

Not too much happens, but that really doesn’t matter. Gussie observes the day-to-day details of life beautifully, and that, together with her cares and concerns, paints a wonderfully rich, complex picture of her inner life.

What this is, you see, is a quite beautifully written meditation on the importance of the small details of life, and the ordinary things that are actually so very special.

This is a book packed full of so many wonderful thoughts, sights and incidents. And it’s a book with the power to touch your heart and soul, and to make you look at the world a little differently.

I am so glad I met Gussie, and I am not quite ready to let her go.

Fortunately there are sequels …