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 …

Carola Dunn in Cornwall

Carola Dunn’s mysteries were on my “one day” list for a very long time. But the right book to read first never turned up in the library or a local shop and so there she stayed. Until I learned that she was launching a new series set in Cornwall. An order was swiftly placed!

The premise was appealing:

“Eleanor Trewynn is a recently retired widow who has moved to the small village of Port Mabyn in Cornwall. A lifetime of travelling the world, working for a charitable organisation in some of the poorest parts of the world, has made her capable of handling nearly anything, Now, however, Eleanor is ready for an uneventful life with her dog and her friends in this quiet town, but unfortunately, excitement seems to follow her around…”

At first though I struggled with Manna From Hades. You see it was Cornwall, and yet it wasn’t: the big picture was right but some of the details were wrong.

But to be fair the author did explain on her note that it was “a fictional world between her childhood memories and the present reality” and it is a very nice world that she has created. And as someone who works for a global charity in a Cornish seaside town I may have been a little over sensitive!

I dropped the book for a while, but the mystery and the characters called me back.

The scene is set with Eleanor driving through the countryside collecting donations for her local charity shop. On her return to Port Mabyn she finds that her load includes a briefcase full of jewellery that she doesn’t remember collecting. It must be fake she thinks, and maybe some shy and generous soul slipped it into the car when she wasn’t looking,

Or maybe not: there is a body hidden in the charity shop’s store-room….

A mystery is built: valuable stolen jewellery and a body that does not seen to be connected with the robbery. And then, of course, that mystery is unravelled. It’s simple but it’s nicely constructed.

It’s the cast and their interactions that make it work:

Eleanor is bright but she is vague and slow to mention key facts. That aggravates Inspector Scumble, a fundamentally good man who is struggling with the new-fangled notion of women police officers. It’s fortunate then that Detective Sergent Megan Pencarrow is bright and hard-working. And that the inspector doesn’t know that she is Eleanor’s niece. The cast is rounded out by young Nick Gresham, Eleanor’s artist neighbour, and her smart and practical friend, vicar’ wife Jocelyn Stearns.

And best of all was Teazle : Eleanor’s West Highland terrier is a star!

Setting, mystery and cast combined with lovely storytelling produced a lovely light read.

Not perfect, but certainly good enough for me to pick up the next book in the series.

A Colourful Mystery opens with Eleanor collecting Nick at the railway station. He is on a high after a productive meeting with a London art dealer, but his happiness is shattered when he opens his gallery door and sees paintings slashed through.

Nick rushes off to confront the man he believe to be responsible with Eleanor, worried at what he might do, in hot pursuit. But he finds the man dead on his studio floor, and his hysterical girlfriend accuses Nick.

A different mystery, set this time in a community of artists, but I’m afraid it didn’t work for me. The early chapters dragged, and when it eventually got going I’m afraid it stretched credulity a little too far.

But the cast were still engaging, and my appreciation of how well they were drawn, how well their relationships were balanced grew. I appreciated too how clever it was of Carola Dunn to make her heroine’s niece a policewoman, allowing her to present different view of the central mystery and making it a little less difficult to keep an amateur detective close to the heart of that mystery.

The foundations of the series are still good, but I’m not quite sure about what ha been built on them. And I suspect that this may be a series for the cosy mystery devotee rather than the general reader.

But I could still be tempted by a third book: it would be lovely to meet the people – and the dog – again.

Library Loot

Do I have any library loot this week? Of course I do!

Here it is:

Twisted Wing by Ruth Newman

“Cambridge is home to 18,000 students, 1,500 academics – and one serial killer. The discovery of the headless, mutilated body of a female undergraduate in her bloodsoaked college room heralds the start of a series of bizarre and extremely violent murders. For the students of Ariel College, a siege mentality has developed following weeks of media interest in the ‘Cambridge Butcher’. University life has become not about surviving their exams, but surviving full stop. Forensic psychiatrist Matthew Denison is sure that his traumatised patient, student Olivia Coscadden, has the killer’s identity locked up in her memory. That within the little clique she belonged to lurks someone with a grudge. Someone who has yet to finish settling their score. In order to get to the truth, Denison must delve into the secrets hidden within Olivia’s subconscious. Secrets that are about to lead him into a nightmare beyond imagining.”

This is the book that broke my ordering ban. I blame Sophie Hannah.

‘I absolutely loved TWISTED WING. It was so gripping, and I was both desperate and reluctant to get to the end. I found it scary, tantalisingly unpredictable and very, very hard to put down’

An endorsement from an author of her quality – plus the fact that it is published by the wonderful Long Barn Books – left me in danger of buying the book. So I ordered it instead. I am still buying books, but not so much crime because there are so many good books coming through the library.

Dear Mr Bigelow: A Transatlantic Friendship by Frances Woodford

“”Dear Mr Bigelow” is an enchanting selection of weekly ‘pen-pal’ letters written between 1949 and 1961 from an unmarried woman working at the Pier Approach Baths in Bournemouth, to a wealthy American widower, living on Long Island, New York. Frances Woodsford and Commodore Paul Bigelow never met, and there was no romance – she was in her forties when he died aged ninety-seven – yet their epistolary friendship was her lifeline. The “Saturday Specials” as Frances dubbed them, are brilliantly-packed missives, sparked with comic genius, from post-war England. We follow her travails at the Baths (and her ghastly boss Mr Bond); the hilarious weekly Civil Defence classes as the Cold War advances; her attempts to shake off Dr Russell, an unwanted suitor; life at home with Mother, and Mac, her charming ne’er-do-well brother; and, escapades in their jointly-owned car, a 1934 Ford 8 called Hesperus. Most importantly, we get to know Frances – and her deep affection for Mr Bigelow. She started to write to him as a way of thanking his daughter for the clothes and food parcels she sent. But what had begun as a good turn offered Frances the chance to escape a trying job, and to expound with elegance, wit and verve on topical subjects from home and abroad, bringing us a beady commentary on her life and times that leaps vividly from the page. Her letters to Mr Bigelow during his final illness are a tender and moving farewell, a touching conclusion to a unique record.”

I love books of letters – fact or fiction. This one looked particularly lovely, so I checked the catalogue, saw that there was a copy in stock, and waited. It finally appeared on the returns trolley yesterday, and I swooped.

The Year of The Flood by Margaret Atwood

“Adam One, the kindly leader of the God’s Gardeners – a religion devoted to the melding of science and religion, the preservation of all species, the tending of the Earth, and the cultivation of bees and organic crops on flat rooftops – has long predicted the Waterless Flood. Now it has occurred, obliterating most human life. Two women have avoided it: the young trapeze-dancer, Ren, locked into the high-end sex club, Scales and Tails; and former SecretBurgers meat-slinger turned Gardener, Toby, barricaded into the luxurious AnooYoo Spa, where many of the treatments are edible. Have others survived? Ren’s bioartist friend Amanda, or the MaddAddam eco-fighters? Ren’s one-time teenage lover, Jimmy? Or the murderous Painballers, survivors of the mutual-elimination Painball prison? Not to mention the CorpSeCorps, the shadowy and corrupt policing force of the ruling powers Meanwhile, in the natural world, gene-spliced life forms are proliferating: the lion/lamb blends, the Mo’hair sheep with human hair, the pigs with human brain tissue. As Adam One and his intrepid hemp-clad band make their way through a ruined world, singing their devotional hymns and faithful to their creed and to their Saints – Saint Francis Assisi, Saint Rachel Carson, and Saint Al Gore among them – what odds for Ren and Toby, and for the human race?”

I didn’t have to check the catalogue for this one – I knew it was bound to appear. And it did!

Manna From Hades by Carola Dunn

“Eleanor Trewynn is a widow of some years living in Port Mabyn, a small fishing village in Cornwall. In her younger days, she travelled the exotic parts of the world with her husband. These days, she’s retired and founded the local charity shop. Her niece, Megan Pencarrow, transferred nearby, and was recently promoted to the rank of Detective Sergeant. Perhaps the only downside is that she is now working for a DI who doesn’t approve of women on the police force and who really doesn’t much approve of Megan’s aunt Eleanor, as she is something of a thorn in his rather substantial side. All of these factors collide when, the day after collecting donations, Eleanor and the vicar’s wife find the dead body of a longhaired, scruffy-looking youth hidden in the stockroom of the charity shop. Then they discover that some donated jewellery thought to be fake is actually very real, very expensive, and the haul from a violent robbery in London. Making matters more complex, the corpse found in the storeroom is apparently not one of the robbers.”

I’ve been meaning to try Carole Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple mysteries for ages but I’ve not quite got to it yet. Then Cristina told me she had started a new series, set in Cornwall and I couldn’t resist tagging this one on to my order.I’m glad so I did – it looks wonderful! The book that arrived was an American edition – which seems strange given that I’m in Cornwall, doesn’t it?

And I brought home another Cornish mystery as well. I read it the same evening and I’m going to write about it tomorrow, so I won’t say any more about it now.

Have you read any of these? What did you think? Which book should I go for next? And which are you curious to know more about?

And what did you find in the library this week?

See more Library Loot here.