Raven black – Ann Cleeves

Raven Black is the first book in Ann Cleeves’s Shetland Quartet. I read the last book in the series first & I reviewed Blue Lightning here. I’ve now gone back to the beginning & read book one.

This is a terrifically atmospheric murder mystery set on Shetland. A beautiful young girl, Catherine Ross, is found murdered, lying in the snow with ravens circling her body. There are several suspects. A reclusive old man, Duncan Tait, is the last to admit seeing Catherine & he has been shunned by the community since he was suspected of involvement in the disappearance of another girl years before. Catherine’s father, Euan, has been distracted since the death of his wife & seems headed for a breakdown. Catherine’s teacher, Michael Scott, was attracted to her & there are several other young men who were obsessed by her intelligence & beauty. Then there’s Fran Hunter who found the body & had employed Catherine as a babysitter. Jimmy Perez is the detective, a Shetland native who has come back to the islands after his marriage ended. He’s a sympathetic character who manages to hold his own when the detectives from Inverness arrive to lead the investigation. The atmosphere & the place are the stars in this book. It’s January, bitterly cold, there’s a real sense of dread that murder has come to the island. It was great to go back to the beginning of the series & see how Jimmy began the journey that ends in Blue Lightning.

Abby, hot cross buns & reading progress

I’ve spent the morning making hot cross buns. They’re on to the second rising now & I have the cross mixture all ready to pipe on & then pop them into the oven. I love making hot cross buns. The dough smells so delicious, I use lots of spices & it’s a lovely dough to knead. These have become an Easter tradition at work so we’ll be enjoying them for morning tea tomorrow. Unfortunately I’ve had a camera malfunction – actually, I think the camera’s had it, – so I can’t post a photo of the actual buns. My friend P is coming over tomorrow to finish installing my new water tank so he will have a look at the camera as well. It was only cheap as I didn’t think I’d need a camera very often. Well, blogging has changed my mind. I love taking photos of Abby & the garden & my cooking, so, if the camera has died, I’ll be out next week looking for a new one. So, the photo above is not authentic but gives an idea of what my buns look like. I wish you could smell them!

The camera problems also mean I don’t have a picture of Abby in her new purple sparkly collar. Actually it was while I was trying to get a shot of her in the collar yesterday that the camera gave up the ghost. So, here are a couple of photos from earlier in the summer.

I’m halfway through two terrific books. Tracy Borman’s Elizabeth’s women & Ann Cleeves’s Black raven which is the first in the Shetland Quartet. Perversely, I started with the last book in the series which I loved & reviewed here. I’ll be getting back to both books after lunch.

Pink sugar – O Douglas

Greyladies is another of the small publishing houses I’ve discovered recently. Based in Edinburgh, it’s the publishing side of The Old Children’s Bookshelf. They specialise in books for adults by authors mainly known for their children’s books. They also publish mysteries & romances, mostly set between the wars in England & Scotland. Their authors include Susan Scarlett (better known as Noel Streatfeild), Josephine Elder & recently they’ve published a mystery by Gladys Mitchell & books by O Douglas.

O Douglas was the pseudonym of Anna Buchan, sister of the more famous John of 39 Steps fame. I’ve just read the first of her books published by Greyladies, Pink Sugar. This is the story of Kirsty, a young woman who has led a wandering life with an unsympathetic stepmother. After her stepmother’s death, all she wants to do is go home to Scotland & put down some roots. She rents a house called Little Phantasy, which is the dower house of Phantasy, home of the squire, Colonel Home. Kirsty gathers in an elderly aunt & three children, bereft by the death of their mother, while their grief-stricken father wanders the earth in search of solace. The childrens’ governess, Stella Carter, & the servants, Nellie, Miss Wotherspoon (a very superior housemaid) & Easie the cook, complete the household. This is a charming book about living in a small Scottish village just after WWI. On the back of the book it’s described as Cranford-on-Tweed, & in some ways, that’s true. It’s a female-dominated society. Except for the ministers & Colonel Home, Kirsty’s landlord, the husbands & fathers are invisible apart from an odd reported comment. Lots of calls are paid, afternoon tea is always about to be served & gossip keeps everyone on their toes. Kirsty is a little too bright & bubbly for me. She has everything she wants & nothing to strive for. I identified much more with Rebecca Brand, the minister’s plain sister, who has to scrape by with no money & is forced to listen to Kirsty burbling on about the delights of housekeeping. Of course, Kirsty sees housekeeping as delightful when she has enough money to live comfortable & has servants to warm up the house & bring her tea in bed on cold mornings. To give Kirsty her due, she does have a little realisation of this late in the book, but she wasn’t as interesting a character to me as Rebecca & Merren Strang, a novelist who also lives in the neighbourhood. Kirsty’s is the “pink sugar” view of life which infuriates Rebecca & Colonel Home, a dour man who returned lame & unsociable from the war.

The strength of the book is the atmosphere of village life. Aunt Fanny is a relic of the Victorian age, bundled in her shawls by the fire. Merren Strang is very much the new, independent woman, widowed in the Boer War & losing her son in WWI, but earning her living successfully. There’s even a socially-conscious minister & his wife, Mr & Mrs McCandlish, who have the money to live comfortably, in contrast to Robert Brand & his sister. Even more interesting is another woman who Kirsty meets at the hotel where she stays in London when she travels up on business. Kirsty spends her evenings making up the story of the woman’s life – lives in Devonshire, Tory squire husband, devoted daughter, son at Oxford etc. On the last night, they finally get into conversation & Kirsty was only right about Devonshire. The woman says, after hearing Kirsty’s speculations, “But, must I have a husband? … can’t I have a beautiful, full life without a husband & family?” All Kirsty’s conventionality is exposed in this conversation. The woman (we don’t know her name) runs a farm with a friend & provides holiday accommodation for the children of parents serving overseas. I’d love to read a novel about her life!

The setting of Pink Sugar is based on Peeblesshire in the Border country, Anna Buchan’s home for much of her life. She used a pseudonym for her fiction because she didn’t want to cash in on her brother’s fame, but she had an audience of her own for her novels of family & village life. I’ve ordered another of her books, The Proper Place, & I hope Greyladies reprint more of her books.

Anglophilebooks.comA copy of Pink Sugar is available from Anglophile Books.

Charles Dickens & the house of fallen women – Jenny Hartley

Charles Dickens was one of the most energetic men of the Victorian age. He was the most famous novelist of the period, he edited or “conducted” as he put it, his own weekly journal, he was a journalist & philanthropist. His most famous experiment in philanthropy was Urania Cottage, a home for fallen women. The aim was to take young women off the streets or, more usually, from prison after they’d served their sentence, & give them the skills they needed to leave behind a life of crime. They would be trained in the domestic arts & sent to Australia, Canada or Sth Africa to start a new life. Dickens’s partner in this as in many of his philanthropic ventures was Angela Burdett Coutts, a young woman who was the heiress to the Coutts Bank fortune. She provided the money & certainly took an interest in the girls but Dickens was the driving force behind Urania Cottage. Dickens had always been interested in crime & punishment. His early experiences when his father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea for debt are well-known. The effect of this & its consequences for him – the end of his formal education & the time he spent working in Warren’s Blacking Factory – are well-known. He was fascinated by prisons & had very enlightened views of how prisoners should be treated – reformed rather than punished. Prisoners were forced to do repetitive, menial work, often in complete silence & there was no idea of reform. Dickens understood that many prisoners had started their life of crime through poverty rather than vice. Women were especially vulnerable. Orphaned or abandoned by their families or partners, it was almost impossible to make a living through respectable work. A seamstress could barely make enough to live on & if they didn’t have the skills to become domestic servants, prostitution or petty theft were the only alternatives. Urania Cottage was to be a home for the girls, not an institution or penitentiary, where they could be treated with respect, as individuals & earn the right to emigrate to a new life. Only a small number of women could be accommodated, about a dozen, but they usually only stayed for a year (if they stayed the course) before leaving for the colonies. Of course, not all the girls were grateful for this interference in their lives. It could be seen as middle-class meddling. But, Dickens & Miss Coutts really wanted to make a difference in the lives of their charges. The alternative was horrible, a short, miserable life on the streets or in prison. Urania Cottage was an enlightened alternative to some of the other schemes of the time, most of them with overtly religious or punitive aims. Jenny Hartley has written a fascinating account of the project. Dickens took a hands-on role in every area. He leased the Cottage, employed the staff, bought all the furniture, set out their daily timetable, personally interviewed the prospective inmates & was the moving force of the Committee set up to manage it. He wrote hundreds of letters, engaged the help of two prison governors who suggested suitable girls, & took an avid interest in every aspect of the work. He was involved for over 10 years & the effects of it can be seen in his books. Characters such as Martha Endell & Little Em’ly in David Copperfield, Tattycoram in Little Dorrit & Susan Nipper in Dombey & Son, are all testament to the effects of Dickens’s involvement at Urania. Dickens wrote up the story of every girl who entered Urania Cottage in a Case Book. He interviewed them all personally on arrival & throughout their stay. Although the book has disappeared, there’s enough evidence from his mentions of it in letters to know that a very full record was kept & only Dickens saw it. What a resource for a novelist! Although very little is known about the inmates apart from Dickens’s letters & Census records, Hartley has managed to trace several of them once they emigrated. Rhena Pollard was 16 when she was admitted to Urania Cottage. She was a troublemaker, spirited, but with a temper. Even so, Dickens thought she had potential, “The little girl from Petworth is an extraordinary case of restless imposture & seeking after notoriety; but there are chances (not desperate chances, I think) of something better being made of it.” Rhena lost her temper once too often & declared that she was off, she wouldn’t stay another minute. All Dickens’s theatrical instincts came to the fore. He ordered her to be turned out at once, as was the rule. But, it was Christmas, & he didn’t want Rhena to go at all so he called her bluff. She was shocked into admitting that she wanted to stay & she pleaded with the matron in front of the other girls to be allowed to change her mind. Dickens then wrote a letter to be read out to the girls that had the effect of allowing Rhena to stay, showing the others the consequences of disobedience & reinforcing the authority of a new matron as Dickens pretended that it was the matron’s pleas which had changed his mind. Rhena eventually emigrated to Canada, married a homesteader & had a family. Her descendants live in Ontario today. Hartley even speculates that Rhena is the model for Tattycoram as she resembles her in looks & temper.
Another descendant of a Urania girl was traced on Hartley’s last day of a trip to Australia in a retirement home here in Melbourne. She had no idea of the Dickensian connection in her family. This is a wonderful book for anyone interested in Dickens or in the social history of the 19th century. The Urania Cottage project was a period of ten years of Dickens’s life that had a profound impact on his life & work.

Abby’s Sunday morning & more geraniums

My friend P is installing a second water tank for me next week so I had to tidy up the garden bed under my bedroom window to give him access. As I posted here, I’ve never killed a geranium yet, so, as I was pulling out spider plants & trimming back the camellia & the hebe, I was planning where to put some more geraniums. I still had two in pots from my last trip to the nursery, one lemon & one rose scented, so I planted those. But, I needed more so back to the nursery. I bought some ordinary white & pink ones this time, & some chives to add to the herb garden. One of Abby’s favourite spots in this milder weather is under the bushes where she can enjoy a mixture of sunshine & shade. I took the other photo this morning as well. I think she looks very regal. Speaking of which, I bought her a new collar yesterday & it’s a very regal purple with a “diamond” circle on the front. I haven’t had a chance to put it on her yet but I’ll try to get a photo once I do.

Nella Last’s peace – ed P & R Malcolmson

Nella Last was a housewife in Barrow in Cumbria. She wrote a diary for the Mass Observation program beginning in 1939 & continuing until almost the end of her life. Mass Observation was an organisation which set out to discover the opinions of everyday citizens on all aspects of their lives. In the words of the editors of Nella’s diary, “MO aimed to lay the foundations for a social anthropology of contemporary Britain.” MO was made possible by the hundreds of volunteers who wrote diaries & responded to questionnaires on specific topics. Nella’s diary was one of the longest continuous records received by MO. She posted off her diary every week or fortnight without fail. The diary became a lifeline for her; it allowed her to use her untapped talents as a writer. What began as almost a duty became a pleasure. No matter how exhausted or ill she felt at the end of the day, she almost always ended the day in bed writing up her diary. Nella called herself Housewife, 49 (her age when she began writing) & her wartime diary was recently made into a movie of that name. Nella Last’s Peace is the record of the years after WWII. It’s a period that has only recently become a focus of interest. Several books have been written about the immediate post-war period. I can think of Maureen Weller’s London 1945, Alan Allport’s Demobbed & David Kynaston’s massive Austerity Britain. The end of the war didn’t bring the immediate joy that many may have expected. Weariness seemed to be the dominant feeling. Rationing continued & in some cases even grew more restrictive; returned servicemen & women found work hard to find; houses were expensive & sometimes jerry built; relationships had to be renegotiated between husbands, wives & children who had been separated for years & who had had very different experiences of the war. Women like Nella who had found a sense of purpose through volunteer work during the war were at a loose end when they were no longer needed. Nella hadn’t experienced the tragedy of losing anyone close to her in the war, but her sons were living far from home – Arthur & his wife, Edith, in Belfast & Cliff emigrated to Australia after he was demobbed. Her relationship with her husband, Will, is a fraught one. Will is taciturn, almost a recluse who dislikes socialising & is only really happy when he can come home from work to a hot meal & a silent evening working on his accounts. Nella is the opposite. She feels stifled at home without the legitimate excuse of war work to take her out of the house. She would like to invite friends & neighbours home but knows that Will would be unwelcoming & resentful. Their regular car trips to the countryside seem to be the only time when they are truly in tune with each other and even then, Will wants to buy a portable radio to take with them while Nella enjoys the peaceful communing with nature. What I especially loved reading about was Nella’s endless contriving with food. She describes the food she prepares, the queuing for rations, the juggling of coupons, the excitement when word goes around that some delicacy will be available, the stretching of scarce foods by using leftovers for another meal. The detail is fascinating. Nella & Will are also helping to support their elderly relations & Nella makes up a parcel of goodies every week for her Aunt Sarah. They also have to deal with Will’s mother’s sad decline with dementia after his father’s death. All this domestic detail is wonderful. I loved being part of Nella’s life again after reading Nella Last’s War a couple of years ago. If you enjoy reading about the Home Front in Britain, I recommend both of Nella’s diaries.

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is the story of Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry VIII. It’s the story of a man who grew up in Putney, the son of a blacksmith. A man who ran away from a violent home to be a soldier in Europe, then came home to work in the household of Cardinal Wolsey, the most influential man in the kingdom & the King’s right hand. Cromwell is a family man who treats his servants & clerks as part of his family. He takes in orphaned nieces & nephews, arranges their marriages & places them with important men. After Wolsey’s disgrace, he manages to demonstrate his loyalty to his old master while also taking his place with the King. The facts of Cromwell’s story are well-known. What Hilary Mantel has done is to bring the period & the people to life. She’s written a contemporary novel that happens to be set in the sixteenth century. I don’t read a lot of historical fiction. I read hundreds of historical novels when I was a teenager & the best of them led me to reading non-fiction about my favourite historical periods. I was interested in Wolf Hall because the Tudor period is one of my favourites. I’ve read a lot about Henry, his wives, Elizabeth, the Queen of Scots. I wasn’t interested in reading a conventional novel that took me through the old familiar story. Wolf Hall is different.

Mantel doesn’t write great set pieces, describing the nobleman’s house or the King’s palace, cramming in every bit of research to make you aware that you’re in a different period. She doesn’t try to copy 16th century speech or describe what everyone’s wearing. There’s a massive cast of characters & it takes concentration to keep them all straight. Cromwell is referred to as “he” much of the time. The reader is often listening to his thoughts as much as hearing him speak. It’s an intimate relationship between reader & character. I thought I knew quite a bit about Cromwell but it was mostly through other people’s stories. Anne Boleyn or Anne of Cleves, Thomas More or Henry. Holbein’s portrait was also in my mind as I read. My idea of Cromwell was not one I felt much sympathy for, but I enjoyed meeting this Cromwell very much. He’s a practical man, alive to the possibilities of business, the giving & receiving of favours. A shrewd man who has learnt the hard way how to get ahead. A man with a thick skin, impervious to the insults of nobles & churchmen who snigger at his origins.

Mantel’s portraits of other characters were also fascinating & sometimes unexpected. The picture she draws of Thomas More is not the gentle saint that readers of Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons will be familiar with, but it’s one I recognize from biographies of More that I’ve read. Wolsey is a humorous, kind man here rather than the rapacious, greedy churchman. Henry was the biggest surprise. Mantel’s Henry is fearful. Frightened of poison, of looking foolish to his brother monarchs, of his wife’s bad temper. He relied on Wolsey’s experience as a young king & is just as dependant on Cromwell for reassurance in his middle age.

Wolf Hall ends in 1535. Henry has divorced Katherine of Aragon, married Anne Boleyn, who has given birth to a princess & just miscarried a second child. More & Fisher have been executed. Cromwell is planning a progress for the King & the narrative leaves off as he decides that they will stay at Wolf Hall, the home of the Seymours, as part of the journey. Anyone who knows Tudor history realises what a critical time this is for all the characters in the novel. The last five years of Cromwell’s life are full of as much intrigue as all the years covered in this novel. I believe Hilary Mantel is working on a sequel. I can’t wait to read it.

Anglophilebooks.comThere’s a copy of Wolf Hall available at Anglophile Books.

Abby’s Monday morning

After working at the booksale on Saturday, I was able to take a day off today. Autumn has turned back into late summer with very warm weather but the mornings & evenings are crisp so true autumn isn’t far away. Abby thought it would be a good idea to supervise me from one of her favourite rolling & tree trunk scratching places as I washed my car. Washing the car hasn’t been a priority over the summer. We’re on water restrictions so can’t use mains water & I haven’t wanted to use my tank water as that belongs to the garden. But, we had a real soaking last weekend from thunderstorms, the tank filled up again & as autumn is coming, I decided the time had come. I thought you’d rather see photos of Abby than a clean car so here’s the result.

Chocolate wishes – Trisha Ashley

Chloe Lyon makes chocolate wishes, little chocolate shapes with an angelic message inside. Chloe’s life has always been influenced by magic. Her grandfather (known as Grumps) is a warlock who writes lurid Dennis Wheatley-type novels; her grandmother was a gypsy & Zillah, Granny’s cousin, lives with the family, which also includes Chloe’s half-brother, Jake. Their mother flitted just after Jake was born. She may be dead or just enjoying life with another of her unsuitable boyfriends. Chloe left university & broke up with her first love, Raffy Sinclair, around this time & she brought Jake up, rightly thinking he needed more stability than her grandfather & Zillah would provide. Chloe’s now in her mid 30s, her business is going well, she has two close friends, Poppy & Felix, but there’s been no man in her life since she broke off her engagement with dreadful yuppie David years before. Grumps decides to move the family to Sticklepond, a village near Winter’s End, a stately home that featured in an earlier novel by Ashley, A Winter’s Tale. The house he buys was once a doll’s hospital, so there’s plenty of room for Chloe to have her own separate home with room for her confectionery business & the potential for a lovely garden. Jake’s about to start university & Chloe looks settled for a happy if low-key life. Then, Raffy Sinclair turns up – as the new vicar. Chloe & Raffy broke up because his band, Mortal Ruin, had been offered a chance at fame & he wanted her to go with him. Misunderstandings & a treacherous friend meant that they both believed that the other hadn’t cared enough to try to reconcile. So, Chloe has spent years crying at Raffy’s songs on the radio & Raffy (not knowing about her mother & Jake) believes she didn’t love him enough to change her mind. Mortal Ruin came to a natural end & Raffy found a vocation for the Church. Now they’re living in the same village with a lot of catching up to do. I really enjoy Trisha Ashley’s books. Her heroines are usually a little older than most chick lit girls & they often have foodie careers which I enjoy reading about. She writes well about village life & the romance is gentle but sweet. There wasn’t as much romance in Chocolate Wishes as usual & Raffy was quite a low-key hero. More Edmund Bertram than Frederick Wentworth (not that I’m putting Ashley in the same class as Austen but if you read Austen, you’ll understand what I mean about the different types of hero). But, I enjoyed Chloe’s family & her friends, Felix & Poppy, both with mad mothers & emotional problems of their own to work through. There are a lot of subplots in the book & I do feel this distracted attention from the romance but it was a very enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. The book does come with a warning though. You will probably feel compelled to eat chocolate while reading it. The descriptions of Chloe’s chocolate-making are scrumptious (recipes are included) & I not only ate chocolate but made chocolate cupcakes as well, so, be warned.

My busy week

I’ve had a very busy week preparing for a monster book sale for my library which was held today. My muscles feel as though I’ve personally moved every one of the 300+ boxes of books we had stored for the sale but luckily I work with a wonderful team of people & we all moved boxes, erected trestle tables, took money, brought each other coffee & cold drinks, laughed, grumbled & had a very satisfying day. I can say that now that I’ve had a bath, drank a pot of tea, read for an hour or so & have just had dinner.

I’ve had an exciting week of reading as well but I haven’t had time to write about it. I’ve just about finished Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel which I’m sure needs no introduction. Winner of last year’s Man Booker prize & it’s fantastic. I have less than 100pp to go so I’ll finish it tonight & post a review tomorrow. I also read Chocolate Wishes by Trisha Ashley, a lovely romantic read with chocolate. What more could I ask for? I’ll review that tomorrow as well. My lunchtime book this last week has been Nella Last’s Peace, the postwar diary of the woman who wrote a diary for Mass Observation for over 30 years. Her wartime diary has already been published as Nella Last’s War, & it was made into a telemovie, Housewife, 49, a few years ago. I loved Nella’s wartime diary & I fell straight back into her life, her family & her neighbours in just a few pages. I can’t wait to get back to post-war Britain once I leave Tudor England.

I’ll leave you with a picture of some of my bookshelves. You can probably work out that these are the Ds. The profile of Sherlock Holmes is a bit of a giveaway. You’ll also spy lots of Dickens & John Donne. The photo is my Great-Aunt Beattie in her calisthenics uniform probably taken in the 1910s. I never knew her. My grandfather emigrated from England after WWI but we have lots of photos of his family & I love this one. Also, a photo of Abby in front of the jonquils so this was obviously taken last September. Abby still hasn’t taken any paraffin oil but she did bring up a hairball so I have to be pleased about that. The jonquils will also be seasonally spring-like for anyone visiting the blog from the northern hemisphere.