Ninepins by Rosy Thornton

I finished read Rosy Thornton’s book Ninepins a few days ago.  It’s a remarkable book about mothers and daughters, about growing up and relationships. It’s quite difficult to describe – it’s not exactly a thriller, although there is a mystery element to it and the tension  and suspense gradually build throughout the book. And it’s not exactly a romance, although there is a love story in there too. It’s about people, but there is a satisfying plot and beautiful descriptions of the locations – I learnt a lot about the Cambridgeshire Fens.

It rings true to life, with all the anguish and angst of bringing up children as Laura, a divorced single mum struggles to cope as her daughter Beth turns twelve. They live in an old tollhouse, called Ninepins – there used to be a bridge across the lode and the toll was 9d (nine pence), which over time morphed into ‘Ninepins’. To help out with her finances she rents out the self-contained pumphouse, converted from a fen drainage station, to students. Her new lodger is Willow, a 17-year-old student, with a troubled past. She has been in a care home and still needs Vince, her social worker for support. Laura is not sure what influence Willow will have on Beth, who is having difficulties making friends at her new school. When Beth gets into trouble at school, Laura becomes even more anxious and she doesn’t seem able to do right for doing wrong. Then there is Willow’s mother whose appearance on the scene brings about devastation.

This is a darker book than Rosy’s other books that I’ve read and it captures perfectly the precarious relationships between parents and children as they begin to grow up and feel independent. Just how much leeway should Laura give Beth, how much should she intervene in her life, how much should she monitor what Beth is doing are questions that Laura is trying to resolve. Willow’s and Vince’s appearance in their lives bring changes that Laura had just not considered.She knows a little about Willow’s background and what she does know bothers her immensely. It’s the relationships in this book that are the focal point as Laura, Beth and Willow come to terms with their situations. A gripping story that held my interest throughout.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Sandstone Press Ltd (16 April 2012)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 1905207859
  • ISBN-13: 978-1905207855
  • Source: Author review copy
  • My Rating: 4.5/5

The Burry Man’s Day by Catriona McPherson

This is the second in Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver series.

Synopsis (taken from the back cover):

August 1923, and as the village of Queensferry prepares for the annual Ferry Fair and the walk of the Burry Man, feelings are running high. Between his pagan greenery, his lucky pennies and the nips of whisky he is treated to wherever he goes, the Burry Man has something to offend everyone wherever he goes whether minister, priest or temperance pamphleteer. And then at the Fair, in full view of everyone – including Dandy Gilver, present at the festivities to hand out prizes he drops down dead.

It looks as though the Burry Man has been poisoned – but if so, then the list of suspects must include everyone in the town with a bottle of whisky in the house, and, here in Queensferry, that means just about everyone …

Part of my interest in The Burry Man’s Day is that it is set in South Queensferry, on the south shore of the Firth of Forth, now part of the city of Edinburgh, formerly in the County of Linlithgowshire. I’ve been there once. It’s close to the Forth Road Railway Bridge:

I haven’t seen the Burry Man’s Parade, which features strongly in this book; it must be a strange sight.

The book has a rather slow start, but it’s one I enjoyed for all its historical detail about the place, its traditions and the people. It has a great sense of place, with a map of Queensferry at the beginning of the book which helps you follow the action. I wasn’t very taken with Dandy Gilver. I liked her more in a later book in the series. In this book she comes across as a busy-body, albeit kind-hearted, and a snob, but then that’s probably just a reflection of the class structure of the times. She’s married to Hugh, who seems to spend his life hunting and shooting and managing his large estate at Gilverton in Perthshire. Dandy doesn’t have much in common with him, being rather bored by life at Gilverton and Hugh doesn’t feature much in this book.

This is Dandy’s second investigation and I suppose if I read the first book, After the Armistice Ball, I might understand her relation with Hugh and with Alec Osborne, her co-investigator. That’s one of the drawbacks of reading a series out of order.

There’s a lot more to this mystery than the death of Robert Dudgeon, who been the Burry Man for 25 years. He’d been extremely reluctant to take the part this year and the question  why was that remained unanswered for the majority of the book. I had an idea about the reason, but only guessed part of it. It’s a convoluted tale and the motive for the murder is buried deep in the descriptions of the characters and their histories. It’s a book you need to concentrate on, and at some points I did have difficulty in sorting out some of the minor characters. Other than that I think it’s a very good book, although maybe a bit too long.

  • My Rating 4/5
  • Author’s website: http://www.dandygilver.com/author.htm – where you can read an extract from this book
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Robinson Publishing (30 Aug 2007)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 1845295927
  • ISBN-13: 978-1845295929
  • Source: Library book

Westwood by Stella Gibbons: a Book Review

I found Westwood by Stella Gibbons a slightly disappointing book. I liked it, but didn’t love it, as I’d hoped I would. I do enjoy descriptive writing, and there are some beautiful descriptive passages, but there were far too many, even for me, which eventually made me wish Gibbons would just get a move on. Lynne Truss in the introduction wrote that she loves it deeply and it made her laugh and weep. I found it amusing in places and also touching. It’s a slow meander through the characters, their lives and their houses.

Margaret Steggles, a plain young woman finds a ration book on Hampstead Heath which provides her with an introduction into the lives of Gerard Challis and his family, his beautiful wife, Seraphina, his self-absorbed daughter Hebe and her spoilt children and Zita the family’s maid. Margaret idolises Gerard, who is a playwright. He in turn falls under the spell of her best friend, Hilda. The contrast between Margaret and Hilda is marked. Margaret is serious, somewhat of a snob, ‘not the type to attract men’, and impressed by the artistic circle surrounding the Challis family. Hilda, a beautiful young woman who attracts many male admirers has no trace of romance in her nature and Margaret realises that Hilda ‘would not or could not be serious’. Margaret becomes obsessed with Gerard’s house, Westwood and longs to be there whenever she can. Feeling that she has outgrown Hilda, she cultivates a friendship with Zita.

This is not a wartime novel, although it is set in London just after the Blitz and there are some wonderful descriptions of the city and its unexpected green and unspoilt places amidst the ruins of bombed houses. Although the war is not really in focus, the atmosphere of the times infuses the novel. The nature of war itself is discussed by Grantey, the family’s old nurse in her conversation with Hebe:

… it’s all part of God’s plan for doing away with war for good and all.

All those dreadful explosions and atrocities and secret weapons they keep on talking about, … and not knowing when you go to bed at night if you’ll be alive when you wake up in the  morning – that’s all part of God’s plan. He’s letting it get worse and worse, so’s it’ll destroy itself, like; it’ll get so bad not even wicked people’ll want it , and then it’ll stop. (page 277)

Really???

It’s a novel about relationships, about friendship, about hope and longing and above all about disappointment and ‘coming to terms with life’.

*Slight spoiler alert follows*

*I wouldn’t have known without Lynne Truss’s introduction to the book that Gerard was based on the writer Charles Morgan, who had annoyed Stella Gibbons, and Gerard’s characters in his dreadful plays are parodies of Morgan’s female characters. Morgan had claimed that a sense of humour was lacking in writers.The pompous Gerard is the butt of the humour in the novel  – in particular the scene where his grandchildren find him in a compromising situation in Kew Gardens – that did make me smile.*

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Classics (4 Aug 2011)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 009952872X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099528722
  • Source: I bought it
  • My Rating 3/5

Stella Gibbons’s more famous novel is Cold Comfort Farm. I used to think I’d read it, now I’m not so sure. I like Westwood just enough to make me curious to look out for it. If you’ve read it, or Westwood, what are your views?

I Never Knew That About England by Christopher Winn

I came across I Never Knew That About England by Christopher Winn, soon after I decided to read my way around Britain in my Britain in Books project. This book is a collection of stories ‘that have England as their backdrop’.

It’s arranged alphabetically by the 39 traditional counties of England, so it fits in very well with my project. Winn writes in his preface that he has made every effort to get the facts right, but notes that many of the stories

are not eternal truths but have been handed down through time, sometimes by word of mouth only. Details can vary according to different sources, but the essential substance and essence remains. (page 7)

The book is a miscellany of stories, anecdotes and a ‘smattering of fascinating facts and figures.’  I’m going to dip into it every now and then and post little snippets as they appeal to me, starting with my home county of Cheshire.

Cheshire - click on image to enlarge

Cheshire is in the north-west of England, bordering Wales. Readers of Mrs Gaskell know that Cranford is based on the town of Knutsford, but what I never knew is that the village of Mobberley, near Knutsford, where one of my aunties lived, is the birthplace of George Mallory (1886 – 1924), the mountaineer who died attempting to climb Mount Everest. His father was the Rev. Herbert Leigh Mallory, the rector of Mobberley and it is said that he practised climbing up the church tower. I found this article in the Knutsford Guardian about the family home, Hobcroft House.

When asked why he wanted to climb Everest, Mallory replied: ‘Because it’s there’. It’s never been discovered whether Mallory did reach the summit. The camera Mallory and his companion Sandy Irvine took with them as they set out to make it to the top has never been found. Irvine’s body too has never been discovered, but in 1999 Mallory’s body was found on the North Face, 1,000 feet below the summit. There is a memorial window in the St Wilfrid’s Church dedicated to Mallory, inscribed:

lost to human sight between earth and heaven

White Nights by Ann Cleeves: a Book Review

White Nights (Shetland Island, #2)

White Nights by Ann Cleeves is the second in her Shetland Quartet, featuring Detective Jimmy Perez. The first book is Raven Black, which I read and wrote about last year. I enjoyed this one just as much as the first and, although I think it stands well on its own, I think it best to read them in order as some of the characters appear in both and you can follow the development of their relationships.

White Nights is set mainly in Biddista, a fictional village of a few houses, a shop, an art gallery and restaurant called the Herring House, and an old Manse. Kenny Thomson finds a man’s body hanging in the hut where the boat owners of the village of Biddista keep their lines and pots. Perez recognises the dead man – he’s the mystery man who had caused a scene the previous evening at the opening of Bella Sinclair’s and Fran Hunter’s art exhibition. At first it looks as though the man, his face covered by a clown’s mask, has committed suicide, but he’d been dead before he was strung up and the murder team from Inverness, headed up by Roy Taylor, are called in. It takes quite some time before they can identify the dead man and even longer before the motive for killing him is revealed. And that is only after more deaths have occurred.

This is a most satisfying book for me. It’s not only full of believable characters, each one an individual in their own right, it also has a nicely complicated plot and a great sense of location. As well as the mystery of who killed the man in the clown mask and why, there is also the disappearance 15 years earlier of Kenny’s older brother Lawrence. It was thought that he left the island after Bella had broken his heart. Kenny hadn’t heard from him since and at first thought the dead man could be him.

It’s the place, itself, that for me conveyed the most powerful aspects of the book. The ‘white nights’ are the summer nights when the sun never really goes down. They call it the ‘summer dim’, the dusk lasts all night, and in contrast to the bleak, black winters, fills people with ‘a kind of frenzy‘. The landscape and the climate certainly play a great part in people’s lives.Taylor feels very much an outsider, almost too impatient to cope with what he thinks is Perez’s hesitant approach, until it occurred to him that

here in this bizarre, bleak, treeless community, Perez’s strange methods might actually get results. (page 263)

I could see the landscape and the sea, and I could hear the birds, the kittiwakes on the cliffs, the puffins and skuas. The Shetland Islands are part of theBritish Isles, but are so far north of the mainland that they are on about the same latitude as the southern point of Greenland.

However, I did think that the ending came rather suddenly after the careful build up to the mystery. The tension just gradually faded away as it became obvious who the culprit was. But I still think it’s a very good book, that held my interest, one that made me want to get back to it each time I had to put it down.

  • Paperback: 340 pages
  • Publisher: Pan (5 Jun 2009)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 0330448250
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330448253
  • Source: Library Book
  • My Rating: 4/5

Book Beginnings: Westwood by Stella Gibbons

One of the books I’m currently reading is Westwood by Stella Gibbons. It begins:

London was beautiful that summer. In the poor streets the people made an open-air life for themselves under the blue sky as if they were living in a warmer climate. Old men sat on the fallen masonry and smoked their pipes and talked about the war, while women stood patiently in the shops or round the stalls selling large fresh vegetables, ceaselessly talking. (page 1)

Written in 1946 this is set in wartime London, just after the Blitz. In the next paragraphs the ruins of bombed houses are described surrounded by deep pools of water (from the fire-fighters), ducks on the pools, willow-herb growing where houses once stood, foxes raiding gardens, a hawk flying over the city –

London in ruin was beautiful as a city in a dream. (page 2)

I love the way Gibbons sets the scene, showing the effects of war. It’s a novel about ordinary people and what it was like to live then, during the war. I haven’t read much further on and I’m hoping it will live up to its opening.

Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Katy at A Few More Pages.

Britain in Books

A few days ago Cath at Read Warbler wrote about doing her own personal USA Challenge, which got me thinking about doing something similar but based in Britain. I love books with a strong sense of location so it seemed quite straightforward – I’d read books set in Britain.

Then I realised it’s not as simple as that – how was I going to decide on the locations? For centuries the people of the British Isles have been discussing, debating and even fighting over how we should divide up the land. Now, I don’t want to get into politics (I’m not saying anything about moves from different sections of our community for ‘independence’), so I thought I’d focus around our counties.

Again not simple. At first I thought I’d use the current local administrative areas, forgetting all the reorganisation that seems to be always on the go! How could I have forgotten after working for over 20+ years in local government! It’s not only the physical areas that keep being tinkered with but also the names of our counties. It’s  complicated and confusing. Eventually I came round to the idea of using the Historic Counties of the United Kingdom – there are 92. With so many counties, I’m making this an open ended project, because I shan’t be restricting my reading to just British books, by any means.

Map source: The Association of British Counties

I’ll read fiction in different genres, I’ll stray into poetry and drama occasionally and I’ll also include non-fiction – history, travel, diaries, biographies and so on. As well as focusing on the counties I’m also going to include regional books and books about the four countries that make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, not forgetting the surrounding islands.

I shall most likely expand/adapt this project and I plan to make a separate page on this blog to record my progress.

I’m not waiting until next year to start – I’m beginning now, in the far north, in the Shetland Isles reading White Nights by Ann Cleeves.