South Riding by Winifred Holtby

South Riding

Blurb:

The community of South Riding, like the rest of the country, lives in the long shadow of war. Blighted by recession and devastated by the loss, they must also come to terms with significant social change.Forward-thinking and ambitious, Sarah Burton is the embodiment of such change. After the death of her fiancé, she returns home to Yorkshire focused on her career as headmistress of the local school. But not everyone can embrace the new social order. Robert Carne, a force of conservatism, stands firmly against Sarah. A tormented man, he carries a heavy burden that locks him in the past.

As the villagers of South Riding adjust to Sarah’s arrival and face the changing world, emotions run high, prejudices are challenged and community spirit is tested. 

My View:

I bought Winifred Holtby’s sixth and last novel, South Riding, after watching the BBC television adaptation by Andrew Davies, starring Anna Maxwell Martin and David Morrissey, broadcast in February 2011. And I’ve  only just got round to reading it – it was well worth the wait. It’s one of those books that make you feel as though you are there taking part in the action – I was totally immersed in the story and I loved it.

The book was first published in 1936, six months after Winifred Holtby’s death, aged 37, from Bright’s disease. Set in the early 1930s in Yorkshire it paints a moving and vivid portrait of a rural community struggling with the effects of the depression.

South Riding is a fictional place – Yorkshire consists of a North, East and West Riding – there is no South Riding. The word Riding is derived from a Danish word ‘thridding’, meaning a third. The invading Danes called representatives from each Thridding to a thing, or parliament and established the Ridings System. South Riding is based on the East Riding where Winifred Holtby’s mother was a county alderman, but she explained in a prefatory letter to her mother that Alderman Mrs Beddows was not Alderman Mrs Holtby, that the characters were not her colleagues on the county council and that the incidents in the book were not derived from her mother’s experience.

Nevertheless,the main focus of the novel is centred on local politics and the work of the county council in dealing with a variety of issues  including social issues, education, unemployment, local building programmes, poor relief and the treatment of the insane. There is a large cast of characters and a list is given at the start of the book, which I found most helpful.

It is an intensely detailed story, involving many sub-plots as the lives of all the characters unfold. The main characters are Sarah Burton, the new headmistress of Kiplington High School for Girls, a fiercely passionate and dedicated teacher; Councillor and farmer Robert Carne of Maythorpe Hall and his struggles both personal and financial; Joe Astell, a socialist fighting poverty; and Mrs Beddows, the first woman alderman of the district, a strong older woman (age 72), a generous and charitable woman – my favourite character. This is how Winifred Holtby describes her:

She was a plump sturdy little woman, whose rounded features looked as though they had been battered blunt by wear and weather in sixty years or more of hard experience. But so cheerful, so lively, so frank was the intelligence which beamed  benevolently from her bright spaniel-coloured eyes, that sometimes she looked as young as the girl she still, in her secret dreams, felt herself to be. (pages xxiv-xxv)

And here is one of the passages in which she describes Sarah Burton:

Sarah believed in action. She believed in fighting. She had unlimited confidence in the power of the human intelligence and will to achieve order, happiness, health and wisdom. It was her business to equip the young women entrusted to her by a still inadequately enlightened state for their part in that achievement. She wished to prepare their minds, to train their their bodies, and to inculcate their spirits with some of her own courage, optimism and unstaled delight. (page 42)

I could go on – all the characters are clearly defined and well rounded people and the locations bring the area to life, showing the contrast in living conditions between the different sections of society.

In short South Riding is a wonderful book, portraying life in the 1930s. I would very much like to re-read and enjoy it again and again. I’m sure that I would find plenty in it that I’ve missed on this first reading.

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: BBC Books (6 Jan. 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1849902038
  • ISBN-13: 978-1849902038
  • Source: I bought the book
  • My Rating: 5*

South Riding is my 18th book for Bev’s Mount TBR 2017 challenge and my final book for Charlie’s What’s in a Name Challenge 2017.

Catching Up: three crime fiction books

I’m following the example of my blogging friend, Cath at Read Warbler, by writing a ‘catch up’ post as I am behind with writing reviews. That’s what going away for two weeks and then having an awful cold afterwards does for you!

So here are three crime fiction books, all very enjoyable 4 star books, that I read earlier this year:

A Dedicated Man by Peter Robinson, the second novel in Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks series, first published in 1988, and my 17th book for  Bev’s Mount TBR 2017 challenge. I’ve been reading these books totally out of order and have gone back to the first ones to fill in the gaps in my reading.

Banks is now more settled in Yorkshire after the events described in the first book, Gallows View. I was struck as I read the books how unlike the TV version of Banks they are. Banks, himself, is nothing like Stephen Tompkinson (who plays his role). Robinson’s Banks is ‘a small dark man, in appearance rather like the old Celtic strain of Welshman, and his physique certainly didn’t give away his profession.

The ‘dedicated man‘ is local historian, Harry Steadman, who was found half-buried under a dry-stone wall near the village of Helmthorpe, Swainsdale. It seems that nobody would have wanted to kill such a good man, but as Banks investigates his background several suspects emerge. Sally Lunn, a young teenager knows more than is good for her and sets out to beat the police in finding the culprit.

Banks is a dogged and determined police officer, also a ‘dedicated man‘ and he concentrates on Steadman’s past; after leaving Cambridge where he got a first in history, he’d taught at Leeds University where he’d developed an interest in industrial archaeology. After his father died he’d inherited a considerable fortune and left his job to concentrate on his own interests. He’d married, Emma, a plain-looking woman who Banks first mistook for the cleaning lady.

Other characters include Jack Barker, a crime fiction writer, Penny Cartwright, a folk singer and Michael Ramsden, a close friend who worked in publishing. I thought Barker’s comment about his editor was interesting – that he could spend two days working on a fine description and find his editor wants him to cut it out because it slows the action. I wondered if that was Robinson’s own experience because he does include passages of description that do slow down the action. But I like his style, which is a good balance of description and fast -paced action.

Completely different in style is my next book, also detective fiction. It’s The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien by Georges Simenon, translated by Linda Coverdale. This is the third book in the new series of Maigret novels in new translations, published by Penguin, originally written in 1930. In this short book (144 pages) Maigret observed a shabby man, travelling on a train from Holland to Bremen, carrying a small suitcase. He replaced the man’s suitcase with another exactly like it and followed him when he left the train, only to watch him through a keyhole in hotel bedroom, place a revolver in his mouth and press the trigger.  Maigret is disturbed by the thought that he had both witnessed the tragedy and been the cause of it. Wonderfully mysterious and obscure I was baffled for most of the book, as Maigret uncovers a crime from ten years earlier, revolving around the macabre drawings of hanged men of all types. A recurrent theme was the steeple of a church – the same church, that of Saint-Pholien in Liège.

A note at the beginning of the book reveals that the book was drawn from Simenon’s experiences in Liège, when he was ‘involved with a literary set, comprised of poets and young artists. A member of the group, Joseph Jean Kleine, was  found hanging from the doorway of the church of Saint-Pholien during this period, a tragedy that left its mark on Simenon.

Moving forward to 2016 my final book is Present Tense by W H S McIntyre, a criminal defence lawyer. It’s the 7th book in his Best Defence series, featuring criminal lawyer Robbie Munro. Munro is based in Linlithgow and deals mainly with Scottish Legal Aid cases.

Billy Paris, ex-military, leaves a cardboard box with Robbie and asks him to look after it for him, without telling him what it contained, but assuring him it wasn’t guns, knives or drugs. That’s OK until two men in black suits, one a detective inspector and the other from the Ministry of Defence, ask him for the box and want to know where they can find Billy.

It’s a legal drama, a tense and complicated mystery, combined with details of Robbie’s personal life. He is a single dad with a daughter, Tina, aged four and a half, living in his dad’s house along with his brother, Malky, an ex-footballer. His dad has promised Tina a Pyxie Girl doll for Christmas, but they’re impossible to get. There’s a lot about parenthood, more specifically fatherhood, and family relationships told with dark humour, all making for an intriguing and absorbing mystery.

Gallows View by Peter Robinson

Gallows View: DCI Banks (Inspector Banks 1)

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first Inspector Banks bookGallows View by Peter Robinson* (see below). I’ve read some of the later Banks books, totally out of order, which doesn’t seem to matter as I think they work well as stand alone books.

Inspector Alan Banks has been in Eastvale in the Yorkshire Dales for six months, having relocated from London. He has now got used to the slower pace of life and is working well with his colleagues. Sandra, his wife, has also settled well in Eastvale, making friends with Harriet and joining the local photography club.

There’s a peeping tom in the area, targeting young, blonde women, following them as they leave the pub and then watching as they undress for bed and there is also spate of break-ins by two balaclava-wearing thugs who rob old ladies and vandalize their homes. It’s clear quite early in the book that the two thugs are teenagers, Trevor Sharp and his friend, Mick Webster, who progress from robbing old ladies to burgling more prosperous homes when their owners are away from home, guided by Mick’s older brother, Lenny.

The main mystery is that of Alice Matlock, an old woman, living on her own, who is is found dead in her ransacked house in Gallows View, a row of old terraced  cottages. Her body was discovered by her friend, Ethel Carstairs, lying on her back, having fractured her skull on the corner of a table while falling backwards – or had she been pushed? Was she also a victim of Trevor and Mick, could it have been the peeping tom, or was someone else responsible? It might have just been an accident – she was old and her bones were brittle.

Dr Jenny Fuller, a psychologist at York University, has been brought in to help by providing a profile for the peeping tom case. Banks, a happily married man, is immediately attracted to her. They work well together, although Sandra, his wife, is rather suspicious at first about their relationship when she discovers that Dr Fuller is a young, attractive redhead.

It’s a good start to the series, which has now reached 24 books. It has quite a relaxed pace, with a complex and well constructed plot. The characters are convincing and realistic, and I like Banks, a hard working dedicated detective who gets on well with his boss, Superintendent Gristhorpe, who likes to build dry stone walls in his spare time.

As well as the crimes Robinson also explores a number of other issues – for example, feminism and gender, and education, comparing comprehensives and grammar schools. One thing that really dates it is the frequent mention of smoking in pubs!

As with other detective novels that have since been adapted for TV there are differences from the books. Peter Robinson explains on his website he has no power in the TV universe, and he thinks of the Banks books and the TV series as parallel universes. The characters are clearly meant to be different versions of the same person; they look different, have different personalities and meet different fates in different worlds.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 826 KB
  • Print Length: 324 pages
  • Publisher: Pan; Reprints edition (21 Aug. 2009)
  • Source: I bought the e-book
  • My Rating: 4*

Gallows View is a book I’ve owned for over 2 years, so it qualifies for Bev’s Mount TBR Challenge.

*Peter Robinson later wrote a novella, Like A Virgin published in a short story collection, The Price of Love, which is about his last case in London just before he moved to Yorkshire.

Mount TBR Mountaineering Checkpoint #2

Now it’s July and the year is half-way over so Bev, our mountaineering guide, is calling for a second quarterly check-in post and asking how we are getting on.

1. Tell us how many miles you’ve made it up your mountain (# of books read).  

I’m on my way up Mont Blonc , having read 15 books. I’m way behind my target to reach Mt Ararat (48 books) this year!

2. Which book (read so far) has been on your TBR mountain the longest?Was it worth the wait? Or is it possible you should have tackled it back when you first put it on the pile? Or tossed it off the edge without reading it all?

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff has been on my TBR mountain the longest. I’m not sure when I bought it, but it was one of the books I listed when I first joined LibraryThing in 2007.  I do wish I’d read it before this year but I enjoyed it so it was worth the wait.

My Life According to Books 

 Use titles from your list to complete as many of the following sentences below as you can.  Feel free to add or change words (such as ‘a’or ‘the’or others that clarify) as needed.

1. My Ex is/was Last Seen Wearing  (by Colin Dexter)

2. My best friend is The Buttonmaker’s Daughter by Merryn Allingham
3. Lately, at work [it has been] A Place of Execution (by Val McDermid)
4. If I won the lottery, [I’d go to] The Gathering (by Anne Enright)
5. My fashion sense [is like] Wives and Daughters (by Elizabeth Gaskell)
6. My next ride [will be with] The Eagle of the Ninth (by Rosemary Sutcliff)
7. The one I love is [with] The Dead of Jericho (by Colin Dexter)
8. If I ruled the world, I would [sing] Caedmon’s Song (by Peter Robinson)
9. When I look out my window, I [see an] An Uncertain Place (by Fred Vargas )
10. The best things in life are Past Encounters (by Davina Blake)

Past Encounters by Davina Blake

Past EncountersBlurb (Goodreads)

From the moment Rhoda Middleton opens one of her husband’s letters and finds it is from another woman, she is convinced he is having an affair. But when Rhoda tracks her down, she discovers the mysterious woman is not his lover after all, but the wife of his best friend, Archie Foster.

There is only one problem – Rhoda has never even heard of Archie Foster.

Devastated by this betrayal of trust, Rhoda tries to find out how and why her husband, Peter, has kept this friendship hidden for so long. Her search leads her back to 1945, but as she gradually uncovers Peter’s wartime secrets she must wrestle with painful memories of her own. For if they are ever to understand each other, Rhoda too must escape the ghosts of the past. Taking us on a journey from the atmospheric filming of Brief Encounter, to the extraordinary Great March of prisoners of war through snow-bound Germany, this is a novel of friendship, hope, and how in the end, it is the small things that enable love to survive.

I finished reading Past Encounters by Davina Blake a week ago, but the story is still fresh in my mind. In essence it is a story of a marriage that has drifted, so that Rhoda and Peter no longer talk to each other about the things that matter in their lives. And they both have secrets from each other – big secrets! Their inability to talk about their wartime experiences has isolated them both emotionally and psychologically.

Rhoda and Peter were engaged to be married as war broke out and the story follows their lives, alternating between the novel’s present day of 1955 and the war years of the 1940s. I loved the historical detail, in particular the details of Peter’s experiences as a prisoner of war. Davina Blake explains in the Acknowledgements that his experiences are fictional but based on real-life ordeals of prisoners of war taken from their memoirs. She has included a bibliography of further reading including these memoirs. The account of the prisoners’ march through Germany towards the end of the war is especially moving. I don’t think I have read any war-time stories quite like this one.

Equally as fascinating are Rhoda’s war-time experiences at home and her involvement with the filming of David Lean’s 1945 film Brief Encounter at the refreshment room in the Carnforth Railway station where she was working. Davina Blake used to be a set and costume designer for theatre and BBC TV and was inspired to write Past Encounters as she lives near Carnforth station where she has often kept out of the cold in the refreshment room whilst waiting for a train.

Past Encounters is a thought provoking book about love, loyalty, betrayal and forgiveness, full of tension with well-drawn characters and a great sense of time and place, whether in Germany or Britain.

Davina Blake also writes historical fiction set in the 17th century under the pen name Deborah Swift.

  • Paperback, 442 pages
  • Published June 30th 2014 by CreateSpace
  • ISBN 1499568258 (ISBN13: 9781499568257)
  • My Rating: 4.5*

An Uncertain Place by Fred Vargas

An Uncertain Place (Commissaire Adamsberg, #8)

I loved An Uncertain Place, a clever and also a confusing book. It’s the sixth in Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series in which he investigates a macabre murder. I say confusing because I got a bit lost in the middle of the book, and looking back I think it’s because Adamsberg is not your normal detective – he works by intuition and I simply hadn’t followed his train of thought. With a bit of concentration I was back on track and caught up with him.

I say clever because it is such a convoluted plot, with what I thought could be red herrings, but which turned out to be vital clues. I think the blurb on the back cover summarises the story better than I could:

Commissaire Adamsberg leaves Paris for a three-day conference in London. With him are Estalère, a young sergeant, and Commandant Danglard, who is terrified at the idea of travelling beneath the Channel. It is a welcome change of scenery, until a macabre and brutal case comes to the attention of their colleague Radstock from New Scotland Yard.

Just outside the gates of the baroque Highgate cemetery a pile of shoes is found. Not so strange in itself, but the shoes contain severed feet. As Scotland Yard’s investigation begins, Adamsberg and his colleagues return home and are confronted with a massacre in a suburban home. Adamsberg and Danglard are drawn in to a trail of vampires and vampire-hunters that leads them all the way to Serbia, a place where the old certainties no longer apply.

My thoughts:

This is one of those books that once I begin reading I don’t want to put down. I had to, of course, and it’s not a book to dash through to the end or you’ll miss so much. Adamsberg is a very likeable detective, although he must be a nightmare to work with, as his colleagues find his methods of working just as bewildering and confusing as I do. But they are used to him and trust his leaps of intuition.

The mystery of who left the shoes outside the gates of Highgate Cemetery is a theme throughout the book:

The smell was ghastly, the scene appalling, and even Adamsberg stiffened, standing back a little behind his English colleague. From the ancient shoes, with their cracked leather and trailing laces, projected decomposed ankles, showing dark flesh and white shinbones which had been cleanly chopped off. The only thing that didn’t match Clyde-Fox’s account was that the feet were not trying to get into the cemetery. They were just there, on the pavement, terrible and provocative, sitting inside their shoes at the historic gateway to Highgate Cemetery. They formed a carefully arranged and unspeakable pile. (page 23)

 The scene that confronts Adamsberg on his return to Paris is even more gruesome. Pierre Vaudel, a former journalist who specialised in legal affairs, had been murdered, or rather it looked as though his body had exploded and had been strewn around the room. The only way to identify the body was by DNA. Suspicion falls on the gardener, who reported the death and who inherited all of Vaudel’s property and also on Vaudel’s son.

After a similar murder occurs in Austria, Adamsberg is eventually led to a village on the Serbian/Romanian border, finding himself immersed in the weird world of vampires. Books featuring vampires (with the exception of Dracula) are not part of my preferred reading, but I found this aspect of the book fascinating. Adamsberg, himself, is sceptical and ignores warnings not to start meddling or even visit the tomb of Petar Blagojevic who had died in 1725. Blagojevic/Plogojowitz was said to be a ‘vampyr‘, and the clearing in the wood, where he was buried is known by the locals as ‘the place of uncertainty.’ Adamsberg’s disregard for his own safety puts him in danger of losing his own life.

This book is full of wonderful and unique characters, the plot, as I said, is clever and completely bamboozled me, the settings are easily imagined from Vargas’ descriptions, and the suspense is maintained throughout. It’s a complicated book – one of the most intriguing aspects is the sudden appearance of a man claiming to be Adamsberg’s son. Maybe this is not a book everyone will enjoy, but I think it’s a most satisfying and surreal mystery, and one that I enjoyed immensely.

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (5 April 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 009955223X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099552239
  • Source: I bought my copy
  • My Rating: 4.5*

Reading challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2017

A Place of Execution by Val McDermid

For years I’ve steered clear of reading any of Val McDermid‘˜s books and the reason is that I can’t stand to watch the violence and torture scenes in TV series such as Wire in the Blood, based on her Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series. But then I thought that maybe I wasn’t being fair to judge a writer’s work on films based on the books, and I read Cleanskin, one of the Quick Reads series, aimed at ‘adults who’ve stopped reading or find reading tough, and for regular readers who want a short, fast read.’ I enjoyed it and I’ve been meaning to read one of her full length books ever since.

There are many to choose from but I decided to read A Place of Execution, one of her standalone books. The book was made into a 3-part TV drama shown on ITV 1 in 2008, which I didn’t see. It is one of my TBRs.

A Place of Execution

Blurb:

In the Peak District village of Scarsdale, thirteen-year-old girls didn’t just run away. So when Alison Carter vanished in the winter of ’63, everyone knew it was a murder.

Catherine Heathcote remembers the case well. A child herself when Alison vanished, decades on she still recalls the sense of fear as parents kept their children close, terrified of strangers.

Now a journalist, she persuades DI George Bennett to speak of the hunt for Alison, the tantalising leads and harrowing dead ends. But when a fresh lead emerges, Bennett tries to stop the story ‘“ plunging Catherine into a world of buried secrets and revelations.

My thoughts:

This is an excellent psychological thriller, full of tension and suspense, set in the Derbyshire village of Scardale, an isolated community of about ten houses, where everyone is related, a place that had a reputation of being a law unto itself. So everyone could tell Detective Inspector George Bennett the time that Alison Carter left home taking her dog for a walk. But despite extensive searches her body is never found, although they do find her dog in the woodland, tied to a tree with elastoplast wound round its muzzle.

A Place of Execution spans the years from 1963 when Alison went missing up to 1998 when Catherine Heathcote, a journalist decided to write a book about the case. It had Bennett’s first major investigation and he’d been determined to find out what had happened to Alison. The majority of the book is about his investigation and the meticulous searches he and his team carried out until the case was resolved. But why in 1998 after going over the details of the case with Catherine did he suddenly write to her begging her to abandon the book?

The sense of place and time is so well done in this book and the characterisation is so good that I felt I knew these people. Even when the case appears to have been resolved there is something more, something hidden that still needs to be revealed. I had an inkling about what it was but I had by no means guessed all of it. But the clues were all there.

There are many layers in A Place of Execution. The villagers are a close-knit community suspicious of outsiders and reluctant to talk to the police. I realised towards the end of the book that the way that Val McDermid has structured the book allows for a great deal of deception and that things are not always what they seem. I loved it and I shall definitely be reading more of her books.

Paperback, 624 pages
Published February 6th 2006 by Harper Collins (first published June 7th 1999)