Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

SandlandsSandlands is a beautiful collection of short stories that held me spellbound from start to finish. This is all the more extraordinary as I am not a great fan of short story collections. I often find that they leave me feeling that something is missing – either the storyline is not developed enough, or the characters are not convincing, or that they are just too trite or banal. In other words that they are disappointing.

Not so with Sandlands – I think this is a special collection of well written stories set in the Suffolk landscape, describing real people, and containing well- researched detail into myths and folklore, wildlife, and environmental changes that slips seamlessly into the fiction. They are just the right length for me, perfect little cameos each one complete and satisfying – that’s not to say that all the ends are neatly tied up, as some, such as Nightingale’s Return, about an Italian visiting the farm where his father had worked  as a prisoner of war, end leaving me wondering what happened next, or rather just what had happened in the past.

The individual stories are varied, some looking back to the past, some are sad leaving me with tears in my eyes, and some have a supernatural element. I loved all of them, but a few are outstanding, for example, Curlew Call in which a teenager spends time during her gap year living in an old house overlooking the the salt marshes, as a companion to Agnes, an old lady who is wheel-chair bound. She is fascinated by the landscape and the wildlife, in particular the curlews, calling out across the reed beds each evening, before she goes to sleep:

You wonder what they’re doing out there in the dark, sleepless and crying like that. And if you lie still and listen – really  listen – there’s something so pitiful about the sound, it could nearly break your heart. like someone whistling hopelessly over and over for a dog that’s lost. (pages 220 – 221)

Agnes paints, but not the usual East Anglian landscape of sky and clouds with a low horizon. I was really taken with the descriptions of her paintings, nearly all foreground, with reeds at the top and the rest of the painting taken up with the mudflats, showing the swirls and squiggles left by the tide. And the colours she’d used held my attention:

You think that mud is only grey and brown but when you look properly, the way Agnes had, you can see she’s right, and that it’s also the blackest black, and pure white, and it holds glints of red and gold and ochry yellow, and reflected blues and greens, and deep, imperial purple. (page 226)

As the story unfolds, so does the story of Agnes’ life.

And I finished reading the final story, Mackerel, with tears in my eyes when I came to the last paragraph, even though I had begun to realise what was inevitably the outcome. This is the story of a grandmother and her granddaughter, Hattie, set in a fishing village near the Suffolk sea. Ganny, as Hattie calls her has lived all her eighty nine years in the same place and is expert at handling and cooking fish.

Hattie, by way of contrast has an honours degree in marine ecology, has travelled the world, but also loves the Suffolk landscape and the world of her grandparents – the sights, smells and Ganny’s cooking, kippers, fish pie and above all the mackerel. This story is filled with images of Ganny filleting the mackerel, coating them in oatmeal to fry in butter, or to bake in greaseproof sprinkled with lemon or cider in a tight parcel. It made my mouth water reading about it.

As in Curlew Call, Ganny’s life unfolds and this story too is full of colour, this time of the sand instead of the mudflats:

This is a land of sand. The earth hereabouts is nothing but; it’s a wonder anything grows in it at all. On the common it’s a powder grey, soft as ash and lifted by the the slightest breeze, but on the roads it’s as golden yellow as any treasure island beach.

… You could almost fancy it the work of strange secret tides which rise in the night to cover the fields and lanes, then slip away before daylight to leave new spits and spars like a signature on the landscape. A land with the imprint of the sea. (page 256)

It’s impossible for me to do justice to these stories. If you like strong, atmospheric stories, stories that bring to life the world of the past, tying them to the present, stories of family life, of the natural world, of folklore and the mystery and wonder of it all then you’ll love this book as much as I did.

With grateful thanks to Rosy Thornton for sending me this lovely book to review. It’s published tomorrow. And she has also written full length novels that captivated as much as this collection – do read them. For more details see her website.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Sandstone Press Ltd (21 July 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 191098504X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1910985045

Recent Additions at BooksPlease

My TBR piles have been growing again this week with two new additions, books that will be published soon.

First up is a book by an author whose books I’ve enjoyed reading in the past – Sandlands by Rosy Thornton, a book of sixteen short stories, which she has kindly sent to me for review – I have read the first story and am itching to read the rest.

Sandlands P1020059

Rosy Thornton’s email to me explained that the stories are all are set in and around the same small village in coastal Suffolk and, as well as sharing a setting and one or two minor characters, are all closely connected in thematic terms: the natural world, wildlife and the relationship of people to their landscape, and also how the past can make itself felt in the present in various unexpected ways. Some of the stories are ghostly or magical; some are poignant and sad; one or two are (she hopes) funny.

How could I resist this book? Rosy Thornton is an author of contemporary fiction, published originally by Headline Review and more recently by Sandstone Press. In her novels and short stories she enjoys exploring family relationships (especially mothers and daughters), and the way people relate to place and landscape. In real life she lectures in Law at the University of Cambridge, where she is a Fellow of Emmanuel College. She shares her home with her partner and two lunatic spaniels.

Her earlier books I’ve read are Hearts and Minds,  The Tapestry of Love, and Ninepins. I recommend each one, although I think The Tapestry of Love is my favourite.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Sandstone Press Ltd (21 July 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 191098504X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1910985045

The other book is an e-book, one of the Kindle First choices for July – Doubt by C E Tobisman, described as a Caroline Auden legal thriller.

Doubt cover

Blurb:

When Caroline Auden lands a job at a top Los Angeles law firm, she’s excited for the challenge – and grateful for the chance to put her dark past as a computer hacker behind her. Right away, her new boss asks her to find out whether a popular GMO [a genetically modified organism] causes healthy people to fall ill. Caroline is only supposed to dig in the trenches and report up the ladder, but her tech background and intuition take her further than planned. When she suspects a link between the death of a prominent scientist and the shadowy biotech giant, she cries foul and soon finds herself in the crosshairs. The clock is ticking and thousands of lives are on the line’¦including her own.

Now this rookie lawyer with a troubled past and a penchant for hacking must prove a billion-dollar company is responsible for thousands of deaths’¦before they come after her.

I haven’t read anything by C E Tobisman, an American author.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 3935 KB
  • Print Length: 346 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas & Mercer (1 Aug. 2016)

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 Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton: Book Review

The Tapestry of Love is a beautiful book and a delight to read. I am so pleased that Rosy Thornton sent me a copy to review. It’s a gentle book and yet it’s about the drama of real life, its joys and tragedies. There is romance and so much more as the story of Catherine Parkstone and her move to the Cevennes mountains in southern France, reveals. Catherine divorced eight years previously has sold her house in England and moved to the Les Fenils, a house in the tiny hamlet of Le Grelaudiere near the village of St Julien de Valvert, to start a new life as a seamstress, selling her soft furnishings – tapestries, cushions, and chair covers.  

Catherine has left behind in England her daughter, Lexie, struggling to find a niche in the world of journalism, her son Tim, a scientist and her aging mother, suffering from Altzheimer’s and in a nursing home. Catherine is obviously a capable woman, a woman of common sense, but also a caring, sensitive woman, who may not be as self-sufficient as she seems. She is a creative, skilled needlewoman who has the gift of being able to reproduce on canvas what she visualises in full colour in her mind’s eye. It is this skill and her ability to make friends in her new surroundings that means she soon has a full order book. But she is reckoning without the intricacies of French bureaucracy and because her business is not ‘agricultural’  she cannot get it approved.

Despite the initial reserve of her new neighbours she becomes part of the daily life in Le Grelaudiere, helping her neighbours and being helped in return. Her nearest neighbour is Patrick Castagnol, who at first she thinks is a compatriot until she hears his flawess French. He is a bit of a mystery and when Tim visits he comments astutely that he suspects Patrick is ‘a bit too smooth for his own good’. When Bryony, Catherine’s younger sister visits she is soon smitten by his charm, leaving Catherine feeling decidedly uncomfortable.

There is so much I love in this book. Rosy has a talent for portraying relationships – not just between Patrick and the sisters, but also between the sisters and their mother, and how they cope with their mother’s illness, between Catherine and her grown-up children and between Catherine and her ex-husband. She is nothing if not resourceful. She not only sets up her business, but also grows vegetables and keeps bees. For Catherine it is a time of new beginnings, of new relationships and of letting go of the past.

I also loved Rosy’s descriptions – of the tapestries as Catherine conceives and makes them and of the wild and desolate landscape which forms the backdrop of daily life in Le Grelaudiere. It’s autumn when Catherine arrives, a season of rain and power cuts, which her neighbours describe as ‘C’est triste’. But it was still beautiful. As autumn took its course:

The skies were still pewter, but now swirled with high, wild, wind-chased clouds in shades of angry orange. The view across the valley re-emerged in all its desolate splendour. (page 61)

and then:

the sky was a luminous mauve, a colour that would never seem credible if she replicated it in a tapestry. It cast everything round her into sharp definition, giving the illusion that road and rocks and vegetation were illuminated from some hidden source, like ethereal stage lighting. She had a clear view between the trees, down to the valley of St Julien de Valvert, the ‘green valley’ –  although in this light it was etched in shades of grey and pink and silver.(page 88)

As I read on I wished I could be there.  It is a moving story full of wisdom and one I shall re-read.