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gertrude

July 2016

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Apr. 27th, 2016

gertrude

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Reviews Published

Jul. 23rd, 2016

Rose Blight

Heatwave Reading and other matters



I don’t like humid heatwaves so what better excuse to stay cool and read? I found Helen Bryan’s War Brides on my Kindle; I think it was the free book of the month some time. (It’s still £1.00 for the Kindle until 31st July.) For some reason I was expecting this to be one of those formulaic books about women in wartime, cynically designed to appeal to a certain readership. How wrong can you be! I was totally engrossed by it and read it in a day. The story begins with several old ladies returning to the quiet English village they lived in during the war for a reunion coinciding with the fifty year commemorations of VE day.

Alice has lived in the village all her life. The daughter of the late vicar, she now teaches and looks after a querulous, hypochondriac mother. She is bitter about being jilted by her handsome naval officer neighbour. American Evangeline whom he married in such a hurry now also lives in the village, making for ill feeling. Tanni is a Jewish refugee waiting for her family to escape from Austria and join her. Elsie is a teenager evacuated from the East End to be a housemaid. Most interesting is Frances, who has been leading a wild life in London and is dispatched by her important father to live out of temptation's way in the country.

An unlikely friendship develops between the women, who support each other. We learn their back stories and what happened as the war continued. Plus, there is a traitor in their midst, a Nazi sympathizer (rather like the film Went the Day Well?). When the reunion takes place, at the end of the book, secrets are revealed, mysteries solved and a rather satisfactory revenge taken. Helen Bryan (who is American) says she wrote this book as a tribute to the women of Britain who put up with so much during the war.



I’d been saving The Villa in Italy (also published as Villa Dante) for a bad time, knowing that no book by Elizabeth Edmondson would ever let me down. Right time, right book. It’s like a twist on The Enchanted April. In this case the troubled people who assemble at the Villa Dante one April in the 1950s have not chosen their destination but have been summoned, through lawyers, by the will of a woman none of them has heard of. Each has a different problem; although they had no previous connection, they soon become a loyal little group. The beautiful villa, its once beautiful gardens and the warm sea soothe them into feeling they’re on holiday. The will, though, designed for them as a puzzle, makes them face up to things they’d rather forget. The working out of the mystery and the surprising conclusion make for an absorbing read.
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Jul. 18th, 2016

reading

Wonderboy, Nicole Burstein



‘A funny and frank superhero story set in the world of Othergirl.
Joseph ‘Wilco’ Wilkes is one of life’s losers – he’s picked on, pushed around, and bullied by the rugby boys at the posh private school he attends on a scholarship. But his life is about to change: Wilco learns he can move things with his mind. Will this be his chance to play the hero, get the girl and finally stand up for himself? Or are things just going to come crashing down around his head? Becoming a proper hero will be quite the leap of faith...’

Poor Wilco has his nickname because he ‘will comply’, i.e. will do people’s homework for them and almost anything else for a quiet life. He has one friend and many enemies amongst the ‘rugger boys’, who despise everyone. The book gets off to a good start when Wilco first senses that he may have special powers. It’s pretty weird to find that by concentrating on an object you can move it at will. He hopes that this will change his life, help his hardworking mum (who can barely afford his school uniform) and perhaps even turn him into a Vigil. These Vigils are people with superpowers who are believed to help the government, save lives and generally whiz about to do good. Alas for Wilco. Nothing is that simple and using his powers leads to nothing but trouble.

I found the book went off the boil for a while until Wilco accidentally manages to do something really useful (and unlikely). There’s no dramatic improvement in his life at Gatford House (which sounds a horrible school) but the future looks more hopeful. I didn’t find Wilco a well realised character and couldn’t help thinking of Molesworth (whom one believes in totally) and the way he copes with ‘swots, bulies, cissies, milksops, greedy guts and oiks’. It’s a sad truth that bullying is rife in schools (and in the workplace) and that victims will not develop superpowers in order to cope with it.

So I’m underwhelmed by Wonderboy. It’s not quite fantasy yet not helpful about coping with what life throws at you when you happen to be a weedy teenager. I’m at a loss to know why this book is described as ‘frank’. Frank about what? The fact that quite young boys and girls fancy each other? That’s news. I’d have enjoyed this book more if I were a ten year old boy, I think.

Wonderboy is out early next month and I read it courtesy of NetGalley.

Jul. 13th, 2016

reading

Sandlands, Rosy Thornton



Short stories are not very fashionable; I’m often disappointed myself to find that a book by a favourite author is not after all a novel. Yet it takes a very special skill to write something small yet complete in itself; the essence of a life or a series of events. The stories in Sandlands are linked by their setting: the Suffolk countryside. If you’re sharp eyed enough, you’ll notice some of the same places and people popping up in quite different stories.

Writing about landscape is very popular at the moment but so much of it is more about the author than about the setting. How I felt when I saw this; how visiting such a place cured my depression, alcoholism or other problem. There’s nothing of that kind about Sandlands; this is a landscape to be lived in and coped with daily rather than to provide respite. You’re aware that generations have lived here, in a beautiful yet difficult terrain with its sand, its mud and its crumbling coastline. The stories are extremely well written and the descriptions of the countryside and its wildlife, (an owl, some rare butterflies), very fine and obviously thoroughly researched. What I liked particularly was the feeling of history: an ancient landscape with Anglo Saxons under your feet; pagan rituals mixed up with the Christian calendar; the past and present coexisting. There’s a hint of the supernatural, too, which somehow seems appropriate to the place.

If I were judging a short story competition (not very likely, I know), I’d probably pick All the flowers gone as the most perfect example of the genre in the book. Set on a former military airbase, it has a nice symmetry to it. Nightingale’s Return however, ended just where I wanted to know more. It’s about an Italian visiting England to see the Suffolk farm where his father worked as a prisoner of war. This story could be expanded into a whole novel. I can’t pick a favourite story because I liked them all. I admire Rosy Thornton’s writing very much and was delighted that she was kind enough to send me a copy of the book to read. Sandlands will be published on 21st July.

Jul. 11th, 2016

reading

The Fire Child, S K Tremayne



At first The Fire Child seems very Rebecca: big old house in Cornwall; beautiful young woman dead in mysterious circumstances; rich, handsome widower marries in haste a much younger woman who has to adjust to becoming mistress of a great house. No Mrs Danvers. Instead there’s Damian Jamie, David’s young son, who seems to predict the future and believes he sees his dead mother. Poor Rachel. How is she to cope with a disturbed child, a distant husband and what appear to be supernatural events? This turns into a horror story.

The Kerthens have lived at Carnhallow for at least a thousand years and have made their money out of the tin mines on their land. David is obsessed with his own family history and the need for the line to continue. In order to maintain his inheritance he works all hours as a highly paid lawyer in London, only returning home at weekends. At the same time, he’s modern enough to feel some guilt about his ancestors’ behaviour: the terrible working conditions and numerous deaths of the miners who have made his family wealthy.

Rachel is so in love with David and so fond of her stepson that all seems well. But Jamie begins to behave strangely, with his apparent predictions. One day he tells Rachel that he has seen something very, very bad, something he doesn’t want to happen. ‘You are going to die by Christmas Day.’ Each chapter is headed ‘x days before Christmas’ so that as the date approaches, the reader is almost as frightened as Rachel. She’s lonely in the great house, feels haunted herself by the dead first wife and the dead miners she imagines to be right under the house. She starts to fear her apparently perfect husband. David has secrets. Rachel has demons of her own, events in her earlier life which are not revealed until near the end of the book. I can see why S K Tremayne’s The Ice Twins was a best seller because I could hardly put this book down but raced to the end to find out what would happen.

One little nitpick (I have to do this, don’t I?): ‘reiterate’ does not mean ‘repeat’, as in ‘repeating the mistakes of the past’. Editors, where were you? The Fire Child is a cracking read, published by Harper Collins. I read it courtesy of NetGalley.

Jul. 6th, 2016

gertrude

What kind of Booklover are you?

Here’s a little quiz received from National Book Tokens this morning. I can’t remember how I got on their mailing list. Have a go? There’s no way to embed my results so you’ll have to guess what kind of booklover I am.
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Jul. 5th, 2016

crime

The Secrets of Wishtide A Laetitia Rodd Mystery, Kate Saunders



I loved Beswitched and Five children on the Western Front but had never read any of Kate Saunders’ adult novels. When I saw that The Secrets of Wishtide was to be the first in a series about a Victorian lady investigator, I was eager to read it.

‘Mrs Laetitia Rodd is the impoverished widow of an Archdeacon, living modestly in Hampstead with her landlady Mrs Bentley. She is also a private detective of the utmost discretion. In winter 1850, her brother Frederick, a criminal barrister, introduces her to Sir James Calderstone, a wealthy and powerful industrialist who asks Mrs Rodd to investigate the background of an ‘unsuitable’ woman his son intends to marry – a match he is determined to prevent.’

The book got off to a good start for me with a quotation from David Copperfield about Little Em’ly. Sure enough, the book is full of ‘fallen women’ but I was a little surprised to find part of the story a direct twist on Dickens’ novel. The author explains at the end that this was done ‘with the deepest respect’. You don’t have to be familiar with David Copperfield to enjoy the novel; the critique of Victorian morality, and the unjust fact that ‘the woman always pays’ is decidedly modern.

Mrs Rodd travels to deepest Lincolnshire, ostensibly as governess to two girls but really to find out the truth about the ‘unsuitable woman’. No sooner has she achieved this than the case takes an uglier turn with several savage murders. The evidence points to Sir James’s son Charles as the culprit and he is arrested. Laetitia and her brother are convinced he’s innocent and our female detective ends up putting her own life in danger in order to get the real criminal brought to justice.

The book is made by the character of Laetitia Rodd. She’s middle aged, still grieving over the loss of her husband, yet putting her energy to use in helping others. She is kindness itself but shrewd with it and not easily taken in. Victorian family life is believably described but Kate Saunders sensibly doesn’t attempt to reproduce nineteenth century speech. (If she has done, it doesn’t show.) I loved this, read it quickly, and look forward to the next Laetitia Rodd mystery.

I read this book courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley.

Jul. 3rd, 2016

reading

June Books



Jane’s Parlour, O Douglas
Dark Bahama, Peter Cheyney
The Two Mrs Abbotts, D E Stevenson
The Countenance Divine, Michael Hughes
Love Notes for Freddie, Eva Rice
Death on the Riviera, John Bude
Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, H E Bates
Death on the Cherwell, Mavis Doriel Hay
A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler
The Sea Garden, Marcia Willett
A Week in France, Rachel Hore
Weekend with Death, Patricia Wentworth
The Butterfly Summer, Harriet Evans
Eliza for Common, O Douglas
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Jul. 1st, 2016

countrygirl

In the Garden: Lychnis



When I grew these plants of Lychnis coronaria ‘Alba’ from my own saved seed, I didn’t imagine they’d become the centrepiece of the garden. They glow in the gloomy weather and are rather splendid.

It’s really hard to photograph white flowers, even in the rain, so apologies for the pic.

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Jun. 30th, 2016

reading

A summer read: The Butterfly Summer, Harriet Evans



Here’s what the publisher says:
‘What magic is this?
You follow the hidden creek towards a long-forgotten house.
They call it Keepsake, a place full of wonder ... and danger. Locked inside the crumbling elegance of its walls lies the story of the Butterfly Summer, a story you've been waiting all your life to hear.
This house is Nina Parr's birthright. It holds the truth about her family - and a chance to put everything right at last.’

I enjoyed the Winterfold books which comprised A Place for Us, so I requested The Butterfly Summer from NetGalley expecting a treat. This is really two books. In the present day there’s Nina, divorced and back living with her mother and stepfather. One day she’s with her ex-husband (and still good friend) in the British Library when a completely strange woman claims to know her as ‘Teddy’ and slips an old photograph into her bag. So begins a search into the past which is disturbing for Nina and upsets her relationship with her mother. She’s always been told that her father is dead. Now the mysterious stranger tells her that he isn’t and that she should know about ‘Keepsake’. Little does Nina know that she is the heiress of Keepsake, that fantastical, hidden house in Cornwall, with its wonderful garden full of butterflies.

The other half of the story is ‘The Butterfly Summer’, a book written by ‘Teddy’ for her son and a former lover, explaining and justifying her actions (how convenient!) This story within a story describes the events of one wartime summer. Oddly, it read more like something happening in the nineteenth century, which was confusing. I confess I found this dragged at times and I was itching to get back to modern Nina.
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