A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

The Ghost Fields cover

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles has been popular with some of the blogs that I visit, but it was when my friend Christine mentioned that she was enjoying it I decided to give it a go too and I loved it. It was published in 2016.

It begins in Moscow in 1922 where Count Alexander Rostov is in the Kremlin being questioned. Surprisingly he survives the experience but is declared to be a non person and soldiers escort him back to the Metropol Hotel where he has been living in a luxurious suite. He has been sentenced to indefinite house arrest, so if he ever sets foot out of the hotel he will be shot.

He has to vacate his beautiful suite and move into an attic room not much bigger than a cupboard. You would think that a man who had been brought up to enjoy the best of everything in life would find this intolerable but Sasha manages to make a rich and full life for himself and ends up having close relationships with the hotel staff who have become like a family to him.

With the Metropol being a favourite hotel of those in positions of power in the Kremlin over the years Sasha has plenty of opportunities to observe them – something which becomes very useful to him subsequently.

Sasha is a great character and I thoroughly enjoyed this book, I’ll be reading the author’s other book Rules of Civility soon, but I can’t imagine I’ll like it as much as this one.

The Ghost Fields by Elly Griffiths

The Ghost Fields cover

The Ghost Fields by Elly Griffiths is one of her Dr Ruth Galloway mysteries and it was published in 2015. The setting is Norfolk where Ruth has been called in to help when a body is discovered in a World War 2 aeroplane which has been dug up by a man in a digger who is clearing a field prior to houses being built on it. The whole area had been peppered with US airfields during the war, Norfolk was the ideal location due to the extreme flatness of the county. Of course nothing is straightforward and so begins a mystery involving a local landowning family.

This is an enjoyable read, it was good to catch up with everyone again and a bit of a shock to realise that Ruth’s daughter Kate is at the stage of starting school already, but such is life as you’ll know if you’ve been down that road yourself.

The love lives of everyone involved in these books have just become even more of a mess. There’s nobody in a truly happy relationship although it looks like Cloughie might be on the right road, although I’m not holding my breath.

I’m looking forward to reading the next one in the series which I think is called The Woman in Blue.

One mild annoyance is that aeroplane hangar is spelled hanger – silly.

Threave Gardens, Dumfries and Galloway

azalea walkway

We visited Threave Gardens during our recent four day trip to Dumfries and Galloway and we got there at the perfect time, just as the rhododendrons and azaleas were looking their best. The nearest town to Threave is Castle Douglas.

azalea walkway

It’s very weird but when I was there I didn’t even notice the electricity wires in this photo, or the shadow, too busy looking at the plants I suppose.
azalea walkway
This was originally a private estate but I believe it is now used as a horticultural training centre and the students have accommodation in what was the estate house – very nice I’m sure. The house is of course in the Scots Baronial style.
Threave House

There’s a wee burn running through the gardens in the Japanese section.
Burn at Threave Gardens
It wouldn’t be a Japanese Garden without a bridge and acers of course.
Japanese Bridge + Pond

Japanese Bridge

And a wee bit of a waterfall too. It was a boiling hot and very bright day, in fact too bright – not that I’m moaning.
cascade at Threave Gardens

If you’re into gardening you should definitely visit Threave. They have a great plant nursery there with lots of plant varieties that feature in the gardens for sale, so of course I just had to purchase some. In my experience it’s rare to be able to buy plants that you’ve actually seen growing in gardens like this one and it drives me nuts that they don’t bother to make the most of the commercial possibilities. Whoever runs Threave has got it right!

I took lots more photos but I’ll save the rest for another time.

The Spade as Mighty as the Sword by Daniel Smith

The Spade as Mighty as the Sword cover

The Spade as Mighty as the Sword by Daniel Smith is the story of the World War 2 Dig for Victory Campaign. Originally it was called Grow More Food which as I’m sure you’ll agree wasn’t a terribly inspiring name for such a campaign. It was apparently Michael Foot who went on to become the Labour leader who came up with the name Dig for Victory when he was a journalist for the London Evening Standard in 1939.

Memories of the food shortages during World War 1 were still fresh with many people and it was realised that the outcome of the war would rely on having a population that wasn’t literally starving. So began the campaign to encourage people to dig up their lawns and rose beds and replace their flowers with vegetable plots. It was amazingly successful and people who had never even thought of growing anything before became quite obsessive about their vegetable growing. As I’ve rarely been able to grow anything beyond herbs and potatoes I’m amazed at the success of it all, although in those days people were using an awful lot of poisons on their crops, including things containing cyanide! However it doesn’t seem to have done them any harm.

In fact after six years of war it seems that the population had thrived on their rationed diet and they had never been so healthy before. It was however a boring diet and people rarely felt that they had had enough to eat although there were people such as Marguerite Patten developing recipes to help housewives with feeding their families.

This book features quite a lot about the politics of the times, but it’s always interesting. I really enjoyed it and it has inspired me to try out some more of the wartime recipes that I have in a book. I must give Woolton Pie another go.

One mild annoyance is that whiling away is spelled wiling away. No doubt this is partly because English people pronounce ‘wh’ as ‘w’ – which causes them confusion with words such as which and witch sounding the same – or whales and Wales. I wonder when they gave up on ‘wh’ sounds as it must have been sounded at some point otherwise they ‘h’ would never have been in those words.

Mull of Galloway, Dumfries and Galloway

Last year we visted the furthest north point of Scotland so this year we couldn’t miss out on visiting the furthest southerly point of Scotland in Dumfries and Galloway. The Mull of Galloway lighthouse is one of the many designed and built by the Stevenson family which the writer Robert Louis Stevenson belonged to.

Mull of Galloway Lighthouse

Mull of Galloway Info Board

Jack was determined to stand on the very most southerly point which just happened to be where the foghorn is located. Thankfully it’s no longer in use. There are lots of steps down to it which was fine going down, not such fun on the way up though!
Foghorn from path

Below is a photo of the foghorn from the lighthouse, there was a real pall of sea mist (haar) so there was no chance of being able to see Ireland or the Isle of Man that day.
Foghorn from Lighthouse

The coastline is very rocky and dangerous as you can see and there seemed to be nobody around who was mad enough to hang off the rocks or cliffs as they did when we were up in Orkney last year.
Mull of Galloway rocks

It looks like we had the place to ourselves but it was very busy, especially considering it was quite late on in the day. Anyway, that’s another thing ticked off our non-existent bucket list.

Logan Botanic Garden, Dumfries and Galloway

Australasian area

For years I’ve been reading about Logan Botanic Garden in Dumfries and Galloway, that part of Scotland has a milder climate than the rest of the country, being in the south west the weather is most influenced by the Gulf Stream so is usually frost free, hence tree ferns can safely be grown there as you can see. I must admit that they’re not my favourite sort of plants but there were plenty of others to admire.

Australasian area

Logan Botanic Gardens

The Mecanopsis obviously enjoy the growing conditions there. This must be the most often manslaughtered plant in the UK. I’ve tried it several times in various gardens and I’m trying it yet again, so far so good although it hasn’t flowered yet.
Meconopsis

There was a shy and retiring big orange bird wandering about in the Australasian section, I hope there are more of its kind to keep it company.
Orange Bird

You might find it hard to believe but neither of us had seen newts before, this pond was full of them.
Newts

Newts

These ‘palm’ trees are often grown in coastal places around Scotland but they’re usually a lot more scruffy looking.
Palms

It seems that wherever you wander in Scotland there’s a castle or tower ruin nearby and the same goes for Logan Botanic Garden which has Balzieland Castle in the middle of it, it isn’t open to the public but if you’re interested in its history have a look here..

Old Tower Castle Balzieland

It was a gorgeous afternoon and I had a lovely time but I must admit that I much prefer native plants to exotic plants which are quite likely to need mollycoddling to get through the winter, although maybe that’s not really necessary at this location.

Winter – A Berlin Family 1899-1945 by Len Deighton

Winter cover

Winter – A Berlin Family 1899-1945 by Len Deighton was first published in 1987. The blurb on the back says it’s Len Deighton’s superb novel of one family and its dramatic part in the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. I loved this one and for anyone who is a bit perplexed as to how World War 2 and the Nazis came about this book will explain it all through the history of the Winter family. They’ve been working their way up society, helped by access to American money via Harald Winter’s American/Jewish wife Veronica, her father agreed to invest money in Zeppelins, never thinking that in years to come they would be used to drop bombs.

Both of Harald and Veronica’s sons are involved in World War 1 and by the time America joins in three years later Veronica has become a loyal German, despite her husband’s constant infidelities, and although her parents want her to return to the US she won’t do it.

Germans never did accept that they had lost the war and so were more than disgruntled at the terms of the armistice, so there are lots of men with big chips on their shoulders. Perfect conditions for the growth of something like the Nazi party, mainly supported by the dregs of society.

But nobody takes them seriously! All that nonsense about the Jews is just a way of getting votes, it’s nothing to worry about.

I don’t know if there is anyone around nowadays who doesn’t understand how the Third Reich came about – if there are this is the perfect book to read, but I was brought up steeped in the war and still found it to be a great read. I did find it unlikely that there would have been people around in Germany who didn’t think it was normal to dislike Jews, it was just part of their culture in so many European countries at that time.

Even the portrayal of the women (which some have complained about) is typically Germanic, in fact even way back in the 1970s I was shocked at how women were treated within families. It was still very much Kinder, Kuche, Kirche then and they were very much second class citizens compared with any males in the family – even wee boys – in Bavaria at least.

Anyway, this is a bit of a chunkster at 536 pages of quite small print but it didn’t take me too long to read it as it is so enjoyable.

The Garden of Ignorance by Mrs. Marion Cran

The Garden of Ignorance cover

The Garden of Ignorance by Mrs. Marion Cran is one of several books that she wrote about gardening, she was born in 1879 and died in 1942 and apparently she was the first female to broadcast about gardening on radio in the 1930s. This book is undated but the foreword was written in 1924, and in it Marion Cran mentions that the book was written nearly a dozen years earlier. Elsewhere she says that it’s the third year of World War 1 which of course began in 1914. I haven’t been able to find out much about the author but within the book she does mention that she opened her house up to convalescent soldiers. I’m sure they were all officers though. She also mentions that she did some nursing during the war, I suspect it was of the very genteel variety though – no blood and guts involved. She was the daughter of a Church of England vicar and had a fairly grim upbringing I think, but she must have married a wealthy man as the amount of land that she’s able to use for her garden designs seems massive. She claims to be frugal and to rein in her plant orders at nurseries but in reality she’s ordering rose bushes by the hundreds.

This book was obviously inspired by Elizabeth von Arnim’s Elizabeth and her German Garden, although Cran calls her husband the Master, not The Man of Wrath. It was a steep learning curve for her as at the beginning she’s a very inexperienced gardener but by the end of the book she has realised that it’s important to put a plant where it will be happiest, rather than where she thinks it will look best.

She mentions lots of plants but I think there were only one or two rose varieties that I recognised, I suspect they’re now unavailable. Cats feature too. There are eight black and white photos of bits of her garden and cats. She tries hard to be a bit whimsical and amusing but she isn’t as successful at it as some other garden writers, but I’ll definitely keep a lookout for her other books.

Orchardton Tower, Dumfries and Galloway

Orchardton Tower

Orchardton Tower is apparently the only one of its kind in Scotland and it dates from the 1400s. It’s unusual as it’s a free-standing round tower, built as a fortified home for John Cairns, a nobleman who had it built over 200 years after this design went out of fashion.

I can’t say that I blame him for that as it’s a really elegant design and is in a beautiful location. I think in its heyday it must have been a lovely house to live in. The kitchens and servants quarters must have been in the part which is detached and now just a ruin.

The photo below is of a piscina, a niche where bowls could be washed, they’re more often located in abbeys and cathedrals, to rinse the sacramental vessels.

Piscina
All of the interior floors are long gone.

Orchardton Tower Interior
But there is a spiral staircase right to the top of the tower, it’s a long way down!
As you can see in the photo below there’s a cute wee ‘house’ at the top of the staircase leading onto the roof.

Orchardton Tower Summit

Orchardton Tower Interior

A view from the top of the tower.
View from Tower  Summit

The very slim one track road with passing places that leads to the tower is quite nerve wracking on a bright early summer day, so I can’t imagine how awful it must be in the winter, but there is at least one house close by. I imagine that the view from their house compensates for any disadvantages of living there. I must admit that I love that tower and location.

View from  Orchardton Tower  Summit 2

The Toll-Gate by Georgette Heyer

The Toll Gate cover

The Toll-Gate by Georgette Heyer was first published in 1955 and my copy is a Book Club hardback from that date. This is more of a mystery/adventure book and is quite light on the romance – which is fine by me.

Captain John Staples has recently left the army after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, he had a bit of a reputation for being crazy amongst his fellow officers and he’s finding civilian life a bit boring, especially when he has to go to a family wedding in Derbyshire. The women in his extended family seem keen to find a wife for him, but they’re disappointed when he leaves the wedding early.

Looking for an inn to spend the night in John – or Jack as he’s generally known to his friends – gets lost and eventually reaches a roadside toll-gate which is being ‘manned’ by Ben a young and scared boy all on his own. It transpires that Ben’s father has gone missing and Ben fears the worst. Jack decides that he must find out what is going on.

This is a good light read with likeable characters and a plethora of Regency slang.

You might think that a toll-gate dates a book immediately to a certain era but it’s only a couple of years since we had to stump up all of 40 pence in the dead of night on a rural road somewhere around the English midlands. In fact not that long ago I saw such a house and business for sale in the Guardian, you would have to be a keen home body though as you would never be able to leave the place!