The Vanished Days by Susanna Kearsley

The Vanished Days cover

The Vanished Days by the Canadian author Susanna Kearsley is a prequel to her book The Winter Sea which I haven’t read, but I think this one can quite happily be read as a standalone. The setting is mainly Edinburgh 1707, the Union of Scotland and England, something which most ordinary Scots didn’t agree with but the ‘aristocracy’ sold the country for their own gain, so there’s discontent in the country. The tale loops back to the 1690s from time to time, and the disastrous Darien Venture which more or less bankrupted the country and led to the union with England. It’s suspected that the whole thing was an English plot. It was such a nice change to be reading about a different part of Scottish history as most authors stick to writing about the 1745 ‘Rebellion’, as if nothing else of significance ever happened in Scotland. Rebellion is in the air though with rumours of the French standing by to invade and help the Stewart King James III to regain the throne from the Dutch usurper King William.

Part of the settlement for the union is that England will provide money to pay off debts incurred because of the Darien scheme, including payments to the dependents of those who had lost their lives in Jamaica. Lily Aitcheson (Graeme) comes forward to claim her late husband’s wages, and Adam Williamson a former soldier has the job of investigating her claim, it’s suspected that she wasn’t actually married to her husband. But Adam is attracted to Lily and becomes embroiled in her life. There are lots of surprises along the way. This is not the sort of book that you could call a light read, but I loved it.

I was sent a digital copy of this book for review by Simon and Schuster via Netgalley.

The Trial by Franz Kafka – Classics Club

 The Trial cover

The Trial by Franz Kafka was first published in 1925, one year after the author’s death. He had left instructions to a friend telling him to burn all of his manuscripts, but his friend published them instead. The Trial is the second book by Kafka that I’ve read. I enjoyed The Castle more than this one. Kafka was born in Prague, a German speaking Bohemian. He died of TB when he was 40 and obviously never knew that his surname would be regularly in use to describe impossible and perplexing situations.

The main character K. is a deputy bank manager and one morning when he wakes up his breakfast has not been taken into his bedroom by his landlady. There’s a knock at his bedroom door and a strange man enters, the upshot is that two men have come to arrest him. K. hasn’t done anything wrong and the men can’t or won’t tell him why he is being arrested.

So begins a nightmarish time for K. as he journeys to various Courts which are always located in dark and dirty attic areas which are so hot it’s almost impossible to breathe. They’re packed out with people, most of whom seem to be also accused of – something. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare. K. is still none the wiser as to what he is supposed to be guilty of, so he can’t defend himself. But for a time life goes on much as before, with him going to the bank to work, but having to attend courts now and again and K. gets used to the situation, things could be worse. Things do indeed get worse!

The book is regarded as a sort of modern day Pilgrim’s Progress, a commentary on the idiocy and futility of officialdom. We’ve probably all been there in some way when we have felt like banging our heads against a wall in frustration – although nowadays it usually means we’re hanging on to a phone listening to muzak – hoping to get an actual human being on the other end of the line!

I read this one for the Classics Club.

Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle – again – a quilt exhibition

Bowes museum, Barnard Castle,

One of the reasons we visited the Sunderland area so quickly again was because we discovered too late that there was a quilt exhibition on there, we had to go home before we could see it. So we drove back down there before the exhibition ended in late November. As you can see from the photo above the museum is very grand, and built in the French style as the architect was French.

The top floor of the museum housed the quilts. When I think of quilts from the North-East of England it’s the one piece of fabric Durham quilts which are decorated with all over stitching that I envisage, so I was surprised that they also have what they call strippy quilts. The quilts date mainly from the early 20th century.

north-east Quilts, Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle

And the more traditional patchwork quilts. I must admit that I started to make a patchwork quilt about 40 years ago, using hexagons, I didn’t get very far with it and bits are still languishing at the bottom of one of my many craft baskets!

Quilts, Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle

So I am filled with awe when I see patchwork quilts, I suspect that they would be easier to make if it was a communal effort though.

Quilts, Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle

The quilts below are proper Durham quilts – I believe. No patching together but still an awful lot of sewing involved.

Durham Quilts , Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle

Below is an intricate quilt design and matching curtain. Pink,blue and orange seem to have been very popular colours, I suppose they brightened up what was otherwise quite a dark existence.

Patchwork Quilts, Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle

Patchwork Quilts, Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle

I must admit that I thought that the exhibition would have been bigger than it was, but it was worth seeing and there is an interesting permanent exhibition of period women’s clothing from the 16th century to Mary Quant and Laura Ashley. I took lots of photos of the clothes, but they have all disappeared from the camera somehow, quite spooky really.

Dimsie Moves Up Again by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

 Dimsie Moves Up Again cover

Dimsie Moves Up Again by the Scottish children’s author Dorita Fairlie Bruce was first published in 1922 and is the third book in the Dimsie series with the setting of a boarding school for girls. My copy of the book dates from 1941 when it was a Christmas gift to Joan from her Auntie Belle, according to the inscription.

The story begins on a stormy September day, it’s the first day of the new school year so it’s quite chaotic with lots of girls’ boxes and trunks piling up waiting to be emptied. Dimsie and her chums are now almost seniors, but not quite. They are however senior enough to be outraged by the behaviour of the girls in the lower forms, they had never behaved like that when they were juniors!

The new head girl is an unexpected choice as far as most of the girls are concerned, and to some of the teachers too, and it takes a while for her to get into the swing of it all, so behaviour does get a bit out of hand in a dangerous way.

The new girl Fenella, who has never been at school before having been educated by governesses, has such a superior attitude – for no good reason – and she inadvertently triggers a hair-raising adventure.

As ever though it’s Dimsie who is the central character. I feel that Enid Blyton based Darrell in her Malory Towers books on Dimsie, those books were published over 20 years later than the Dimsie books and aren’t nearly as well written although I loved them as a youngster. I’ll definitely be continuing with the Dimsie series.

The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham, England

When we visited Glamis Castle (childhood home of the Queen Mother who was a Bowes Lyon) a couple of months ago it led to us planning a visit to The Bowes Museum which was set up by relatives of hers.

The museum’s most famous artefact is a pure silver automaton swan which dates from 1772, it’s a replica of a female mute swan. If you just want to see her moving you can skip to 4.50 on the You Tube video below. The swan catches a silver fish and eats it, but of course swans don’t eat fish as they are vegetarians! The silver work is amazing though.

You can read more about the museum here.

Sea Room by Adam Nicolson

 The Cruel Stars cover

Sea Room by Adam Nicolson was first published in 2001 and it is very curate’s eggish – that is good in parts, however the good parts will probably be different for everyone that reads it, so it should be of interest and entertaining to various types of readers. Having said that – although I’m really interested in geology – that part didn’t work well for me because I think you really need good photographs to illustrate geology and the small black and white photos in the book don’t show any detail at all. On the book cover it says “the story of one man, three islands and half a million puffins” which are probably the most well-loved of birds, but in this book they are only mentioned as a means of the inhabitants of the past being able to survive by eating them, and nowadays they are eaten by the thousands of black rats that infest the islands. Nicolson does write poetically about the islands which he is obviously in love with. The Shiants were owned by the author Compton Mackenzie in the past.

Adam Nicolson, who is Vita Sackville-West’s grandson was given the three islands 5 miles off the coast of Lewis in north-west Scotland as a 21st birthday present from his father. The Shiants (Shants) as the islands are called had been used in recent years by a sheep farmer who rented the pasture and left the sheep to get on with it until they were big enough for market. The only habitable house is lived in now and again by Adam Nicolson, although at the end of the book he claims that anyone who wants to visit the place can have the key to it! But this book is like a love letter to the wild place and its atmosphere and he covers it from all angles, history, geography, geology, the wildlife, the people who inhabited the place in the past. There’s quite a lot of humour from the real locals who live on the bigger islands and who generously enable Nicolson to live on his islands for a short time each year – and clean him up at the end of his sojourn. I suspect that it is their very good manners which guide them as I can’t imagine that an old Etonian landowner such as Nicolson goes down all that well locally.

For me it was the social history parts which were most interesting, the desperate struggle that people in the past had to keep body and soul together, living on puffins, sea bird eggs and large amounts of limpets.

Adam Nicolson sees the islands as a place for men, well neither of his wives took to the place at all and who can blame them, having to camp out in a tent as it seems safer than being in the house due to the rat population there. It seems like Nicolson has taken to the nth degree that shed bolt-hole idea that so many men cling to. He plans to hand the islands on to his eldest son eventually, whom he hopes will hang on to them and love them as much as he does. Apparently if they ever do come onto the market again there will be a chance of a community buy out, something which the Scottish Government has instituted for areas such as the islands.

One thing that the puffins have to thank Nicolson for is his refusal to turn the islands over to the RSPB who wanted to turn the whole place into a destination for birdwatchers, with all the necessary paths, cafe, toilets and such which go with large amounts of galumphing human beings.

You can see images of the islands here.

Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland – a Jigsaw Puzzle

I was lucky enough to get a couple of 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzles as Christmas presents, and as the Christmas festivities were very low profile indeed – it was just me and Jack on the actual day – and there was absolutely nothing worth watching on TV, it wasn’t long before we broke into the first puzzle which as you can see is a John Tenniel illustration from Alice in Wonderland, produced by the British Library.

Tenniel Alice in Wonderland Jigsaw

I think Tenniel’s illustrations are the best, but all that cross-hatching made this a fiendish puzzle to complete. Believe it or not I found all the white areas to be easier to deal with, at least I didn’t go cross-eyed with those bits.

Nearly Complete Tenniel Alice in Wonderland Jigsaw

As ever though there was a huge feeling of accomplishment as we fitted in the last piece, indeed we each put a finger on it and we slid it in together. It’ll be a wee while before we tackle the next one though! That one is an image from Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflower series.

Completed Tenniel Alice in Wonderland Jigsaw Puzzle

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

 CThe Way of All Flesh cover

I thoroughly enjoyed The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry. The setting is Edinburgh in 1847 where Will Raven feels lucky to have secured an apprenticeship with the famous Doctor James Simpson, he has moved into the Simpson family home and his scruffy appearance doesn’t go down well, especially with the servants there. A close enounter with a money lender and his gargantuan enforcer ensured that Will looks even worse than usual. He’s so glad that he’s now living in the New Town rather than the Old Town where his assailants are more usually to be found. However he soon discovers that when accompanying Doctor Simpson on his rounds they are often in the Old Town. Will had thought that Simpson would be working mainly with the wealthy citizens of Edinburgh, but often he’s attending poor women who are having difficulties in giving birth. Simpson has been using ether to help them with their labour but he is looking for something better and safer.

Will is also searching for something – he wants to find out what happened to his friend Evie who he found dead. She was a prostitute and when he found her she had obviously suffered a violent and painful death, and it seems that she’s not the only young woman to have died like that recently.

This is a great read, I loved being back in Victorian Edinburgh. Ambrose Parry is the name which has been adopted by the author Chris Brookmyre and his wife Marisa Haetzmen who is a consultant anaesthetist and they used the research which she had done for her Master’s degree in the History of Medicine as a base to weave the tale around. They’ve also nodded towards the Frenchman Ambroise Paré who was a pioneer of early surgical techniques. Apparently this is the first in a series, I’m really looking forward to the next one. The endpapers have a lovely map of Edinburgh to help those who don’t know the city to see where they are.

Three from Leon Garfield

I first came across Leon Garfield when I was in primary 7 when for the last ten minutes or so of the day our teacher read a chapter or two of a book, actually I think that happened in every year at the end of the school day. Anyway it was Garfield’s Smith that she read and as I recall I liked it, but it has taken me until now to read any more by him. Most of his books have 18th century settings, he was influenced by Dickens and R.L. Stevenson.

When I was rooting around in an Edinburgh second-hand book-shop I came across three copies of what turned out to be part of Garfield’s The Apprentices series which runs to eight small books which were published in 1976/77/78 The books are very short at just under 50 pages, but they’re beautifully produced with illustrations by Faith Jaques..

 Rosy Starling cover

Rosy Starling is a lovely young girl with red-gold hair and she’s an apprentice bird-cage maker, she makes the cages out of willow wands. She’s completely blind but braves the crowds in Drury Lane where a Maypole has been erected, it’s a holiday and she hopes to sell some of her wares. Unknown to her the young man who is chatting her up is apprenticed to a wig-maker!

 Moss and Blister cover

In Moss and Blister it’s Christmas Eve in London and Moss (who is a midwife) and Blister her apprentice seem quite confident that there will be a ‘second coming’ when they are called to help with a birth which fits the bill as the circumstances are so similar to the first birth of Jesus, but their hopes are dashed.

In Labour in Vain Gully is a bucklemaker’s apprentice, but his mother constantly boasts to everyone that he is very successful and generous to her. Gully who is actually very poor is just like his mother as when he meets a young woman he boasts about how well off his mother is. Miss LaSalle says she is of the “huge knots” (Huguenots) and is an apprentice silver thread maker.

There is quite a bit of humour in these wee books which seem steeped in 18th century London, so I’ll be on the look-out for more of them.

You can see some images of the work of Faith Jaques here.

from The Guardian Books section and Visit Scotland

It’s absolutely yonks since I shared a Guardian books link. I was particularly interested in The Books of My Life bit as this week it featured Penelope Lively, a writer I’ve really enjoyed in the past. You can read it here. I was interested to read that she too has been disappointed when re-reading what had been favourite books in the past, but sometimes she falls back in love with them again. I don’t know if I could be bothered with having another go though – considering how many books I still want to read for the first time.

There’s also a section on some of the books due to be published this coming year which you can read here if you’re interested.

If you happen to be more interested in what’s going on in Scotland you might enjoy looking at the Visit Scotland site. Even if you can’t travel here you can enjoy seeing what’s going on and maybe plan a trip for the future.