Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild was first published in 1936.

 Ballet Shoes cover

Matthew Brown is an elderly palaeontologist who spends most of his time travelling the world collecting fossils which he sends to his home in London which is run by his great-niece Sylvia and her old nanny. He manages to pick up three young girls over some time in differing circumstances, the last one being a small baby, and takes them home with him where Nana and Sylvia have the task of bringing them up.

It’s a difficult state of affairs for Sylvia as her uncle, known as GUM, leaves her some money and takes off on his travels again. As the girls (Pauline, Petrova and Posy) grow up the financial situation is very precarious as GUM stays away for years and doesn’t send any more money, for all they know he might be dead as they haven’t even had a letter from him for years.

The girls are all determined to help Sylvia and when they are enrolled in a stage and dancing school they are able to contribute to the family budget. Bizarrely it’s never mentioned that Sylvia might be able to get a job to help out!

I enjoyed this one, the character of Petrova was especially good as she was so different from the usual girls of that time, she was keen on cars and how they worked and was happiest when up to her ears in oil and car parts. Despite having little interest in the performing arts she was still keen to pull her weight and earn money for the family.

I think this is the fifth or sixth children’s book that I’ve read by Streatfeild and she does seem to have been slightly obsessed with the stage and performing. The only one of her books that I have unread in the house is Saplings, one of her books for adults, it’ll be interesting to see what that one is about. Have any of you read it?

My copy of Ballet Shoes is a modern Puffin book. Although these editions have nice clear print I must admit that I generally prefer the designs of the old Puffin books.

Two from Ian Rankin – Rebus

I’m really behind with my book thoughts and as I’ve read two books in Ian Rankin’s Rebus series recently I thought I’d just give them a quick mention.

 Set in Darkness cover

Set in Darkness was first published in 2000 and it’s the 11th book featuring DI John Rebus. The setting is of course Edinburgh where the very historic Queensberry House is undergoing refurbishment as part of the devolved Scottish Parliament administrative offices. A partially mummified body is found behind a boarded up fireplace. It looks like it has been there since the last work which was undertaken in that area, some 20 odd years ago.

Then there’s what appears to be the suicide of a homeless man, but it turns out that he had hundreds of thousands of pounds. Why was he living on the streets and did he really kill himself? It’s all go when a prospective MSP’s body is found. Somehow they’re all linked. This was a good read and as ever I enjoyed the Edinburgh setting.

 Resurrection Men cover

Resurrection Men was first published in 2021. This one ranges around Scotland from Edinburgh to Stirlingshire, Perthshire, Fife and Dundee.

Rebus has had a bit of a meltdown and thrown a cup of tea at his boss Gill Templar. The result of that is that he has been sent to Tulliallan, the Scottish police training college for a bit of a refresher course and to have some sessions with a psychologist. Rebus isn’t the only one who has been sent back to school. There’s a group of senior officers who are all there for similar reasons, but it transpires that Rebus has been asked to befriend the others as they’re suspected of being ‘right bad yins’ and Rebus needs to get the evidence. Rebus isn’t sure if he’s being set up by his superiors or if it’s for real, either way it’s a dangerous situation for him. The cold case that they’ve been given to re-open as part of their team building happens to be one in which Rebus was involved, and he’s not happy about that at all.

Meanwhile Siobhan, Rebus’ sidekick is investigating the murder of a wealthy Edinburgh art dealer who had a link with one of the prostitutes in a massage parlour, which in turn might have links with Ger Cafferty, the Mr Big of the Edinburgh dark side.

There’s a lot more to it but, you get the idea I’m sure.

I love that I know all the locations of these books so I’m not sure how much that influences my enjoyment, mind you with the bad guys in this one coming from the west of Scotland I did slightly roll my eyes!

Lily by Rose Tremain

Lily cover

Lily by Rose Tremain is subtitled A Tale of Revenge. It begins in 1850 when on a freezing cold night a young policeman Sam Trench discovers a tiny baby which has been abandoned by her mother in a park near Bethnal Green, London. He takes the baby to the nearby London Foundling Hospital, better known as Coram, a home for orphans. The babies that end up there are farmed out to people in the country until they are six years old. The couples are given ten shillings a month to bring up the children so it’s just a way of making ends meet for them. But Lily’s foster family, farmers in rural Suffolk, Nellie and Perkin Buck grow to love her. At the end of the six years the unsuspecting Lily is dragged away from Nellie, the woman she loved like a mother and who loved her too, as did Perkin and their sons, they want to keep her but aren’t allowed to.

Then begins a nightmarish existence for Lily at the hands of the cruel sisters (presumably nuns) of the Coram. No toys or fun for the children who have to work, picking okum, scrubbing, washing clothes, sewing. Lily has been taught sewing skills by Nellie, but her skills don’t help her avoid the abuse and terror of the place.

It’s a twisted form of Christianity that’s taught there, but when Lily gets work as a wigmaker when she’s old enough to leave the hospital, the fate of the girls still left behind at the orphanage haunts her.

This is a really good read, despite the fact that it is a wee bit disjointed at the beginning, and it doesn’t have chapters, something that I dislike as I like to read to the end of a chapter before putting a book down and no chapters makes it difficult to break off. Having said that, I’m hoping that there will be a sequel to this book.

This is only the second book by Tremain that I’ve read, I read Merival previously and really liked that one too.

I was sent a digital copy of this book by the publisher via NetGalley. Thank you. The book is due to be published on the 11th of November 2021.

Wolsingham, Weardale, County Durham, England

We’ve done hardly any travelling around since Covid so I haven’t been doing much blogging about what I regard anyway as interesting places, and even when we did travel in May – to the County Durham area – I only blogged about one place. So here are a few photos of Wolsingham.

Old Building, Wolsingham

These north of England villages are just as scenic as the Cotswold villages, but I suppose their location counts against them as it’s not a handy journey from London and the south – as the Cotswolds area is. I can’t resist an old church though despite not being at all religious. Below is St Mary’s and St Stephen’s Church.

A Church in Wolsingham

St Mary's and St Stephen's Church, Wolsingham

I think it’s the burial grounds around old churches that I’m really attracted by, strange I know. But some of the gravestones can be fascinating. As you can see there was a lovely cherry tree blooming nearby.

Flowering Cherry, St Mary's and St Stephen's Churchyard, Wolsingham
The church dates back to the 12th century but like so many it was rebuilt in Victorian times, the 1840s for this one. It still looks quite ancient to me though.

St Mary's and St Stephen's Churchyard, Wolsingham

There’s a war memorial of course – there always is, sometimes they’re in the middle of nowhere, or so it seems.

Wolsingham War Memorial

You can read about the pretty wee town of Wolsingham here if you’re interested

Everyman’s Castle by Philippa Lewis

Everyman’s Castle by Philippa Lewis was first published in 2014, and it’s subtitled The Story of our cottages, country houses, terraces, flats, semis and bungalows.

This is such an interesting and informative read, but it references quite a lot of other books, mainly novels which of course I’ve taken a note of – it has bumped up my book list considerably! It also has plenty of lovely illustrations, and obviously there’s quite a lot of social history involved too.

I had always wondered why a great-uncle of Jack’s had insisted that his house was NOT a bungalow. They were the kind of house popular in colonial India amongst the Anglo Indians or ‘ex-pats’. But the early UK versions were often little more than wooden shacks, often built by soldiers after the end of WW1 when decent housing was difficult to find. Then after WW2 the prefabricated bungalows erected to try to alleviate the housing shortage tended to be despised, although they were loved by the people who actually lived in them.

I was surprised to discover that people in England were really reluctant to live in flats, so they were difficult to sell or let when builders first offered them. Eventually service flats became popular among the wealthy in London, it must have seemed like living in an hotel as meals could be sent up from the kitchen or you could go down to the restaurant, but there would have been more privacy than in an hotel. But flats have always been very popular in Scotland’s cities, they tend to be roomier than the narrow terraced housing on offer in England, but even those tiny houses ended up being split up into bed sitting rooms with kitchens being shared as the housing difficulties got worse.

It’s not all about grim housing problems though, having said that the ‘nobs’ who lived in country estates had problems of their own as new death duties took effect, and some were just abandoned and demolished but others such as Longleat took on the challenge and made a successful business out of the estate. It’s the suburban villas and semis section that I enjoyed most, and it was interesting to read that people in privately owned homes were building walls to separate themselves from newly built social (council) housing nearby.

This book has all sorts of interesting bits and pieces in it about old places such as Edinburgh and Bath as well as information about the ‘garden cities’ that became popular.

So this was a really good read, and I love the cover too. I really like those 1930s art deco homes – Crittall curved windows and all.

The Women of Troy by Pat Barker

 The Women of Troy cover

The Women of Troy by Pat Barker is the sequel to her book The Silence of the Girls. This one continues with the Greeks sitting cramped in the wooden horse, waiting to be able to jump out and overcome Troy, if it isn’t dragged into the city and isn’t burnt with the men in it. All goes to their plan and Achilles’ son Pyrrhus seeks out the elderly King Priam to murder him, which he manages to do eventually although he botches it badly. The women of Troy are now all slaves, the ‘best’ given to the officers and the others being passed around the ordinary soldiers. King Priam’s body lies in a bloody heap with the Greeks not allowing him a funeral, the final indignity for him and those who loved him. Briseis who is now married to Alcimus but pregnant with Achilles’ child goes in search of Helen whom she had met when she was younger. So many people blame her for the war so Helen is not at all popular, but Briseis is trying to forge relationships where she can. She discovers that hundreds of women had commited suicide and she fears that her sister Ianthe was one of them, she can see no little boys at all. It seems that even they have been killed by the victors.

The Greeks are stranded in Troy due to the weather, there’s just no wind to fill their sails. To stop the soldiers from getting bored and drunk, which would surely lead to them fighting among themselves Alcimus decides to hold competitive games. The men all think that they’re unable to sail home because they’ve angered the gods, they’ve treated their priest as a figure of fun in the past.

This was an enjoyable read particularly as the women do feature a lot more in this one and they’re all interesting characters. I’ve always identified with Cassandra!

Thanks to Penguin Books, Hamish Hamilton for sending me a digital copy of the book via NetGalley.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi

 The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle cover

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi was published in 1990 and has won several children’s book awards. You really have to suspend your disbelief while reading this book in order to enjoy it as the whole thing is most unlikely, but that didn’t stop it from being an enjoyable read.

It’s 1832 and thirteen year old Charlotte Doyle is in a crowded dock in Liverpool where she is to board a ship bound for America. Her father had arranged for her to be in the company of two families who would also be passengers and would look after her, but when Charlotte boards the Seahawk she discovers that those families have changed their plans, and she is alone on the ship, apart from a crew of mainly ragged ruffians.

Captain Jaggery is a cruel master and it isn’t long before Charlotte witnesses his harsh command. The only person that Charlotte befriends is the ship’s cook, but he is the target of Jaggery’s cruelty, with disastrous consequences.

Charlotte ends up becoming a member of the crew, casting off her dainty frocks in favour of the more practical clothing of a sailor boy and in no time she’s crawling up the masts to the crow’s nest as if she has been born to do it – you see what I mean about having to suspend your disbelief!

Things go from bad to worse when Charlotte is accused of murder – but all’s well that ends well. I can imagine this one being very popular with young girls hankering after adventure – vicariously.

The Guardian’s Bakewell Traybake

I recently deleted the old Mary Berry Bakewell recipe that I had on ‘Pining’. Someone called Emma was incensed that it didn’t work out for her which I found quite amusing as if you are an experienced baker you know that you can do a recipe fifty times with no problems but sometimes it just fails for no good reason. When that happens Jack says there were ‘too many clouds in the sky’ – it’s a thing that scientists say about failed experiments! Anyway, as I had stopped doing the Mary Berry version, I thought it was about time that I shared what I think is the Felicity Cloake version from The Guardian, which although I’m fairly sure must be more calorific due to the ground almonds, is much tastier in my opinion.

Bakewell Pudding

For the base:

100g (1/2 a cup) soft unsalted butter
50g (1/4 cup) sugar
100g (1/2 cup) plain flour
pinch of salt

For the filling:

150g ground almonds
50g (1/4 cup) plain flour
150g soft unsalted butter
150g sugar
3 medium eggs
a few drops of almond extract (optional)
1/2 a jar (or more) of raspberry jam
15-20g flaked almonds
150g fresh raspberries
icing sugar, to serve

Heat the oven to 170C//335F/gas mark 3 and lightly grease an 18cmx25cm baking tin.

To make the base, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, sift in the flour and salt, and work to a crumbly mixture. Press into the base of the tin, don’t worry if there are a few gaps, it will spread out as it cooks) and bake for 20 minutes until golden brown. Remove and turn the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4.

For the filling, combine the ground almonds and flour and set aside.
Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Gradually beat in the eggs one at a time, adding a spoonful of almond mix with each egg.
Fold in the remaining almond/flour mixture, and almond extract if using.

Spread the jam thickly over the cooled base and spread the almond/flour mixture evenly on top. Stud with the raspberries, pressing them in gently, and scatter with flaked almonds.
Bake for 35-40 minutes, until golden brown. Leave to cool, then dust with icing sugar and cut into squares.

I tried to convert the weights into US cups but I’m not confident they’re correct as according to some sites it depends which ingredients you are measuring. Honestly it’s a lot easier using scales.

Bakewell Pudding Sliced

As with many recipes I use them as a starting point and do my own thing. When I baked this batch a few weeks ago I had a jar of homemade jam that needed to be used up. I had made it last autumn and just called it autumn jam as it was a mixture of plums, pears and brambles/blackberries. It was really delicious as it tasted sort of Christmas spicy, despite having no such spice in it, I think it might have been the type of pears I used. I hope I can replicate it this autumn. Anyway, I used up the whole of the jar of jam in this batch. As raspberry season was over I didn’t add the raspberries, and it was still delicious, I also skipped the icing sugar and flaked almonds – well I am trying to eat healthily! However, as you can see, I cut the slices into rectangles, not squares!

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown – Classics Club, Back to the Classics

The Rose Garden cover

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown was first published in the UK way back in 1971 but the copy I read, in a very tightly bound and therefore difficult to read paperback edition was published in 1975 which is when Jack bought it, and I’ve been meaning to read it ever since then, so I put it on my Classics Club list, to encourage me to get on with it. I also read it for Karen’s Back to the Classics Challenge.

What can I say other than I’m really glad that I read this book, but it was so depressing. The American politicians of the day were so duplicitous, cruel and greedy and the First Nation Indians were so trusting, honest, dignified and forgiving – it was only ever going to end in tears for them.

Hunted like animals all over the country, by men who were no better than gangsters, whether in uniform or not and who conveniently didn’t even see the Indians as human beings. It was the Europeans who originally started scalping people, but the Indians who got blamed for it.

With settlers, gold rushers, corrupt government land agents and soldiers seeking glory it was only a matter of time before the First Nation people were either killed fairly quickly, or slowly by starvation as they were corralled in reservations (concentration camps) which had such poor land they couldn’t grow crops and all the animals had been frightened off or killed by hunters for their skins.

I must admit that after reading this book I’ll never see American settlers in quite the same light again, although to be fair they were also at times the victims of corrupt land agents. They must have known that they were usurping the original inhabitants of the land though.

It’s very true to say that history is written by the victors, which is why so many people believe that the American War of Independence was about a tax on tea. It wasn’t, it was about the fact that the British government had promised the First Nation people that they wouldn’t expand westward into their territory. That was something that the American politicians and businessmen were desperate to do – for profit of course. So they had to get rid of the British to get on with their expansion plans. A people with not much more than bows and arrows plus a strong tradition of caring for their land in what we nowadays see as a conservationist fashion just didn’t fit in to the American way.

This is an absolutely heartbreaking read with entire tribes being wiped out, ethnic cleansing is the euphemism now, but I’m very glad that I got around to it at last.

River West Water near Edzell Castle

When we visited Edzell Castle last week we realised that there must have been a source of water nearby, although it certainly wasn’t obvious, so we went on a wee walk in search. About a half a mile as the crow flies from the castle and maybe double that by the road we found the West Water which if you were travelling by car you would have no idea it was there as it’s down quite a steep and wooded path off the road. It’s lovely and clear, quite fast running, and with rocks to sit on it would be a lovely place for a picnic.

River West Water, near Edzell Castle, Scotland

As you can see the surrounding rock is red sandstone, the same rock which Edzell Castle was built from, presumably there’s an old quarry nearby.

River West Water, by Edzell Castle, Scotland

River West Water, Geology, red sandstone

We walked across Pirner’s Brig, which is quite a high and not very steady feeling metal bridge, but we survived!

River West Water, from Pirner's Brig

The photos below are the ones I took on my phone.

River West Water , near Edzell Castle, Scotland

River West Water , near Edzell Castle, Scotland

River West Water, near Edzell Castle, Scotland

Some of the surrounding rocks are conglomerate, with big pebbles stuck in the sandstone, when they are washed out by the water it leaves big indentations in the sandstone.

River West Water geology, near Edzell Castle, Scotland

And just to finish off, here’s photo I took of the view of the castle gardens from a window seat within the castle ruins. You have to imagine how it would have looked with cushions on the stone seats and maybe a nice tapestry to lean back on, and of course glass in the window. That would have been my favourite place to read a book, but the view of the garden would have been a distraction!

Edzell Castle window, near Brechin, Scotland