The Shield Ring by Rosemary Sutcliff

 The Shield Ring cover

The Shield Ring by Rosemary Sutcliff was first published in 1956 and I hadn’t even heard of it until I saw it fairly recently in a secondhand bookshop in St Andrews, but it turned out to be great read – as Sutcliff’s books generally are.

The setting is the English Lake District, a place that I’ve enjoyed visiting quite a few times, but the next time I visit I’ll be looking at the landscape in an entirely different way, imagining all the things that were going on there as those of Viking descent who had settled there fought the Normans over a thirty year period or more. The Normans who had fairly easily overcome the inhabitants of the southern half of England in the softer landscape found it to be a much more difficult task in the northern wilds of the Lake District which seemed to be sheltered by a ring of mountainous terrain.

I must admit that I had no idea the famous Domesday Book that we hear about so often stopped short of the Cumberland Fells so there is no mention of Lake Land at all. I can imagine that it must have been one of those areas that on old maps would have been marked – HERE BE DRAGONS.

The book begins with the not quite five year old Frytha witnessing the burning of her village by Norman William’s men. Frytha had been out and about in the woods with Grim her father’s shepherd/man of all work, when they realised that the woodland around them felt different. The birds and animals had fallen silent because the Normans had arrived and were busy slashing and burning. Grin knew there would be no survivors so he took Frytha further north into the Lake Land where she was quickly adopted by a local family. It’s the last stronghold of the Vikings who are constantly honing their battle skills to ward off the Normans who have built a stronghold at Carlisle.

Frytha quickly finds a friend in Bjorn who is just a few years older than she is, it turns into a great relationship with the two of them facing danger together in later years as they team up to do their bit to help out their community agains the Normans.

Rosemary Sutcliff was such a lovely writer of well researched books, and I certainly always learn new things of interest in them.

The Classics Club Spin # 27

The Classics Club #27 has been chosen and it’s number 6 which for me means that I’ll be reading The Corn King and the Spring Queen by the Scottish author Naomi Mitchison.

I must admit that this one has been languishing on what is my second Classics Club list unread because I’ve been dodging it due to it being a chunkster – and a paperback, therefore is awkward to read. However I’m determined to read this one as I failed miserably in the last spin.

The New House Captain by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

 The New House Captain cover

The New House Captain by Dorita Fairlie Bruce was first published in 1928 but my copy is a reprint from the 1950s – going by the illustrations, there’s no date in the front.

This is the first book in this Dorita Fairlie Bruce series which features Springdale School. The school is located in the west of Scotland, Ayrshire I believe but sadly there wasn’t much in the way of Scottish atmosphere in the book, apart from one character who was a Glaswegian and supposedly had a rough accent, but there was no dialect written in any sort of Glaswegian.

However the story itself was quite entertaining with the headmistress’s unexpected choice of Peggy Willoughby to be the captain of The Rowans house. Peggy’s best friend Diana had been sure that she would be the captain and she’s more than a bit miffed to miss out on what she regarded as her right – to her best friend. To Peggy’s dismay Diana more or less drops her as a friend, using the fact that she has to study for a scholarship to sideline Peggy instead of supporting her and siding with the ghastly Sydney whenever she could. Sydney is a girl who has no team spirit and is only interested in herself.

Obvioulsy there’s a lot more to it than this. I had read a book in this series previously and there were lots of descriptions of the Scottish countryside and a plenty of Scots dialect dialogue in it. The New House Captain is the first book in the series so I assume that the author decided in the later books that she should make the Scottish setting more obvious, which I think was a good decision. However my copy of the book was published by Spring Books, not the usual Blackie of the original books so there’s a possibility that this edition has been gutted of its Scottish atmosphere.

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

The Thin Man cover

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett was first published in 1932.

Nick Charles had retired from the sleuthing business to concentrate on managing his finances which seem to have prospered since his marriage to the wealthy Nora, but he gets drawn back into the detection business when Julia Wolf is found shot dead. She had been the ‘confidential secretary’ to Clyde Miller Wynant, an inventor and one time husband of Mimi, who just happened to find Julia’s body. Mimi is well known to Nick, as are her children, Dorothy and Tristan.

There’s a lot of boozing going on in this book, so it all feels authentically like the America of Prohibition era. I enjoyed the relationship between Nick and Nora although it is a bit bizarre, Nora is too easy going in my opinion, but maybe she was Dashiell Hammett’s idea of the ideal wife!

There are several ghastly characters to really enjoy disliking, and there’s plenty of snappy dialogue. So there’s a lot to like about this book. It’s the first one by Dashiell Hammett that I’ve read and I believe he was the first writer to develop this style, but I have to say that I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Raymond Chandler’s writing, but that may just have been because I found it just a wee bit too convoluted with a lot of characters to keep track of. Maybe our unusually hot spell was affecting my brain!

The Classics Club Spin # 27

classics club

It’s Classics Club Spin time again, number 27 this time. I have to admit that for the first time ever I failed to finish the last spin book on time, it was Montaigne’s Essays and I’m still only about three quarters of the way through it. The small print definitely isn’t helping, but I’ll finish it sometime soonish I hope. I did manage to read High Wages by Dorothy Whipple though, which was also on my spin list.

Anyway, I’m coming towards the end of my second spin list so I have to repeat the books on the list as I don’t have twenty still to read.

1. Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott
2. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
3. The Trial by Franz Kafka
4. The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson
5. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
6. The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison
7. End of the Chapter by John Galsworthy
8. The Trial by Franz Kafka
9. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
10. Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott
11. The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson
12. High Wages by Dorothy Whipple
13. The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson
14. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
15. The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison
16. End of the Chapter by John Galsworthy
17. The Trial by Franz Kafka
18. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
19. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
20. Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott

The book that I’m not looking forward to reading from this list is Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, because my copy is an old paperback and it’s quite thick. I always find that type of book awkward to read as I never break the spines of paperbacks.

Are you taking part in the spin this time around?

The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths

 The Postscript Murders cover

The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths was published in 2020 and it’s the second book in her DS Harbinder Kaur series. Normally I would try to read books in a series in order, but it wasn’t a problem just diving in as I did.

Natalka is a care worker with 90 year old Peggy Smith as one of her ‘clients’. When Natalka discovers Peggy dead in her chair, facing her bay window she feels that something is not quite right. Peggy had spoken of being watched, but that could just have been the beginning of age related paranoia or dementia. Then a business card is found near Peggy, on it she’s described as a ‘murder consultant’. It seems that Peggy had led a secret life as an expert on unusual ways of murdering people. Her skills were in demand by many crime writers who needed her input when they needed ways of their characters being murdered.

Peggy’s son is in an unseemly hurry to pack up her flat and get it on the market, there are a lot of books, but when Natalka and her friend Benedict (coffee shack owner and ex monk) visit the flat they end up being threatened by a masked gunman who left swiftly after grabbing a book.

DS Harbinder Kaur is on the case which begins with Peggy’s death in Shoreham and leads to Aberdeen in north east Scotland. This was a really enjoyable read with unusual and likeable characters and there’s quite a bit of humour in there too. I feel I should read the first book in this series now, The Stranger Diaries.

Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer

 Rubbernecker cover

I would probably never have picked up this book if it hadn’t been that favourite book bloggers enjoyed it so much. Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer was first published in 2013.

Patrick has Asperger’s Syndrome and he only got into university because they have a quota to fill, they need a percentage of ‘disabled’ students and he fits the bill. Patrick isn’t interested in becoming a doctor, he just wants to do anatomy. He had witnessed a bad car crash earlier and is somewhat obsessed with death. His father had died when Patrick was a youngster and no doubt that experience has affected him. His mother is completely stressed out by him.

Patrick stands out as being very different from the other students, he takes everything literally and really just doesn’t understand how people communicate and interact with each other. As part of their studies students are put into groups and given a cadaver to study, stripping it back bit by bit, looking for whatever had caused their death. In time they develop a relationship with the body which for them is anonymous, but they all give their cadavers a name.

Patrick is obsessed with bagging up and labelling everything during the course, and this leads to him having suspicions about the death – things just don’t add up as far as he is concerned.

This was a great read so I’ll definitely be reading more by the author. It has suspense, some humour, horror and quirky characters.

Six in Six – 2021 edition

Jo of The Book Jotter is hosting her Six in Six meme again and I’ve decided to join in. The idea is to look back at what you’ve read over the first six months of the year and to share share six books in six categories. Jo has a lot of suggestions for categories but you’re free to come up with categories of your own if you would rather. Here goes!

Six books by authors that were new to me:

1. The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
2. The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley
3. Divided Souls by Toby Clements
4. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
5. Another Little Christmas Murder by Lorna Nichol Morgan
6. Bag and Baggage by Judy Allen

Six crime books:

1. The Man from Occupied France by Anthony Parsons
2. The House on the Hill by John Drummond
3. The Deadly Truth by Helen McCloy
4. Anna, Where Are You? by Patricia Wentworth
5. Another Little Christmas Murder by Lorna Nichol Morgan
6. The Black Book by Ian Rankin

Six books by Scottish authors:

1. The Fascinating Hat by Isabel Cameron
2. The House of the Pelican by Elisabeth Kyle
3. The Gates of Eden by Annie S. Swan
4. Bel Lamington by D.E. Stevenson
5. The Black Book by Ian Rankin
6. Personality by Andrew O’Hagan

Six historical fiction books:

1. The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor
2. The Royal Secret by Andrew Taylor
3. The Grove of Eagles by Winston Graham
4. Light Over London by Julia Kelly
5. The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
6. Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer

Six books written for children/YA:

1. The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
2. Pinnochio by Carlo Collodi
3. An Edinburgh Reel by Iona McGregor
4. Hitty – Her First 100 Years by Rachel Field
5. The Spanish Letters by Mollie Hunter
6. White Boots by Noel Streatfeild

Six books that were favourites:

1. The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
2. The Masterpiece by Emile Zola
3. The Wind Off the Small Isles by Mary Stewart
4. High Wages by Dorothy Whipple
5. The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor
6. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

I could have chosen more than six books in all of these categories, it has been a good reading year so far with just a few duffers read. One of the many great things about reading book blogs is that the book recommendations by fellow bloggers mean that it’s rare for me to waste time reading books that I don’t enjoy. The last one ‘Julia’ that I really didn’t like was completely my own fault for choosing it because of the title.

I really enjoyed looking back over the books that I read over the first six months of the year. It has reminded me that I should read more classics, more books in translation – and more non-fiction as I wasn’t able to gather up six books in any of those categories, I only got as far as five!

Julia by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles – 20 Books of Summer 2021

 Julia cover

I read Julia by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles for 20 Books of Summer 2021. It’s a book I’ve had for years and just never got around to reading it. I hadn’t ever read anything else by the author and I’m sorry to have to say that I won’t be reading any more as I really did not enjoy it. I hate slating a book and rarely do it, especially if the author is still alive.

At the beginning Julia is a 15 year old schoolgirl, a bit of an odd bod with no friends – not that she actually wanted any – seemingly even disliked by her very strict parents and not particularly close to her sister. When she takes on a job as a baby-sitter to a local family it’s just for the money, but soon she’s a part of the family, counts Joyce the mother as a friend and is adored by the two young boys. But from the very beginning she is interested in Peter, the husband and father. Peter is a violinist with an orchestra and a serial adulterer, so it isn’t long before he’s grooming Julia to be his next squeeze. She is besotted with him.

So begins a 20 odd year long on off relationship which does involves divorce then Julia and Peter getting married, losing a child, Peter resuming his usual bad behaviour in the worst way, more divorce, another marriage for Julia, the crazy and highly unlikely death of that husband who was a high ranking army officer, which was also totally unlikely as NCOs never get promoted to colonel, they only get as far as major according to an army friend of mine. Than Julia is supposed to be short of money – the author obviously didn’t know how much Julia would have got as the widow of a colonel!

For me the whole tale was just full of holes, badly written and included far too much sex – keep it off the pages please – I’m sure that others must like that though. The ending was so unlikely, I suspect that the author was going for an unusual and shocking twist, but it just wasn’t feasible if you read the book carefully as I did, while rolling my eyes. The author had Julia behaving in a way that I just couldn’t imagine any human being behaving, given the circumstances. It’s always difficult for me when there are no likeable characters in a book and in this one there were just a couple of very minor characters whose company I could have enjoyed.

I believe that lots of people are really keen on this author, particularly a long series that she wrote but I was so disappointed with this one and annoyed with myself for ploughing my way through it in the hope that it would improve – it didn’t – it got worse.

Perhaps it was my fault for buying a book solely because of the title, it hasn’t put me off the name Julia though. I had a sneeky peek on Goodreads and nobody has written a review of this book but lots of people have rated it with just one 5 star rating I think, but mainly threes or less. I will give it two, and that’s me being generous.

The Wind Off the Small Isles by Mary Stewart

The Wind Off the Small Isles cover

The Wind off the Small Isles by Mary Stewart was first published in 1968. The setting is Lanzarote on the Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa, and 23 year old Perdita is there with her employer Cora Gresham who is a famous English novelist. Perdita is her secretary and as Cora freely admits she half writes the books too. They’re busy seeking out settings for the books, but when Perdita drives down a country track which Cora wants to explore it leads to a house which Cora falls in love with immediately.

There are workmen outside the house and Perdita is sent to enquire about the owner as Cora wants to buy the place, but it turns out that Cora already knows the owner James Blair and he’s another English author – the house is definitely not for sale. Michael is working for James and it’s obvious that he and Perdita are interested in each other, and so begins a suspenseful adventure accompanied by the atmospheric descriptions that Mary Stewart was so skilled at.

This is a lovely little novella at just 96 pages, my copy has the original dust jacket and the beginning of each chapter has a small illustration by Laurence Irving. Unfortunately it seems to be quite expensive online but I was lucky to find a perfect copy for all of £3 in a secondhand book shop.