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.

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 Rose Garden by Tracy Rees

The Rose Garden cover

The Rose Garden by Tracy Rees is the first book that I’ve read by the author and although I enjoyed it in parts it did have problems for me as there were at least a couple of glaring historical mistakes in it and the relationships between the women seemed unlikely to me.

The setting is 1895 London where Mabs is working as a docker, dressed as a boy to get the work as obviously females can’t work there. Her mother is dead, her grieving father has taken to drink, and she and her younger siblings are facing starvation. Against all the odds Mabs gets a job as a companion to Abigail a woman who has just moved to London from Durham with her husband and children. Abigail seems selfish and spoiled to Mabs and not ill at all, but the husband has asked Mabs to spy on his wife and Mabs realises that things are not at all as she was led to believe. Olive Westwater is a spinster, only child of very wealthy parents and at 28 she doubts that she will ever marry, but she has a yen to have a child and so adopts a three year old girl against her parents’ wishes. Through Olive the lives of them all become woven together and when Abigail’s situation becomes dire it’s to Olive that Mabs turns to for help.

I was unable to suspend my disbelief in this premise, it just seemed far too unlikely for me, but if you aren’t as pernickety about details as I am then it won’t bother you.

The glaring historical mistakes are a mention of the phrase ‘the elephant in the room’ which is a very modern phrase, apparently first used in the US in 1935 but it didn’t reach the UK until years after that, probably around 1990 by my reckoning. The author had difficulty writing the voices of the various characters. There’s just no way that a wealthy and genteel Victorian lady would have used the word ‘guff’. The other mistake was that one of the young girls in the absolutely poverty stricken family which could barely afford food was still at school aged 15. Poor children back then left school at 12 and particularly in England free secondary schooling wasn’t available until 1944 and even then most people left school at the age of 14. The Scottish education system has always been different and we had free education decades before England had.

Also there is just no way that a seventeen year old girl could have got work at the docks even dressed as a boy. In those days, and up until comparatively recently (1960s) dockers were hired by the day and had to stand every morning looking fit and strong, hoping to be chosen to work a shift that day. A skinny girl would never have passed muster under those circumstances. These are all problems that should have been picked up by an editor but maybe nobody cares that there are big holes in the plot. Maybe I’m weird to be bothered by things like that – but that’s just me!

My thanks to Pan Macmillan for sending me a digital copy of this book via NetGalley.

After a Dead Dog by Colin Murray

 After a Dead Dog cover

After a Dead Dog by Colin Murray was published in 2007. The setting of this thriller is the west of Scotland.

Iain Lewis is living in the small childhood home that he had inherited from his father. He makes a precarious living writing various things for TV – now and again. His earlier writing career seemed certain to point to a glittering writing career but it hadn’t come to fruition. In some ways he has been living in the past after his romance with Carole, the daughter of the local wealthy businessman (fish processing) had failed soon after her father’s death. Twelve years on from the end of that romance Iain is attending Carole’s mother’s funeral and meeting her husband Duncan for the first time. Duncan makes it clear that he sees Iain as a danger to him and tries his best to get him into trouble with the police.

Irish gangsters seem to have become involved in Carole’s family business and they’re a violent bunch, but Iain holds his own as he had been a boxer in his student days. It isn’t long before firearms feature in attacks against Iain. The bad guys think Iain has their money and drugs and Iain travels to Glasgow to get help from his old friend Dougie who is a well-known crime reporter who knows some of the gangsters involved.

This book is reminiscent of Iain Banks’s writing, which is definitely no bad thing. I really enjoyed this one. Colin Murray had worked in publishing in London as an editor for years before moving to Scotland some years ago.

20 Books of Summer 2021

I did manage to complete the 20 books in my 20 Books of Summer list but haven’t managed to review them all, I had a big backlog to get through at one point as the weather was so wet during parts of July that almost all I was doing was reading! I also read several more books that weren’t on the list. August has been a great month weather-wise with parts of Scotland being the hottest places in the UK, very unusual, but very welcome, we can’t complain much about this summer – for once.

Looking back at my list, it seems like far more than two or three months since I read some of them. The book that I liked least was definitely Julia by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, it didn’t put me off the name Julia though!

There were several books that I really loved, it turned out to be a good list. It has been all very bookish on Pining recently though and as we haven’t been going out and about much at all but we visited Edzell Castle a couple of days ago so I’ll be blogging about that soon.

1. Mamma by Diana Tutton
2. The Spring of the Ram by Dorothy Dunnett
3. The New House Captain by Dorita Fairlie Bruce
4. Julia by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
5. Henrietta’s House by Elizabeth Goudge
6. Tortoise by Candlelight by Nina Bawden
7. The Fascinating Hat by Isabel Cameron
8. The School at the Chalet by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
9. Lightly Poached by Lillian Beckwith
10. Appleby’s Answer by Michael Innes
11. The Feast by Margaret Kennedy
12. The Women of Troy by Pat Barker
13. Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian
14. The Shield Ring by Rosemary Sutcliff
15. White Boots by Noel Streatfeild
16. Neither Five Nor Three by Helen MacInnes
17. bag and baggage by Judy Allen
18. After a Dead Dog by Colin Murray
19. Cross Gaits by Isabel Cameron
20. The Grove of Eagles by Winston Graham

The Spring of the Ram by Dorothy Dunnett – 20 Books of Summer 2021

 The Spring of the Ram cover

The Spring of the Ram by Dorothy Dunnett was first published in 1987 and it’s the second book in her Niccolo series. The setting is Europe and the Levant in 1461. Honestly I had my doubts that this series would come up to the high standards of her Lymond Chronicles but I was completely wrong about that.

Helped by financial support from Cosimmo Medici Nicholas/Niccolo has kitted out a ship and is preparing to sail from Florence to Trebizond.

Unknown to Niccolo his very spoiled 12 year old step-daughter Catherine has run off with Pagano Doria, his business rival. Doria has promised to buy her a dog and earrings, whereas Niccolo and her mother had refused to allow her to have a dog! Her mother doesn’t even know that she’s missing as she’s thought to be staying with friends. It isn’t enough for Doria to have Catherine and ruin her, he’s also determined to ruin Niccolo.

It’s all part of a family feud with Lymond despising Niccolo, his own son, and doing his best to obliterate him.

This was one of my 20 Books of Summer 2021.