Never Greater Slaughter by Michael Livingston

Never Greater Slaughter by Michael Livingston which has a foreword by Bernard Cornwell is a really good read if you’re interested in the history of Britain. About half of the book is about the run up to the Battle of Brunanburh which according to history was a horrendous 10th century battle which left thousands dead in a battle which lasted a very long time, possibly all day. Most well known battles were over and done with in a very short time. With an alliance of Irish, Scots and Vikings intent on fighting the English, and putting an end to English power, it’s easy to see what the outcome was as the English still hold that power. It was King Athelstan, King Alfred’s grandson who won the battle, but it was a close run thing.

Strangely the actual site of the battle had been lost and apparently there has been lots of speculation over the years, there’s been very little written about the battle, just some poems and accounts by unreliable sources written long after the battle took place. Michael Livingston’s research seems very reasonable to me and the upshot is that the most likely location of Brunanburh is the Wirral. If you drive on the motorway towards Birkenhead then look to your left between Exits Four and Three – that’s the lost battlefield of Brunanburh. However, the author has obviously incensed people who are equally sure that the battle was fought in several other locations.

This was a really good read, not at all dry as some history books can be, it was published by Osprey and I was sent a digital copy of the book via NetGalley. For some reason all of the numbers in the text only appeared as hieroglyphics, which is a bit of a drawback for a history book and I presume that this will eventually be rectified.

Another Little Christmas Murder by Lorna Nicholl Morgan

Another Little Christmas Murder by Lorna Nicholl Morgan was first published in 1947 and then it was titled Another Little Murder. It’s a bit cheeky of the new publisher littlebrown to stick in the word ‘Christmas’ as the book has nothing to do with the Christmas season although it is set in a very snowy Swaledale, Yorkshire.

Dilys Hughes is an optimistic young woman, she would have to be given that she drives around in a very unreliable car. She’s a commercial traveller, dealing in ointments and rubbing oils to cure rheumatics and such. She also helps to develop the medicines.

On her journey through Yorkshire the wintry weather gets worse and worse and she ends up stuck in snow. Settling down to wait for a lift from a passing motorist, it isn’t long before one turns up. Inigo Brown is driving to visit his father after receiving a letter from him. His father had recently married Theresa, a much younger woman, and Inigo has yet to meet her.

Inigo invites Dilys to stay at his father’s large remote house, as her car is well and truly stuck in the snow. Almost as soon as they get there various other refugees from the weather turn up needing food and shelter, and Theresa seems happy to cater for them all, but strange things begin to happen and some of the other guests are very odd.

This was enjoyable although at times I had trouble keeping track of all the male characters as they arrived, that was probably my fault though.

I hadn’t heard of Lorna Nicholl Morgan before. Apparently she only wrote four books. She was born in England in 1913 but moved to America in 1954. All four of her books were published in the 1940s and she doesn’t seem to have published any more after emigrating, unless she used another name.

Tension by E.M. Delafield

Tension by E.M. Delafield was first published in 1920 but has just been reprinted by British Library. It has a preface by Lucy Evans and an afterword by Simon Thomas of Stuck in a Book.

Sir Julian Rossiter is the director of a small private college. His wife Lady Rossiter is a rather overbearing woman who seems to regard the teachers of the establishment to be somehow under her supervision. She’s forever poking her nose in where it isn’t wanted. When a new superintendent of shorthand and typing is employed at the college Lady Rossiter realises that it’s someone that a male relative of hers had been involved with in the past, and she doesn’t approve of Miss Marchrose at all. She feels that she treated her relative very badly.

But Miss Marchrose is very good at her job and popular with everyone at the college, especially with Mark Easter who is rather a favourite with Lady Rossiter. Frankly she’s jealous and decides to instigate a campaign to get rid of Miss Marchrose, dripping poison about her into the ears of the other teachers, one by one.

There’s no getting away from it, Edna, Lady Rossiter is a ghastly human being with no empathy for a woman who was in the same boat as she had been in the past, but marriage to Sir Julian had put all such thoughts out of her head, and had led to her developing a horrible sense of superiority.

However it isn’t just the women who had been in a similar situation. Three of the male characters had taken the plunge and had at some point proposed marriage just because they felt sorry for a woman. It isn’t a good basis for a successful marriage, but Sir Julian has perfected the art of withdrawing from marital life as much as possible – anything for a quite life! Lady Rossiter mentions that they never argue, not realising that that is proof of their estrangement. I must admit that I always shudder whenever people boast of never having had an argument with their spouse as it means that one of the couple is a doormat, or frightened to voice their own opinions – or they just don’t care enough to bother to communicate.

This makes the book sound a bit of a drag but it really isn’t, there’s quite a lot of humour in it, although not at the same level as Delafield’s Provincial Lady books. I particularly enjoyed the company of Mark’s two young children Ruthie and her younger brother Ambrose, known to Ruthie as Peekaboo. Ruthie does a lot of excited hopping on one leg, I could just see her doing it, and poor wee Ambrose – bossed around by Ruthie – is charming, sticky hands and all!

I was sent a copy of this book for review by British Library and as a fan of the Provincial Lady books I was very happy to do so. This was a very different read which was at times infuriating, but that just proves what a good writer Delafield was.

The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen retold by Naomi Lewis

The Snow Queen cover

One book that I forgot to mention when I blogged about the books I had bought in Edinburgh last week is The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen retold by Naomi Lewis and illustrated by Christian Birmingham. I must say that I bought the book just for the beautiful illustrations, I don’t think I had seen any of Christian Birmingham’s work before. So the fact that I wasn’t struck by the re-writing by Naomi Lewis doesn’t matter so much to me, it’s enough to be able to just admire the beautiful artwork, some of which you can see here.

His style seems perfect for this subject as his illustrations have such a lovely ethereal quality.

The House of the Pelican by Elisabeth Kyle

 The House of the Pelican cover

The House of the Pelican by Elisabeth Kyle was published in 1954 and is illustrated by Peggy Fortnum who is best known for illustrating Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear books.

The setting is Edinburgh during the Festival where Mr Foley has gone to play the trombone in an orchestra. His wife is dead and he has a son and daughter to bring up, it’s a difficult life for all of them as he has to travel around for work so they don’t have a permanent home. Pat isn’t a problem as he’s old enough to look after himself, but Janet is younger and that means it’s difficult for them to get accommodation, nobody wants to end up having to take responsibility for her while her father is at work. But Chris is a young girl who helps her mother run their boarding house in a poorer part of the city, and she takes their booking.

Janet is intrigued by Effie the fishwife who visits the boarding house every week carrying a huge basket of fish to sell. When Janet follows Effie she gets completely lost in the many wee lanes and wynds at the back of the Royal Mile and ends up in a condemned building where the elderly inhabitant shows her a golden box, but Janet lives in a bit of a dream world and tells so many ‘stories’ that nobody believes her. They don’t believe that the House of the Pelican exists.

This was my first Elisabeth Kyle read but I definitely want to read more of her books as I really enjoyed this one which I’m sure captured the atmosphere of the early days of the Edinburgh Festival.

Phantom Horse Goes to Scotland by Christine Pullein-Thompson

Phantom Horse Goes to Scotland cover

I went through a phase of reading pony books when I was probably about 9 or 10 and the Pullein-Thompson family wrote so many such books, it seems it was almost a family business, so I definitely read some of theirs back then, but not this one which was written long after my childhood.

Phantom Horse Goes to Scotland by Christine Pullein-Thompson was first published in 1981, it was later re-titled Phantom Horse Island Mystery.

It’s the summer holidays and Jean and her brother Angus are disappointed because their parents are having to go abroad because their father is a sort of diplomatic troubleshooter, he’s got to fly to the Middle East (nothing changes!) and their mother always accompanies him. But what will happen to the children?

Luckily Angus had seen an advert in a newspaper about The Island School and College of Further Education whch focuses on riding and dressage, ideal for Jean, and Angus can be coached on mathematics which is his weak point. Mr Carli is the headmaster and everything is arranged very quickly. The children fly to the Scottish island, as does Phantom, Jean’s horse!

Apparently Mr Carli had only recently bought the island and most of the original inhabitants had recently left to go to the mainland. There’s only one cottage which is still inhabited and they will be moving out soon as the woman is heavily pregnant. There’s something strange about the whole set up, but Jean is very happy with the training in dressage that she’s getting and the teachers seem fine.

When Jean and Angus realise that some new horses have been moved onto the island under cover of darkness they are sure there must be some sort of nefarious purpose behind it and their investigation leads to danger.

This was a very quick read and quite an entertaining adventure. I will give it three stars on Goodreads I think. I was a bit annoyed that as far as I was concerned there were some details of the tale which weren’t satisfactorily tied up.

It might seem unlikely that parents would send their children off for the summer to a place that they hadn’t even checked out, owned by a man that they knew absolutely nothing about, but some people did do things like that to their children. I was sent to Germany for a month to stay with a penpal and really we knew very little about the family, and it was the summer before I went to high school. I had to fly from Glasgow to Dusseldorf (where I got lost), then on to Stuttgart airport. I survived but I would never have done that to my own children! I still remember the shock I got when I saw the Nazi medals in pride of place in their display cabinet, everyone I knew at home had their WW2 medals hidden away in a drawer, and the one thing that my parents had warned me about was – do not mention the war!

About Britain by Tim Cole

About Britain cover

About Britain by Tim Cole is subtitled A Journey of 70 Years and 1,345 miles. This book is based on the About Britain travel guides which were published in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain Exhibition. There are thirteen books in the travel series and Tim Cole decided to replicate the journeys from each book to see how the modern journeys compared with the original ones.

The Festival of Britain was all about celebrating modern Britain’s initiative, discovery and industry, so the journeys concentrated on roads which passed by factories and workplaces. Almost all of the industries mentioned in the original guides are long gone, so the author was driving through areas which had been dominated by mines, coal-fired power stations, hovercraft factories, a small airport (mentioned in Biggles according to my husband) and such, but had been swept away and often replaced by houses. Really it’s just as well that those heavy industries have disappeared as they were so damaging to the environment, it’s just such a pity that subsequent governments didn’t manage to replace them with anything that was as well paid.

After the end of World War 2 with sugar still being rationed years later, a lot of orchards were abandoned because to make cider you need lots of sugar and it just wasn’t obtainable in the quantites required, that’s not something that I had realised before.

There’s lots of information in this book such as the afforestation of the UK post war with the Forestry Commission and National Parks being set up, these entities were hailed as forces for good, but in my opinion they have both turned out to be too concerned with making profits rather than doing what they were set up to do, the same can be said for the National Trust which also features in this book.

Astonishingly the original Festival of Britain travel guide made little mention of Jane Austen’s home at Chawton, and seemed to think that readers would be more interested to know that Gilbert White lived in Selborne. I suspect many people were perplexed by that, even back in 1951.

As with many things the pandemic scuppered Tim Cole’s plans for this book as he obviously wasn’t able to travel during lockdown. This was particularly annoying for me as the one book that he wasn’t able to revisit happens to feature the area that I live in – Fife. He ended up doing it on his computer via Google Earth/Street. Travelling across the new Queensferry Crossing high above the River Forth that way was just not ever going to come anywhere close to the real thing.

Festival of Britain Books

I only have four of the original travel books that the author was following (see above) but at some point in the future I’d like to visit some of the places mentioned in the books. In recent years we’ve gone on quite a few UK roadtrips, but usually we don’t plan them out too much, it might be interesting to follow some of the routes in the books although the idea behind the Festival of Britain was to show how forward looking the country was after the war, so the focus was on industrial areas, rather than the scenic places that we usually frequent.

This was a really interesting read, with some humour. I was lucky to be sent a digital copy of the book by Bloomsbury Publishing via NetGalley for review. About Britain is scheduled to be published on the 10th of June 2021.

Book Purchases in Edinburgh

There was a big book-shaped void in my life due to the shops being closed for what seemed like forever, and despite buying some books online it just wasn’t the same as going into actual shops and browsing the shelves. No book smell – no serendipity – no book chat with like-minded people. Book buying online is fairly soulless.

Anyway a trip to Edinburgh one day last week went some way to filling that gap as you can see. I had a lovely time even although we had to hang about outside the shops waiting for people to come out before we could go in due to the shops being fairly small.

Books Again

The House of the Pelican by Elisabeth Kyle (1954)
Thursbitch by Alan Garner (2004)
Cross Gaits by Isabel Cameron (1945)
The Fascinating Hat by Isabel Cameron (1941)
Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann (1927)
The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski (1953)
The Shield Ring by Rosemary Sutcliff (1956)

Not a bad haul I think you’ll agree, they’re all by authors that I’ve read before and enjoyed – except for The House of the Pelican. I don’t even think I had ever heard of Elisabeth Kyle before, but the setting of the Edinburgh Festival appealed to me so I started that one almost immediately and so far – so very good.

Have you read any of these books?

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

I read The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen because it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2002. I must admit that when I saw the thickness of the book I almost gave up on it before even opening it, it’s 653 pages long and it was a paperback that I borrowed from the library. I find thick paperbacks really awkward to read. My history with these James TBM winners hasn’t been all that great, but I really liked this one and I don’t really know why I did, because there are so many aspects of it that I really dislike in a book, such as it not having any really likeable characters. Most of them are quite objectionable but at times they all have moments of decency in them and I suppose that made them very human, it’s such a well observed book as far as people and families are concerned I think.

The elderly matriarch Enid Lambert lives in a bit of a fantasy world as far as her three grown up children’s lives are concerned, she’s happy for her friends to believe that they are all successful and everything is hunky dory in their lives. The truth is she hardly ever sees them and is struggling on her own with her husband Alfred who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. All she wants is for her two sons and her daughter to come home for a few days over Christmas – and maybe her daughter-in-law and grandsons too. She wants to have a last family Christmas in the home that they’ve grown up in, then maybe she will be able to sell it and move to somewhere more practical to live in. Alfred is losing his grip on reality, possibly because of the medication he is on.

The trouble is that the adult children’s own lives are a mess, and the more the reader discovers of their childhoods the easier it is to see why they have grown to be such broken and selfish adults whose lives are falling apart.

There were so many scenes in this book that rang bells for me, such as the fight over a child who hates the food he has been given for dinner and is forced to stay at the table until he has eaten it all. That reminded me of a woman I knew who did that with her son – but the outcome there was much more dramatic than the scene in this book!

There’s no doubt that Enid has always been unhappy in her marriage and she punishes them by cooking food she knows that her husband in particular hates. She had married Alfred because he was tall and well-built and he earned good money, but she was never going to be able to stop scrimping, that was just her nature, and she was always comparing her life-style with her friends and neighbours who had husbands with lower moral standards financially than Alfred had. But with a stock market crash on the horizon – will that matter?

Surprisingly the book’s ending is fairly upbeat as most of the characters get a second crack at life, hopefully having learned from their past mistakes.

It seems that there are lots of people who hated this book and gave up on it, but there are also lots who have given it 5 stars on Goodreads. I think I’ll give it 4 stars, mainly because it should have been shorter by 150 pages or so, but I understand that most readers nowadays like a big chunky book because they feel like they’re getting their money’s worth, publishers should just make slim volumes cheaper.

The Royal Secret by Andrew Taylor

The Royal Secret cover

The Royal Secret by Andrew Taylor is the fifth book in his Marwood and Lovett series which I’ve really enjoyed reading, I think this one is even better than the previous books in the series.

The year is 1670 and two young disgruntled girls are plotting to kill a man. Mr Abbott is Maria’s drunken step-father and Hannah is a servant in the household who is regularly beaten by Abbott. Hannah persuades Maria to help with the process which she says involves witchcraft – a dangerous business given the times. After the death of Mr Abbott Marwood looks around the now deserted home of the victim and he suspects that murder may have been committed. It seems that Abbott had been entangled with some dubious characters and had been drawn into frequenting a gambling house which had ruined him.

Meanwhile Cat Hakesby, nee Lovett is continuing with her architect business after the death of her elderly husband, annoyingly most people seems to assume that she isn’t actually doing any of the work and leaves it to one of her employees. After the success of a very grand design for a poultry house she’s asked to come up with an even more ornate plan for the much loved sister-in-law of the French king – Madame, the Duchess of Orleans (Minette) who happens to be the sister of King Charles II. The project requires a visit to the proposed site of the building in France and the trip there is eventful.

While at the French Court Cat is amazed to recognise a Dutchman she had had dealings with in London. Why is Mr Van Riebeeck in disguise and using another name?

Marwood and Cat are thrown together after some unfortunate presumptions on Cat’s part had led to a coolness between them. Marwood is on the track of the Dutchman and Cat can help. Thankfully this moves their relationship along somewhat, I live in hope – especially as Marwood’s whole face is transformed by his smile.

This was a great read, very well researched and based around actual facts. It’s one of those books that I didn’t want to come to an end so I’m already looking forward to the next one in the series.

Thanks to HarperCollins UK for a digital copy of this book for review via NetGalley.