Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore was first published in 2017. It says on the cover ‘The finest novel Dunmore has written.’ Sadly it was also the last one she wrote as she discovered as she was editing the book that she was seriously ill.

The setting is Bristol around the time of the French Revolution. Lizzie Fawkes is a young married woman, her husband John Diner Tredevant is a property developer, he had been married before, to a French woman who had died while visiting France. Lizzie’s mother Julia hadn’t ever really warmed to her son-in-law, but Lizzie had never much liked her step-father Augustus, and she likes him even less when she discovers that her mother is pregnant, at her age it seems far too dangerous.

Julia is well known in Radical circles as she’s a writer of speeches and pamphlets, it’s a dangerous occupation though as the British government is naturally worried about revolutionary acts spreading from France.

There had been a housing boom in Bristol, until the trouble in France makes everybody jittery, they know that war with France is likely, and nobody is interested in buying new houses. Lizzie’s husband is going to be in deep financial trouble, but he’s already causing trouble for Lizzie as he becomes more and more controlling.

This was a great read.

The Guardian review said: ‘A blend of beauty and horror evoked with such breathtaking poetry that it haunts me still.’

Landskipping by Anna Pavord

Landskipping by Anna Pavord was first published in 2016. In the past I’ve enjoyed reading gardening /plant books by the author, but I found Landskipping to be rather disappointing.

It’s subtitled Painters, Ploughmen and Places and I had thought that there would be a lot about the places and landscapes of Britain, but it turned out to be very disjointed, it does indeed skip around as if the author was at a loss for more things to write about.

I’m aware that my disappointment is probably entirely my fault as I had presumed that there would be a lot of nature writing in the book, but there really isn’t.

The Guardian – some links

It’s absolutely ages since I linked to some Guardian articles, so here goes!

I was sad to see Joan Lingard’s obituary in The Guardian last week, mind you she was 90. You can read it here. I don’t know if it can be said to be apt that she actually died on July the 12th, but it’s certainly quite spooky as she wrote a book with the title The Twelth Day of July, which is of course the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne. Joan Lingard was born in a taxi in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile/High Street!

With all that’s going on in America at the moment re Roe v Wade and abortion rights/women’s rights, I thought you might be interested in reading a very informative article on how things were done in the past. I often wondered how so many families in the past managed to be so small with no real contraception available! You can read about it here. Abortion in the 19th-century US was widely accepted as a means of avoiding the risks of pregnancy, and many women routinely got rid of the problem, it was acceptable right up until ‘quickening’ when you can first feel movement, usually around the fourth month. The idea of banning or punishing it came later. The article is written by Tamara Dean.

There’s a book review: Scotland The Global History – 1603 to the Present by Murray Pittock which you can read here. I think I’ll probably try to get a copy of the book, or borrow it. There’s no doubt that Scotland and Scots have contributed a lot to the world over the centuries, especially considering we’re such a wee country. But it’s time to look to the future and not dwell on the past glories!

Sheiks and Adders by Michael Innes – 20 Books of Summer 2022

Sheiks and Adders cover

Sheiks and Adders by the Scottish author Michael Innes was first published in 1982, by Gollancz. Whenever I see those yellow Gollancz covers nowadays I’m just about grinding my teeth, since I read about how badly Victor Gollancz treated his editor Diana Athill, paying her paltry wages for years. Anyway, to the book.

Sir John Appleby has retired from Scotland Yard, and he’s very happy to be out of it, but when he visits a summer charity fete which happens to be a fancy dress do, he gets involved in a murder. Appleby is dressed as Robin Hood and he’s amused to bump into his replacement at Scotland Yard, as he’s also dressed as Robin Hood! It seems that the fete is being held in the grounds of a house which belongs to a businessman who has recently moved there, and Scotland Yard has had a tip-off that there’s going to be trouble.

A wealthy Arab sheik is going to be attending, is his life going to be in danger? To add to the difficulties lots of men have decided to dress up as Arabs, it’s impossible to figure out who is the real sheik. One thing that Appleby knows for sure – for some reason the owner of the house had forbidden his daughter’s boyfriend to come dressed as an Arab!

This was quite an amusing read. Michael Innes was also an academic and he liked to make sure that his readers knew that, so there are a lot of literary allusions as usual, I know that some people find that annoying, I just find it quite funny!

A Village in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd

A Village in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd is about the village of Oberstdorf in Bavaria. I requested it from NetGalley because I have had a Bavarian penfriend since the early 1970s and I first visited her Bavarian village back in 1970 when I was 11 or so. It was a strange experience.

Anyway, this book goes into a lot of detail of how a small village reacted to the Nazis as they became more powerful and then took over most of the village with Nazis being put in positions of power. How did it happen that normal people and particularly their children were influenced by the regime and turned into Nazis? As the Nazis grip on power strengthened it was pure fear for some people that made them join the Nazis. With people like teachers being dismissed if they didn’t toe the National Socialist Party line it was easier just to sign up I suppose.

This is quite a depressing read in places as it goes into the details of who were euthanised/murdered for being less than perfect specimens of human beings, as well as the more usual poor souls targeted by the Nazis. At one point I’m sure the author implied that the German people were not particularly anti-Jew, but I’ve read a travel book by Cicely Hamilton which was published in 1931 and she wrote that everyone in Germany was against the Jews, which she was puzzled by,

This book is an interesting read but I’ve always wondered what would have happened if a similar cult had tried to take over the UK, and I can’t see it being able to happen somehow, and I don’t think that’s me just being optimistic. There were still Nazis in Bavaria in the 1970s, proudly displaying their medals in their china cabinets and complaining that the local church had been damaged by the RAF!! And that they had suffered badly as a prisoner of war at the end of it all! I forbore to mention that my own great-grandmother had been killed by the Luftwaffe and my father had been torpedoed several times by the German navy – and I’m still annoyed at myself for being so polite.

Anyway, if you’re interested in the rise of the Nazis you will probably find this book to be a worthwhile read. I received a digital copy of it from the publisher via Elliott and Thompson via NetGalley. Thank you.

The Diary of a Farmer’s Wife 1796-1797 by Anne Hughes – 20 Books of Summer 2022

Diary of a Farmer's Wife 1796-1797 cover

The Diary of a Farmer’s Wife is a bit of a conundrum, as strictly speaking it’s not what most of us would think a diary would be. Supposedly it was written in 1796-1797 by Anne Hughes who lived in a remote country farmhouse near Chepstow, Monmouthshire. However the existence of the diary seems only to have come about because a young girl who was born in 1884 and was called Jeanne Keyte met an elderly woman who told her about her mother – Anne Hughes who had kept a diary. The old lady read to Jeanne from a thin book containing spidery writing, and also told her lots of stories about her mother Anne Hughes, and Jeanne wrote them all down so that she could put them in a book eventually. Michael Croucher who wrote the Foreword says, Certainly it should not stand as a historical text in the conventional sense, he views the diary as being more like a folk song.

However, it’s a really entertaining read. Anne Hughes led a very busy life as a farmer’s wife and if there was anyone in the neighbourhood in need, she took it upon herself to send them food and blankets, whatever she thought would make them more comfortable. She had to do it under cover though as her husband wasn’t so open-handed. There’s a lot of humour involved as her husband had a hot temper, but she was always able to defuse it by feeding him his favourite food or drink. She described him as being like a great baby – which he was.

There are a lot of hatches, matches and dispatches, scandals and cooking, including recipes if you’re that way inclined. Anne comes across as being a really lovely woman, even hoping that men who might have stolen some sheep won’t be caught as they would be hanged.

In the end it doesn’t really matter if a lot of the book is the result of embroidery by Jeanne, it’s an interesting and comfortable read, one of those books that you could dip into at any time and find something to amuse you.

I read this one for 20 Books of Summer 2022.

The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

 The Sixteen Trees of the Somme cover

Edvard is a young man living on his family farm in rural Norway, growing potatoes and farming sheep. He has been brought up by Sverre, his grandfather, as Edvard’s parents had died when he was only four years old. It’s all a bit of a mystery, Edvard can hardly remember his parents, but he knows that on the day they died he disappeared for four days and then turned up in a doctor’s surgery.

Edvard’s grandfather Sverre had been in World War 2 as had been his brother Einar, but they had chosen to fight on opposite sides, and the brothers had been completely estranged. When Sverre dies the local funeral director says that his coffin is all organised and has been waiting for him for years. It’s a very special coffin, art deco in design made using flame birch wood and had been sent to Sverre years before. Edvard knows that Einar had been in Shetland during the war and decides to go there to find out more about him. Eventually Edvard makes his way to the World War 1 battlefields and cemeteries as obviously the author did as he describes it all so well.

This was a great read which also involves a couple of young women, one in Norway and one on Shetland, so there’s a bit of romance of a sort, but mainly it’s a mystery, very well written, and it was translated from Norwegian by Paul Russell Garrett, he made a great job of it.

The Lion of Justice by Jean Plaidy

 The Lion of Justice cover

The Lion of Justice by Jean Plaidy is the second book in the author’s Norman Trilogy, but I haven’t read the first one, I don’t think that was a problem though. It was first published in 1975. She wrote under several pseudonyms including Victoria Holt.

I must admit that I was a wee bit disappointed with this one when I began to read it as the writing style seemed quite chunky when compared with more modern writers of historical fiction. There’s a lot of very obvious info-dumping, however I got used to the style and ended up enjoying it although I would only give it three stars.

Scottish princesses Edith and her sister Mary have been placed in a nunnery after the death of their mother Queen of Scotland. The nunnery is run by their aunt Christina who is determined that they will take the veil. The girls aren’t enamoured with that idea though and hope that they will be able to get married in the future, this incenses Aunt Christina the mother superior and she becomes more and more violent, especially towards Edith. So when some men from the royal court visit them they see their chance to escape. Edith hangs on for a son of the Conqueror. Henry is the youngest of that dead king’s sons, and is third in line to the throne. As you can imagine Edith is quite happy to change her name to Matilda as Henry asks her to. She’s of Saxon blood and the Norman Henry’s idea is that if he does become king marrying a Saxon will make him popular with the common people. But Henry is a philanderer and already has multiple illegitimate children, that’s all such a heart-ache for the young Matilda over the years.

Henry spends a lot of time in Normandy and when he’s not there he’s often in Wales with Nesta, his favourite other woman of long standing. Actually that part reminded me so much of another heir to the throne!

Anyway, I don’t think I will rush to read the other books in this trilogy but it was fairly entertaining.

The Swift and the Harrier by Minette Walters

The Swift and the Harrier by Minette Walters is set in southern England in 1642 the beginnings of the English Civil War, which has now been re-named more correctly The Wars of the Three Nations as it did spread beyond England.

Jayne Swift has been born into a fairly well-off family, but she has no intention of conforming and marrying as is expected of her. She has trained as a physician and has been travelling around on horseback using her skills where they are needed. When the civil war catches up with her she’s determined not to take sides, she’ll help whoever needs it. Actually there’s quite a bit of changing sides going on at times, so it’s best to stay as neutral as possible anyway.

It isn’t long before Jayne gets plenty of opportunities to practice her skills and pass on her knowledge to others, resulting in her becoming very much esteemed by those she has helped.

I sort of enjoyed this one, but I really had to suspend my disbelief because the whole premise just seems so unlikely. There’s no way that a young woman would have been able to learn the skills that she had in those times. No matter how determined a character had she would have been stuck firmly in her family home helping with the housework, until she married. The blurb on the back of the book gives the impression that it is quite heavy on the romance but really there’s hardly any romance at all with just a few unromantic meetings between Jayne Swift and William Harrier before – hey presto – romance, so I found it all slightly disappointing.

The dastardly behaviour of marauding soldiers towards the civilian population was quite depressing too, especially as it has been going on in Ukraine – nothing changes in that way it seems.