Making It Up by Penelope Lively – 20 Books of Summer 2024

Making It Up by Penelope Lively was first published in 2005. It’s one of my 20 Books of Summer.  This book is an exercise in ‘whatiffery’ something which we all indulge in from time to time I’m sure. What would have happened if I had taken another path in life, all those decisions that we take – or don’t take. It’s a really good read.

The blurb on the back says: Taking moments from her own life and asking ‘what if?’, Penelope Lively constructs fictions about possibilities and alternative destinies.

As you would expect she starts off with a story about her childhood, Mozambique Channel. Born in Egypt, she was caught up in WW2, when it looked like the Germans were going to be heading for Cairo, the civilians that could get on ships did so and sailed for South Africa, but the journey was a dangerous one.

In Imjin River the what if is about her husband who had been due to be sent to Korea as war had broken out there while he was doing his National Service.

Transatlantic is the one which spoke to me most I think as it is about leaving your own country to live elsewhere, and how that impacts on your life and experiences.

Other stories have the titles  – The Albert Hall, Comet, Number Twelve Sheep Street, The Temple of Mithras and Penelope.

These ‘what ifs’ are entertaining, but I found the explanations and the backgrounds which Lively has written for each one to be even more interesting.

 

 

Dissolution by C.J. Sansom – 20 Books of Summer 2024

Dissolution by C.J. Sansom was first published in 2003 and it’s the first book that I’ve read by the author, in fact it was only when I read his Guardian obituary when he died in April that I realised that I had almost certainly missed out on some really good reads. I think I did borrow one of his Shardlake books from the library before, but realised that it was part of a series, but never did get around to getting the first one, until now. I really enjoyed it.

The setting is England in 1537. It’s the year after Anne Boleyn’s execution and Henry VIII is beginning to dismantle the large network of monasteries that have managed to accumulate huge riches over the years. Henry is determined to strip them of their wealth and Thomas Cromwell has sent a young man to St Donatus Monastery to investigate their finances, but he is found dead there, he has been beheaded in the kitchen, and Cromwell sends Matthew Shardlake and his young apprentice to investigate the murder.

When they start to question the monks they soon realise that they are very far from being holy men, or even good men, the place is awash with sin, but which of them is a murderer?

This is an atmospheric read with a long snowstorm adding to the sense of menace as the monastery turns into a prison for Shardlake and his apprentice, trapped with  a murderer on the loose.

This was another of my 20 Books of Summer.

 

A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson

A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson was originally published in 1940, but was reprinted by Dean Street Press in 2016. It’s A Furrowed Middlebrow Book.

Sir Edmund Roundelay and his extended family, including his three elderly unmarried sisters, live in a stately pile called Delaye. It’s the beginning of World War 2 and everyone is expected to ‘do their bit’ which for the Roundelays means housing a large number of children and their teachers in the unused rooms of the house.  Lady Evelyn Roundelay is having a tough enough time coping with the running of the house as it is, the rules will have to be got around. For the first time the Roundelays are having to deal with people who have been given unexpected status due to their war work, it’s a bit of a knock to their sense of entitlement, but not for long.

In the past the Roundelays had been harsh employers, literally running their young footmen to death so that they could run ahead of their carriage to clear the way for it as they drove through villages, but there are still members of staff who are descendants of past servants working in the household, there hasn’t been much in the way of social movement.

This was an enjoyable read, the blurb on the back says that it was “controversial when first published in the early days of World War II, due to its treatment of a loathsome upper-crust family dodging wartime responsibility. It can now be enjoyed as a scathing satire of class abuses, a comic masterpiece falling somewhere between Barbara Pym and Monty Python.”

It was one of my 20 Books of Summer reads.

The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory – 20 Books of Summer 2024

The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory is one of my 20 Books of Summer. It was first published in 2008. I had sworn that I wasn’t going to read any more books about Mary, Queen of Scots for quite a long time – if ever – or any more books by Philippa Gregory for that matter as I think she has some unusual theories on historical facts, but heigh-ho. It was the fact that this one features Bess of Hardwick which drew me in, she was surely one of the most fascinating women of the Tudor period.

The date is 1568 and Bess is on her fourth husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, she has worked her way up from nothing to the aristocracy, with her three previous husbands leaving everything to her, she’s a very wealthy woman, but obviously wanted status too.

Unfortunately Queen Elizabeth I is looking for a place to lodge Mary, Queen of Scots and she decides to use Bess and her husband as suitable jailors. Queen Mary has an enormous retinue which she refuses to whittle down and for her everything must be of the best. Queen Elizabeth is determined not to pay any money over to the Shrewsburys and the whole of the cost of keeping Mary and her many hangers-on and followers in the lap of luxury causes tension within the marriage. Bess sees her fortune diminish by the week and it looks like she’ll even lose her beloved Chatsworth to pay the debts, she has had to put the building of Chatsworth on hold over the years of Mary’s captivity but even worse than that, William Cecil, Elizabeth’s spymaster is trying to link Shrewsbury, and possibly even Bess, with Catholic plots to rescue Mary from captivity. They might end up being executed.

Bess realises that like many men her husband has been the target of one of Mary’s charm offensives, and the fool has completely fallen for Mary.

I enjoyed this one although I was somewhat puzzled when on page 9 Mary describes Elizabeth as ‘that red-haired bastard’.  It’s unlikely that she would ever have done that considering that Mary had red hair too. However, according to Philippa Gregory she had lovely long black hair! That is just plain wrong and I can see no reason why Gregory would do that, particularly as their are numerous paintings of Mary and her red hair, and of course all the contemporary descriptions of Mary and her red or golden red hair.

This is the sort of thing which had put me off from reading more by this author, it seems she just likes to be different for the sake of it.

If you are interested you can click the link to my Hardwick Hall blogposts, it’s quite a few years since we visited, I hope we can go back there sometime in the future though as I loved it. Argh, that post was written in 2012.

Also if you are interested in Bess of Hardwick you might want to read the book by Mary S. Lovell

There are some more photos on that blogpost.

The Runaway Summer by Nina Bawden – 20 Books of Summer

The Runaway Summer by Nina Bawden was first published in 1969 and it’s one of my 20 Books of Summer. The book is/was aimed at older children.

Mary’s parents are getting divorced and during the school holidays she has been sent to live with her Aunt Alice and grandfather who live on the coast, while everything is sorted out. Mary is premanently angry about the whole situation, she has no friends in the area and she knows that she’s behaving very badly towards Aunt Alice and Grandfather, but annoyingly they are very understanding, which only makes Mary feel worse!

In a fit of rage Mary runs out of the house and heads for the sea front where she gets into more trouble as she’s so angry she decides to steal some sweets, but her shoplifting has been seen by young twin sisters who have run away from their older brother Simon. He’s the eldest of a large chaotic family and their father is a policeman!

On one of her trips to the beach Mary watches a small boat coming towards it, when it reaches the shingle two dark men jump out and help a young boy out too. It all seems strange, none of them are dressed for a trip in a boat and they have suitcases, when they get on the beach the boatman sails off again. The young boy has a damaged arm and as the men make their way along the beach, he’s left behind and Mary can see that he’s crying.

But in no time the men are picked up by the police, and Mary decides that she must help the young boy and hide him from the authorities, but she’ll need help from Simon.

As you would expect fromm Nina Bawden this is a really well-written book, but I found myself checking the details about when it was first published and I must say that I find it fairly depressing that she was writing about illegal immigrants in small boats – and it’s still a huge problem and very much in the news 55 years later.

It turns out that Krishna had been flying from Kenya to London to stay with his uncle, but there was a deadline to do it legally and due to plane delays he had missed it, and so began all his troubles.

My  20 Books of Summer list is here. This is the sixth book that I’ve read on the list.

 

 

 

The Secrets of Blythswood Square by Sara Sheridan – 20 Books of Summer 2024

The Secrets of Blythswood Square by the Scottish author Sara Sheridan is one of my 20 Books of Summer reads, and it was a really good one.

The book begins at Calton Hill in Edinburgh in 1846. Rock House stands right at the base of the hill and it’s owned by David Octavius Hill, the pioneer in photography. A lot of the photography work is done by two young women, cousins Jessie and Ellory, with Ellory being very much the underdog. It’s a tough life. When a philanthropist makes it possible for Ellory  to set up on her own she immediately takes herself off to Glasgow where she plans to open up her own photography business. She has far more business sense than the stuffy Hill, and has more talent and flair for artistic composition. She’s determined to make a go of it.

Meanwhile in Glasgow Charlotte has just lost her father, a wealthy businessman, and is now alone in the world with only her father’s servants for company.  When she meets Ellory the two are drawn to each other, despite the difference in status. It turns out that Charlotte isn’t as well off as she had expected, there’s a mystery to what has happened to a large investment that her father had made, and according to his will she’ll have to share half of what money there is with whoever lives in Helensburgh House, wherever that may be. But it seems that there’s very little actual money available, Charlotte thinks she’ll have to sell her family home and get rid of the servants.

This book involves the infighting of the Church of Scotland factions which had split up into the Free Church – The Great Disruption – and the protests that went on when the one time slave Frederick Douglass was giving lectures in Scotland and elsewhere, and trying to shame the churches to hand back the money which they had been given by slave owners over the years, something that they never did.

Sara Sheridan weaves actual historic people into her fiction books, such as the escaped slave Frederick Douglass, and her historical notes at the back of her books are not to be missed. I enjoyed this one just as much as the only other book by her that I’ve read, The Fair Botanists.

I must admit that when I read the title of this book I had assumed that the story would involve the notorious Victorian Madeleine Smith who lived there and was accused of poisoning her ‘gentleman friend’ so it was a nice surprise to discover that the storyline was completely different.

The Fall of Kelvin Walker by Alasdair Gray – 20 Books of Summer

The Fall of Kelvin Walker by the Scottish author Alasdair Gray was first published by Canongate Publishing in 1985. It’s a very short read at just 140 pages. It’s one of my 20 Books of Summer.

Kelvin Walker has left his home town of Glaik, a bit of a rural backwater, for the bright lights of swinging London of the 1960s. He’s determined to make a success of his life in double quick time, despite having no qualifications, he has only worked in his father’s shop since the age of 15. He had discovered the local library in Glaik and had been impressed with Nietsche who had released him from his fear of God as he didn’t exist, an entity that Kelvin felt had watched his every move, just as his father did.

Kelvin plans to pretend that he is Hector McKellar, the one person from Glaik who has become famous, he works in television. He hopes that the name will get him interviews and that he’ll be able to blag his way into a well-paid position.

Kelvin has terrific confidence in his abilities, but he quickly realises that life in London is very alien to anything he has experienced before. He’s saved from having to sleep on a park bench by a young woman who takes him back to the room that she shares with her boyfriend who is an artist. They’re bemused by Kelvin’s plans, he just doesn’t know how things work, but Kelvin is undaunted.

I’ve read a few books by Gray over the years, this is the one that I’ve enjoyed most, it’s described as being Calvinist slapstick. If you add the letters ‘it’ to Glaik you get the Scots word glaikit which means idiot, foolish.

The blurb on the back says:

‘The first major Scottish writer since Walter Scott’ – Anthony Burgess

‘Gray’s work is bawdy and exuberant. Here is an original and talented writer plainly in his prime’ – Robert Nye in the Guardian.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona MacLean – 20 Books of Summer

The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona MacLean  (S.G. MacLean) was first published in 2008. It’s one of my 20 Books of Summer.

The setting is the town of Banff, Scotland in 1626. It’s 10 o’clock at night and two whores are searching the pockets of a man that they have found lying in the street, but they find nothing. When they realise that the man is ill, not just drunk, they drag him to the schoolhouse where the teacher lives, hoping that he will be able to help the man, but they didn’t stay to speak to the teacher, they were worried about getting involved. In the morning the man is found dead, and it seems he must have been poisoned.

The teacher – Alexander Seaton – had trained for the ministry, but he had been denounced as a sinner, unfit for the job, when the dead body was found he was obviously going to be under suspicion.

Seaton sets about investigating the death, it’s a time of witch hunts and extreme religious fervour, a dangerous mixture.  I really enjoyed this one, it is very atmospheric. Maps feature in the storyline, apparently at that time maps were rare and most people had never seen one, so anyone in possession of one is suspect. I must admit that it’s something I hadn’t really thought about