The Silver Bead by Helen Dunmore

The Silver Bead by Helen Dunmore was first published in 2003 and it’s the third in a trilogy, the only one that I’ve read though. It’s aimed at girls who are just about to move up to secondary/high school.

Zillah and Katie have just experienced the last day of primary school and are planning to have the best summer holidays ever. Zillah’s parents have a farm but things are tough and they’re diversifying so Zillah’s mum is serving cream teas to visitors, helped by Zillah and Katie who have been friends for years. But as often happens in life their plans are overtaken by circumstances that they could all do without.

This book is entertaining for females of all ages, I can’t imagine it would interest boys, although they would also benefit from the book’s attitude to people who are a bit different from others, such as those from the travelling community.

Library Haul

I have been doing really well recently at concentrating on reading my own books but I’ve had a terrible relapse culminating in me borrowing five books – they were all absolutely necessary though! I did have ‘borrower’s remorse’ as soon as I took them home, but I got over it.

Haul of Library Books

I went into the library only to pick up one which I had reserved – Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. I wanted to read this one as I really loved his book A Gentleman in Moscow, this one is very different but still good.

Then the librarian told me that Dear Mrs Bird by A.J. Pearce was also waiting for me. I have no idea if I’ll like this one but several bloggers that I trust have enjoyed it and as the setting is London 1941 its sounds like it’ll be right up my street. I’m the first person to borrow this one too – always satisfying.

I’m working my way through Helen Dunmore’s books and Zennor in Darkness just about jumped off the shelf at me. The setting is Cornwall in spring 1917 where ships are being sunk by U-boats, strangers are treated with suspicion and newspapers are full of spy stories.

Stet An Editor’s Life by Diana Athill is one I’ve wanted to read for a while but hadn’t got around to requesting it. When I visited the library in St Andrews the other day it was sitting on the shelf, obviously waiting for me.

I borrowed A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny thinking that it was her latest book but I’ve just realised that it’s one that I’ve already read and it was first published in 2006 with a different title – Dead Cold. I’m so glad that I only borrowed the book and didn’t buy it. I hate it when publishers do that and I can see no reason for it other than they want to con readers into buying the same book twice! At least that means I’ll get back to reading my own books quicker, but I had been really looking forward to being in Three Pines again for a few days. Have you read any of these ones?

Bookish thoughts

Over the past few years some of the better known authors have been complaining about the paltry payments that most authors receive from publishers, and I had thought that with someone like Philip Pullman heading the campaign that something might actually happen. You can read the recent Guardian article about it here if you’re interested.

Evidently publishers paid no attention to authors’ complaints as things have got even worse. This is something I’ve known about for years as I do know quite a lot of authors and there are very few nowadays who can afford to be a full time author, it’s best viewed as a hobby for your spare time.

One of the problems is that publishers know how thrilled writers are to be actually published in the beginning and so they take advantage of them. Publishing is obviously a large and lucrative industry, but it must be just about the only one that treats their ‘golden eggs’ as if they are the last thing that has to be thought of. I find it particularly shocking that the person designing the book covers is usually paid just as much or more than the author gets, and we all know how bad the covers often are. The people at the top in publishing just seem to be incredibly greedy, I’m sure we’ve all noticed that even editors and proof-readers seem to be rarities now, so there must be hardly anyone actually on publishers’ payrolls.

Still the price of books just continues to rise, that’s just one of the reasons why I love secondhand bookshops as the books are so much more affordable, but apart from that you never know what treasures you might find, whereas an ordinary bookshop’s stock is usually very predictable.

I know that Persephone books have lots of fans, and I’m fond of them myself but I really don’t know how they can justify charging £14 for what is after all just a paperback in a shade of grey. Quite classy looking maybe – but overpriced.

Elsewhere in the Guardian I was pleased to see that a new book by Helen Dunmore has just been published. It’s a collection of short stories called Girl, Balancing. I still have a lot of Helen Dunmore’s books to catch up with, in fact I had only just ‘discovered’ her when it was announced that she was terminally ill. I’ll probably support a local library though and borrow it.

Having just read this post through I realise that I sound like a grumpy old curmudgeon – not that I’m worried about that!

Recent Book Purchases

While we were away on our recent (football inspired) trip down to England we took the opportunity to seek out secondhand bookshops, although there aren’t that many of them around nowadays, we visited the Moffat shop when we stopped there for lunch. We each bought a book there. Then on to Penrith in Northumberland where we found another bookshop. We also visited Oswestry, Shrewsbury, Alcester, Stratford on Avon, Much Wenlock, Ironbridge and Kendal. The upshot of that is that I bought a total of 25 books, Jack bought 11, he’s always more reticent than I am! Some of them were bought in charity shops.

I didn’t find any books that I’ve been lusting after for ages, just some books from authors that I’ve read and enjoyed before, and a few from authors I had never even heard of – but I liked the look of them. Here are a few of them.

Latest Book Haul

1. Uncle Samson by Beverley Nichols. It was published in 1950 and is his observations on the American way of life. I think it’ll be a witty report on social history.

2. Rendezvous by Daphne du Maurier is a collection of her short stories.

3. Getting It Right by Elizabeth Jane Howard. I loved the Cazalet Chronicles so I have high hopes for this one.

4. Seven Dead by J. Jefferson Farjeon, a British Library Crime Classic.

5. Counting the Stars by Helen Dunmore. She’s an author that I’ve only recently discovered – sadly she died just a few months ago.

6. An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel, published in 1995 and very different from her Tudor books I’m sure.

I found three D.E. Stevenson paperbacks in an antiques centre for all of £1 each, they were the most interesting things in the whole place.

7. Still Glides the Stream by D.E. Stevenson

8. Crooked Adam by D.E. Stevenson

9. The House of the Deer by D.E. Stevenson.

10. The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall is a Virago which was going for 50p so although I know I could have borrowed it from the library I decided to buy it.

That’ll do for now. Have you read any of these ones?

A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

A Spell of Winter cover

A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore won the 1996 Orange Prize and it is a great read if at times a bit shuddersome for any woman with a brother anyway.

Catherine and her brother Rob live in the country in a large dilapidated old house which belongs to their grandfather. Money is scarce now but the family had been wealthy in the past. Their mother has abandoned them and they have no contact with her, their father is in a sanatorium as a long-term patient. Kate and Eileen look after the children with Kate in particular being more like a surrogate mother to Catherine.

Their grandfather keeps them in the dark about both their parents. Why has the mother abandoned her children? There’s a ghastly character called Miss Gallagher who is supposed to be teaching the children but she all but ignores Rob whilst fawning on Catherine who despises her.

Time passes and a wealthy next-door neighbour shows an interest in Catherine and Rob isn’t happy about that at all, which leads him to do something unspeakable.

This book is a bit like Wuthering Heights with a hint of Jane Austen. There’s a lot more to the story than I’ve written about, I like to be quite sketchy about plots.

The Guardian said of Helen Dunmore: An electrifying and original talent, a writer whose style is characterized by a lyrical dreamy intensity.

The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

 The Greatcoat cover

The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore was published in 2012. When I read the blurb I thought it would be a good book to read around about Halloween – and it was, I really enjoyed it. Having said that, this might be a disappointment to people who are really keen on very creepy tales, of the spine-tingling variety, they’ll probably find this a bit tame.

The setting is Yorkshire, the winter of 1952. Philip Carey is a young doctor just setting up in his first job as a GP and he and his wife Isabel haven’t been married long. He has trawled the area looking for a place for them to rent, until they can afford to buy a house of their own. The post-war housing situation is desperate and he feels lucky to have found the two rooms with a tiny kitchen and shared toilet that they end up renting. Isabel isn’t so impressed though as the place is freezing, dark and depressing and as Philip doesn’t want her to work she’s stuck in it on her own while he works hard – often night and day. The landlady lives upstairs and constantly walks around, every footstep being heard downstairs, and Isabel is sure the landlady goes into their flat whenever she goes out to the shops.

Philip is one of those people who hogs the bedclothes, one night Isabel wakes up freezing and decides to get up and look for something she can put over her side of the bed to warm her up. In a high cupboard she finds an old RAF greatcoat, it’s perfect for her purpose.

The next night she’s woken up by the sound of stones rattling off the window and when she opens the curtains there’s an airman standing there and so begins a gentle haunting although Isabel thinks he’s just an airman who might have known someone who lived there previously.

This is a very quick read, just a novella really because although it has 256 pages the margins are large as is the print. I think in what I think of as a normal paperback this would probably only have been about 90 pages.

Sadly Helen Dunmore died earlier this year but she left behind twelve novels, so I have nine more opportunities to enjoy her company.

Bookish Guardian links

I recently enjoyed reading Helen Dunmore’s book The Betrayal, the first book of hers that I’ve read. So I was sad to read that she is seriously ill with some form of cancer that has a poor prognosis. She has written an article about facing mortality.What do we leave behind when we die? she asks.

There’s a new book out about Raymond Chandler and his work called Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality by Fredric Jameson. You can read an article about it here.

The author Elizabeth Strout writes about her working day here.

The retired MP Roy Hattersley has written an article comparing Brexit with Henry VIII’s break with Rome. You can read it here.

And just because I love Bogart and Bacall below is a still from The Big Sleep.

Bogart

The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

The Betrayal cover

The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore was first published in 2010 and it was long listed for the Booker prize. Howard Jacobson won the prize that year with The Finkler, I haven’t read anything by him, but I’m wondering if I would have enjoyed that one as much as The Betrayal.

It’s the first book by Helen Dunmore that I’ve read, it was Judith, Reader in the Wilderness who pointed me in the direction of The Betrayal – and what a great read it was.

Given the subject matter this was never going to be an easy or comfy read. The setting is mainly Leningrad and it’s 1952, Stalin is of course in power. Andrei is a young hospital doctor, married to Anna who is a nursery school teacher. They’ve been together for years, all through the siege of Leningrad and they feel lucky to have a two room apartment that they share with Anna’s much younger brother. Like everyone else they are constantly walking on egg-shells, knowing that there are spies everywhere, just waiting to denounce them to the communist authorities.

Andrei is a specialist in childhood arthritis, but when one of his colleagues asks him to look at a child’s swollen leg joint he realises that it is something far worse, he suspects cancer and he knows that his colleague has just handed him a poisoned chalice, because the child is Gorya the ten year old only son of Volkov a man very high up in the secret police. Volkov is a name that strikes fear into everyone.

Sadly it’s too late for Gorya, the cancer has spread and there’s no hope for him. Volkov has to hit out at someone and the doctors are the obvious targets for his rage, and so begins a nightmare for Andrei and Anna.

The Betrayal portrays what seems to me to be a realistic view of life in the Soviet Union, just before the death of Stalin. Hundreds of thousands of people had been sentenced to death or sent to labour camps for life under Stalin’s rule. He had begun with the artists and writers, then moved on to the engineers, after that it was the doctors who were targeted and accused of being butchers and Volkov says ‘We are uncovering an international conspiracy of Zionists working as tools of the Americans, who directed these criminal saboteurs.’ That’s a dictatorship for you and they’re all run on much the same principles!

Thankfully in reality the death (murder?) of Stalin meant that the doctors and many others who had been imprisoned under Stalin’s regime were eventually set free.

This isn’t the sort of book that you an say is an enjoyable read but it’s a real page turner.