The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

The Feast cover

The Reverend Bott of Cornwall is having a tough time writing a funeral sermon, so he’s unable to entertain his friend who is visiting for his annual holiday. It’s an unusual situation as it’s a multiple funeral for people who had been in a nearby hotel when the cliffs above it had collapsed on the building. With tons of stone obliterating the hotel there was no way anyone could have survived, or been extricated for a normal burial. Then the tale slips back to the run up to the disaster, featuring a large cast of characters in the shape of the hotel guests, including children.

The hotel had been the Siddal family home but with Mr Siddal’s career as a barrister having come to a halt for some reason, they just can’t afford to live in the house, so Mrs Siddon decides to turn it into an hotel. Her rather feckless husband and adult children help to run the place, along with a few locals, particularly the much put upon Nancibel (she hates her name). Mrs Siddal is a strange mother – favouring her son Duff over everyone else, seemingly because he is handsome. She has nothing but disdain for her son Gerry who is a doctor and is actually supporting his younger brothers via education fees.

This is a great read with characters that you love to hate, including Hebe, a truly ghastly child, but it did take me a while to get really into it. Given that the reader knows what happens within the first few pages I inevitably spent my time hoping that the horrible people would get their comeuppance and the ‘good guys’ would survive. It was a very satisfying read considering that I hadn’t been all that happy knowing about the fate of the hotel so early on in the book, it turned out to be a good strategy by the author, it added a lot of suspense – for me anyway.

Thank you to Faber and Faber who sent me a digital copy of The Feast via NetGalley.

This was my fourth 20 Books of Summer read.

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.

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.

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.

The Secrets of Meadow Farmhouse by Katie Ginger

Katie Ginger

The Secrets of Meadow Farmhouse by Katie Ginger is the first book that I’ve read by the author, it’s not really my usual sort of book but it was a bit of a comfort read in pandemic times, and despite having a fair idea of how it was going to end (this is possibly an attraction of romances – no big shocks!) I still found it to be an entertaining read.

Amelia has been living in Paris for the last ten years, she has carved out a successful interior design career there and seems settled, but when she unexpectedly inherits a farmhouse from her Great Aunt Vera she returns to Meadowbank, the village in England where she had grown up, to deal with the sale of the farmhouse. Amelia’s parents had died when she was only eight years old and Vera had taken her in, but when Amelia left the village to go to university she and Vera had had a disagreement – and Amelia had never returned.

But it wasn’t only Vera that Amelia had cut ties with. She had promised to contact her boyfriend Adam who also lived in the village, but she hadn’t done so. Adam is still living in the village and Amelia is nervous of meeting him again, in reality it’s his mother that she should be nervous of!

While Amelia is clearing out Vera’s cottage she is intrigued by a locket that she finds there. It has two photographs in it, but no clue as to who they are of. Maybe a local historian will be able to help her. Vera had always been rather standoffish with the villagers but Amelia finds them to be friendly and she realises that she doesn’t really have any friends in Paris. That coupled with the fact that she is growing more attached to her old childhood home leads her to re-think her plans, but will Adam feature in them? This was an enjoyable read.

The Secrets of Meadow Farmhouse was published on the 17th of March 2021 and I was sent a digital copy of it via NetGalley.

The Deadly Truth by Helen McCloy

The Deadly Truth

The Deadly Truth by Helen McCloy was originally published in 1941 but was re-printed by Agora Books last month. It’s a Dr Basil Willing mystery, he’s a psychiatrist who works in New York. Unusually for him he’s spending the summer on Long Island, renting a cottage on an estate which belongs to Claudia Bethune. She’s a wealthy socialite, three times married and she loves throwing parties. It seems that she gets most of her joy from being cruel and nasty to her guests though.

Dr Roger Slater is a research scientist who is infatuated with Claudia, so when she visits him in his laboratory he can’t stop himself from boasting about a new truth serum that he has developed. But when Claudia leaves the lab he realises that she has stolen a small aluminium tube of the serum. He’s furious, he’ll get into a lot of trouble from his employers if they find out. It looks like Claudia intends to have fun with her guests by doctoring their drinks with the serum.

Things don’t go quite the way Claudia plans them to, she’s in for a very big surprise. Dr Basil Willing gets involved and his investigation uncovers blackmail and jewellery theft, it seems that just about everyone had something to hide.

I really enjoyed this one, not only for the mystery and investigation but I appreciated the author’s descriptive abilities. I like to know where I am when I’m taken into a room by an author and I think you can see from the description below that Helen McCloy was interested in painting the scene for the reader.

The curtains were satin brocade of buttercup yellow. The walls were washed a pale primrose, the ceiling a sour cream colour, and two mantelpieces of tawny ochre marble faced each other at opposite ends of the room. The parquet was blond, the woodwork ivory white, and the chairs were covered with petit point in the same faded buff and blue as the Chinese rug. There was a Chinese cabinet of brilliant black lacquer with a procession of mandarins eternally wending their diagonal way across its double doors picked out in tarnished gilt.

She has one character saying:
If I may be permitted to paraphrase Aaron Burr: Truth is whatever is boldly asserted and plausibly maintained.

The politicians of the moment seem to have adhered to that one well!

I was sent a digital copy of this book by Agora Books via NetGalley. Thank you.

We Also Served by Vivien Newman

We Also Served cover

We Also Served by Vivien Newman is subtitled The Forgotten Women of the First World War. I’ve always been interested in WW1 so I’ve read a lot of books about the period but I still found a lot of new to me information in this book.

It begins with the feverish knitting of socks, scarves, gloves and such comforts as were desperately needed by the soldiers in the trenches and sailors. Even young children were knitting socks, one poor little eight year old boy was said to have been knitting almost right up to his last breath, but it was mainly females who were doing the knitting. The women in Dundee knitted over 6,000 pairs of socks in the early months of the war! It was a great way of making women feel that they were doing something for the war effort, they couldn’t go and fight but with so many women having a husband, brother, son at the front they wanted to do their bit. Knitting was approved of by the powers that be but when it came to doing anything more involving such as nursing women were told they couldn’t go to the front. Famously (if you know anything about this subject) the Scottish surgeon Dr Elsie Inglis was told to ‘Go home and sit still.’ The British government wasn’t interested in help from women. The Serbians, French and Belgians were much more sensible and Elsie Inglis and her nurses are still revered in Serbia today.

Early in the war women were recruited by the government to hand out white feathers to men that they thought should be in the army, a way of shaming them. I must admit that I hadn’t realised this was originally organised by the government.

Later as the war dragged on women were taken on in war service as nurses, munitions workers, were recruited in the armed forces (not armed of course) land girls, who were particularly disliked because they were used to free up men for the front. Their wives didn’t want their husbands going to war and up until then farm workers had been safe from conscription. Women were recruited as spies and if caught they were executed. The stress and strain of the horrific experiences of nurses led to them suffering from shell-shock and what we now call post traumatic stress disorder and sadly nurses did commit suicide.

This was a great read although at times infuriating as women were treated so badly, earned much less money than the men when they worked in munitions, despite the horribly dangerous work which often ended up with them being blown up or poisoned by the chemicals. Those accidents were hushed up.

The women who had been despised by male workers often ended up being admired by them because of the hard work and long hours they put in – and of course most of them had to go home and start doing all the work there too, so never got any rest at all. However, when the war ended the women had to give up their work and go back to the kitchen sink and often the only option open to them was to go back into service as a maid. Their efforts did go a long way to women getting the vote, but only if they were over 30 at first.

Thank you to Pen and Sword History and NetGalley for providing me with a digital copy of the book for review.

The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley

The Strays of Paris

I must admit that I had never even heard of the Pulitzer prize winning author Jane Smiley until she featured in a Guardian Review article which mentioned that her latest book is The Strays of Paris, and luckily it was available on NetGalley, so I requested it and amazingly got a digital copy for review. I’m so glad that I did as this was one of those books that I just didn’t want to end.

It begins with a racehorse called Paras, or Perestroika as is her racing name, she’s an inquisitive horse and when she realises that her stable door isn’t locked she pushes it and manages to walk out of the stableyard and makes for Paris. The previous day she had won her first race, so she knew she had won a ‘purse’ so she took the purse that she saw lying on the ground outside her stable along with her.

She relishes her freedom and all the different smells around her, she’s happy to be able to crop the wild plants that she passes, her very good racehorse diet could get a bit boring. Eventually she reaches Paris where she realises it’s important for her to keep a low profile, but she makes friends with Raoul who is a raven, a mallard duck couple and Frida who is a stray dog since her human who had been a talented homeless street busker had died. Later on a couple of black rats are incorporated into the little stray family, and they can all communicate with each other.

Frida is wary of humans having been well warned by Jacques her human that most of them didn’t like barking dogs, Frida does a lot of grumbling under her breath. All of the animals are sort of semi attached to their own kind. The dogs of Paris bark at Frida because she doesn’t have a human and doesn’t wear a collar. Paras felt different from the other race horses in the stables, but she does miss the warmth as winter in Paris begins to bite.

Some of the human characters who also happen to be loners could also be described as strays, they realise that there is a horse living loose in their neighbourhood and befriend Paras, but it’s Etienne an eight year old boy who does most to get Paras through the winter and keeps her safe from inquisitive policemen. Etienne is yet another stray who lives with his very elderly deaf and almost blind grandmother who is the last of her generation. She worries about what will become of Etienne when she is no longer around.

This is a great read with the animal characters having hopes and ambitions for the future and it has a fairly happy ending, just what I was needing.

Thanks to the publishers via NetGalley for sending me a digital copy for review.

I Belong Here by Anita Sethi

I Belong Here cover

I Belong Here by Anita Sethi is subtitled A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain and is due to be published on the 29th of April 2021 (Bloomsbury) and as it’s tagged ‘Outdoors and Nature.’ I was a bit disappointed that the first fifth of the book the author concentrated on writing about a horrendous experience she had while travelling on the Trans Pennine railway line when she was racially abused at great length by a fellow passenger. Luckily she was able to film some of it on her phone, and she also had good support from the railway staff. This culminated in the perpetrator being taken off the train and handcuffed. Eventually he pled guilty, but the experience haunted/haunts Anita and she keeps returning to the subject throughout the book. This isn’t surprising as the man had threatened to set her on fire. If you live in the UK you’ll probably remeber the case being on the news. I hope writing this book was a cathartic experience for her.

I can only imagine how annoying it must be when people keep asking you where you come from because you have brown skin, as if generations of brown and black skinned people haven’t been born in Britain. When Anita Sethi met Prince Charles he asked her where she came from and when she replied Manchester he said – you don’t look like you come from Manchester. Proving that Charles is indeed his father’s son. To be fair though, I bet that if I ever met him he would have had to make some sort of remark about me having red hair! That’s just another thing that can rile up strange people, as can a Scottish accent as I know myself, having been made to feel very unwelcome by some people while living in the south of England – or even just visiting England. Brexit has definitely emboldened bigots.

I had been under the impression that this was a book about nature and hill walking but that part of the book seemed like a long time in coming, which I found quite frustrating, but when the nature writing began I was impressed by it, and I hope she writes more in that vein. Her descriptions of rock formations and water ‘forces’ as waterfalls are called in ‘the north’ (of England) made me take note of the places she visited with a view to following in her footsteps, when we’re allowed to travel again – if I’m not too old by then!

The author does go off at tangents at times so there are a lot of subjects covered in the book, including grief – after the unexpected death of her friend who was only 28. She writes about the etymology of some words which I always find interesting, immigration and the Windrush scandal, mental health and ‘forest bathing’ – to name just a few subjects.

All in all I enjoyed being in Anita Sethi’s company most of the time, and meeting the people she had had conversations with along the way. I would have preferred less of the angst and more of the nature though.

I was sent this ebook by Bloomsbury for review via Netgalley.

The Suffragette Bombers: Britain’s Forgotten Terrorists by Simon Webb

Dimsie Goes to School cover

The Suffragette Bombers: Britain’s Forgotten Terrorists by Simon Webb was originally published in 2014.

The author had been annoyed when Andrew Marr had implied that the suffragettes “were not terrorists in any serious modern sense”, the truth is actually very different and Simon Webb set out to put the record straight. He did repeat himself quite a bit but this is still a very informative and interesting read as well as being an eye-opener for me as I had thought I knew a fair amount about the subject, it turns out that I didn’t.

It’s often thought that the years from 1900 to the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914 were something of a golden age of peace and prosperity. The truth is that it was a time of upheaval with the WSPU led by the Pankhursts conducting a campaign of terrorism. In 1906 the non-violent suffragists had been hopeful that their campaign for universal franchise would be successful as the Liberals had won a landslide victory, but heigh-ho, the new government was busy with other things such as setting up the welfare state and Old Age Pensions. The suffragettes who were mainly upper-class people who didn’t want ‘votes for all’ only wanted votes for wealthy women, home and business owners, a very small minority of women. At the time most men didn’t have the vote either.

Emmeline Pankhurst was completely in control of her Women’s Social and Political Union which was financed by aristocratic people to the extent that it was awash with money. Her daughter Christabel skipped Britain to live in Paris in luxury. She helped her mother control things from there. The last half of this book seemed to be a long list of terrorist activities that went far further than chaining themselves to railings and breaking windows.

Historic churches were routinely burnt to the ground, many bombs were deployed causing huge damage to people and buildings, trains were bombed, houses were burnt to the ground. St Paul’s Cathedral was almost blown up. A new Carnegie library was completely burnt within less than 24 hours of it being opened, railway stations were popular targets for bombs and for some reason Scotland took the brunt of the campaigns of violence. Dundee seemed to be a hotbed of suffragette violence. In Fife where I live they burnt down Leuchars railway station and parts of St Andrews University. Historic documents went up in smoke. Golf courses and football grounds were routinely damaged, anywhere that would particularly upset men really. The beautiful Kibble Palace in Glasgow was blown up just after it was opened, the list of atrocities just goes on and on. It’s no wonder that their are photographs in existence of furious people going after suffragettes as they had no care for the lives of others and just didn’t care what happened to the general public who had to put up with all the violence.

Interestingly when there was a truce in 1911 the WSPU’s coffers were much emptier than they had been. Apparently the violence pulled in the money from donors. I couldn’t help thinking about that Qanon woman Marjorie Taylor Green who has been pulling in loads of money from donors who agree with her particular brand of madness, the more crazy her speeches are the more money they send her! It seems it was much the same for the suffragettes.

Yes some women were permanently harmed due to being force fed but that didn’t last long as the powers that be were so worried about creating martyrs for the cause that when suffragettes were sent to jail for setting off bombs they just went on hunger strike for three days and were released, no matter how long their sentence had been. Emily Davison of course ended up being their martyr and over the years there have been arguments as to whether she meant to kill herself or not. She had tried to commit suicide on two earlier occasions, breaking her skull in one attempt, she was a poor soul really who obviously had mental health problems despite being highly intelligent and having been to university, she was badly treated by the Pankhursts who refused to give her any money despite the work she did for them. She wasn’t a young woman she was 41 years old and that return ticket to Epsom to see the Derby meant nothing as on the race day the price of the single or return ticket was exactly the same and I suspect that the busy ticket clerks just gave everyone a return ticket.

One thing that did annoy me was that the author remarks at the beginning of the book that the suffragette dcolours of white, green and purple stood for purity, hope and majesty. Of course the purple stands for equality which is why it was used by the Fathers for Justice campaigners in recent years.

Anyway, that was a long one, I had a lot to say but it’s just so interesting the way history can be whitewashed over the years. We’ve always been taught that we women had a lot to thank the Pankhursts for when in reality the public at the time lived in fear of being blown up by them and their very well paid staff, and they had no conscience at all about burning down the workplaces of poor women, leaving them destitute. They never wanted ordinary people to have the vote at all never mind ordinary women. I’ve only listed a small amount of the places damaged and sometimes obliterated by them.

This book has a very comprehensive bibliography. I was sent a digital copy by the publisher via Netgalley.