Archives for Sandra Danby

Book review: Highland Fling

First published in 1931, Highland Fling is the first novel by Nancy Mitford and the first I have read, determined to read them in order. What a breath of fresh air it was after reading two detailed historical novels, this light frothy concoction made me chuckle. An amusing observer of manners, Mitford excels at that peculiar type of incomplete conversation between two people gossiping about mutual acquaintances in which each completes the other’s sentences. This is a novel of its time, upperclass wealth, upperclass lack of wealth, centuries of families and traditions the roots of which have been forgotten, and the juxtaposition of bluff country old-timers with Bright Young Things from London. Highland Fling is set in a Scottish castle, a closed-room setting, loved by crime writers, which Mitford uses mercilessly to compare and contrast. It is a world with which the author knows well and at which she gently pokes fun. Young artist Alfred Gates returns from Paris to London and visits his newly-married friends Walter and Sally. Sally’s parents are called away and the three friends go to Scotland to host the parent’s shooting party. As well as the shooting guests, including stodgy old-fashioned military and aristocratic types,
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Silent Companions

How to describe this novel? Spooky, mysterious? A tale of witchcraft and trickery or malicious exploitation and fraud? The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell starts with a woman in an asylum. Mute, she is given chalk and a slate with which to communicate. What follows is her account of the Bainbridge family and their country home, The Bridge. From the beginning until the end, we do not know who to believe. The story is told in three strands – a woman in an asylum, accused of murder; a young widow who arrives at her husband’s family home, pregnant and vulnerable; and a couple excitedly prepare for a royal visit by Charles I. What unfolds is a complicated story. Purcell handles the many threads well although I would have preferred a clear delineation with each new section marked by date. Elsie, the daughter of a match factory owner in London, is a survivor. She supported her mother after her father was killed in a ghastly workplace accident, she supported her younger brother Jolyon as their mother also fell ill. And when Jolyon brings a new investor for the factory the siblings, now jointly own, Elise marries Rupert Bainbridge. Odd things start
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Categories: Book Love.

‘Beginnings’, a short story

Eliza Tavernier set aside her sketchpad and rubbed her aching neck, her hand cupping the curls of bobbed hair which brushed the tips of her ears. Winter darkness had fallen and the dark panelling of her office intensified the gloom. She sat at her desk, once her father’s, and wondered if he would ever have been proud of her achievements. Leon Tavernier had only one ambition for his youngest child. Marriage. Eliza considered her greatest achievement to be the Relámpago sapphire necklace, featured in La Moda magazine, and now Miss Fitz was taking trunk calls from Rome and Vienna from gentlemen and ladies wishing to place orders. Atop of a pile of unread magazines sat a jewellery box. Her fingers lingered over the gold embossed lettering ‘Atelier Tavernier, Fitzroy Square, London’. This was the first piece of Atelier Tavernier jewellery she had owned, her father had proclaimed her too young for precious gems and to this day she simply opened the display case every morning and chose something to suit her dress. She had paid for this tiara with her own money. She remembered the first sketch, how her sharpened pencil had flown across the paper knowing what it would
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Categories: My Short Stories.

Book review: The Gustav Sonata

This novel is a remedy. If you have been reading too many fast-moving, cliff-hanging, emotionally-wringing new novels which don’t give you time to breathe, now sink into this. The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain is a sensitive portrayal of the friendship of two boys who meet at kindergarten and form a lifelong on-off friendship. Gustav and Anton are the products of their parents and upbringing, and the baggage they inherit. All of this is complicated by post-war Switzerland. The war seems, to them, irrelevant, but in fact it frames their whole lives. Gustav lives with his widowed mother Emilie in a small town in Switzerland. Money is tight and Emilie juggles jobs to manage. As a lonely toddler who misses a father he barely remembers, Gustav longs for more warmth from an emotionally-distant mother. She encourages him to ‘master himself’, his behaviour, his emotions, his ambitions. He accompanies her to her cleaning job at the local church, he helps by cleaning rubbish from beneath the grating; instead of throwing it away, he keeps it carefully in a tin. The only person with whom he shares these treasures is Anton, his first real friend. Visiting Anton’s home and meeting his parents,
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Birdcage Walk

Birdcage Walk is the last novel by the incomparable Helen Dunmore who moved between subjects and periods with ease, setting the dramatic minutiae of people’s lives against the huge social events of the time. War, spies and, in Birdcage Walk, the French Revolution and how its impacts on a family in Bristol. The novel opens as a walker and his dog discover a hidden grave in the undergrowth of a derelict graveyard. He reads the inscription to Julia Elizabeth Fawkes but subsequent research finds no information about her. This is followed by a short night-time scene in 1789 of a man burying a body in woods. We do not know the location, his identity or that of the body. How are these two things connected? For the first half of the book, I forgot these two short scenes until growing menace made me recall it and read faster. It is 1792. This is the story of young wife Lizzie Fawkes, new wife of Bristol builder John Diner Tredevant and daughter of writer Julia Fawkes. Diner, as he is known, is developing a grand terrace of houses on the cliffs at Clifton Gorge, a development for which he specifies the best,
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde

A tale of sisters, secrets and the teenage years of confusion and temptations on the brink of adulthood. The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde by Eve Chase is about two groups of sisters, unrelated, who live decades apart in the Cotswold house of Applecote Manor. Overhanging everything is the mysterious disappearance of a twelve-year-old girl, Audrey Wilde, from the same house in the Fifties. Jessie and Will move to Applecote Manor, a rundown doer-upper, with their toddler Romy and Will’s teenage daughter Bella. Jessie is seeking a country life, Will hopes to step back from his logistics business. Almost as soon as they arrive, things change. Will’s business partner leaves and causes the sale of the company so, while he negotiates this, Jessie is left in the run-down house with the two girls. Romy fearlessly explores the potentially dangerous land, including river, pool, woods and well. Bella sullenly resents Jessie for not being her own mother, who was killed in a road accident. And then they learn about the disappearance of Audrey Wilde. Is there something intrinsically wrong with the house and the land surrounding it? Why are the neighbours shunning Jessie and her two daughters? Who is the woman with
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Day

Day, the title of this novel by AL Kennedy, does not refer to a period of twenty-four hours, but to Alfred Francis Day. Alfie. Rear gunner in a Lancaster in World War Two and now extra on the set of a war film. Past and present are mingled together as he starts to remember things he would rather forget. The passages in the bomber are electrifying, in their detail and understanding. The cold, the smell, the fear, how the professionalism of their training kicks in when the action starts. It is totally believable.. The timelines are mixed here as Alfred’s memories are inter-mingled: when Alfred was a member of the bomber crew; his time in a prisoner-of-war camp; and as a film extra in 1949. Where the novel is not so clear, for me, is the intermingling of these three timelines, though after fifty pages everything started to clarify. If you find this, persist and everything will fall into place. Through Alfred’s memories and his conversations with Ivor, his post-war employer at a bookshop, his bomber crew and the other film extras, we start to piece together the story of his life. It is particularly poignant when he falls in
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Girl in the Tower

There is so much to The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden, follow-up to The Bear and the Nightingale. A strong female heroine, magical mystical Russian folklore, fighting, horses and danger. Vasya is an awkward teenage girl in the mythical Middle Ages of old ‘Rus who does not like her traditional choice of marriage or convent; in The Girl in the Tower she is older and more defiant. You just know she is heading for trouble. She leaves home to wander and look at the world, refusing to worry about survival in the winter forest, and in so doing stumbles into banditry and violence that has implications for the power of the throne. I read the second half of this at a pace, wanting to know the outcome, not wanting it to end. A faster-paced book than the first of the series, the two are tightly linked and so I hesitate to give away too much plot. Disguised as a boy, Vasya cannot help but attract attention despite the warnings of her magnificent stallion Solovey. Her exploits bring her to the attention of Dimitri, the Grand Prince of Moscow, and red-haired lord Kasyan Lutovich. Feted for her fearless fighting,
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Categories: Book Love.

How Emma Flint writes

Emma Flint “I was obsessed with her for six years. I thought about her every single day, sometimes for hours every day… She is made up of shades of grey. She has got all these different aspects to her. I wanted to show that there’s no such thing as black and white in a real human being.” [ in an interview with ‘The Bookseller’ magazine, October 7, 2016] Emma Flint is talking about Ruth, the central character of her debut novel Little Deaths. The story was inspired by a true crime case from the 1960s. Alice Crimmins, a New York mother, was accused of murdering her two children. Flint first read about the case twenty years ago in the weekly Murder Casebook magazine. Ruth and the nosey neighbour are based on real characters, the rest are made-up by Flint. She did most of her research online, including:- reading contemporary press coverage of the double murder; used Google Street View to wander down the streets of Queens; watched YouTube videos to nail the local accent. Crucially though, she used her own experience of growing up on the outskirts of Newcastle to add “that claustrophobia you get in a small suburb where
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Categories: On Writing.

Family history: Was your ancestor a boatman?

During the UK’s Industrial Revolution, raw materials and finished goods were transported around the country by canal. By the mid-19th century though, the new railways were taking away the business of the barges. Working on a canal boat was a tough life. Slow boats could take up to seven days to go from Birmingham to London and boatmen were expected to work up to 20 hours a day. Under threat from the railways, ‘family’ boats became numerous with a wife and children travelling with her husband. Boating became a closed occupation and outsiders, gongoozlers, discouraged. Boat people developed their own dress, language and took great pride in the decoration of their boats. Acts of Parliament were passed in 1877 and 1884 making canal boats subject to inspection to check living conditions, and some of these inspection reports survive in local archives. Considering the itinerant nature of the boatman, there are a number of excellent resources for family history researchers:- The Boat Families website is a resource kept by local enthusiasts, cataloguing life on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal & associated waterways, especially in South-West Lancashire. Names are listed by canal family, with more than 32,000 individuals named. A search for ‘boatmen’ at
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Categories: Family history research.

Book review: No Time for Goodbye

This thriller by Linwood Barclay had me sitting up late at night, reading just one more chapter, and one more. When Cynthia Bigge is fourteen, her parents and older brother disappear from the house, never to be seen again. No bodies are found, no signs of foul play. It is as if they just walked away. But if they weren’t murdered, why did they leave? Did they hate her so, to abandon her? Twenty five years later, Cynthia takes part in a television programme to publicize cold cases. She could never have imagined what would happen next. First, there is a mysterious letter. Then a phone call, an e-mail. Suggesting something is going to happen, hinting her family is still alive. Cynthia questions her own sanity, her husband [and the main part of the story is told from his point of view] questions it too, and their daughter Grace is seemingly untroubled except she looks through her telescope every night before bedtime to check there is no asteroid heading for earth to destroy their world. This is a classic thriller. Who to believe? Is Cynthia’s family dead or alive? Who is contacting her now, the murderer? Is Cynthia so stressed
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Slaves of Solitude

Patrick Hamilton is a new author for me. The Slaves of Solitude, published in 1947, is a novel about wartime in which war is deep background. The setting is Thames Lockden, a small town in the Home Counties, which Hamilton based on Henley-upon-Thames. It tells the story of Miss Roach – Enid, though hardly anyone knows this is her first name – and her life at a boarding house, The Rosamund Tea Rooms. This is a war novel with a difference, focussing on the people at home, not fighting but getting on with their lives in a world turned upside down, managing on a day-to-day basis, life is dreary and bare. Miss Roach, former schoolmistress, is single, 39, and fiercely independent. She has been bombed out of her London flat and has fled from the bombing. Life is dark. ‘The earth was muffled from the stars; the river and the pretty eighteenth-century bridge were muffled from the people; the people were muffled from each other. This was war late in 1943.’ Hamilton is a wonderful observer of human behaviour, he shows the nasty politeness between the residents at The Rosamund Tea Rooms, the bullying, the toadying, the power struggles and
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Categories: Book Love.

‘Sally’s List’, a short story

Sally lies in bed in the early-morning limbo of darkness. Unable to snatch more sleep before the alarm rings, her mind drifts and she wonders how life brought her here to this bed. This house. This husband. This life. The me I am now. Her husband snores and rolls over so his face rests inches from hers, the rush of breath on his out-snore brushes her fringe into her eyes. How did I get here? She remembers the list of ‘When I Am Married’ she’d compiled when she was 19. I will always paint my toenails. My bra and knickers will always match. I will wash and blow-dry my hair every morning. I will never go anywhere in the car with a coat over my pyjamas. I will never do something my husband wants to do, just for an easy life. I will never fake a headache. Ditto a period pain. I will not squeeze myself into tight black lingerie, just because he bought it for me. I will keep my own friends, and not adopt his friends as mine. I will not pretend to understand the rules of Formula One. I will not expect him to watch the boxset of
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Categories: My Short Stories.

Book review: Anything is Possible

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout is an extraordinary book about normal people living normal lives. On the outside, people live private, God-fearing lives, they get by, they smile, they work. Inside, they hide secrets, horror, misgivings, sadness and love. With the same vision and delicacy she displayed in My Name is Lucy Barton, Strout tells us about the people of Amgash, Illinois, the small rural town where Lucy Barton grew up. In Anything is Possible, as in real life, threads of small town life are tangled together, generation after generation, each seemingly isolated but all connected by invisible tendrils of family, neighbourhood, school, farming. The shared history of living together through the years in close proximity, a community where everyone knows everyone else, their shame, their success, their failure, their betrayal and loyalty, is a community it is impossible to escape. Where adolescent misdemeanours, which may or may not have happened, are remembered as fact and decades of distrust attached. But as well as secrets and shame, there is redemption and love for those who face change and find a way to the other side. This is more a collection of inter-connecting stories rather than a novel with a
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Categories: Book Love.

My Porridge & Cream read: Graeme Cumming

Today I’m delighted to welcome thriller writer Graeme Cumming. His ‘Porridge & Cream’ read is Eagle in the Sky by Wilbur Smith. “My Porridge & Cream book is Eagle in the Sky by Wilbur Smith. I can’t remember exactly when I first read it, but suspect around 1977. I’d started reading him after seeing Shout at the Devil at the cinema. A week later, I spotted the book in my local library (remember those?), picked it up and became hooked on Smith for years after. Eagle in the Sky was just another I picked up to read, but it’s the one that stayed with me. “I don’t read it often, probably once every five or six years, the last time about three years ago. I remember being surprised at how dated some of the dialogue came across, but it was written in the early ‘70s! Even so, I still enjoyed it. There are no particular circumstances that prompt me to read it, but, unusually for me, once in a while I like to go back to it: I know I’m going to love it, and I’ve usually forgotten enough to be surprised. I have bought this book as a present
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Categories: Porridge & Cream.

Book review: Nightfall

The first page was really intriguing and locked me into the character of Jack Nightingale, a police negotiator turned private detective. He is a troubled man, troubled by what he has seen through the course of his job though nowadays he earns his living from following unfaithful spouses. Nightfall by Stephen Leather is the first of the Jack Nightingale series, described as a ‘supernatural thriller’. This is a different kind of detective story, which begins when Jack is told he has inherited a mansion from a man who claimed to be Jack’s natural father. That’s not all, his ‘father’ leaves a warning: at Jack’s birth his soul was sold to the devil and a devil will come to claim it on his thirty-third birthday. That’s only three weeks away. So Jack is in a race against time to find out the truth. Was he really adopted? Who is Ainsley Gosling? What is going on? Is he suffering from stress? Hearing things? Imagining things? Is he going to lose his soul? Or is it one big con? When people around him start to die, Jack begins to lose his sense of perspective. ‘You are going to hell, Jack Nightingale’ are the
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Categories: Book Love.

Family history: Did your ancestor train as an apprentice?

If you know your ancestor’s trade, there is a good chance he or she may have trained through an apprenticeship scheme. In 1563, the Statute of Artificers and Apprentices forbade anyone from practising a craft without first serving as an apprentice. And from 1710, a duty was levied. These records form a central register of apprentices by the Inland Revenue and held at The National Archives. As well as trade apprenticeships, there were also apprenticeships which were arranged specifically by parish overseers of the poor and were intended to prevent the child being a burden on the parish. As pauper apprenticeships were liable for duty the records are kept separately, often found in local record offices and parish chests. If your research is based on London, start with London Lives where pauper apprenticeship records range from 1690-1800. It has a useful guide ‘Researching Apprenticeships’. Some of the apprentice records held at The National Archives have been digitised and are now available at Find My Past, including the London Apprenticeship Abstracts [1440-1850] which list all those apprenticed to livery companies in London. It also includes regional records from Manchester and Lincolnshire. The Board of Stamps apprenticeship books record payments on the
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Categories: Family history research.

How Nicole Krauss writes

Nicole Krauss: “The only way I could write about these things was projecting them into the character of this old, isolated, charming but difficult man. I could express things that I simply couldn’t in my own skin, in my own life… I think that is what one is always doing as a writer. Not just self-expression, but something bigger than that, which is self-invention. In that process of self-invention you are expanding a portion of yourself… Writers are kind of like mockingbirds, in that they take what is interesting and shiny and useful from their own lives and they weave it into this tapestry that they’re making.” [in an interview with ‘The Bookseller’ magazine, May 19, 2017] I understand the mockingbird image, I prefer to think of myself as a magpie. I collect the glittering things, a word, an idea, an emotion, a photograph, and store them away. Perhaps more of a squirrel than a magpie, actually. Every now and then I turn out the contents of the tin – which is full of folded newspaper and magazine cuttings – and my old-fashioned index file – full of cards with sometimes a sentence or only one word written on them
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Categories: Book Love and On Writing.

Book review: How To Stop Time

How To Stop Time is another hugely inventive novel by Matt Haig with a thoughtful message about identity. Tom Hazard is a history teacher with a difference. He can talk authoritatively about the Great Fire of London, because he was there; about Shakespeare, because he met him; about witchfinders, because he was terrorised by one. Tom Hazard is 439 years old but he looks forty one. When he was thirteen, the process of ageing slowed down. Tom and his mother are protestant Huguenot refugees in England when their life falls apart; his impossibly youthful looks draw accusations of witchery. We see snapshots of Tom’s past life as he teaches history to bored teenagers in London. And all the time he struggles with the past, so much so that he is unable to live in the present. So he exists, rather than lives, changing his identity to survive and losing sight of who he is. This is a fascinating study of humankind, our development through history and inability to learn from what went before. Tom encounters threats and suspicions in the 21st century. Is he safe? Is a sinister bio-tech company searching for albas – short for ‘albatross’, ie long-lived –
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Then She Was Gone

Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell is a delight, the page-turning story of a disappeared teenager whose experience was something I did not expect. An excellent un-thriller; that’s a phrase I use after giving it some thought. This is not a psychological thriller in that it is frightening. It didn’t make my pulse race with a sense of danger, but it did make me very curious. Ellie Mack is fifteen the day she fails to come home from the library, she is due to take her GCSE examinations the following week. She is a clever student, a golden girl. But she disappears, never to be seen again. Life goes on. Except it doesn’t for her family, each being trapped in some way by Ellie’s absence. Until ten years later when Ellie’s mum Lauren, now divorced, meets a nice bloke in a café. Her ex, Paul, has a new partner and so do Ellie’s siblings. Laurel is the one who is really stuck, visiting her elderly mother bed-ridden after a stroke. Then she meets Floyd and his daughters Poppy and SJ, and she blossoms. I would like to say from the beginning I had unsettling feelings of the ‘that’s not
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Categories: Book Love.