Welcome to the Heady Heights by David F.Ross – Glasgow in 1976

 

July 1976 in Glasgow. It’s a tough place to be, when Archie is “a stoical son of Glasgow; an unrequited optimist”, but also a man with many problems. After all, this is a place of casual violence, when fights can break out over a look, an unintended slight. The streets, the houses, the tenements, nowhere is truly safe for the young, the old, those who are different, even those who are the same. Poverty in some respects is the norm, yet there are those who dream of being rich, if only for a short time. Beer, betting and the grey economy are all around. Women out live the men, but they can still be endangered if certain men choose. This is not a society for the nervous and that is reflected in the language of this book, where the local dialect, slang and ways of speaking are accurately recorded. The rhythms of the street dominate the narrative, as Archie and others chase dreams, or at least try to survive. I was very interested to receive a copy of this book to read and review.

Archie is a bus conductor. While that would be a fairly mundane and safe job in many cities, in Glasgow the upstairs of the bus is the office and receiving room for those who owe money or debts that are less well defined. When a justifiably nervous acquaintance, Bobby Souness jumps through the emergency window, Archie gives chase in a decision that will change his life. Meanwhile WPC Barbara Sherman has discovered that being the only woman in a police station is not an easy thing when she is ordered to become the personal protection officer of an MP’s wife. The MP, Big Jamie Campbell, is also in the sights of Gail Proctor, a young woman who is determined to discover his exact involvement in the death of her uncle. When Archie is made unemployed with a father who is rapidly becoming more confused, he realises that he must raise not only enough money to survive but also support his care. He becomes a driver for the dangerous Wigwam, and it is while accompanying a celebrity that he inadvertently saves him from a dangerous encounter. As hints of a dangerous conspiracy emerge throughout the underworld of the East End of Glasgow, Archie suddenly discovers an ambition to take a group to London to win an “Opportunity Knocks” type programme, a fast track to fame and fortune. While WPC Sherman discovers that something is amiss with young men who disappear in mysterious circumstances, Proctor finds merely living in a crumbling room is dangerous. As the tension mounts, danger becomes real, and only dark humour can save the situation. Fortunately “High Five” brings their own particular talents to the excursion, and the day may yet be saved.

Ross’ writing style is powerful in many ways, as black humour threads throughout the danger and squalor of a city in a heatwave. He has undoubtedly caught the mood of the time, as the financial pressures of the time dominate lives. No one is without hope, even if it is only to survive in a community where life is cheap. Ross shows great skill in creating comedy where life would otherwise be bleak, and hope where everyone is threatened. I found this book compelling and fascinating even when a little surprised by its bleakness, and darkly funny in many respects. Not for those of a nervous disposition, this is a well written book of lively images, determined descriptions and memorable characters.

 

This book is certainly a bit different from my next blog tour book – called “The Point of Poetry” ! I will be hoping to do at least one review then though! Having tried to sort out a few books to go yesterday, I realised just how long it takes! Certainly not a quick job – there are a lot of books in this house.

A Winter Away by Elizabeth Fair – a cosy, funny story for everyday

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Family feuds, unlikable relatives and a secret romance all go to make a lovely novel which recaptures a time and place which seems so familiar, yet so far away. This 1957 book, now reprinted by the wonderful Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press, goes some way to introduce a world of high tea and a large house full of challenges. A car accident damages egos, a curate creeps around, and a winter in the country is brought to life by this skilful and clever writer. I was so grateful to receive a copy of this book to read, enjoy and review.

Maud has just arrived in a tiny village to stay with her cousin Alice, whose companion Miss Conway is less than enthusiastic about a new house guest. For Maud it is an answer to her less than happy existence with her stepmother who has tried to get her conveniently married off. She is to be a non resident secretary to Old M, an eccentric man who lives in the local big house, who has some distinctly odd ways which have meant that other secretaries have left. Maud is lacking confidence and has been lonely; she knows that she must make a good impression and some friends in this new life. She soon meets some of the local characters, who include a family who have the most awkward parties which Maud finds incredibly difficult, and the reader will find most entertaining. She encounters Charles and Oliver, and also has some embarrassing experiences. Wilbraham is a daft dog who provides some comic relief, while creating another source of jealousy. My favourite character is Ensie, clergy daughter who swings between her different identities with amazing results. This book has a plot which does not produce many surprises, but it a most enjoyable ride, partly because of the details of food eaten which neatly sum up the various personalities, the distinctive rooms in the various houses which dominate the story, and the outings and trips which show so much about the characters.

I enjoyed this book for its sometimes delicate and sometimes brutal sense of humour. The small actions of the characters sum up the various personalities so neatly, their reactions to situations are always entertaining. Fair has a wonderful writing style which is honest and always true to type; not great leaps of introspection but a charmingly accurate self realisation from Maud and some others as how they appear to others. Even the relatively minor characters, such as Miss Conway, have a back story which is efficiently conveyed as justification for their present actions. The set pieces of parties and picnics, arrivals and departures are full of real life, and contribute to the story hugely; the big house almost becomes a character in its own right. I recommend this book as an enjoyable read for anyone who enjoys a cosy experience with perhaps little drama, but lovely characters and a soothing plot, full of the little incidents and events which made up real life in the 1950s, and are not so very different from today.

 

This is one of Furrowed Middlebrow’s best books, a joy to read. While it is lovely to find obscure books by women authors (see my ongoing obsession with Angela Thirkell’s books) and reading them, it is so wonderful that publishers like Dean Street Press, Persephone and others are making these books available to everyone. I can recommend these books in the certain knowledge that they can be bought (and even borrowed if you are lucky enough to have access to a good library) and you too can make a collection of these once forgotten but now happily rediscovered novels.

Strays and Relations by Dizzy Greenfield – family life from a new perspective

A book of honest memories, sometimes painful, often hilarious, always thought provoking, Dizzy Greenfield has written a loving book of family and friends. This is the story of discovery of what families can mean in all their variety and sometimes inconvenient affection. New beginnings can only mean challenges, but as Dizzy negotiates life in all its variety, her unique circumstances seem to magnify the small challenges that afflict all of us at times. The contrast between countryside and city is well drawn, as getting to know people can sometimes mean getting to grips with entire lifestyles. I was pleased to receive a copy of this book to read and review.

The book opens with a journey on a train, as Greenfield describes with a realistic touch her fellow travellers. She is en route to meet someone, on “a journey that had taken five hours and four decades”. Her friend Sugar, who we will read more of later, reminds her to be “True, Brave and Fearless”, as she confronts those who are waiting for her to arrive. We go on to discover that she has been adopted and lives with her partner Will and their daughter Sasha. She has fond memories of most of her childhood, of her adoptive mother in particular, who has a lovely positive attitude to Dizzy and her attempt to discover her birth mother. Dizzy is quite a character, content to live in a lonely farmhouse with few comforts and a notoriously temperamental Rayburn called Daphne for heating and unpredictable cooking. She recalls her rescue of a dog, Merlin, and her desperate attempts to restrain him and his behaviour. He will provide a lovely background character responsible for someone who will temporary get lost. Dizzy and Sugar have quite the adventure to find out more about her birth mother in Ireland, enjoying local hospitality. As members of her birth family emerge, she discovers that her partner, her daughter and her home will be affected by an influx into her life of people who are loving, radically different, and no longer allow her life to run in straight line.  It is her honesty and the tiny details that make this book come alive, and the humour and good nature that transform the bleakest events into comedy, headlines which verge on the ludicrous, such as a lost prosthetic leg, overly hot chutney and awful television.

This is a book which has undoubtedly been written from the heart with some deep emotions, imaginative empathy, and a great sense of humour. There is the pain of a mother who lost children, the gap of no communication for decades, and yet the ability to pick up relationships. This is a cheerful book, as alcohol is taken and new connections made, but there are challenges of sadness and loss honestly described. Greenfield is a clever observer, a constructor of memorable scenes and has a fine ear for dialogue. This is an immensely readable book, which I greatly enjoyed, and I recommend it for a refreshing view of family life.

 

This is a lovely book which really brings to life an unusual family situation in all its glory. It is such a well written series of memories, which can trigger off all sorts of memories for each of us. It certainly reminded me of the need for photographs and other memory triggers – just like blogs, in facts. Thank you to everyone who “likes” and comments on this blog – I may sometimes not respond, but they are appreciated all the same. Do let me know what you think!

The Long Song by Andrea Levy – A tale of the end of Slavery with some funny twists

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Cheeky, moving and sometimes tragic, this is a novel both of great power and mischief. Levy’s novel gives a voice to those who left few if any written documents; the slaves of the plantations who were given their limited freedom. This is not a grim tale of unrelenting cruelty, though there is oppression and bad treatment of people who had been slaves from birth. This is a tale that moves along with misunderstandings, some pain and victimisation, but it is undoubtedly lightened by the character of Miss July, appropriating small objects, misleading her hapless mistress, and finding a way to survive. She is an unreliable narrator, arguing with her son who asks her to write down her memories, giving alternative versions of certain events. In another way she is so reliable, however, for in this (fictional) account she has no author’s skills or ambitions to shape or define her story or her way of telling it. Her honest use of language and description has all the naivety of innocent truth, and a realism that only fiction can provide. I had picked it for our book group – it was unanimously praised by all members.

This book opens with an explanation of its writing from Thomas, who reveals that his mother had felt compelled to relate to him her life story, usually when he was busy. As her persistence had worn him down, he suggested that she write it in a small book. Although unusually for a freed slave, she was able to write, he has to assure her that his professional editing and typesetting skills would “make her tale flow like some of the finest writing in the English language”. So she sets out to write of her experiences as a child and young woman during the period when the slaves of the plantations on the island were freed. From the beginning she gives a harsh account of her conception from the forced actions of Tam Dewar, the white slave overseer, on Kitty, a powerfully built field slave. Her birth is described in several ways, but it is certain that Kitty took care of her until as a small girl, she is taken up on a whim by Caroline Mortimer, the plantation owner John Howarth’s widowed sister newly arrived on the island. Caroline renames her Marguerite, and tries to train her as a maid, but with limited success as July takes every opportunity to ignore, win small rebellious victories, and generally assert her identity. There is a night of change, when it seems that the slaves have banded together to overthrow their owners. As July savours for a moment a new freedom, there are some terrible events which demonstrate the strength of parental love. There are new things to come in the life of the slaves and especially July, and throughout she complains and comments on her son and his family with a pained affection.

This is a book which describes some grim situations, interrupted by July’s mischief, days of sunshine and light, and incidents of July’s writing. It contrives to be touching and moving, while giving a voice to those women and men who found a sort of freedom, and depicting the problems of those who had previously been able to order their lives and even deaths. The problems of slavery dominate the novel, but there are also problems when they are freed, not least for the former owners who are left with many challenges. This is truly a wonderful book, and I recommend its storytelling, its sometimes breath-taking audacity, and generally its spirited style of giving a lively account of world changing events.

 

It was really sad to note that as this book was due to appear at our book group that the news came through of Andrea Levy’s death. Having managed to watch the television programme on BBC 1 in which she spoke movingly of her life and uncertain entry into writing, I knew that she was immensely talented and a down to earth person. We had also enjoyed “Small Island” a while ago, so we were saddened to hear that no new books would be coming from this author. We will be looking out her earlier books.

The Cornish Lady by Nicola Pryce – a surprisingly complex historical novel

A relaxing read set in grand houses and glorious gardens, this is a historical novel of some delicacy with a driving narrative. As Angelica Lilly moves through society and some less than fashionable haunts, the author carefully brings in details of social history, herbal remedies and other aspects of life in the late eighteenth century. This is more than a romantic novel with a historical setting; the main character is a woman who is desperate to make a difference in her world, suspicious of her father, concerned about her brother, imaginative and resourceful. As befits such a novel, she is attractive to many men, wealthy and working alike. Clothes, letters, naval matters and other Austen- era themes make this a readable, always interesting and significant book. I was pleased to be sent a copy to read and review.

In the opening of this book we quickly learn many things about Angelica. She is a wealthy and self willed young woman, who organises an illicit trip to the theatre unknown to her father who is departing with a lady who seems determined to marry him. She is unusually close to the servants in her father’s household which she has run for a number of years, after the death of her beloved mother who started out as a poor actress. Her brother Edgar unexpectedly turns up at the house in the company of the untrustworthy Jacob Boswell, and she wonders if his influence explains why her brother seems so different. As she visits the theatre in disguise she becomes more involved, and is mistaken for an actress with unfortunate results. She cleverly escapes, and encounters the attractive Henry Trevelyan, who proves to be not what he seems. As she visits her friend Amelia ( an unfortunate choice of initial given the main character’s name) she encounters a rich titled man who shows great interest in her, and against a background of various families, social life and civil unrest she makes discoveries which make her rethink many of her assumptions, and begins to realise what she wants from life.

With some nods to the subject matter of some Austen novels and the social themes of Graham’s Poldark, this is a book which could have slipped into a standard romantic historical regency novel. This is a more complex and mature work however, as the concentration is definitely on the female protagonist, who refuses to be swept up easily by the wealthy and eligible suitor without more consideration. I am a fan of the straightforward romance, so was appreciative of the greater scope of this book which features a woman who is resourceful in every sense, rushes to assumptions, and has a character with real depth. There is a lot of research and crucially atmosphere of the time in this book, and it offers a complex read without needing to resort to alternative time periods and other themes. The character of Angelica is well developed, as are several of the other female characters, and the novel offers many interesting perspectives and references to the period. I recommend it as a good read, cleverly constructed and with more substance than would first appear.

 

On Friday we went to the Foundling Museum in London. An institution established in the eighteenth century by Thomas Coram and supported by such as the artist Hogarth and composer Handel, there are some fascinating things to see in settings which were accessible (hurray!) . An institution which took in children who could not be cared for by their mothers, there are some moving things to be seen such as the dozens of tokens left by mothers as they left their babies. The exhibition of Bedrooms of London is just amazing and surprising.

Poetic Justice by R.C. Bridgestock – A gripping Prequel to the D.I. Dylan Series

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Grimly determined, showing great attention to detail, and an imagination which allows him to work out motive and opportunity, Jack Dylan is that rare thing, the “copper’s copper”. His dedication to the job is much admired by his colleagues, even those who have no ambition to emulate it. Sadly, despite his guilt at perhaps not paying enough attention to his family, he is to experience more challenges in a short time than anyone could reasonably expect. This stunning prequel to the brilliant DI Dylan series combines personal problems with procedural detail to great effect to create a memorable novel. I was very pleased to receive a copy of this book to read and review from Dome Press.

The novel opens with a report of a terrible accident from the nervous Frank Bland, who has witnessed a car career from the road and down into a ravine. Realising that the chances of anyone in the car surviving were reducing by the minutes, he hastens to use a telephone box. As help arrives, the emergency services are uncertain where to begin, but soon discover the body of a woman. It emerges that the car belongs to Jack Dylan, and Detective Sergeant Larry Banks assumes that his immediate senior officer is the driver. To prolong the suspense, the narrative reverts to ten days previously. Jack is seen to be in London, just having finished an intensive course for police negotiators, and having forgotten to charge his mobile phone. This small detail, as in real life, leads him to use a public phone, and witness an arrest. It is this sort of incident which brings the novel alive, which keeps it based in an understandable reality. As he is not met from the train when he arrives back home in Yorkshire, his journey on foot is interrupted by a sudden surprising attack. While painful and significant, it serves to indicate that Jack is at once vulnerable but resilient, determined to carry on with his work. His wife, Kay, is struggling with guilt at her affair with Kenny, and guilt mixed with resentment at his job’s demands make her harsh when she picks him up from the hospital. She is coming to realise that Kenny will not be easily rejected, and may prove difficult to deal with over the next few days. Jack witnesses the close affection of another married couple, and sadly reflects on his own unsatisfactory relationships. To make matters worse, his step daughter, Isla, has been caught with drugs and is behaving in unpredictable way, which has meant that she has been brought home from University.  Kay fights her feelings for Kenny, her guilt and her fear concerning Jack, and her unexpressed resentment of Isla, Jack is placed under pressure from home and work. He becomes emotionally involved when teenagers in care are desperately abused, and his anger as his own world begins to collapse is expressed in no uncertain terms. Meanwhile, an administrative worker, Jen Jones, is facing her own challenges, as her mentally unstable partner is proving more trying, and it seems that her superior is very against her. What will happen as the powder keg explodes?

I found this novel moving and powerful as it became imperative to discover what would happen next. The authors have a real gift for recalling the type of incidents which lend reality to the story, while dealing with enormous challenges. As with other books in this series, this is novel is a contemporary tale of lives integral to society but which most prefer not to involve themselves with; it is a mature witness to the procedure and skills of vulnerable and imperfect people trying to do an incredibly difficult job as well as live their own lives. I recommend this as a both a perfect place to start reading about Jack Dylan, and an essential addition to the series for those familiar with the other books who want to know how it all began.

 

This is a genuinely excellent series of books based on real life experience, which really shows in the writing. Beware, it is easy to get hooked!

Unlawful Things by Anna Sayburn Lane – A thriller based on a historical hunt for the truth

A thriller with an academic twist, this is a unique book dominated by some serious historical research, both as part of the plot and the knowledge that was needed to create it. Sayburn Lane has created a trail of academic discovery which gives a real challenge to the characters to discover a radical explanation for a contemporary obsession, against a very real danger to today’s British society. With some brutal episodes, this is not merely an intellectual puzzle; real danger and violence follow the main characters as some seek to profit from fear of the different. I soon realised that this is a fascinating and compelling book which held my interest throughout a dense plot, and I was very grateful to receive a copy to read and review.

The book opens with a narrative of a stabbing attack in Deptford, and the realisation that it is an ironic place to be stabbed. The action then goes back by two weeks, to show Helen Oddfellow, leader of historical walking tours in London, Phd student and friend of Crispin, a retired actor with a past. She is contacted by Richard, who has unearthed a reference to the playwright Kit Marlowe, and has seen an article in a local paper which mentions Helen as a Marlowe expert. Younger and more interesting than she had expected, she joins in his research to clear the name of an ancestor of the Cobham family, visiting the archives of Dulwich College and the Parker library at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. Their investigations do seem to be getting close to a dangerous discovery however, and there are threats. Meanwhile a young reporter called Nick who wrote the original article about Helen witnesses an attack on a new mosque by a far right group. He is injured, and soon realises that this is but the tip of a very dangerous anti Muslim force. As he investigates, he too finds himself in some danger, and he overlaps with the hunt for Marlowe references. This is not a gentle academic tiff; there are some fairly brutal scenes and some violent and sudden twists as the two investigations become more complex.

This is a book which I read quickly, as I was so keen to find out what happened next. I found the historical research fascinating, but can see that it may be a little confusing for someone not so interested in Elizabethan politics. Having said that, the author is very competent at anchoring the plot in the sort of twenty first century politics that means that certain groups in society struggle. There are some points at which the narrative gets very convoluted, but the character of Helen grounds it well in a sort of bewildered yet determined way. This is a densely written book, full of incidental details of a contemporary London that seems real. I really enjoyed this book, found the characters well drawn and generally fascinating, and was very intrigued by the puzzle at the heart of the book. I recommend it to those who like their thrillers based in a detailed story with some elegant twists and turns, some of which are shocking and memorable.

 

Last night we had a Pancake Party in honour of Shrove Tuesday, the last day before the beginning of Lent. Many scrumptious pancakes were consumed, people came along and enjoyed meeting old and new friends, and a good time was had by all. Then straight into a choir practice! It’s a great life provided you don’t weaken! We are now looking forward to another day in London, and are trying to find things to do. Having been to Persephone Books a few weeks ago, I am fighting the urge to look out other lovely bookshops, but finding time to read my haul is a little tricky if I am honest…