In June we managed to travel a little further in search of an accessible bookshop – Orkney! The Orcadian Bookshop is on the main island of the Orkney Isles, in Kirkwall, home of St Magnus Cathedral. As you can see from the photograph, with flat access and a wide doorway it was no trouble for myself and Morgan, my trusty wheelchair, to enter and look round. Obviously I spent a lot of time and money there, even taking advantage of their friendly and efficient book ordering service.
According to their website https://www.orcadian.co.uk/shop/ they are willing to order books – as long as they are in print – and post them. As it states on their website, they specialize in local books, including novels by local authors, photography of the area, and George Mackay Brown’s work. An unusual place to buy books, even if you cannot quite manage to get to the islands in person! It does prove that access is possible, even in a small town on an island, if there is the will…
The Orcadian Bookshop, 50, Albert Street, Kirkwall, Orkney KW15 1HQ
This timely reprint of “Brave Old World” in 2011, this handsome pocket edition is an illustrated guide to Gardening as well as the more tricky bee keeping, pig farming, bread baking, fire laying and even home schooling among many other things. It promises Inspiration, Information and Honesty about the realities of moving back to the land. Arranged as a monthly guide, with lists, tips and short cuts, Tom also weaves in stories of his own experiences of his own young family in Devon. It sounds like a useful book to dip into!
January is for keeping warm. It is the month for fireside loafing and late-night feasting, for candles, the warmth of the wood-burning stove, and the delicious sweet smell of woodsmoke. In the pre-Industrial era, the harsh weather provided a good excuse to stay in and avoid toil.
The word ‘January’ is derived from the name of the two-faced Roman god Janus, and the medieval calendars show Janus enjoying a slap-up meal at his trestle table, one face looking back a the year just gone and the other looking forward to the year to come.
A French poem of the thirteenth century (From The Penguin Book of French Verse, vol.1, Penguin Books, 1961) emphasises the importance of pleasure and comfort during this unfriendly month:
Quant je le tens refroidier
Voi, et geler,
Adone me veuilaisier
A bon feu, lès le brasier,
Por le tens felon.
Je n’ait il pardon
Qui n’aime sa garrison
(When I see the weather growing cold, and the frost coming, and my trees losing their leaves, and growing up wintry, then I want to take my ease and stay in front of a good fire, beside the glowing charcoal, with clear wine, in a warm house, because of the bad weather. May he never forgiven be, who does not care for his own comfort!)
This is a time slip novel which records the experience of a confused older woman in an extreme situation, as well as the story of Ella, a woman who experiences life and loss over much of her life. The book is held together by music, specifically seven pieces of music which express different elements of life. A moving and beautifully written story, the author has constructed a story which creates realistic characters and puts them in a narrative held together by music. Ella is specifically a guitarist, beginning with an inheritance that shapes her life while she meets people and has experiences that are possibly unusual for a woman at the time, in the nineteen fifties and sixties. As she grows up, moves to London, makes mistakes, meets people who become important to her, and has experiences which are recorded in quite a linear way, there are gaps and the indication that some people die. This is a semi fantastic novel which deals with music, life and death, and the attitudes of people who live on. The framing story of a woman in peril on a boat links into the main narrative in a unique way which is brilliantly handled. I found this a very readable novel, and was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this unusual book.
The narration of the ongoing story which gives the framework for the life story is so constructed as to be imprecise and make the reader gradually realise. The older woman narrative is to be seen as battling with memory loss and confusion, but it also means that she is calm in what emerges as challenging circumstances. The potential loneliness of her situation is relieved in a most unusual way.
The story of Ella begins in a poorer area of Glasgow, where she is at primary school with her friend Rene. When tragedy strikes she takes up a guitar, and discovers an obscure music book of seven pieces which she learns. Despite being female, she gets the opportunity to play with a small amateur band for a short while until life moves on. She discovers some of the highs and lows of love and life while getting short assignments to play the guitar. She grows up quickly, learning about people, dealing with problems of the time, avoiding some of the difficulties of London life, falling into other traps. The guitar playing is technically described, yet the spirit of the music as it develops through Ella’s life is movingly described.
This is a unique novel about the love of music, the value of people who come and go in our lives, and the way that the memory of people survives. It asks questions about how people can be seen to live on, perhaps on the edge of conscious life for other people. It speaks of the decisions that people make, the tragedies that can happen as a result, the way that life flows on as a result of our choices. This novel in its two dimensions is a mature handling of the complexity of a life in the second half of the twentieth century. I found this a very readable book which drew me into Ella’s story. I recommend it for all those interested in the trials and tribulations of being a professional musician, but also the gift of music to enable a positive life.
A collection of short stories such as those found in this book can be a good read to pick up and put down, and if they are extremely good and interconnected, such a book can become a real treat. This book is made up of thirteen excellent stories, and as they are all focused around a small area of Cork city some of the characters appear in more than one story, I found this a really enjoyable reading experience. It covers a time period of 2016 to 2020, so many of the people featured have moved on with their lives, showing a real development such as normally seen in novels. Not that every character is revisited, as that could impose a strict form that would not allow for the many surprises and wonderful twists that happen in these stories. There are references in the later stories to the pandemic, but they are incidental to the story and really reflect the reactions of the various characters to the limitations of the pandemic. I thought the descriptions of the various types of masks that the characters wear were cleverly indicative of their personalities and an interesting reflection on real life. The author of these stories has created a series of interesting tales, each one complete in itself, which deftly introduces characters and their situations in a few words, often including dialogue, and leaves the reader to do some work in terms of working out the implications. These are superbly written stories, and add up to a really good read that I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review.
Some of the stories are written in the first person, revealing so much about each character in their situation. A seventeen year old boy tells of his desperate search for somewhere to sleep, and his careful response to the Census Enumerator who turns up at the door. This latter person is the subject of her own story, and turns up again elsewhere to be the recipient of an explanation as to why the residents of a house are changed. There are many touching moments, as people are given another chance in their lives, while there is a real darkness in some stories of desperation and promised revenge. A faded pop star arrives in town to make discoveries. Discoveries of potential betrayals animate some stories, while others revolve around genuine love and loyalty. One of my favourite characters is Deckie Google “A former senior Garda…Though he retired ten years and seven months ago, he’s determined to maintain his standards”. He has a past, he has a present of genuine concern for others, especially in the 2020 situation, and a future of involvement in a daring enterprise. My favourite story is of a refugee who discovers a special tree, and despite everything tends to it like her new life in a grey country which she enlivens with her brightness.
Anyone who has ever tried to write short contemporary stories will appreciate this book as a real achievement, as it carefully balances between sentimentality, drama, the mundane and the surprising. It seems to deal with realistic people in situations that are understandable, featuring challenges that we can all appreciate. I thoroughly recommend this collection of short stories to all admirers of the form, as well as those who are interested in depictions of the strange times in which we live.
This book is subtitled “Diary of a Confused Mum”, and this truly is an account of the reality of becoming a parent, in all its bewildering, messy and downright daft detail. The author is a comedian and writer, and also married to Jon Richardson – the couple recently appeared in a comedy programme “Meet the Richardsons” – so there is huge amount of humour throughout, even if it is often self-deprecating. This is not a guide to parenting, though there is much that Beaumont feels she ought to offer to others in terms of advice, and those with experience of coping with life with a baby and small child will recognise a lot of the content.
Beaumont also admits that she lives a privileged lifestyle as her “husband is on the television” so financially is secure and both of their occupations do not include commuting or the need for expensive childcare. Some readers may find her situation idyllic, but she also points out that she was basically brought up by a single parent herself, in unglamorous Hull, which was not as secure, though she was in contact with her father and lived for some time with loving grandparents. The fact that she has choices should not obscure the fact that she had what became a tricky birth, sleepless nights for years, and a determined daughter to deal with , and she details all the downsides to her love of drinking custard straight from the packet. Altogether this is a funny book with much that I recognised, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this entertaining book.
The book opens with a chapter entitled “My life as a normal, single human being before everything changed”, which has some childhood memories (which actually continue throughout the book), involving gazebos and other memorable moments. The next goes on to her meeting and getting together with Jon, who adds “interruptions” through the book. Jon is a vegan, and she becomes one apart from during pregnancy, but both admit to lapses which include dead cows and her mother’s cooking when she arrives on mercy missions. She comes up with ten reasons why she wants a baby – which includes having a white carpet like in the adverts. Experienced baby carers will know that she is being foolishly optimistic at this point. She actually writes “The more I write, the more it’s dawning on me I’m not picturing a real baby, I’m picturing a calendar”. The challenges of pregnancy and antenatal groups are described with humour and brutal honesty, especially with her husband in attendance. She remembers stories of her own birth while her mother was on holiday, some points of which she sends to her mother some time later to clarify points of confusion – just to make sure that family legends are actually true. The actual birth story spares no details, including Jon’s strange urge to buy a four man tent. The unexplained post natal sadness (thankfully fairly brief) and the night feed experience is detailed, as well as the joys of baby massage (she is disappointed that the mums don’t get massaged). Soon Elsie the baby becomes the toddler, the bright child and all with a determination to sabotage sleep.
This is a funny book. It is not a straightforward account, it chooses high and low points, it probably exaggerates a little. It is honest and frank, and remains human and interesting throughout. For those amid the battlefields of baby sleep deprivation, for those who remember it well, and even for those considering it, this is an entertaining and engaging read.
“Old money, new money, no money” is the theme of this funny, tragic and character filled novel about a family house, the problems of money and the lives affected by it. Set in 2008, it is full of the problems of the past, the impoverished present and the very uncertain future. The house at the centre, Trelawney Castle, has been in the same family for over seven hundred years. It has been a byword for extravagance, for parties that lasted for days, for grand rooms and exceptional grounds. Now it consumes every penny and far more merely to keep the roof on, the leaks out and the drains functioning. The romance of ballrooms and staircases that once held hundreds of guests is now only a memory as curtains disintegrate, effective heating is a distant memory and only a multi millionaire could even contemplate saving the once glorious castle.
The Trelawney family has had its moments, but now it cannot even aspire to genteel elegance as that is far too expensive. Instead Jane, married to Kitto, the heir presumptive to the title and castle, is feeding herself and two younger children on value packs of mince, and trying to convince her parents in law that the non existent servants have the evening off, as the two elderly people still vainly dress for dinner. Her contemporaries are the devastatingly attractive Anastasia, long since departed to marry a maharaja, and the brilliant Blaze, sister to Kitto but ejected from the house aged eighteen. Anastasia has written to Jane and Blaze, predicting her imminent demise and threatening to dispatch her daughter to the care of the two women. Jane is unimpressed as she has enough to do with her own family, as her husband pursues one crazy scheme after another to raise money for the house, never realising the day to day strain his wife is under. Blaze, living alone in London with a regimented life, is unimpressed; she is predicting a financial storm that will shatter many schemes and investments, but is a lone voice among those determined to get rich quick. Two men seem to take opposing views of her skills and abilities, but can she forget the past long enough to trust and survive? Can a black sheep of the family help her, or will she be thrown back on her own resources once more? Meanwhile, a elderly relative with an academic background can afford to move into a few rooms in the house and thus defray some immediate bills, but will she be a good influence on Arabella, impressionable daughter and bored with impoverished isolation?
This is an elegantly written book with some immensely memorable characters who have to negotiate some tricky situations. I really enjoyed the portrait of Blaze, whose ability to negotiate a path through the 2008 crash should be straightforward, had there not been so much baggage from the past and ill will from a male opponent. The mysterious Ayesha turns out to be quite a force of nature, and I also admired the characterisation of Tony, who is possibly the most self aware person in the book. The silent character who dominates this novel is of course Trelawney castle, which embodies the rich past, the shabby present, and the uncertain future. Overall this is a memorable novel filled with well drawn characters whose stories we visit for a short and vitally important time, as expectations are overturned, old stories revealed, and an uncertain future emerges. I recommend it as an absorbing and vivid read.
The three young women at the centre of this book have already been introduced in a previous novel, but such is the skill of the author in this case that it works as an excellent standalone read of friendship and loyalty. Alice, Edith and Marg have faced stiff challenges as they have grown up on a back street of Blackpool, but their strong friendship and loyalty have kept each young woman going throughout each trauma. Beginning in December 1938, this is a time of struggle for many families, as people have fought to come through a “Great War” and a depression which has made the lot of the poor even worse. Even though their friendship has always been strong despite their very real poverty in the past, this novel tells of trials that mean each of the three young women are torn by their own circumstances into new paths through life, especially as the shadow of a second war comes closer, and everyone knows that sacrifices will be needed. This is a skillfully written novel which certainly draws the reader in and maintains their interest throughout, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.
The three girls are together walking towards the prom in Blackpool in the cold winter weather. Alice, now married and pregnant with her first child, wears a warm coat, one of several she has to choose from in her secure home away from the street where the three young women grew up. Edith has had to move from her childhood home after a terrible incident which left her alone, but she is financially assisted by her caring fiance to help support her as she has moved into the house next to her friend Marg. Edith’s warm coat is in sharp contrast to the threadbare clothing worn by Marg, whose efforts to maintain her mother, grandmother and younger sister Jackie in their home have left her virtually penniless on this special outing. Happily Alice has more than enough money to pay for fish and chips for all three friends, and a warm drink has soon worked its magic as the girls enjoy themselves together in the community and place where they are so well known. Edith is also helping out at a sale which means that she and Alice can manage to arrange for Marg to buy warm coats for both herself and her sister Jackie from her tiny funds. Marg has continued to work part time in the local biscuit factory to pay a local woman to come in and care for her mother as a carer and help with Gran, who is losing her memories even of tragic losses. Her younger sister Jackie is a bright girl who is working with a local accountants’ firm in the office. There will be surprises for the family as Eric, who has played a part in their family for decades, is still around, and Clive, a wealthy young widower, is interested in the brave and responsible Marg. Edith has ambitions to achieve a career that will echo that of her beloved Philip’s, but feels that she must also meet the challenge of his family and a new way of speaking. Alice still has responsibilities for her brothers, and must draw on all her strength in the months to come.
This book is so eloquent in describing how the young women’s friendship continues and develops as they are joined by partners. The novel does feature Christmas celebrations that do not always go to plan, for better and worse, and it is a book of love, loyalty and much more as families draw together to face the future. I recommend it as an immersive read.
Bookshop Tour on Four Wheels – Siop Cwlwn Oswestry
When I first embarked on my Bookshop Tour on Four Wheels, some bookshop people tweeted me to point out that they were accessible, and that I could come and find them. One of these was Siop Cwlwm, a small place in Oswestry, on the borders of Wales (my Booka Bookshop post was about another bookshop in the same town). As I have family in the area I resolved to visit, and tracked it down.
It was accessible in that it was on the first floor of a Market hall, accessible by lift. As you can see it opens up in the front, with full displays of books. It is very special as most of the books are in Welsh, with a scattering of English books, many of which I recognised. It had a wonderful display of children’s books, and given that Welsh is taught in schools throughout Wales to children from early years, even those whose first language is not Welsh, I could see that this is an exciting resource. The website is https://www.siopcwlwm.co.uk/ and I can confirm that it not only has books, but many other tempting offers! It also offers an online service on the website, or click and collect if you are more local (also in Wrexham). An accessible Welsh shop in Oswestry!!
In some senses this is a fairy tale, but a Brothers’ Grimm one in all its violence and ‘adult’ themes. It has the hallmarks of a folk tale, with the unforeseen effects of one desperate decision, a number of daughters, even a “kind of castle”. It is a tale told by a number of different voices, from a priest summoned in a mysterious way, through to the young woman at the centre of the tale, whose words encompass the cruelty of years as well as nearly impossible moments. It is a tale of secrets and lies, of abuse and sorrow, as well as love. The writing is translated from the original French, and manages in its second language to be vivid and occasionally transcend its setting, making the rural background of the story almost mythical. This is a big story, an historical novel of past, undefined times, of a man of faith despite his insight into the horror of humanity. A gothic tale of longing and terror, this is not an easy read because of the format of different points of view, or the content, but I was interested to have the opportunity to read and review it.
In the first section, thoughts of memories and stories are considered.Phrases like “The stories we tell, the ones we tell ourselves. Stories are just houses with paper walls, and the wolf is prowling”. Then there is the story of a small boy, escaping from supervision in a house, moving towards a stable, a glorious uncertainty of what will happen when he encounters a horse which is so much bigger than he is. Horses will appear later in the book, as this is a horse drawn, horse riding time, a time before motors and engines. A young woman will encounter horses, an encounter that will return in memory, an opportunity for a different perspective. A priest, a young man at the beginning of the novel, hears a strange request which he is challenged by fulfilling, a discovery of a momentous nature. The voice of Rose, telling her awful tale with so few bright spots, echoes throughout the bulk of the story, joining up the memories and stories of others, concealing nothing. A young woman who has written out her life, setting out painful, even agonising memories and emotions of teenage years. There are other voices which are recorded by an omnipresent narrator, where names are rare and emotions raw. There are the word pictures of a disappearing world, but one that is all too real for some of the characters.
This is a tough book in many ways, full of realities yet set in a timeless rural setting of faith contrasted with personal agendas. The reader is torn between the predictability of terrible truths and the flashes of beauty in some of the more fleeting descriptions. Guilt, pathos, cruelty play their parts in this novel, but also loyalty, devotion and patience. This is a big read in many ways, carrying the reader along, keeping their attention and engaging interest in a unique way.
A clever and deceptively complex book from 1937, this book has been rescued from obscurity by Martin Edwards and the British Library in their Crime Classics series. When originally published in 1937 by the writer Edith Caroline Rivett it seemed to fit in well with the Golden Age of Detection in that it featured a treasure hunt in which a mixture of authors and one detective had to solve a series of puzzles of literary and other clues. This novel idea meant that the story hinged on the idea of experts gathered in a large house who all had experience of writing mysteries or at least carrying out solid literary research to compile a coherent narrative. When an unexplained death takes place in the house during the event there ought to be plenty of theories about what really happened, especially as the brother and sister hosts are quick thinking and mainly practical people. As befits a woman writer there is a good split of female and male protagonists, which I think greatly adds to the careful blend of characters and clues. As usual in this excellent reprint series, Martin Edwards introduces the author, the context of the book and points out how some of the characters may have resembled Lorac’s fellow Detection Club members, one hopes to their amusement. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this entertaining addition to the British Library Crime Classics series.
The novel is largely navigated through the point of view of Chief Inspector Macdonald as he receives an invitation to attend a Treasure Hunt from publisher Graham Coombe and his sister Susan. He is unsure about attending an entertainment event when he is an actual detective at Scotland Yard, but is assured that everyone will be present under a pseudonym so it will be far from clear who is author and who is actual detective. His friend encourages him to attend, and certainly he finds much to intrigue him when he arrives at the designated address. Each thriller writer and “Straight” author has been given a name under which they will act for the evening, which I found a really entertaining as Lorac uses them for the first part of the book to delineate the characters under their alias, so phrases like “Jane Austen who completed her cipher a split second before Laurence Sterne and Izaak Walton”. Eventually there is a revelation of who is who, but that is when the dire necessity of a full investigation happens. For amid all the puzzle solving and cipher breaking going on using reference and other books as well as clues scattered throughout the house, all the lights go out. The extremely practical Susan soon provides candles, but not before there is a lot of bumping into people in the dark and various people moving about the house in a confusing manner. That confusion becomes significant when the body of a participant is discovered in the telephone room, and there is some confusion as to whether it is a natural, if sudden, death. Macdonald’s presence is soon relevant when there are hints of suspicious activity in the room which throws doubt on the certainty of natural causes, and there soon develops a complex case of suspicion, motives and further events.
My favourite character in the novel is undoubtedly Susan, as she takes charge of the situation with her clear view of the circumstances and people involved. Overall I thoroughly recommend this book for its cleverly constructed plot, the characters with their pseudonyms, and the depiction of literary London of the time with its interconnections and links. It is a worthy addition to the series.