Gaslight by Eloise Williams #MiddleGrade #VictorianHistory

Last year I was blown away by the beautifully written contemporary story of a 13 year old girl in Seaglass by Eloise Williams, so this year I have read her earlier historical novel, Gaslight.

gaslight

Gaslight is a short book which is difficult to put down. Set in late Victorian Cardiff, the heroine, Nansi, survives by working and thieving for Sid, owner of the Empire Theatre, who “took her in” after she was fished out of the sea. But he is not a kind guardian; Nansi is physically and mentally abused by him and yet she stays. Her strength comes from her determination to find her missing mother and she finds peace in night-time swimming. The story portrays all the social ills of the time but also friendship and comradeship. The environment of the theatre and its surroundings are clearly created, and the book includes several Dickensian characters. The title reflects the atmosphere of the theatre but also reminds us of the term “gaslighting”. If I was still teaching this would be the perfect book for my Year 6 book club.

Find Gaslight at Amazon UK

My review of Seaglass by Eloise Williams

eloise williams

Eloise Williams

Eloise Williams was born in Cardiff in 1972. Her second book GASLIGHT won the Wales Arts Review Young People’s Book of the Year Award 2017, the YBB Book Award 2018 and was shortlisted for the Tir na nOg awards 2018.
SEAGLASS was chosen in the Top 10 Books for Young People of 2018 by Wales Arts Review:
“The queen of children’s writing in Wales goes from strength to strength, and her third novel does not disappoint. A continuation of her unique brand of scary and page-turning story-telling skills, her latest book has already gone down a storm in classrooms…”

Eloise lives in a tiny cottage by the sea in Pembrokeshire, West Wales, with her artist husband, Guy Manning, and her cairn terrier, Watson Jones. She collects sea glass, sagely pretends to know about the tides and accidentally sings Welsh songs out loud on the beach.

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Erebus: The Story of A Ship by Michael Palin #BookReview #Antarctic #SeaAdventure

HMS Erebus was one of the great exploring ships, a veteran of groundbreaking expeditions to the ends of the Earth.

In 1848, it disappeared in the Arctic, its fate a mystery. In 2014, it was found.

This is its story.

erebus

This is a book of heroes, the daring, handsome James Clark Ross, who mapped much of the Antarctic coastline, the unlucky John Franklin, whose ambitious adventurous spirit ended in a disastrous expedition and the gallant ship which linked their lives, the Erebus. It was the rediscovery of the wreck of HMS Erebus on the seabed in Queen Maud Gulf in 2014 that prompted this book.

Written by Michael Palin, whom we know so well as an adventurous traveller on our TV screens, this amazing story is an easy read, using quotes from fellow travellers on their incredible voyages to the Arctic and Antarctic made by this small sturdily reinforced boat. Through thick pack ice and terrifying storms, the crews attempted to reach places no-one had yet seen. With some success and eventual failure, the crews battled on in voyages made between 1839 and 1847.

Michael Palin brings these voyages to life using his own experiences of visits to the Arctic, Antarctica and the Falklands and his observations of the characters of the men who made those first explorations. His vivid account of the Christmas and New Year celebrations by the crews on the Erebus and the Terror while trapped by ice in 1842 is surreal and yet believable. The book’s drawings and illustrations add to the readers appreciation of these great endeavours.

466px-james_clark_ross

James Clark Ross

crew

Officers in 1847 in search of the North-West Passage

Erebus: The Story of A Ship on Amazon UK

A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty By Mimi Matthews #TuesdayBookBlog

Victorian

Book Description 

What did a Victorian lady wear for a walk in the park? How did she style her hair for an evening at the theatre? And what products might she have used to soothe a sunburn or treat an unsightly blemish? Mimi Matthews answers these questions and more as she takes readers on a decade-by-decade journey through Victorian fashion and beauty history.

Women’s clothing changed dramatically during the course of the Victorian era. Necklines rose, waistlines dropped, and Gothic severity gave way to flounces, frills, and an abundance of trimmings. Sleeves ballooned up and skirts billowed out. The crinoline morphed into the bustle and steam-moulded corsets cinched women’s waists ever tighter.

As fashion was evolving, so too were trends in ladies’ hair care and cosmetics. An era which began by prizing natural, barefaced beauty ended with women purchasing lip and cheek rouge, false hairpieces and pomades, and fashionable perfumes made with expensive spice oils and animal essences.

Using research from nineteenth century beauty books, fashion magazines, and lady’s journals, Mimi Matthews brings the intricacies of a Victorian lady’s toilette into modern day focus. In the process, she gives readers a glimpse of the social issues that influenced women’s clothing and the societal outrage that was an all too frequent response to those bold females who used fashion and beauty as a means of asserting their individuality and independence.

My Review

Having read many of Mimi’s online blog articles I know she has a prodigious knowledge of 19th century customs, art and fashion so I looked forward to learning a great deal from this book.  Well annotated and sourced, the first part takes the reader through each decade from the 1840s to the 1890s. Looking at clothing, underwear, millinery and jewellery, Miss Matthews describes the changing female silhouette, illustrated with beautiful plates of the particular decade. But in no way is this a pedestrian account; the vocabulary of Victorian fashion; spoon busks, crinolettes, paletots etc are intriguingly poetic and yet we also read of the tragic death of a Regent Street seamstress, who worked from 6.30 in the morning till 11 pm plus occasionally working all night to complete a commission.

The section on fashion etiquette describes how clothing for specific circumstances, such as mourning, were strictly dictated. Middle and upper class ladies needed to change their dress several times a day, from a comfortable morning dress, to a walking dress and then a splendid evening dress.  Other activities, such as sport, riding and visiting the seaside required different styles just as today. Finally the section on beauty, hair care and cosmetics is particularly fascinating. I love the suggestion that to avoid wrinkles one should, “endeavour to acquire plumpness.” This is a superb book to peruse during the festive season.

You can purchase A Victorian Guide to Fashion and Beauty at Amazon UK

My review of A Holiday by Gaslight, a Christmas novella by Mimi Matthews

An Unconventional Officer by Lynn Bryant #BookReview

Unconventional

A story of love and war in Wellington’s army 

In 1802 Europe is going back to war, General Arthur Wellesley is commanding troops in India and the officers and men of the 110th infantry are about to get the shock of their lives as a new officer arrives in barracks.

Paul van Daan is young, wealthy, arrogant and ready to take on the Maratha, the French and whole of the British army. A talented and charismatic leader of men, he needs to learn to curb his temper and adjust to the rigid army hierarchy in order to rise in his chosen profession. On the way he makes enduring friendships forged on the battlefields of India and Europe and builds an unexpected bond with the difficult, unemotional commander of the Peninsular army, Sir Arthur Wellesley.

There are many women in Paul’s life but only two who touch his heart.

Rowena Summers, a shy young governess straight from a charity school. Serene and gentle, her love and companionship give Paul a stability he had not known he lacked.

Anne Howard the extraordinary daughter of a wealthy manufacturer who marries a fellow officer and changes everything Paul thought he knew about women.

Amidst the violence and tragedy of the war against Napoleon an unforgettable love story unfolds which affects the lives of everybody it touches and changes the 110th forever.

This is the first book in the Peninsular War series which tells the story of the men and women of the 110th infantry, a regiment like no other in Wellington’s army.

My Review

I have always been fascinated by the long years of battles and skirmishes in the Iberian Peninsular at the beginning of the 19th century. Here men from all backgrounds were thrown together to fight alongside Spanish and Portuguese soldiers against Napoleon’s army. The extra interest was the presence of many women, officers’ wives enjoying social interaction and soldiers’ wives surviving in camp in horrendous conditions by doing laundry and cooking.

But this book is no boring account of warfare, for the tension, jealousy, romance and passion of the main characters make it a real page turner. There’s a sprinkling of Bernard Cornwall’s Sharpe stories, the eroticism of an Outlander book and a totally original take on the role of women in this isolated community so distant from life at home in England.  In addition, there are terrifying incidents of danger and violence which keep you on the edge of your seat.

Paul Van Daan is an irresistible, irritating hero, who doesn’t obey the conventions or stick to military rules, but he has survived two and a half years in Nelson’s navy and his strict but fair way of treating the men of the 110th Light company keeps their loyalty and determination.  Though Paul finds it difficult to resist an attractive woman, he always treats them with respect and within this novel, he finds in his loyal wife, Rowena and in the forthright, stunning Anne, reason to live and to fight for justice.  The situation the trio find themselves in, is absurd and cannot have a happy outcome and yet they remain steadfast to each other.  It a very unusual plot but it works in a time when men lived by their wits and good and evil were more pronounced.

I loved this novel for its historical accuracy and its imaginative storyline. Highly recommended.

An Unconventional Officer can be purchased at Amazon UK

Spies by Michael Frayn #ThrowbackThursday

I’m borrowing the #ThrowbackThursday meme from It’s Book Talk

to share a book I read several years ago.

 Spies

Blurb

 A mesmerizing novel about secrecy, imagination, and a child’s game turned deadly earnest

The sudden trace of a disturbing, forgotten aroma compels Stephen Wheatley to return to the site of a dimly remembered but troubling childhood summer in wartime London. As he pieces together his scattered images, we are brought back to a quiet, suburan street where two boys, Keith and his sidekick-Stephen-are engaged in their own version of the war effort: spying on the neighbors, recording their movements, ferreting out their secrets.

But when Keith utters six shocking words, the boys’ game of espionage takes a sinister and unintended turn. A wife’s simple errands and a family’s ordinary rituals-once the focus of childish speculation-become the tragic elements of adult catastrophe.

In gripping prose, charged with emotional intensity, Spies reaches into the moral confusion of youth to reveal a reality filled with deceptions and betrayals, where the bonds of friendship, marriage, and family are unravelled by cowardice and erotic desire. Master illusionist Michael Frayn powerfully demonstrates, yet again, that what appears to be happening in front of our eyes often turns out to be something we can’t see at all.

My Review

You need to be in the right frame of mind to read “Spies”. It’s a slow ramble through the confused mind of a young boy in the apparently uneventful “Close” against the background of a war in Europe which only occasionally impinges upon his life. As long as you’re not in a hurry to get to exactly what’s happening behind the lies then it’s an enjoyable enticing read.

It reminded me of my own childhood in the 1950s planning and creating camps & schemes with my cousins. There is a languorous atmosphere created by the evocative scents and the summer weather. It is also a really frustrating book because you feel like shaking Stephen to make him react and to further the plot.

I have always enjoyed Michael Frayn’s plays because of the way he skilfully uses words but in this book he seems to work too hard spelling things out like “private”, “privet” and “privy”. He takes many chapters trying to explain the tortuous thoughts of a young boy as seen through the eyes of his mature self and then ties up all the loose ends of the plot in a few brief sentences at the end.

I have read critics comparing “Spies” to “The Go-Between” by L. P. Hartley and it certainly reminds me of the misunderstandings and deceit of that book. But somehow “Spies” feels unfinished. We weren’t given enough information to understand Stephen’s relationship with his family and I really wanted to know what happened to Keith’s family.

This book could have been something special but somehow it misses out. Stephen is not really very likeable even if he is a typical boy of his time & circumstances. The real passions are out of reach for the reader. We cannot see inside the mind of Keith’s mother & can only imagine how she is suffering. Someone needs to write the book again, from her viewpoint.

Spies can be found on Amazon UK

Michael Frayn

Frayn

Michael Frayn was born in London in 1933 and began his career as a journalist on the Guardian and the Observer. His novels include Towards the End of the Morning, Headlong (shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize), Spies (longlisted for the 2002 Man Booker Prize) and Skios. His seventeen plays range from Noises Off, recently chosen as one of the nation’s three favourite plays, to Copenhagen, which won the 1998 Evening Standard Award for Best Play of the Year and the 2000 Tony Award for Best Play. He is married to the writer Claire Tomalin.

A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity by Trish Nicholson #BookReview

Bio of Story

Dedicated, “to all who love Story whoever you are,” this book encompasses storytelling since communication began and covers most corners of the globe.  Story is personified, weaving through History, influencing events, and what happens affects the nature of stories.

From early Creation stories of Africa and Australia, we move through legend, myth, saga and fable.  As words begin to be written down, words confer authority and as we all know, history is written by the victors.  Common themes of the wisdom of animals, of good versus evil, of disguise and mistaken identity recur but there are also specific features only present in one era.

Trish Nicholson gives us tantalising details of the lives of so many tellers of tales, but as she says, “Teasing out strands of the old storytellers’ lives is like following a thread through the Cretan labyrinth; the “Minotaur” we discover at the other end may turn out to be a goat rather than a bull.”  The lives of Chaucer and Boccaccio are compared and the similarities and differences in their work marked.  Similarly, she shows us how Sir Walter Scott and James Fennimore Cooper reflected their era and their environment in using the tales told by the indigenous people of their countries.

My favourite chapter tells us about Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, the talented sister of the King of France.  Her life was varied and eventful, surrounded by poets and writers. A politically astute woman, she was widely respected and a skilled mediator. She spent time translating parts of the New Testament and more relevantly, writing stories. When her collection of tales was published posthumously in 1558, some of her humorous stories were considered of an unsuitable bawdy nature for a woman so some were edited and credited to a man.

“A Biography of Story” is no boring book of literary criticism, since the author is herself a storyteller.  She narrates significant stories to her readers, highlighting the essential strands of each literary era so that the book can be dipped into, using the clear descriptive chapter summaries or the comprehensive index.  But perhaps, like me, you would rather start at the beginning and enjoy reading the entire delightful text.

A Last Thought from the Book

The story is our escort; without it we are blind

Chinua Achebe

 

A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity is available at Amazon UK

 

Trish Nicholson

Trish Nicholson

I have scribbled in various forms since childhood. Twice I turned from the beginnings of a writing career to dive into something else: the first time to work overseas on rural aid and development projects; the second time, in 2000, when I emigrated to New Zealand. Writing has claimed me again and I’m not planning to go anywhere else this time.

My mother’s side of the family are Scots (Clarks and MacAndrews), and being born in the Isle of Man, and of Manx stock, makes me part Celtic and part Nordic. I believe my paternal family name, Taggart, is a Manx Gaelic term for ‘priest’ or ‘healer’; as most of my forbears were parsons, this seems fitting. Later, like lots of young people, I left the Island to seek tertiary education and never found my way back.

In 2017 I revisited the island for the first time in 30 years as part of a speaking/book tour with A Biography of Story. You can read about the trip and a bit of family history on the blog post: ‘Story Visits the Island of Stories’.

I have lived in many places in Britain: southeast England, East Anglia, Yorkshire, and the Highlands of Scotland where I lived and worked for 12 years. It is from Scotland that I went to work overseas; first in Papua New Guinea, then in the Philippines, where I completed also a doctoral degree in social anthropology. Research in Vietnam and Australia – on indigenous tourism – and many other trips, to South America and Africa, and especially unforgettable treks in Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal, brought me eventually back to England, and the decision to settle in New Zealand.

My home is in the ‘winterless’ Far North, where native trees grow even more in winter than summer because they have more moisture. No ‘off-season’ for garden work here – no splendid lacy icicles either, but I have photographs to remind me of those.

An interview with Colt McCall from “An Englishwoman’s Guide to the Cowboy”

My heart is pounding with excitement at the chance to interview the irresistible Colt McCall from June Kearn’s book.

Cowboy

What were your first impressions of Miss Annie Haddon?

First off? As if a scruffy dog had suddenly appeared and attached itself to me. Yeah, someone’s stray, a pampered pet – one that wasn’t particularly biddable, either. For such a small fry though, she seemed to have a pretty big mouth. A talker, too – mite too fond of her own opinions to my mind, at the time. No idea what she’d landed herself into, either. Not … a … single, solitary clue.

Annie called you intimidating and you certainly don’t suffer fools readily.  Would your life be easier if you were more diplomatic?

Let’s face it, shall we? Annie was white, English, opinionated. Not a hope in hell of understanding someone like me. As for diplomacy! Well, the West belongs to the meat-eaters, always has, always will. The meek don’t inherit much west of Chicago. Anyway, a man needs to show he can defend himself. If people think he can’t, he’s in trouble.

You seem to have a very bad opinion of the English.  What have they ever done to you?

Ha, tried to wipe out all rotten traces of Indian for starters. At Mission School, I was taught by an Englishwoman. She thought I was barely house-trained and had the idea that a daily dose of British poets and Shakespeare was the best way to civilise little hell-raisers like me. Along with not letting me speak my mother’s language, of course – shaving my head and beating manners and the Bible into me.

Yeah, one thing I’ve learned about the English: You don’t tell them, they tell you.

You don’t seem to be a typical Texan and yet you seem to have some good friends.  What do these friends have in common?

I guess they’re all … outsiders? Yeah, every damn one, when I come to think about it. The displaced, the hunted, the ignored. Mostly fighters for their own rights, of course, their own land. For years, we’ve been killing off their food, stealing their hunting grounds, robbing them blind.

Are the divisions of the Civil War still causing problems in Texas?

Well, what do you think? Draw a line down the middle of any country – you’re asking for trouble. Somehow, it makes some folk feel more entitled to boss others around. Take Southerners, for example. Robert E. Lee still adorns many a parlour wall round here. Oh, yeah. Plenty haven’t been too keen on freeing their slaves, either.

You seem to find Miss Haddon just a little too talkative, but do you think she has changed her feelings about Texas since you first met her?

Well, I guess when we first met, Annie was just trying to make sense of everything – questions, questions, questions. Her main concern, first off – if you’d care to believe it – was about losing those bound copies of Dickens in her trunk! While I was just hell-bent on getting us as far away as possible from the Comanche.

Even from her first arrival though, she seemed to love the landscape. Nothing had prepared her, she once told me – for that vast open space, the wide, wide vista. Fluted rock on the horizon soaring to meet limitless blue sky. The throat-catching beauty, the loneliness.
You can’t just pass through this landscape, y’know. It reaches out and draws you in, every time.

And now? Guess Annie knows that she belongs here.

And have you changed your opinion of her?

Oh, yeah. My opinion probably started to shift when she teamed up with two outlaws, swallowed a quart and a half of whisky and started a bar-room brawl – after trying to stare down that Comanche brave, of course.

It was her first ever time away from the protection of her relatives. I’d expected fear, silence, trepidation. Instead, she showed intelligence and courage, plus a real delight at being able to truly be herself.

Thank you, Colt, it’s been a privilege to hear your view of Texas both from your own opinions and those of  “the Englishwoman.”

You can read my review of June Kearn’s book here