7. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by the Countess of Carnarvon

Screen Shot 2017-09-08 at 18.43.29I am one of the many who was charmed by the Downton Abbey series and the goings on both upstairs and down in a large stately home in the early 20th century. It also spanned the time of the First World War which has been uppermost in so many minds of late as we live through the centenary commemorations of so many dreadful battles. Having been beguiled by these tales and equally beguiled by the setting, in 2015 I headed off to visit Highclere Castle, the real Downton Abbey. Here the beautiful surroundings enchanted me and the house, standing proud in the midst of its stunning gardens, made an impressive statement. I can certainly imagine the impact on people coming up the long drive to be greeted by such an imposing sight. So what of the people who lived here, the real Downton Abbey? As luck would have it, the current Countess of Carnarvon has done a lot of research on her husband’s ancestors and one of the results of this is Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, of course I had to buy a copy.

The book did not disappoint, there is a glittering cast of characters full of the nobility and royalty. It is a big cast though and at times hard to keep up with who was who! It was helpful that some of the names were familiar to me though I wasn’t aware of the Carnarvon’s links to the Royal Family, nor their influence during World War One. In fact the part of the book during the period of the Great War was fascinating. Having watched Downton Abbey I knew that many great houses had been used as hospitals during the war and Highclere was no exception. The difference was in how the hospital was laid out, with the bedrooms at Highclere being used for individual men rather than a large ward set up in the main rooms downstairs. There was the also the question of how the nurses and doctors would be paid, to my surprise Almina funded that herself. Highclere did not remain a hospital for the duration of the war, to get the best doctors of the day Almina moved the hospital to London and continued to care for many heavily traumatised and injured men to the very end.

The other big story is the uncovering of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Another endeavour funded by the Carnarvons. There is no wonder Lord Carnarvon needed an injection of capital which his wife was able to supply through her family links to the Rothschilds. The success of the Egyptian endeavour is well known, to have the perspective of the family was fascinating.

Lady Fiona Carnarvon (the current Countess) has an easy writing style and her passion and enthusiasm in the history of her husband’s family shines through. This was history brought to life with real characters living through some gruesome times.



6. Farewell Manchester by Audrey Jones

img013This is a book telling the story of evacuees from Manchester by the evacuees themselves. The author was herself evacuated, a process that must have been so very frightening to youngsters. I learnt a lot from this book, I hadn’t appreciated how many evacuees returned home during the phoney war period and then endured many a night in a damp and cold Anderson shelter which must have been just as frightening as being evacuated.

Audrey tells us a little about the context around evacuation and the practising the children did. I didn’t appreciate that before war was declared all the plans were being put in place in the lead up to the outbreak of war. The evacuation started in the days before the start of the war after which followed the phoney war, the period between September 1939 and May 1940 when little action took place. This clearly led many parents into a false sense of security and, missing their children, brought many evacuees home. Some were evacuated a second time when the bombing started in earnest particularly in mid to late 1940 when Manchester suffered its own blitz.

This book gives us the children’s perspective and how it impacted them through to adulthood. Published in 1989, Audrey Jones compiled these memories of those who lived through such a turbulent time in our history.

There are many different tales but the common thread was fear of where they were going and who they would end up with. There was little information, no one was told where they were going. Parents were letting their children, some as young as 5, go with no knowledge of where they would be or when they would see them again. In fact, the evacuees from Manchester didn’t go that far, 20 miles or so. But in a time of war and when so few people had a car this was quite a distance. Place names had been removed from stations by then, so the children didn’t know where they were until someone told them.

Once they arrived at their destination, the locals came by and chose who to take home. I remember only too well the unpleasantness of being the last one chosen in games at school so this must just have been awful. It would not have been easy for those who had to take in evacuees either, and most of the stories show that the children were well cared for, though there is of course nowhere quite like home. Many suffered appalling homesickness motivating some to head home on their own.

A few children were evacuated overseas, Canada and Australia two of the destinations. On the one hand that must have been a tremendous adventure, but on the other the most terrifying. One child, sent to relatives in Canada, was on a boat which was torpedoed and after spending time in a life raft was taken back aboard the torpedoed ship as it could be mended at sea and continue its journey! The saddest part of this tale is that the evacuee settled so well in Canada that when she returned home after the war that was when she was most unhappy.

Many of the children kept in touch with their second families and continued to visit them after the war. I find this heart warming – such a difficult time for all but lasting friendships and connections shine a positive light on those dark times.

I am very privileged to have been able to read this book. I have kept it too long I know, but want to thank Stephen, Audrey’s son, who trusted me with his treasured copy.

4. Purged by Peter Laws

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 10.17.31This is not an easy read, a crime novel and psychological thriller underpinned by religious zeal and evangelism. That said, it was a real page turner, the plot was well constructed, the characters well put together leaving you guessing as to who the murderer was, indeed guessing whether there actually had been a murder at all.

The murder scenes were described clearly but not overly gorily. As the reader I was left wondering who the perpetrator could be and as the bodies were not found wondering if murder actually happened. There were many flashbacks in the book and the narrative changed in tone for both the flashbacks and the crimes leaving a sliver of doubt as to whether they were in the past or maybe even a dream.

The author is heralded as ‘an ordained Baptist minister with a taste for the macabre’ and I certainly can’t argue with the latter part of that statement. I found it very interesting that a man of the cloth would write about the effects of religion in such a way. The pastor and community could be called extremists and certainly the actions of the perpetrator were extreme. Written by anyone else it could come across as religion bashing. If you want to read the book and not know what happens, please stop reading now as I will be talking about the ending.

The Purged of the title refers to people who are about to be baptised. At a party these people are purged of their old selves to become newly born in the eyes of the church. The baptism itself was full immersion in the local lake. While there is nothing sinister in this itself, it is set with the backdrop of a missing teenage girl whose murder took place immediately after, you could say as part of, her baptism. Then a terminally ill woman suffers the same fate.

The tension is increased as we follow the main character, Matt Hunter. He is a former minister who lost his faith when he lost his mother in horrific violent circumstances. We learn about this through the flashbacks Matt has as the story unfolds. Matt, his wife, teenage step daughter and young daughter are staying in an Oxfordshire village as his wife has been invited to tender to be the architect for the church renovations. But it is no coincidence that they are there as the vicar of the parish is an old college buddy of Matt’s and their turbulent relationship is also uncovered as the book progresses. There are many strands but they are cleverly woven together so it does not become confusing and in fact adds to the tension and mystery of the situation.

This is a great whodunnit, I’ve read reviews where people have said they worked it out half way through the book but I certainly didn’t. I wouldn’t say it was a complete surprise as it really could have been anyone. I will have to read it again to see if I can pick up the clues better knowing the answer. But for me the identity of the murderer was not the pinnacle of the story. It was a far more rounded and interesting tale for that.

If I question the book at all it is on two points. Matt seems quite detached from his family, while he is running around the county helping the police and indeed himself as he becomes a suspect, his wife and daughters are having a day out in Oxford and then heading to the cinema. If felt a bit like he was doing the ‘man’s work’ while the girls were sent to be occupied elsewhere.

The other is the end and indeed the last murder. The motive for the murders of the teenage girl and the terminally ill woman was to save their souls. They were baptised and then killed before they had chance to lose their cleanliness by sinning. But the murderer’s last victim was the minister and it was not clear what the motive was here. He was not baptised prior to being killed and as the minister leading this particularly strong church community was clearly leading a holy life, so this killing seemed out of kilter. The murderer himself then tried to force Matt’s step daughter to kill him by pushing him over a waterfall, he couldn’t jump as suicides all go to hell. I’m not sure why he was so ready to die when he was discovered. I’m all in favour of endings where not all the loose ends are quite tied up, a little wondering about what happened adds to the intrigue, but I was a little perplexed by that.

However, that said I enjoyed this book. It is the first of a series of books with Matt Hunter the next in the series being ‘Unleashed’ which I shall read at some point. But I have other books to catch up on first…



3. The Girl Before by JP Delaney

Screen Shot 2017-07-22 at 17.47.18I was really looking forward to this book, it sounded intriguing and that it would be full of suspense. I heard about it first on Simon Mayo’s Drivetime show as one of his Monday bookclubs in February. The reviews were good and this held a promise to be a real page turner. Sadly, for me the book didn’t match its promise. It has also had me questioning the reviews on the radio as I’ve never heard a bad one.

I liked the idea of this book, one apartment, two women separated in time, the first who met an untimely and unexplained death, the second who became intrigued and curious to try to solve the mystery. A lot of scope for a great read but the architect of the minimalist apartment where there were over 200 rules if you wanted to live there was a familiar figure. Set at the centre of the story he was ridiculously wealthy, good looking and fit, aloof, rude and runs rough shod over other people. The two women in the story, supposedly intelligent and both having suffered recent traumas, fall for him and he dominates them in every way, including in the bedroom. A shadow of 50 Shades of Grey was cast over the story. Yet in the end, the architect is a bit of a red herring.

Reading other reviews I am not alone in making the comparison to 50 Shades. As I really didn’t like that book, it was not going to enhance my experience in reading this one. To be fair, there wasn’t as much sex and the focus was more on the architect’s desire to dominate every aspect of the women’s lives using the house as well as his charms, hidden though they were to me.

There were a few twists in the book but none that really took me by surprise and the ending was as I had thought it would be, at least the murderer was who I suspected. The ending in fact was the biggest disappointment, as the architect softened to become almost weak which didn’t stack up to his previous persona.

It was an easy read if not a riveting story, with short chapters which suit my life right now as it was an easy book to dip in and out of. I’m sad I didn’t like this book when it had so much potential.

2. The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman

Screen Shot 2017-07-16 at 18.13.12I struggled with this book, it starts very slowly and I felt for a good third of the book that nothing really happened. Having read others reviews it seems I’m not alone. I think the author is setting the scene and drawing the reader into the characters’ lives so that empathy abounds when they do what they do – more on that later.

The book is set in Australia in the mid 1920s, following a young man on his return from the war. He is obviously traumatised by the things he has seen and the friends he has lost and struggling to come to terms with his own survival. His answer is to become a light house keeper in a remote spot where he spends months on end totally alone. On shore leave he meets Izzy who is coming to terms from her own war story, in particular losing both her brothers. And so starts a love story led by Izzy and the two end up married and living in glorious isolation on their island paradise.

Spoilers coming up so stop reading now if you want to read the book and not know what happens.

The book turns on an event which I found somewhat hard to believe. I didn’t feel the isolation and I didn’t get the sense of longing I think I was supposed to get. So it came as a bit of a surprise when a boat with a small baby and a dead man washed up and Izzy was so drawn to the baby to insist on keeping it. Her pregnancies and subsequent miscarriages had been glossed over in my view. So I couldn’t empathise with the choice that Izzy made and why Tom went along with it. They knew nothing about the man or the baby yet somehow persuaded themselves there was no one waiting for the pair or worried about their whereabouts. There was an element of guilt coming through but overall just a happy little family, I think I was more bothered than they were!

When the inevitable happened and their secret was found out, I found it got more unbelievable. Izzy seemed convinced that the best thing for the child was to stay with her, she turned against Tom and wouldn’t talk to her parents. I struggled to understand how Izzy had no empathy with the baby’s birth mother, as one who had suffered loss it seemed natural that she would have some understanding for another who had also suffered loss, but none of that was there. The baby, now a young child spent most of the time screaming. It’s very understandable that she would be upset and confused, but the way it was dealt with was just to place her back with her birth family and use her birth name. Where is the effort to work with the child, help her with this hardest of transitions? I know this was the 1920s and today’s ways of dealing with these things are completely different but it felt lacking to me.

After much angst, screaming and arguing, Tom spent time in jail and Izzy didn’t. The child eventually settled and Tom and Izzy reunited mainly on the premise that an experience such as this means the future can only be shared with the one you shared it with in the first place. I won’t give away the ending here, just say that it was all a little too happily ever after for me, albeit in a bitter sweet way.

I think it fair to say this was not my favourite book, but it was easy to read. It’s been turned into a movie which is no real surprise, the chance to film in a great and beautiful location with a tear jerker of a story. I won’t however be rushing to see it.

1. My Sister’s Bones by Nuala Ellwood

screen-shot-2017-02-13-at-18-33-50This book starts at the end but without giving anything away, well apart from the fact that one of the sisters is dead. However, you don’t know which and I do like a book that gives the ending away without any of the plot.

This is not a novel for the fainthearted as it deals with PTSD, domestic violence, miscarriage, long standing extra marital affair, alcoholism and drugs. I did not however find it depressing as many people who have reviewed said they did. I felt that Kate, a war correspondent and the PTSD sufferer, took on the job she did full of hope. Hope that in telling the truth others will understand and maybe act, hope that ultimately love does win and hope that she can make a difference. Kate along with her sister Sally had difficult childhoods and both have been haunted by them into adulthood though they react to it in very different ways. As a result they are not on good terms and hold each other responsible for how bad things are.

I felt that Nuala Ellwood dealt with the difficult issues sensitively yet honestly (as far as I know, and I am sure everyone’s experience of each of these issues is different). I had sympathy for both sisters’ perspectives as they reacted to their troubled past, one by confronting horrors directly through her work as a war correspondent and the other hiding in the fog of alcohol.

The parts I found hard to read were when each of the sisters at times drank too much. The narrative took the story down the inevitable path of self destruction when too much wine was consumed and I felt frustrated with the character for not showing more restraint. But that of course is the point and the problem with alcohol even when the individual is not classed as an alcoholic.

I did not foresee the twist in the last quarter or so of the book, maybe a more discerning reader would pick up on it sooner. So for me it was an interesting turn of events which made me, along with the sisters, see the whole story very differently.

The ending could be described as happy but in reality it wasn’t. Without giving too much away, it ends in a peaceful way and I re-read the prologue now I knew the outcome and it helped to re-visit that part. It most certainly wasn’t a ‘happy ever after’, perhaps an ‘as good as it could be’ ending.

I enjoyed this book and would recommend to others.

Read ‘Go set a Watchman’ – number 31

20170114_191558A lot of people read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ at school but I didn’t. I rather wish I had as my set book was ‘Jane Eyre’ and I didn’t like it at all and I still don’t! So I came to ‘Mockingbird’ rather late and in one year read the book, watched the film and saw it on stage. I found it an easy read and of course thought provoking. When I heard that the first book that Harper Lee had written, though it is effectively the sequel to ‘Mockingbird’, was to be published it quickly came on my list of must reads. However, it took me a while to get around to it, but finally I did. Before I say anything about the book, waiting until nearly the end of my time for this list before reading the book has given me an idea. I shall read 55 books before I’m 55 and write a review. That’s 11 books a year, so one a month with one month to catch up. It should all be very doable. Back to ‘Watchman’ for now, there is a spoiler but it comes very early in the book so won’t really spoil anything.


Harper Lee in 2007 (White House archives)

I had always thought that ‘Watchman’ was the first book that Harper Lee wrote and that the publisher had asked she write another for when Scout was a young girl. However, it seems that ‘Watchman’ was the first draft of what became ‘Mockingbird’ and there was some controversy when ‘Watchman’ was published as to whether Harper Lee was really in agreement with it. I do hope she was, it is very well written for a first draft (though I am sure that it has had some editing prior to publication) it is a fine insight into Harper Lee’s ways of writing. There was a suggestion the manuscript should be held as such in a university library for scholars to read. I would question why only scholars should read and gain from this work? So I feel grateful to have been able to read it.


Scout and Atticus in the 1962 film

Having seen quite a lot of ‘Mockingbird’ diving into ‘Watchman’ was like meeting up with old friends. Time has moved on 20 years, but Jean Louise and Atticus remained true to their Mockingbird portrayals. The shock was that Jem is dead, referred to almost casually and as if the reader knows early on. Of course that was a disappointment but he does feature in the book as part of Jean Louise’s memories. For the most part she is no longer called Scout as befits a young woman in her mid twenties.

‘Watchman’ starts with Jean Louise’s journey back to Maycomb from New York where she is working. It is now the 1950s and racial tensions are high. Jean Louise is sent into turmoil when she sees Atticus at a meeting and her world is turned upside down as she sees his views are not what she always believed them to be. Thus follows a struggle for Jean Louise as she tries to understand the changes in Maycomb in contrast to life in New York alongside the personal struggle to understand her father.

I found the book again an easy read though I did get a little lost in some of the arguments. I also had to look up the NAACP (for those like me who don’t know, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). There were some views expressed that made me feel quite uncomfortable as these were views of the ‘good guys’ and they certainly don’t sit well in today’s society.

I enjoyed the book, it was thought provoking and quite different to ‘Mockingbird’ while believable that these are the same town and same people but a couple of decades on. I would recommend it and may even read it again at some point to understand the history better. There will of course be no more as Harper Lee was a victim of 2016 and is no longer with us. Unless of course, there is an undiscovered manuscript…