Thursday, April 28, 2011

Fascinating St Kilda debut

The island of St Kilda, 1830. Into a society still living the same ways since the days of the ancestors, comes single-minded minister, Neil MacKenzie and his new wife, Lizzie.
Neil is as full of missionary zeal as anyone going to convert native Africans to Christianity, but isn’t prepared for the discovery that such a barren part of the Empire is within his country’s own shores.
Lizzie is prepared to be fashionable and proud of her position, and is utterly unable to relate to the locals. She speaks no gaelic, finds their communal and harsh way of life far removed from her previous life on the mainland.
Swedish author, Karin Altenberg, in beautifully expressed prose (English is her second language) brings to life the shared poverty of the burrows where the islanders live, the floors full of accumulated filth that is shovelled out to fertilise the fields in spring. The hand-to-mouth lives, seabirds providing the most valuable natural resource, even to the fulmar oil to provide their lighting. No furniture and with no wood, only driftwood to provide nowhere near enough coffins.
Having myself once visited the Skara Brae on the Orkneys and found it fascinating to see the still existing underground burrows, topped with grass roofs, I longed to know how the author stumbled upon the story that these remote people were still living this life well into the 19th century. It’s a doomed story as you recognise that change can no longer be resisted.
Expect, like Lizzie, to get drawn, in as we hear how no trees can withstand the weather and the salt, and the seabirds provide a sparse but sustainable living on the far outreaches of a country that has already seen so much change.
As her husband decides that only change will bring these souls closer to God – sanitary housing, a system of crops, it is Lizzie who finds she is learning from the locals and considers who is really closer to God.
A debut novelist that has written a really engrossing and different story.
Island of Wings          Karin Altenberg                Quercus               12.99

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Suspicions of Mr Whicher

This truly excellent detective story which is also a glorious piece of social history comes to the small screen over Easter. I am in two minds about whether or not to watch, because I loved the book so much.
I suspect that anyone watching might then want to read the book anyway, if the TV folk manage to go half-way to making such a gripping tale so well told.
Most people had never heard of Mr Whicher before Kate Summerscale’s lovely book brought him the attention he so well deserved.
In a country that has crime dramas on the telly most evenings and high sales of crime detection books, it was fascinating to discover that these English roots and obsession with trying to solve fictional crimes can be traced to a particular real life case and one detective.
Mr Whicher was the first police detective and it is difficult to believe that no-one had attempted a biography of him before or the notorious case that brought him fame in 1860. But thankfully, the biography was handled with great aplomb by little-known author Kate Summerscale. Her surprise hit grew in popularity and eventually was voted the Best Book of the Year at the national book awards.
Mr Whicher was brought in when the local police failed to solve the murder of a child who was taken out of his house in the middle of the night and killed.
Mr Whicher was able to establish that it had to be one of the family – a respectable upper-middle class gentleman, his second wife, one of the children from his first marriage, the nanny, or one of the other servants.
The interest in the case was phenomenal, with a frenzy of press and public interest. The case, and Mr Whicher himself, were the inspiration of very early detectives created by Dickens and Wilkie Collins, and the closed circle of suspects, country house mystery was born.
Publishers since have tried to capture the essence of Kate Summerscale’s book and there have been a few published reinvestigations of celebrated murders since.
But what they were missing was the fact that although the crime itself is interesting, it is the detective’s story which was is particularly fascinating – and those historic roots of real life detecting.
Kate Summerscale has researched deeply and used her research to great effect. I love the touches such as converting monetary values so you can more fully understand the historical context. Her explanation, for instance, of the social significance of the children of the first marriage sleeping on a different floor from their parents.
The mystery was never satisfactorily solved and public interest only slowly waned. Kate Summerscale tells us that when the house where the murder happened was put up for sale it was swamped with people who wanted to follow in Whicher’s footsteps, check the situation of the windows and the rooms that had led to some of Whicher’s early conclusions.
Kate Summerscale, viewing the case retrospectively and draw some pretty interesting conclusions.
In fact it makes me want to go and read the whole book all over again.
Suspicions of Mr Whicher  Kate Summerscale  Bloomsbury  7.99

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A small free kiss in the dark

From the sparkling opening pages, where we learn a lot about the main character, Skip, as he explores why he can’t have a friend, this endearing novel for teens is both action packed and sensitively written.
Skip runs away and pals up with long-time street person, Billy. Skip’s talent is as an artist and he sees the world in terms of shadows, the bits other people miss – but it is a talent we can see will never be fulfilled in a world that has rejected him.
But the world is about to change. Bombs hit and chaos ensues. Then the best skills to have are enterprise and ingenuity – and those skills Skip and Billy, adapted to a harsh life, have already had to learn. For them it’s normal to have no place to sleep, no regular supply of food.
Their survival skills mean they become one of the strong, the people who are able to adapt and also they become able to take care of six-year-old Max, dancer Tia with her baby Sixpence.
In a genre awash with fantasy and post-apocalyptic novels, I approached this book with a ‘here we go again’ feeling, because it is set around the time of the destruction of society after a catastrophic attack.
But what it is really is a great exploration of how individuals who don’t necessarily fit in can be excellent in extraordinary situations. It explores the meaning of family and human resilience and is a celebration of both the individual and of difference. It’s a tough and stark read in places, short, but it will not only have you turning the pages, but will stay with you for a long time.
So far my favourite children’s book of the year. The Australian author is doing a blog tour over Easter, if you want to find out more you can visit  here:
A breath of fresh air for teens wanting something really well written, thought provoking and challenging.
A small free kiss in the dark  Glenda Millard  Templar  6.99

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Morville Treat

At the end of one of the hottest April days we can remember we rounded off the day listening to Katherine Swift talking about gardening. Perfect.
Author of ‘The Morville Hours’ and ‘The Moville Year’, we at Mostly Books are certainly not the only ones who think Katherine’s views of all things gardening are a pleasure to hear about – she kindly came to give a talk in our shop shortly after a sell-out session at the Oxford Literary Festival.
Katherine took us on a ramble from spring through to winter in her garden – through the long journey from planning and imagining to finding that her books about her garden were becoming popular and how everyone has been captivated by the Morville story.
The simple joys of gardening and her particular style of gardening – finding historic plants in keeping with a particular style or era – all were conveyed, by Katherine, with enormous joy and an infectious enthusiasm.
Her writing is all about ‘looking at things we don’t normally look at’, she explained, which is why she can see so much beauty in a frost-covered garden, and appreciate the satisfaction of late evening watering, or the pleasure from the calm rhythm of mowing.
Her garden (or a series of interlocking gardens) has grown out of the research she has done of the Dower House, Shropshire. The gardens reflect the ever-changing history of the house. Open to the public, you can enjoy the formal patterns of a cloister garden (inspired from when there were monks in the thirteenth century), or the fragrant beauty of a Victorian rose garden.
We can all learn a lot, she says, through the history of gardening and there are many benefits from exploring the past, rather than constantly reaching out for the new.
Each plant has a story, and it is these stories which are part of the engrossing nature of her writing. Each plant was first spotted by someone, brought back by someone and first loved by someone, and her knowledge and research of how these plants have either become firm favourites, or lost through changes in fashion, makes a fascinating journey.
But on a peaceful spring evening the thing we will all take away is how worthwhile it is to create something both lasting and beautiful.