Turn of the Tide by Margaret Skea

I have read some wonderful debut novels this year –  Turn of the Tide by Margaret Skea is one of them. I loved it. It’s historical fiction and it captivated me completely transporting me  back in time to 16th century Scotland. If you have ever wondered,  as I have, what it must have been like to live in a Tower House in the Scottish Borders then this book spells it out so clearly. And it puts you firmly in the middle of the centuries old feud between the Cunninghames and the Montgomeries, with all the drama of their battles, ambushes and schemes to further their standing with the young King James VI. It’s a tale of love, loyalty, tragedy and betrayal.

It’s no wonder that the book was  the Historical Fiction Winner in the 2011 Harper Collins / Alan Titchmarsh People’s Novelist Competition and won the Beryl Bainbridge Award for Best First Time Author 2014.

There is a map setting the scene in Ayreshire on the west of Scotland between the Firth of Clyde and the Solway Firth, showing the major sites in the book. I found both the map and the list of main characters most useful whilst following the story. And to complete my understanding there is a Glossary of Scottish words at the back of the book, although the meaning of most of them was clear from the context.

It begins in 1586  with an ambush in which several of the Cunninghame Clan, on their way to James VI’s court at Stirling are killed, followed by the Clan’s reprisal on the Montgomeries. James, anxious to settle the feud between his nobles, asks them to swear to bring their feud to an end, which brings an uneasy peace between them – for a while.

Most of the characters are real historical figures, includingJames VI, the Cunninghames – William, the Master of Glencairn and the Montgomeries – Hugh, the Master of Braidstane and their families. The feud is also a matter of fact. It began in 1488 when James IV gave control of the Balliewick of Cunninghame to a Montgomerie! It didn’t come to an end until the beginning of the 17th century.

The main characters,  Munro and his wife Kate and a few of the others are fictional. Munro is a minor laird who whilst owing allegiance to the Cunninghames, has increasing sympathy and liking for the Montgomeries. His dilemma only increases throughout the book.

Margaret Skea has done her research well, not just the feud and battles but also the domestic settings are detailed down to descriptions of the clothing, the food and so on – even how the town house rooms were finished with limewash, which involved carrying bucket-load after bucket-load up four flights of stairs to rejuvenate the attic chamber where the children slept. But it slots seamlessly into the story, adding colour and life to the scenes.

It’s all fascinating  – the hunt arranged for the king, the account of his journey across the North Sea to bring home his bride, Anne of Denmark, the scenes as the royal party lands at Leith and the coronation in Edinburgh, as well as the jockeying for positions, and the battles all culminating in a tense and dramatic finale.

Not only is this riveting history it is also so well written, beautifully descriptive:

Across the valley the castle reared against the skyline, the town tumbling down the slope below, wisps of smoke beginning to unfurl, first one, then another, then too many to count, as Stirling awoke.

The countryside was spread out before him like a map; the distant hills to the south west smudged against the watery sky; the river a dark ribbon snaking through the marshland below, cradling Cambuskenneth in a giant u-shaped loop. (pages 98-99)

and this – such a startling image:

Daylight slipped into their bedchamber like wraith; grey and insubstantial, filtered through the grime and soot that coated the outside of the windowpanes. (page 247)

And I’m delighted that Margaret Skea is writing a sequel as I really want to know what happened next to Munro and his family. The working title is A House Divided, continuing the story in the late 1590s.

  • Paperback: 416 pages – also available on Kindle
  • Publisher: Capercaillie Books Limited; first edition (22 Nov. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1909305065
  • ISBN-13: 978-1909305069
  • Source: I bought my copy
  • Author’s website: Margaret Skea, Writing yesterday, today

February’s Books

February has been an unusual reading month for me. At one point I thought I was going to  finish just three books during the whole month, but somehow I ended up with seven books on the finished pile. This brings my total for the year so far to fifteen.

Books I finished reading that I had started in January:

The Burning by Jane Casey – the first the DC Maeve Kerrigan series, with a complex  plot providing several suspects which kept me turning the pages right to the end.

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope – as I read this book the characters became so real to me. I shall read more of his Barchester Chronicles. It took me most of February to read this book, alternating it with reading other books.

Books I started and finished in February:

Wreckage by Emily Bleeker. This is one of the books I slotted in while reading Barchester Towers. Actually once I started it I had no choice – I didn’t want to put it down and read it in just a few sessions. I downloaded it from Amazon UK as an Early Release book to be published on 1 March and was delighted that I enjoyed it so much. It’s well written, full of suspense, tension and drama as well as love, loss and longing.

The Murder Room by P D James. This is another book that isn’t a quick read – 432 pages, full of detail.  initially I was impatient with this slow start but soon settled into P D James’ approach and appreciated the depth of the intricate plot.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin I haven’t written a post on this book. It’s a much shorter book and easy reading, well written spotlighting life in the 1950s in Ireland and America as seen through Eilis’s eyes, a young woman who emigrated to America. A memorable account of both sea sickness and home sickness. The character of Eilis is so well done that she really irritated me with her passiveness and compliance with other people. I enjoyed this book and plan to read Nora Webster, which I think is Toibin’s latest book. It’s set in the same Irish location and I’m hoping it will reveal what happened to Eilis.

Spilling the Beans by Clarissa Dickson Wright. Despite her difficult childhood and alcoholism this is an upbeat autobiography, ending on a positive note: “Believe me on one thing: I have a splendidly enjoyable life”. I shall write more about this most enjoyable book.

My favourite book in February is:

23199736

Wreckage by Emily Bleeker because I found it really compelling and a fascinating study of survival plus those secrets just had me guessing all the way through. I’m definitely on the look out for the next book by Emily Bleeker.

Next a couple of books that did not live up to my expectations:

Books I Started but Did Not Finish:

I don’t remember writing about books I started but didn’t finish before as although I often dip into books and decide not to read them, it’s very rare for me to give up on books once I’ve decided to read them.  But it has happened twice in February! And because I’ve read a fair chunk of both them I thought I’d post my thoughts about them. They were both library books.

The first one is The Silkworm by J K Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith, her second book featuring Cormoran Strike. I read the first, The Cuckoo’s Calling, which I liked. However, I wasn’t really enjoying this right from the start. I could cope with the swearing – it wasn’t that.  I thought it was overly detailed, but I read on until I got to the graphic murder scene with the mutilated corpse – and that was just too much for me. I didn’t want that image in my head! I skipped to the end just to find out who did it, but wasn’t tempted to go back and fill in any more details.

For more enthusiastic views see these posts from Litlove and from Thinking in Fragments, both bloggers with whom I usually agree. I appreciate that Galbraith/Rowling is having a go at the publishing world, just as in The Cuckoo’s Calling the celebrity and paparazzi world came in for a drubbing, but I found it just too grotesque and violent for my liking.

And the second book is The Silent Lady by Catherine Cookson, which was one of the Kindle Daily Deal books a while ago. I thought it sounded interesting and borrowed it from my local library. I should have known better because I never liked the TV adaptations of her books and have never been tempted to read her novels. But as I liked her book, Let Me  Make Myself Plain,  which I read years ago, I thought maybe I would like The Silent Lady. I didn’tIt began well as a vagrant asked to see a solicitor (named Alexander Armstrong). She had disappeared over 25 years ago and the novel gradually reveals what had happened to her. Sadly, it got more and more repetitive and maudlin and I lost interest and skipped to the end but found it was just the same mawkish sentimentality.

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

First published in 1857 Barchester Towers, is the second book in Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of  Barchester series, following on from The Warden.

As I began reading this book I was thinking it’s really slow, very much set in its period detailing the religious and ecclesiastical controversies of its time, but then the story of who was going to succeed the old dean, who was going to be the warden, Mr Harding or Mr Quiverful (with his 14 children) and above all who was going to marry Eleanor, Mr Harding’s widowed daughter took hold of me. Not to mention the odious Mr Slope, chaplain to the new Bishop, the ambitious, but hen-pecked Dr. Proudie and his overbearing wife who would dearly like to be the Bishop herself; the Archdeacon Dr Grantly and his wife, Susan Mr Harding’s elder daughter; the Stanhope family including the entrancing cripple, Madeline, ‘a basilisk from whom an ardent lover of beauty could make no escape‘; and the Thornes of Ullathorne.

Barchester Towers provides a view of the class structure of society, in Victorian Britain. Miss Thorne and her brother, the local squire  hold a party, a gala day, inviting all the main characters and the local labourers, their wives and children. The guests are divided according to their place in society – the upper classes and the non-quality were to eat in separate marquees. The question arose as to who should go where amongst the lower class of yokels, with the Lookalofts and the Greenacres. The Lookalofts won’t sit among the bumpkins, nor will Mrs Lookaloft think Mrs Greenacres should sit next to her and talk about cream and ducklings. But neither is she a fit companion to the Thornes and Grantlys – what a dilemma for Miss Thorne! It’s scenes like these that make Barchester Towers such an entertaining novel.

This is a novel strong on character, less strong on plot, with strong female characters, power-hungry men, humour and pathos as the various battles for supremacy are played out. And throughout the book the narrator frequently expresses his opinion on the characters and on the novel itself. Here he describes Obadiah Slope:

I never could endure to shake hands with Mr Slope. A cold, clammy perspiration always exudes from him, the small drops are ever to be seen standing on his brow and his friendly grasp is unpleasant. (page 31)

The characters, however, are not portrayed as wholly good or wholly bad. Here Trollope indicates Mr Slope’s better (if you can call it that) side:

And here the author must beg it to be remembered that Mr Slope was not in all things a bad man. His motives, like those of most men were mixed, and though his conduct was generally different from that which we would wish to praise, it was actuated perhaps as often as that of the majority of the world by a desire to do his duty. (page 146)

He also comments on how he has made his characters withhold the truth from each other, causing such misunderstandings between them:

Everything would have been explained … had she but heard the whole truth … But then where would have been my novel? (page 337)

In his Autobiography Anthony Trollope wrote that he had taken great delight in writing Barchester Towers, the characters of the Bishop and Mrs Proudie were very real to him, as were the troubles of Dr Grantly, the archdeacon and the loves of Mr Slope. As they are to me too.

I thought this statement of his was very interesting:

It [Barchester Towers] achieved no great reputation, but it was one of those novels which novel readers were called upon to read. Perhaps I may be assuming more to myself than I have a right to do in saying now that Barchester Towers has become one of those novels which do not die quite at once, which live and are read for perhaps a quarter of a century; but if that be so, its life has been so far prolonged by the vitality of some of its younger brothers. Barchester Towers would hardly be so well known as it is had there been no Framley Parsonage and no Last Chronicle of Barset. (page 104)

and here we are over 150 years later still reading Barchester Towers.

The next book in the series is Doctor Thorne, which Trollope thought had a good plot and was, he believed, the most popular book he had written. I’m looking forward to reading it.

New-To-Me Books

I took a bagful of books back to Barter Books yesterday and came home with these books:

Christie encyclopedia 01 P1010423From top to bottom

  • Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie – this is one of the few of her books that I have yet to read. I’ve been looking out for this one, first published in 1940. It’s a Poirot mystery in which there are two victims murdered by poison.

As I hope to finish reading Agatha Christie’s books this year I’ve decided to attempt reading as many of Ruth Rendell’s books and those she has written as Barbara Vine:

  • End in Tears by Ruth Rendell – an Inspector Wexford murder mystery in which the victim’s father discovers her body near the family house.
  • The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy by Barbara Vine – in this case a daughter discovers that her perfect father was not all he appeared to be.

Then I browsed the shelves and found the next two books:

  • The Winter Garden by Jane Thynne is set in Berlin in 1937, where Clara Vine, an actress is an undercover agent for British Intelligence.  I thought the author’s name was familiar but couldn’t remember reading any of her books – until I got home and found that I already have Black Roses, the first Clara Vine book (set in 1933),  unread on the black hole that is my Kindle. I’d better read Black Roses first.

and finally:

First Chapter: The Secret Keeper

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

My choice this week is: The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton, a book from my TBR Pile Challenge 2015.

It begins:

Rural England, a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, a summer’s day at the start of the nineteen sixties. The house is unassuming: half-timbered with white paint peeling gently on the western side and clematis scrambling up the plaster. The chimney pots are steaming and you know, just by looking, that there’s something on the stove top beneath. It’s something the way the vegetable patch has been laid out, just so, at the back of the house; the proud gleam of the leadlight windows; the careful patching of the roofing tiles.

A rustic fence hems the house and a wooden gate sparates the tame garden from the meadows on either side, the copse beyond. Through the knotted trees a stream trickles lightly over stones, flitting between sunlight and shadow as it has done for centuries; but it can’t be heard from here. It’s too far away. The house is quite alone, sitting at the end of a long dusty driveway, invisible from the country lane whose name it shares.

I’m immediately attracted to this book from these two opening paragraphs, setting the scene. I can easily paint a picture of it in my mind – I can see it! You know that in such an idyllic setting something is about to happen to upset everything; at least that is what I am anticipating  and I know from the title that there is at least one secret someone is keeping .

I also know from the description on the back cover that this is a book that switches from the 1930s, to the 1960s and the present day, which often works well for me, and that there are not only mysteries and secrets but also murder and enduring love.

Will I like it? LibraryThing thinks I probably will like The Secret Keeper (prediction confidence: very high) – we’ll see.

Heidi’s Cat- Log

H & computerHi, I’m Heidi and Margaret has asked me to fill in for her on her blog as she is busy reading books, rather than writing about them and has lots of other things to do as well. So here I am – looking at the computer screen wondering where to start …

Maybe I should start at the beginning – well when I first came to live with Margaret and David. They rescued me and at first I was very scared and kept trying to hide in boxes, behind furniture and even on the top of wardrobes and tall cupboards.

Now I’m very much at home and love living here. There are lots of nice things and best of all lots of mice in the garden. Mice are Nice, but M & D don’t think so – they say Do Not Bring Mice Into the House – that’s not a Good Thing to do. I don’t really agree. It’s great fun to bring them in and let them run around whilst I stalk them and play with them. Sometimes they won’t play and go very still – and then I can eat them – they’re very tasty.

M & D had a lot of trouble with Mice in the House before I came. They got under the floors and nibble at the lagging on the water pipes and even gnawed the pipes and made holes. The water came out, which no doubt the Mice liked – but then the boiler stopped working and M & D had no hot water and no nice warm radiators.

The other thing that I like is watching the birds. They are like Mice but have Wings and Fly so that I can’t catch them (I have actually caught a few, but not for a very long time). Anyway D has very kindly put some birdseed on the windowsill outside and I can see them eating. It’s fascinating – see this video D did:

That’s enough for today. Maybe Margaret will let me write more Cat-Logs sometime and I can tell you some more.

She says this cat-post is just right for Saturday Snapshots run by Melinda  – you can see more on her blog  West Metro Mommy Reads. 

Book Beginnings: Spilling the Beans

As I have several books on the go right now (listed on the side bar), it will be some time before I can write a full post about any of them. So I thought I give a taster of one of them to be going on with.

It’s Spilling the Beans by Clarissa Dickson Wright, her autobiography. It begins:

I was conceived in a bath in Norfolk in September 1946. How can I know? Well my mother told me. As she put it they were all exhausted after the war and there weren’t that many opportune occasions. I was born in the London Clinic on 24 June 1947 and my first journey in the world was in a London taxi. My mother had become bored waiting for my father to collect us, so she wrapped me in a blanket, went outside, hailed a taxi and took me home, leaving the luggage for my father to pick up later. The only really good advice my mother ever gave me was, ‘If in doubt take a taxi,’ and I have followed it ever since.

Clarissa Dickson Wright was an English celebrity chef – one of the Two Fat Ladies, a television personality, writer, businesswoman, and former barrister. She died last year on 15 March in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Clarissa was a huge character in more than her size! Her autobiography is fascinating, coming from a privileged and wealthy background she had a difficult childhood- her father, a well respected surgeon was also an alcoholic who beat his wife and Clarissa.

I’ve been reading this book slowly over the last few weeks and have read nearly half of it. After her mother died she took comfort from alcohol and at the mid point of the book she was as she described it ‘sunk in gin’ and homeless. I am looking forward to reading about her road to recovery.

Book Beginnings Button

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

The Murder Room by P D James

The Murder Room by P D James is one of the last of the Adam Dalgleish books, first published in 2003 . Although I’ve not read many of the books I’ve watched most (if not all) of the TV adaptations, but I don’t remember watching this one.

The Murder Room itself is in the Dupayne Museum, displaying the most notorious murder cases of the 1920s and 30s, with contemporary newspaper reports of the crimes and trials, photographs and actual exhibits from the scenes of the murders. These were actual crimes and not fictional cases made up by P D James.

The novel  begins, as Commander Adam Dalgleish visits the Dupayne in the company of his friend Conrad Ackroyd who is writing a series of articles on murder as a symbol of its age. A week later the first body is discovered at the Museum and Adam and his colleagues in Scotland Yard’s Special Investigation Squad are called in to investigate the killing, which appears to be a copycat murder of one of the 1930s’ crimes.

The Murder Room is not a quick read. It begins slowly with a detailed description of the main characters and it is only after 150 or so pages that the first murder occurs, so by that time I had a good idea of who might be killed but not of the culprit as many of the characters could all have had the motive and opportunity. There are two more killings before Dalgleish reveals the culprit.

More used to fast paced murder mysteries initially I was impatient with this slow start but soon settled into P D James’ approach and appreciated the depth of the intricate plot. The setting is fascinating and the characters are convincing, so much so that I was hoping the second victim wouldn’t be one of my favourite characters.

The lease on the Museum is up for renewal and not everyone wants it to continue – as one of the characters says:

It’s the past … it’s about dead people and dead years … we’re too obsessed with our past, with hoarding and collecting for the sake of it.

There is the Dupayne family – Marcus and Caroline both actively involved in running the Museum, and their brother Nigel, who is a psychiatrist, and his daughter Sarah; the Museum staff – Muriel Godby in charge of the Museum’s day to day running, Tally Clutton the housekeeper, James Calder-Hale, the curator who used to work for MI5; Marie Strickland, a volunteer calligraphist; and Ryan Archer, the handyman and gardener.

I liked the interaction between Dalgleish and D I Kate Miskin, and between Dalgleish and Emma Lavenham who is finding their relationship increasingly frustrating. I enjoyed the book and found it absorbing and testing of both my powers of deduction and vocabulary.

The 2015 TBR Pile Challenge: February Checkpoint

official tbr challengeIt’s time for the February Checkpoint for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by Adam of Roof Beam Reader.

My Progress: 1 of 12 Completed: The Burning by Jane Casey (on my shelves since 2013)

I also began reading one of the other declared TBR books in my pile – The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower, but have put it back on the bookshelf at least for the time being. I was keen to read this one as it’s been on my shelves for 7 years! But when I began reading I realised why I hadn’t read it before now – it’s written in the third person present tense, which I find awkward, and it’s so confusing working out who the characters are. I hate to say this but I may abandon this book. But there are two alternatives I could substitute for this challenge.

These are the books in my piles:

TBR pile 2015

Adam’s Question of the Month: Since it will be Valentine’s Day weekend when this post goes live, I have to ask: Do you have any “romantic” books on your 2015 TBR challenge list? If so, which ones?! (This could be capital r Romantic, or regular lovey-steamy romantic).

I don’t often choose ‘romantic’ books and I don’t think any of these could fall into that category – maybe The Secret Keeper? It’s described on the back cover as ‘a spellbinding story of mysteries and secrets, murder and enduring love.’ But I doubt ‘romantic love’ comes into it.

I think that could be my next book to read from these piles.

A Walk in the Woods

One day last week we went for a walk. I  was a bright, but cold day and just an ordinary woodland footpath in winter

Footpath P1010397

bare trees and snowdrops in flower:

Snowdrops P1010395

There was no breeze as we went down to the river:

River & hut P1010399

There’s a little hut on the riverside, now unused and peering through the window we could see it was half full of dead leaves.

We carried on through the woodland walking away from the river into a disused little quarry:

Quarry P1010407

and then we came across some strange objects hanging from the bare trees.

Shells and stones:

Shell P1010410

bones (little fish?):

bones P1010408

and then on one side of a tree a toy scarecrow:

Scarecrow P1010412

and on the other a totem:

Totem P1010414

Now I’m wondering – what is it all about? What’s the story?

A book lover writes about this, that and the other