Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Toblethorpe Manor by Carola Dunn

Finding myself recently in need of a very quiet day of convalescence (OH said I must have been ill, because I hadn't read anything for almost 24 hours), I turned to the Kindle in search of something soothing. Happily, an earlier trawl had turned up the information that Carola Dunn, in addition to the Daisy Dalrymple series, was the author of a long list of regency romances. Just the thing, I reckoned.

My first foray into the list, Toblethorpe Manor, did not disappoint. Richard Carstairs, the rather aloof owner of a substantial property in Yorkshire, finds a young woman lying injured on the moors, evidently thrown from her horse, and concussed. Quelling his momentary qualms, he takes her home to his family, where they discover that she remembers nothing of her past. Lady Annabel, Richard's mother, takes to the young woman, however, while his sister Lucy sees Clara Fell, as they call her, as a romantic heroine, probably escaping from nameless Gothic horrors or oppressors. From there the story unfolds in familiar Georgette Heyer style, coach journeys, London season and all.

One of the qualities which Dunn shares with Heyer is the ability to create genuinely likeable people - even the relatively minor characters such as the agent Mr Dennison and his comfortable wife are warm and attractive. The pleasure afforded by the Daisy Dalrymple series is to be found here also, and I'm delighted to have acquired  a new source of comfort reading for those days when it's necessary. If they fall a little short of the deliciousness of Heyer, they still offer the chance of a couple of hours of escape. If you're not being ill then a cup of your favourite tea and a packet of chocolate biscuits should prove an excellent addition.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Murder on the Flying Scotsman by Carola Dunn

I've grown immensely fond of Carola Dunn's Daisy Dalrymple series: they are frothy and light and fun, excellent to read when you want to be with someone you like. Daisy is a thoroughly nice young woman, intent on earning her own living at a time when it was still rather frowned-upon for well-brought up girls to do so. Carola Dunn was born in England but lives in the US, and it's a pity that not all of this long series is available here yet. They're worth reading in order as far as possible, starting with Death at Wentwater Court, the first of Daisy's country-house forays both as journalist and amateur investigator, which introduces the regular characters, including Daisy's reluctant collaborator Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher of Scotland Yard.

Murder on the Flying Scotsman makes a brave attempt at a sense of place, though I got more of that from the last in the series that I read (actually later in chronological order, I think), Dead in the Water, set during Henley Regatta. The Flying Scotsman, as is well-known, travels between London and Scotland (the name applied to the service, but there was also a locomotive of that name), running, in part, up the East Coast of England, with some spectacular views. I've travelled the route regularly since I was five, so I could easily imagine Alec's young daughter Belinda's trips up and down the train, along narrow corridors and through those terrifying intersections between carriages that heaved and rattled and shook their concertina walls like some hideous sphincter intent on engulfing small girls. Dinner on the train always seemed like the height of gracious dining, all crisp white linen and sparkling silverware and, in those far-off days, train crew who always seemed to have a kind word for young travellers, as Belinda's avuncular ticket-inspector does (although he unwittingly frightens her). I feel that Dunn catches the train's atmosphere perfectly - perhaps she was another regular on such journeys, another relic of a time when it was quite usual to walk along when you reached your destination to thank the driver, who was usually delighted to have his locomotive admired.

Not quite as satisfactory, in my view, is the novel's second half, set in my local town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. The descriptions are admittedly accurate enough, and I loved the way the author had evidently woven genuine local newspaper reports of the 1920s into the story, but it lacks the immediacy of the train section. There's a bit too much of the gazetteer about it: ruined castle, Elizabethan walls, King's Bastion and bridge across the street all ticked off, along with Berwick cockles - but of course I smiled at the coldness and surliness of the Berwick Walls Hotel. It must certainly be admitted that Berwick's not the warmest place to live!

The murder story itself is entertaining, a tangle of would-be heirs all vying for the favour of cantankerous old uncles, with lots of bickering and snarling, and the necessary nice young family members for you to warm to, and hope it's not them who are responsible. The central pairing of Daisy and Alec is strong, and they are well-supported by policemen Tom Tring (mature and comfortable, with the wisdom of a long career in the force) and Ernie Piper (all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with nice sharp pencils); I have no doubt, too, that Belinda will feature again in later books. It's becoming evident, too, that the English countryside will provide a broad canvas for Daisy's perambulations, and that there are plenty of quirky places still to draw on: in the next - as could be seen in one of those irritating extracts in the back of the edition I was reading - Daisy will visit Great Malvern, a watering place on the Welsh border. It makes a refreshing change from the frequent focus on one small area (Midsomer, Oxford, etc.). It's all jolly good stuff.

As a postscript, the National Railway Museum in York is currently working on the restoration of the 88-year-old Flying Scotsman 4472, the first locomotive to have been clocked at 100 miles per hour - they have an appeal to raise money for the restoration (they've raised £210,000 of the necessary £250,000). There's lots of information and you can even download a simulator so that you can drive the train on your PC! The Flying Scotsman ran on the London-Edinburgh route until 1963, and I like to think that Daisy and I may have travelled on the same train. The locomotive will pull rail tours again when she is fully restored, so I'll be keeping an eye out for her when I go through York station.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Clerical Errors by D.M. Greenwood

What a delicious discovery! Ostara Publishing (wonderful name!) has a whole list of “clerical crime” so I chose to start with D.M. Greenwood’s Clerical Errors, and I couldn’t be happier. Julia Smith decides to begin her working life as junior secretary to Canon Wheeler, at Medewich Cathedral. Julia’s bright, but young, and ill-qualified, and she’s mystified by the workings of the Anglican church. For me it brings back an earlier life: at around Julia’s age I found myself, with an austere Church of Scotland background, abruptly pitched into the midst of Anglicanism in a cathedral close. For a little more than a year I resisted the lure of ritual, the daily call to evensong, the canons in their red cassocks against the green grass and pale stone – if I hadn’t been living with an atheist my own agnosticism would have been swamped. Unlike Julia, I didn’t find a severed head on my first day (though I did meet a couple of light-fingered clerics over the course of the next year), but nor did I meet the charismatic Theodora Braithwaite, deaconess, for whom I instantly fell. Because it’s a world to which I’m still susceptible, on the page, at least - I adore the in jokes, the ramifications of the church’s workings, the Trollopian dramatis personae ... I lap up clerical crime the way others do school stories.

Canon Wheeler, Julia’s employer, is odious, a bully, an ambitious manipulator. Fortunately, Julia can see through him from the outset, and though her lack of self-confidence won’t allow her to trust her own judgement, she has allies within the cathedral administration, including the redoubtable Theodora. There may be loathsomeness here, but the author also creates characters whose goodness shines, a real reward to the reader. I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to read about truly good people, but if you’re reading this, then I suspect you are probably similarly predisposed.

I read this on Quoodle-the-Kindle, and have another three in the series still to come, which pleases me enormously. My only problem is whether to rush ahead and read them all now, or to intersperse them with others from Ostara's list. If I have a single regret with Clerical Errors it's that I can't enjoy its pleasant cover on my bookshelf.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Aboard the Unstoppable Aerostat Fenris by Cameron Chapman

This is an interesting start to Cameron Chapman's Steam and Steel Chronicles, introducing us to her alternative Edwardian steampunk world on the verge of war. Sixteen-year-old Isabelle has been living rough on the streets of Guryev - for some time, we gather, though we're not sure how she got there, not how she came to lose her parents. It's clear, though, that her upbringing has been respectable and, if she's had to learn to live by her wits, there are very distinct lines that she's been able to draw so far. So she's cautiously grateful when airship captain Stig Rayner offers, against what he thinks is probably his better judgement, to take her home to London, where she hopes to find her brother.

This novella-length first instalment sets up its steampunk environment very effectively - there's a lovely Jules Verne feel to the airship Fenris, for example, you could almost see the brass, and feel the woodgrain of the floor, I immediately wanted scale drawings and cutaways, and to know how the engine worked! There's much potential for exoticism when protagonists are as well-travelled as this pair: Isabelle is familiar with India, we learn, while Stig got his striking tattoo in Borneo. His experience extends to dealing with the Sirens, too, creatures was ethereality belies their predatory nature. As they get closer to their first port of call, the Northern Lights evoke the coldness and clarity and beauty of their airborne world, a contrast to the real fear of pirate attack. And then there's the mysterious cargo...

I'm very pleased to see that Cameron Chapman is already working on the next instalment - there's so much history to discover about her characters, and so much more to explore, and she's created a world I want to immerse myself in (though perhaps I'm glad not to have to try to survive in it myself!). My appetite for airship travel has been whetted and I'm longing to climb back aboard the Fenris. I rather hope the cargo turns up again, too.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Lines to draw you in (for World Book Night)

(Illustration by Johfra Bosschart from  
The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, published by Lectorium Rosicrucianum)

In that part of the world the sky is everywhere, and the entire landscape seems to lie in abasement under its exacting light. It gets into the church towers and between the narrow reeds along the river's edge. It glances across undulant acres of barley and beet, and takes what little the flints have to give. Everything there feels exposed, so keeping secrets is hard. It's not the easiest place in which to hide.

Also, if you don't have a car, it's quite difficult to get about. In fact the journey to Munding was simpler a century ago. These days the train takes you only as far as Norwich, then it's a leisurely bus-ride through some of the roomier parts of the county to the market-place at Saxburgh, and there's still a four-mile walk along the lanes to Munding. Just outside the village you cross the old branch-line: its rails have been scrapped, its sleepers disturbed, and the small halt closed. So much for Victorian progress!

I was in no hurry. Looking down from the bridge at the silent gravel-bed I reflected that the journey across England had been quite long enough to make specific a sense of banishment. By the time I reached the village my defection was complete.

It was a late Spring afternoon in the early '80s. I was 27 then.

(The opening lines from The Chymical Wedding by Lindsay Clarke)