Category Archives: History

A Dark Trade

Mary Hooper, A Dark Trade

Mary Hooper has done what she does so well, which is to take the tales of poor servant girls in the past, and put them in a book that anyone can read. So often this kind of story only comes as an old, fat classic of 500 pages or more, and with small print to boot. Thank you to Barrington Stoke who understand that everyone would want to read this.

In A Dark Trade we meet orphan Gina, who at 16 is ready to leave the cruel orphanage and go to work. In her case a seemingly lovely big house in London in the mid-1800s. But of course it doesn’t work out like that. Big houses, however beautiful, come with their own problems, and in this case it’s a young master with the wrong idea of what a girl servant is for.

Gina makes a run for it, and disguises herself as a boy. But it’s the usual fire and frying pan scenario, and she is no better off as a male shop assistant.

Mary occasionally lets a book end less well than you’d hoped for, so I wasn’t sure what she might have up her sleeve this time. Read the book and find out!

Queen of the Silver Arrow

Caroline Lawrence has written a story to inspire girls that they can do more. Admittedly, the cover features a beautiful girl with a bow and arrow, and I understand that recent films (and the books behind them) have made bows and arrows the thing to have. But why not?

Caroline Lawrence, Queen of the Silver Arrow

This re-working of Virgil’s The Aeneid for Barrington Stoke tells the story of Camilla, who is the Queen of the Silver Arrow. Her father, who’s a King, brought her up in the woods where he fled with his baby daughter, and she learns to be of service to the Goddess Diana.

Camilla’s story becomes well known in the neighbourhood, and Acca who is the same age, dreams of being like her, and so do some of the rich girls in town. Eventually they all meet and Camilla trains the girls to be warriors, something that becomes necessary when the Trojans arrive.

Violent and bloody in parts, it’s still a beautiful piece of history (it was real, wasn’t it?), and as I said, very inspiring for girls. It needn’t all be about getting married. Or at least not without doing something worthwhile first.

Sometimes we all want to be like an Amazon, although perhaps stopping short at baring a breast.

Heartsong

Expect to cry a little again.

Illustrator Jane Ray went to Venice and discovered some facts about a children’s home there in the 18th century. It appears to have been similar to Coram’s in London, where desperate mothers left their babies, who were then farmed out for some years, before returning to the nuns at the hospital.

Jane wanted to do something with the stuff she found but didn’t know what, until she spoke to Kevin Crossley-Holland, who took her scraps and made them into a story about one girl in particular, who lived with the nuns at the time Vivaldi was music teacher there.

Kevin Crossley-Holland and Jane Ray, Heartsong

Laura is eleven and mute. She is musical, but lacks a way of expressing herself until Father Antonio starts to teach her. After a dreadful attempt at playing the viola, Laura finds that the flute is her instrument. It becomes her way of talking.

The children at the home dream of being collected by their mothers one day. Laura’s best friend leaves her behind when her mother comes for her.

But at least she has Father Antonio who is kind and who looks after her, teaching her music and letting her play in his little orchestra. And she has this tune that runs through her head continously…

Very lovely.

Beneath

I was happy when I woke up – yesterday – because I knew I’d be able to finish reading Gill Arbuthnott’s Beneath, which I’d had to abandon as bed beckoned the night before. It had turned out to be more of a one-sitting book than I’d expected.

It’s all about kelpies and wolves, and love. Set somewhere not too impossibly far from Dundee (I think) in 1577, it’s about 15-year-old Jess who lives on a farm with her family, and possibly a little in love with her best friend Freya’s cousin Magnus.

There are two main problems in the area. Small children disappear every now and then. And there are dangerous wolves around, in increasing numbers. Also, Jess feels as if someone is watching her.

Gill Arbuthnott, Beneath

That someone is Finn, who is a kelpie, and he’s been watching Jess for years because he’s in love with her. When he finally decides to steal her, he accidentally takes Freya instead. Boys, eh..?

I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s just say that the two girls and the two boys and their families all end up in the same war against the wolves, and there is much prejudice towards the other side, from both sides. This is fast-paced and funny and romantic (although you can’t work out who Jess will decide on in the end), with plenty of bravery.

It isn’t a terribly historical novel as such; I suspect it needed to be set in the past for simplicity and because of the wolves. But the characters are all quite modern in their ways.

Very exciting, and it’s fun to see how kelpies vary from one work of fiction to another. Also, Finn is such a romantic name…

Rain Dogs

Another mid-January, another Duffy review. This is a tradition I’ll happily keep going for much, much longer. I could have sworn Adrian McKinty intended Duffy to be a trilogy. Or perhaps I only imagined it. Suffice to say, when I opened the package and found the fifth Duffy novel inside, I was one happy witch.

Duffy has just been abandoned by his live-in partner (I had a moment of fear that I’d forgotten someone so significant in his life, but she was new, and is already leaving. Because Duffy is too old…), and he has also just shaken the hand of Muhammad Ali (fictitious, but realistic, visit to Northern Ireland by the great man), when he is faced with his second locked-room mystery. This seems like too much of a coincidence, for one policeman, in such a short time. In Carrickfergus.

It is.

He is up against more evil and cunning criminals. In fact, the murderer is who you’d expect, except it’s so obvious, but you can’t work out how it could be possible. And Duffy continues to look for bombs under his car.

Adrian McKinty, Rain Dogs

Our detective travels to Liverpool and to London, as well as to a snowy Finland where the sea freezes over and the policemen don’t talk. He meets Jimmy Savile, who’s nowhere near as friendly off-camera as he seems on television…

McCrabban is a rock as always, and Lawson, the newbie from last year’s book, looks promising, if only Adrian will let him live.

Towards the very end I feared for Duffy’s safety. I could see how his creator might want to finish him off (despite giving him a cat), but luckily he didn’t, so I live in hope of book six. And perhaps even books ten or twelve?

(For probably the first time in my crime-reading life I could tell how the murderer got out of the locked room.)

Traitor’s Purse

A S Byatt has a lot to answer for. I’ve now come across several reviews of Margery Allingham’s Traitor’s Purse, where the reviewer only read the book after her article in the Guardian last year.

Personally, I wanted to remind myself of the plot, so went to our Allingham shelf to reacquaint myself with the book, only to discover we didn’t have a copy. Hence its appearance on my Christmas wish list, and because it was the only item on the list issued to the Resident IT Consultant, I wasn’t massively surprised to receive a copy. Which, had been my plan all along. [Don’t give them a choice.]

Margery Allingham, Traitor's Purse

It’s been years since I read Margery Allingham’s Campion books. I loved them, and I rather loved him as well, being much more fun than Lord Peter Wimsey. And I obviously would have loved to be Lady Amanda; the girl who decided she was going to marry him.

In Traitor’s Purse, set in 1941, Campion has had a knock on the head and doesn’t even remember her, or his manservant Lugg, or who he himself is, let alone what he’s supposed to be doing. (Saving the country is what.)

Being a man, he doesn’t start asking useful questions like ‘Who am I?’ but sets about quietly grappling with each thing as it comes along. He makes the mistake of thinking Amanda is his wife, and his private fears about maybe losing her are wonderfully described. You take a girl for granted for years and…

This is a great detective trying to solve a puzzle in the dark. He works out who is good and who is bad, and almost what the problem is, but hasn’t got a clue what to do.

After this long away from Campion’s world, I noticed the social aspects much more. But it’s a marvellous story and the writing is as good as ever, and you have to overlook the fact that occasionally the upper classes are portrayed as more reliable than the rest of us. It’s the way it was.

But behind it all is the usual humour and courage and an exciting plot. ‘Good lord, he could climb like a cat!’ This is a handy discovery when you are forced to flee over the rooftops. Most of us will already know whether a route like that is likely to be successful, but Campion hasn’t got any idea of what he can and can’t do. He just knows he has to try.

My thanks to A S Byatt. I hadn’t read this one, and I’m so glad I did. Might be time to return to more old diamonds.

Borders

What is the world coming to? I know I’m succumbing to nimby-ism when I am more interested in what the Danes and the Swedes get up to along their shared border, rather than the more serious issues elsewhere in the world. But somehow abandoning ID-free travel between the Nordic countries feels wrong. It has been special; something to take for granted, because we are such nice and sensible people.

And then it turns out that some Swedes had the ‘wrong’ ID cards to be allowed* to travel back to Sweden. (Well, they didn’t. It was a case of careless list-making by the authorities.)

It makes me think of when the 15-year-old Mother-of-witch travelled to Norway in 1939. No passport-free crossings then. And she had no passport. The family didn’t have the money to travel that far, either.

What they did have was Grandfather-of-witch. He worked for the railway, in a most menial position. But they got free travel, so the family went all the way to the far north of Sweden for free, sleeping sitting up in third class, on wooden seats. And when they were there, they made a daytrip to Norway. My Grandfather simply told the border guards that he was a Swedish railwayman, and this was his family, and in they went.

I’m guessing that back then, being a railwayman was a pretty good and proper thing to be, and stating the fact was enough.

It was a different world back then. I do understand that. It’s the sense of honour in a man making a statement and being believed and being welcomed that makes me happy.

I once almost experienced something similar, travelling on the London tube. I needed to buy a ticket for Offspring and me, but for some reason we couldn’t get exactly what I’d had in mind, so 14-year-old Son needed to pay for an adult ticket as we didn’t have proof of age with us on our day trip. The rather scary West Indian ticketseller lady enquired if I was his mother. I said I was, and she said in that case she was satisfied.

So sometimes being a mother is as good as working for the railway. (Perhaps I should have mentioned my Grandfather to her.)

*Makes me think of the old Danish saying that a good deed for the day would be to accompany a Swede to the ferry [back to Sweden]. Just to get rid of one more tiresome drunk.