I’m not really sure how to categorise this book so I’ll simply say that as a tale of childhood with all the grim realities of adults misunderstanding you the poverty of life driven to the edges by the magical world that only children can create and yet realism seeps through as an adult watches the world filtered through the eyes of children.
Iffy, Bessie, Fatty and Billy live in a small welsh village, the sort that those of us who grew up as late as the seventies can recognise as being every and any small town. There are the local characters, the woman swapping gossip and keeping secrets and the men who roar in the background. There is the local haunted house, I have yet to find a child yet who was free to roam who didn’t have the local haunted house, the graveyards and the like to give themselves a jolly good scare each and every time boredom threatened.
The our children play in the remote town, in the shadow of the pits, in the long hot summer of 1963. They find a garden full of dancing statues, they peer into mad Carty Annie’s wares and they visit the shopkeeper for the sweets that they will suck so hard that they cause burns on their tongues. As the heat rises they are rained on by frogs and they find a skull and they find a jar full of angels. But what does it all mean, if anything? And then by the end of the summer just three of the four children remain, one is missing.
Thirty years later Will Sloane one of the policemen who searched for the missing child, returns to the town. Over the years he has been haunted, as policemen often are, by the case that was never solved. The clues that he is able to uncover lead to interlocking mysteries that beg to be unravelled but it is up to our retired detective to find the right key.
The story itself is everything a mystery story should be, but what lifts this tale head and shoulders above others is the lyrical prose and its powerful evocation of a world not yet forgotten but now I fear out of reach. It is a world that lends itself to the unsaid, the rampaging gossip counteracted by secrets kept well hidden, the adults barely alluding to the terrible things that they know.
Although I didn’t grow up in the Wales, I did spend my formative years just across the boarder albeit at least a decade later than when this story is set. Rarely have I read a book where the children are so well portrayed, so much so that it took me back to my childhood, the excitement at the start of the summer, the adventures that we would have, real or imagined and the characters that played their part in the experience. There were the predictable yells to come home for dinner, to adults wholly unconcerned with how your day had been spent their lives working to a different rhythm full of gossip and sighs and of course those adults who you stayed clear of, the reason to do seldom voiced, its knowledge spread almost by osmosis.
Babs Horton has created a very special book in A Jarful of Angels, one that transcends any real genre and one that means that her brilliantly created characters came to life through her magical prose.
First Published UK: 2013
Publisher: Babs Horton
No of Pages: 292
Genre: Crime Fiction Amazon UK Amazon US
Nina Bawden published 23 adult novels and 20 children’s books in a career that spanned five decades stepped into my life as a child with her book The Peppermint Pig which won 1976 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, a once-in-a-lifetime book award judged by a panel of British children’s writers. When was a little older her book about children evacuated to Wales imprinted itself equally and Carrie’s War became a huge favourite of mine. I didn’t write book reviews as a child but if I had done, I would have said that these two books truly transported me back in time, to vivid places with characters that I would never forget. Would The Solitary Child have the same effect, in short, I believe so the story so searingly and at times baldly stated means that Harriet’s choices will take a long time to dissipate.
The Solitary Child is an intensely claustrophobic novel which from what I can work out is set around the time it was first published in 1958, certainly after the war but long before it was conceivable that any female would consider a life without a husband a good route to choose in life!
The book revolves around Harriet, just twenty-two when she becomes engaged to James Random after knowing him for just a couple of weeks. James is a rich farmer who lives on the Welsh Boarders, older than Harriet and with the inconvenient dead wife in the background which we soon learn died in circumstances weren’t altogether respectable. The pair had met at a party:
There seemed to be no other way of meeting people in London; each chance invitation was a gateway to a less restricted future.
James did not hide the fact of his wife Eve’s death from Harriet, after leaving the party they went to a little pub where he told her.
But at the time I was appalled. Not entirely by the story because that seemed – at the time, anyway – to be almost unbelievable, but by his blurting it out so clumsily and publicly to me, a stranger. For a little time I though he was boasting, dragging in the unsavoury past as a kind of shabby success.
Harriet as the swift engagement shows, wasn’t overly put off though, the obsession with the first Mrs Random coming later when she moves to the farm and finds herself in amongst those who knew the couple, and their daughter Maggie. The farm is run by Mr Evans whose wife helps out in the house with her own daughter who has a child, yet no husband. James’ sister lives next door and the tension between these characters neatly bubbles beneath the surface – no shouty arguments for this bunch instead it is constrained but no less heartfelt for that.
It was not a new issue, merely a renewal of old anger. Looking on, I was aware of an enmity which astonished, not because of its sudden violence but because they had managed to keep it hidden until now.
With only a few years between them Harriet soon comes to love Maggie who although young for her age gives Harriet someone to focus on while her doubts about her husband grow as she’s exposed in small ways to what those who live nearby and those who work for him really think. Harriet is trapped in a life she isn’t prepared for and so the tension grows as her mind worries over the past. At one point the doctor is called and depressingly reflects the times:
They were talking. The singing in my ears was less loud and I could hear fragments of their conversation. “Illness… some degree of hysteria… not uncommon.”
Of course the finale arrives and Harriet does eventually find out the truth of Eve Random’s demise which left me with a strong feeling of disquiet. In part this is precisely because the book reflects the time of when it was written, indeed the publishers Bello makes a point that:
Some aspects may appear out of date to modern day readers. Bello makes no apology for this, as to retrospectively change any content would be anachronistic and undermine the authenticity of the original.
I know that this review hints rather than says anything concrete about the book itself but I can confirm that the theme of a woman haunted by a previous wife whilst not a new one has a slightly different twist to it in this enjoyable yet miserable read.
The Solitary Child was my twenty-seventh read in the Mount TBR challenge, having been purchased in March 2015 after reading HEAVENALI’s wonderful review.
First Published UK: 1958
No. of Pages: 234
Genre: Contemporary Fiction Amazon UK Amazon US
This week I am delighted to say we are putting we are adding a book on the map to Wales – Ireland we need your entries urgently and I know that there are loads of fantastic authors and bloggers in Ireland!!
Anyway Wales, or to be precise, Pembrokeshire is the setting for Thorne Moore’s book A Time For Silence which Booker Talk nominated for a spot on the map. It is always particularly lovely to feature a blogger I’ve followed for many years, and I was thrilled that Booker Talk kindly offered her time to post here. I think you’ll agree that Booker Talk’s love of the region shines through in this joint post along with that of the author of this superb novel. Thorne Moore kindly supplied the photos, I particularly love the one of the cottage, the inspiration for the novel!
Although I lived on the border of England and Wales as a child and spent many holidays in Wales, I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever visited Pembrokeshire so I’m handing the geography part in the capable hands of Booker Talk.
Today The Book on the Map is set in Pembrokeshire, Wales. For those of you who were not paying attention in your geography classes, this area is to the south west of the UK, just across the sea from Ireland. It’s renowned for the beauty of its coastline with high cliffs teeming with wildlife dropping down onto small bays of golden sand, while inland the Preseli Hills (where the stones used to build Stonehenge were quarried) give way to verdant valleys. If the scenery looks a little familiar it’s because Pembrokeshire has been used extensively as a film location – most recently by the team behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Pembrokeshire is significant too for its historical connections – this was where Henry Tudor landed as he began his campaign to seize the crown and establish the Tudor dynasty.
This is where I go when I want an escape from a frantic work schedule. I’ve walked the coastal path, explored the many ruined castles dating from the 12th century and savoured the local produce. And then I go home refreshed.
But before I get carried away extolling this part of my country and sounding too much like a sales rep for the Pembrokeshire tourist board, lets get back to the book.
A Time for Silence traces a woman’s quest to uncover the history of her grandparents Gwen and Jack who once lived in a remote farmhouse in Pembrokeshire. Sarah’s romanticised view of their lives is however turned upside down the more she delves into the past. Interest turns into an obsession which threatens to destabilise this woman who is already struggling to deal with feelings of guilt about the death of a friend. The novel is told as a dual-time narrative which switches between the mid twentieth century and present day. It’s the debut novel by Thorne Moore.
Although originally from the London area, Thorne Moore’s connection with Wales dates from her time as a history student at the University of Wales in Abertystwyth. She now lives in a Victorian farmhouse in Pembrokeshire in west Wales where she divides her time between writing and her craft business.
Let me hand you over to Thorne to tell us about herself and her love of Pembrokeshire
My mother’s family comes from Pembrokeshire, but I grew up in Luton, which is loud, busy, crowded and industrial. Luton always felt like a town which didn’t care to acknowledge history. Anything old was swept away, buried under rampantly modern development.
When I moved to Pembrokeshire in 1983, the contrast couldn’t be greater. Here, history is inescapable. The land wears it, visibly. The hills are littered with Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Dark age legacies. There are castles, cathedrals, and ruins in plenty, as well as the site of the last invasion of Britain (1797). In 1983, when I moved here, history was a living thing. My new local paper was dedicated to magistrates’ court reports and chapel funerals, with a full list of floral tributes. The High Streets had a hardware store, where washers and cup hooks were carefully counted out from rows of tiny oak drawers, and a dimly lit haberdashers, where a little old lady in mittens would emerge from behind curtains to exhibit her delicately hand-embroidered handkerchief collection. Cafés shut for lunch. The town became impassable on cattle-market day. I had stepped at least fifty years back in time.
I had also moved fifty miles away from anywhere. From Carmarthen, you’re on the slip road to the M4 motorway; Cardiff; London; the world. But first get to Carmarthen, across hills on minor roads blocked with snow in winter and silage wagons in summer. Even now, in 2017, there’s a sense of timeless isolation in North Pembrokeshire, although nowhere is really isolated any more, thanks to the internet. We do have broadband. Very slow broadband. We do have mobile phones, which can, sometimes, pick up a signal of sorts. The little shops have been replaced by supermarket chains. But even now there is still a sense of living in a closed world.
The isolated nature of North Pembrokeshire inspired my first novel, A Time For Silence. Can a secret could be kept by a community? I was told of one such secret, shared and kept for decades. How could it have been kept a secret, I wondered? It wouldn’t have been possible on the housing estate where I grew up, but here, where rural parishes could keep themselves to themselves, of course it had been possible.
Another inspiration was an abandoned cottage. They were two a penny here until the demand for holiday cottages exploded. This one was just 100 yards from my garden, and almost impossible to reach without sinking in mud or being shredded on brambles. Today it is being restored, but when I first came upon it, it was forgotten, deep in trees. Peering through the windows, I could see two small rooms, with an inglenook fireplace in which a rusty old kettle had been abandoned, and a collapsed upper floor. Who had lived there? What life had been like? The inspiration was doubled when I considered that my maternal family had come from the area and had probably lived in something very similar.
My book also makes use of another inescapable aspect of the area. Language. Pembrokeshire is sometimes called Little England Beyond Wales, but that is the south of the county, which has been Anglicised for centuries. The north has remained defiantly Welsh.
My present-day heroine, Sarah, had Welsh grandparents, but she is totally English and doesn’t speak a word of their native language. She comes across the cottage where they’d lived, and discovers a dark secret which she is determined to investigate. She imagines their lives to have been a quaint, rural idyll. It is because she is so utterly separated from them by time, culture, economics, language, religion and social expectations, that the truth eludes her when she delves into her family history.
I think, perhaps, I could have set the story in isolated communities elsewhere – in the fens, perhaps, or up on the Pennines, but I would not have had the extra mystification of language to add to the mix. It helps make this area ideal for my speciality, domestic noir. It’s all very domestic. And it can be very noir.
It seems the plot of A Time for Silence was inspired by a real life event. Can you tell us more about that?
There were two events, and going into them in detail would give the whole plot away. I was told of something that had happened, years ago, at a cottage in the vicinity. Everyone knew what had happened. Everyone, including the police, knew who was responsible, but nothing was done. No action was taken. I was intrigued by the idea of a tight little community closing ranks so completely. Whether the story is true or not, I have no idea. I was trying (and failing) to find some record of it in old copies of the local newspaper, when I came across another story – a court report from the 1950s, in which a young girl was on trial for the heinous crime of attempting suicide. When the magistrates asked her why she had done such a wicked thing, she “made allegations of a serious nature,” which everyone decided, on the surface, to disbelieve. She was packed off to Approved School in punishment, but between the lines I picked up a sense that by removing her from her home, the authorities were really trying to address a problem without openly acknowledging it. I wanted to shout “Listen to her!” But they couldn’t, because it would undermine their world.
There is a very strong sense in your book of the small rural community you call Cemaes. This is where the grandparents had their small-holding. Does Cemaes exist or is a product of your imagination?
If you drive north, from Haverfordwest, over the Preseli hills, you come to a high pass from which, suddenly, you see North Pembrokeshire, all tiny ancient fields, forests, moorland and deep valleys, with scattered hamlets and miniature marooned churches. It’s a very unique place, quite different to the land south and east of the hills and I call it Cemaes because why not? It has a suitably antique feel to it. Cemaes – or Cemais, or Kemys – was an old Hundred, or Cantref in North Pembrokeshire and there is still a Cemaes headland.
How important was the setting to you in the novel? For example did you consciously try to draw attention to the location in certain scenes, or was it more a background inspiration for you?
The setting was important because it is so isolated, so self-contained. I did have specific locations in my mind for some of the places in the book, such as the cottage, Cwmderwen, and I mention places like Fishguard as reference points, but otherwise it’s set in fictional places that are an amalgam of this and that around the area. I invented the market town of Penbryn, which draws bits and pieces from Crymych, Newcastle Emlyn and Cardigan, but I’m very vague about where exactly it is. I named it Penbryn because I assumed there would be so many Penbryns no-one would be able to identify it. It turns out there is only one Penbryn, which is nothing like my fictional one. Ah well.
What has been the reaction from local people to your depiction of their community? Do they recognise themselves and their community in your novel?
I had my heart very much in my mouth when A Time For Silence was first published, terrified that local people would immediately attack me for painting a false or negative picture. So far, fingers crossed, no one has objected. I did draw heavily on stories people had told me about life in the area and I ploughed through many volumes of old newspapers, to get a feel for how it was, but I still thought people might find my descriptions a bit Gothic. I was surprised, and moved, when several elderly readers told me they recognised their own childhood world in my book. More than moved when one told me she had lived through very similar experiences.
Your second novel Motherlove is also located in Pembrokeshire. What is it about this part of the world that inspires you?
A lot of Motherlove happens a long way from Pembrokeshire, but I think my use of two locations illustrates precisely what inspires me here. The story is about two girls, one, repressed angry Vicky living on a claustrophobic council estate in Lyford, which is my fictional version of Luton, and the other is perfectly contented hippy-child Kelly, living on a small-holding in the Preselis with a couple of goats. Life here can be very liberating – if it’s your choice. There are no real towns so there are no urban pressures. There are very different rural ones instead.
How have you been influenced by other writers in your use of the spirit of the place?
I don’t know that I have been influenced consciously by any other recent writers, but I suppose you could say I’m ever so slightly influenced by the author(s) of the Mabinogion – Mediaeval retellings of pre-Christian myths. This is the area where Pwyll Lord of Dyfed goes hunting and finds himself ruling the Otherworld for a year, where horse-goddesses marry mortals, where warriors live on an island for 80 years with a talking head, where white boars lead you into enchanted mists. This sort of thing doesn’t happen in Luton.
Thank you Booker Talk and Thorne Moore for a fascinating piece on A Time For Silence and Pembrokeshire – I loved the book and since this feature I’ve started it has made me realise just how much authors use their surroundings, varied as they all are, to inspire the novels they write.
I was introduced to this book by BookerTalk who has written a great piece along with the author Thorne Moore for the Put A Book on the Map feature which will be posted on Saturday. Now while I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’m a keen genealogist, I have traced my family back a few generations and for me the joy isn’t in collecting lots of names and dates, it is building a picture of the women (I’m far more interested in them than the men) and their lives through the facts I’ve been able to glean. These weren’t famous or rich women, they were mainly domestic servants who married men of their class and had lots (and lots) of children. My predecessors had a very different life to the one I lead but I like to think that behind the facts they had the drive that led my Grandmother and one of her sisters to take advantage of the times and push their way up the social ladder. In A Time For Silence we meet Sarah who finds the derelict farmhouse her Grandparents lived in and decides to probe what happened to the family in Cwmderwen, Pembrokeshire.
Sarah has her life mapped out in front of her, engaged to be married and having given up on her dreams to be a singer following the death of a close friend. Sarah is under pressure from a pushy mother-in-law to be, and when she takes a trip to Pembrokeshire she does a bit of digging and finds the farmhouse that her Grandparents lived in. Sarah has a romantic view of life and she is horrified to find that her Grandfather John had been killed ‘by person or persons unknown’ following the Second World War. Sarah decides she needs to know more and sets about interrogating her Grandmother’s sister to find out more. But the silence kept for so many years isn’t easily going to be broken by a nosy young woman!
The construct of this book is particularly brilliant because we hear from Gwen about life in the remote farmhouse, about her marriage, her father and sister and her children through her eyes from the time she sets foot in Cwmderwen. We know what happens there while we watch Sarah follow blind alleys and incorrect assumptions in the future. Gwen’s story is easily the most captivating made even more shocking by her understated narrative. A book that so accurately evokes a time eloquently capturing the unwritten rules that governed generations which from a contemporary point of view are almost impossible to comprehend. Sarah has no such compunction eager to knock down the walls of silence that have covered up the wrongful death of John and changed the course of the family as they moved away from Pembrokeshire.
Thorne Moore not only captured the time but the place is also bought vividly to life through her writing, with the little Welsh town and the Spartan farmhouse easily imagined both by the reader and Sarah, as having bought it as a holiday home she works to restore it to its imagined former glory complete with heavy Welsh dresser in the kitchen.
This was such an unexpected read, far more emotionally charged and the story in the past far darker than I’d anticipated but beautifully told, this really did have me captivated. Although I found Sarah’s story slightly less compelling, it is the contrast between the two women’s lives just a couple of generations apart that is so very powerful.
First Published UK: 18 October 2012
Publisher: Honno Welsh Women’s Press
No of Pages: 400
Genre: Historical Fiction Amazon UK Amazon US
I really enjoyed Hidden by this author and pondered over both the plot and its execution so I was really keen to read her debut novel Falling which was published last year.
This book opens with us meeting Cecilia Williams a flight attendant based in Wales, a place she never intended returning to. That very morning she had packed her bags leaving her husband and young son. Without a backward glance, convinced she has made the right choice she prepares to board the flight, directing the passengers to their seats before take-off. And then both passengers, crew are in the terrifying scenario of a plane falling from the sky. As the plane comes to settle on a snowy hillside torn in two with only a handful of survivors, everything has changed, or has it?
Parallel to this story is that of retired Police officer Jim who on visiting his daughter’s home finds her missing. Jim visits the police station hoping to find his old friends and is instead confronted by a board duty officer more interested in his phone that taking down the details or being remotely interested in the disappearance of Libby, a Community Support Officer. Once the crime is finally reported the man who leads the investigation into her disappearance is Cecilia’s husband Tom.
We also hear from Freya, the daughter of the deceased pilot where she reflects on her life with a rather distant father yet at the same time supporting her younger brother and her distraught mother. There are secrets in this family too, some better hidden than others.
This book is populated by a wide selection of characters, some more likeable than others. I found it difficult to sympathise with Cecilia in particular but as the storyline progressed I came to understand, if not like her. But these characters don’t act in isolation they all have relationships with others and sometimes crossover between the individual stories that I found myself immersed in. Like the characters the relationships cover the range, from close and caring to distant and remote with a scattering in-between. The relationship between Tom and Jim was both authentic and touching, a lovely touch that is often overlooked in this genre of books. The richness of both characters and plots didn’t fail to engage me and I was desperate to piece together all the various elements.
And then there is a setting which in the depth of winter, those cold days that are currently thankfully behind us, gives an added chill to the various mysteries that populate the pages of this intriguing and fresh feeling novel.
This book is multi-layered, complex and deals with difficult issues but it does it so very well. The different viewpoints give a depth to the stories being told and lifts what could be one very confusing sets of episodes into a tautly and engaging read. It is billed as a psychological thriller and the psychological element is definitely present, I’m not quite so sure it fits into the thriller genre being one of those books to ponder over rather than one that gets your heart racing.
I’d like to thank the publishers Landmark who are publishing this book in the US under the title After We Fall on 2 June 2015, for allowing me to read this book in return for an honest review.
On August 31 at 10:33 am at a Welsh hospital there is a shooting. This opening description isn’t for the faint-hearted, it was all too easily visualised thanks to Charlie’s detailed reporting, but then she is a reporter on the local paper. Amongst the casualties are a few familiar faces to Charlie.
Emma Kavangh has managed to create a complicated structure that actually works. With the story told from the number of days preceding ‘the shooting’ from different character’s viewpoints it does sound like a nightmare to navigate, but once I realised that the timeline wasn’t chronological, the earliest date six days before the shooting, beyond a brief reminder of what part of the story was being told and by whom, which is clearly signposted at the start of each chapter, it was remarkably straightforward. Nor did knowing the ending at the beginning ruin the tension, Emma Kavanagh keeps the identity of the shooter under wraps despite some of the tale being told from his viewpoint.
Did I guess the identity? Not on your Nelly! I had been far too busy chasing several of the well-placed red herrings. If a shooting wasn’t enough there is another big mystery and that is what happened to Charlie’s friend Emily who had recently been found dead on the M4, the police suspect that she’d wandered onto the motorway whilst drunk but Charlie suspects his death may be linked to a boy who is in a coma in Ward 12 of the hospital. Using her skills as an investigative journalist she sets out to uncover the truth. The other narrators to the story are Imogen, half of a twin and a psychologist at the hospital and Aden who is a member of the armed police tracking the shooter who had been spotted at the hospital days before the shooting. The main characters are all linked to each other, some more tenuously than others and just in case there isn’t enough to concentrate on the author gives us a few detailed sub-plots to follow too.
Emma Kavanagh was a police and military psychologist for a number of years and unsurprisingly this is evident with the psychology of dealing with extreme situations featuring strongly during the storyline. My preference is for the psychological thrillers I read to be based on real-life situations and for that reason I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to read about a gunman which fortunately doesn’t feature in my life, but the author’s background made understanding how the firearms officers act and feel far more accessible than I expected. I really enjoyed this read with the only mild criticism being some over-blown writing in some parts which isn’t helped by the repetition of some of the phrases which added to the constant changing of character, time and sometimes the tense of the writing, most of which is written in the first person present tense, meant that this book could easily have tipped into the plain confusing rather than the satisfying read I found it to be.
I received a free copy of this tense, complicated but ultimately satisfying psychological thriller from Amazon Vine in return for my honest opinion. Hidden will be published on 23 April 2015. I am now going to read this author’s debut novel Falling that received many rave reviews last year.