#Friday Favourites: War in the Val d’Orcia by Iris Origo

War in Val d'Orcia


I’d never heard of this book or the author and am indebted to my friend Heather for introducing me to both.  Looking at the title and reading “An Italian Diary 1943-1944” I was half inclined to leaving it on my to-be-read pile. I’ve read enough harrowing accounts of war not to be particularly inclined to start on another, but there was something about Italian landscape on the cover which drew in me.

I was also intrigued to read that the book was a factual account of those years and had been hidden buried in tin boxes along with the writer’s jewellery to hide it from the retreating German army.

Reading a diary, the expectation is of an emotional life laid bare. “War in the Val d’Orcia” is not like that. The style is sparse, very matter of fact. Talking about a very sick young man Iris Origo writes

“We discuss what is best for him. What he needs is proper nursing at the clinic, but he is at the crossroads, the first place the Germans would search. In the end we decide to leave him where he is.

“And so I go to bed, my heart full of the murdered workmen and the young partisan, who soon must die.”

If this sounds dry, then it belies the courage it took to harbour wounded soldiers, escaped prisoners as well as over twenty refugee children, all the time knowing that if they were caught Iris and her husband could be shot. But even though they had two very young daughters they felt they could not abandon anyone who came to them for help. Together Iris and her husband, Antonio, fed, clothed and interceded with the Germans on behalf of desperate people, who had nowhere else to turn.

Throughout it all, Iris is conscious of how the Italians are being perceived by the rest of the allies and is keen to put the record straight. This and the history of that part of WW2 was new to me.

Shadows On The GrassAlthough I had a lot of research into that period for “Shadows on the Grass” I knew next to nothing about the war in southern Europe. I had no idea, for example,  about the number of political factions and their various stances on surrendering to the allied forces, or continuing to fight with their Nazi allies, nor of the complete exhaustion of the general population who could only hope that the long drawn out campaign would soon be over.

The book was a fascinating insight into a short period of history. More diaries have recently been discovered and I look forward to reading them too.

Thank you Heather.



Friday Favourites: Earthly Remains #Donna Leon

Earthly remains“Granted leave from the Questura, Commissario Guido Brunetti decides to finally take a well-earned break and visit Sant’Erasmo, one of the largest islands in the Venetian laguna.

The recuperative satay goes according to play until Davide Casati, the mysterious caretaker of the villa Brunetti has been staying in, goes missing following a sudden storm. Nobody can find him….

Convinced that this was no accident, Brunetti feels compelled to set aside his holiday and discover what happened to the man who had recently become his friend.”

Donna Leon is one of my favourite crime writers. If indeed she can be categorised as such. In my opinion her books are literary novels. There is always a crime, but that is secondary to the depiction of character, the themes of the book and her portrayal of Venice. We see the city in all its moods, whether at the height of summer, when it is thronged by tourists, as in “Earthly remains”, or in winter when aqua alta means that the inhabitants have to make their way over duckboards to avoid being swamped by the rising water.

Because the books are written from Brunetti’s point of view, you can see and smell and hear the city, its food and the people who live there.

Brunetti is not your usual angst ridden detective with a dysfunctional private life. He is a man who enjoys living and has a good relationship with his wife Paola and his teenage children. Family life is not always smooth, but Brunetti knows how important his family is to him and he to them.

You also get a keen sense of the hierarchy of the city, Paola comes from an aristocratic family while Brunetti is solidly working class, and of the corruption of Italian politics, both local and national.

Increasingly too Donna Leon has dealt with environmental issues, such as the polluting of the laguna and rising of sea levels that threaten the very existence of her beloved city.

If you don’t know her books, then I cannot recommend them strongly enough. Go buy, read and enjoy.

#Friday Favourites: Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

Birdcage Walk.“Birdcage Walk” is a novel I have wanted to read it since it came out. Then my mum lent me her copy and a few days later, when Mike was shopping, he rang me from the supermarket to ask if I wanted him to buy it for me.

I wish now that I had said yes, as this is a book that I would definitely want to keep. Not only is it set in Bristol, one of my favourite cities, but I know Birdcage walk well, as it is close to where I went to school. The path through the disused graveyard sparked my short story “Angels’ Wings” and like Helen Dunmore, the city and its history, have inspired a number of my novels, particularly “House of Shadows”.

“Birdcage Walk”, however, has a depth and quality to which I can only aspire. It tells the story of an unknown woman writer, Julia Fawkes, well known in her lifetime for her radical views, but now completely unknown. Nothing she wrote has survived, which gives rise to the question of what writers, especially women, can expect to leave behind them.

Julia is mourned by her daughter Lizzie and it is through her eyes that we see the world of radical thinkers to which Julia and her circle belong and the way in which they struggle with the moral and ethical consequences of the French Revolution.

Lizzie has removed herself form their circle, to marry a man, whose values are in complete opposition of her mother and stepfather. At first totally in love with Diver, she gradually begins to see that there is a darkness in her husband, which will threaten everything she knows and loves.

The gradually rise in tension is almost unbearable. The details of eighteenth century life vivid, yet unobtrusive, the images of the terrace of houses rising up above the Gorge, symbolic of the themes of the novel.

The book is at once a psychological thriller, a historical novel and a treatise on legacy and loss. What makes it all the more poignant is that this is Helen Dunmore’s last novel. In the Afterword, she writes,

“The question of what is left behind by a life haunts the novel. While I finished and edited it I was already seriously ill, but not yet aware of this. I suppose that a writer’s creative self must have access to knowledge of which the conscious mind and the emotions are still ignorant, and that a novel written at such a time, under such a growing shadow, cannot help being full of a sharper light, rather as a landscape becomes brilliantly distinct in the last sunlight before a story.”

Helen Dunmore died in June 2017.




#Friday Favourites: The Riddle-Master’s Game by Patricia A McKillip

The Riddle-Master's GameMy choice this week is by an author who is new to me. To my shame I’d never heard of Patricia A. McKillip, nor of her trilogy “The Riddle-Master’s Game.”

The first of the three books “The Riddle Master of Hed” was published in 1976 and the other two novels “Heir of Sea and Fire” and “Harpist in the Wind”, followed in 1977 and 1979. I, however, read all three in the same volume and what a treat that was.

The writing is beautiful; both vivid and poetic, it creates a totally believable world, where magic exists in parallel to mundane daily life, cattle are milked, pigs herded and shape changed, by those who have the power.

With a rich layer of myth and legend, which harks back to Celtic origins the novels explore the truth of things, the importance of knowing who you are and following your destiny. Hence the part that riddles play in the plot, because riddle can conceal and reveal meaning and decoding them is a gift which brings with it unknown dangers.

To question, is to upset the balance of things, but Morgon, Prince of Hed, is a riddle master and cannot help but seek to find the truth, even though it leads him where he does not want to go.

The Princess Raederle is also in conflict with what she knows and what she fears. The two are destined to be together. There is a prophecy that they will marry, but how and when is far from clear.

The first book follows Morgon’s story, the second Raederle’s and they come together in the last volume, where they face far more fundamental questions about the nature and very existence of the High One on whom the survival of the world appears to rely.

I love this mix of seriousness with domestic scenes and the mysterious beauty of the white vesta and the depiction of the court of the wolf king where wild animals come to shelter from the winter.

What also appeals are the strong women characters, Raederle herself and Morgon’s

Friday Favourites: Fables and Fabrications by Jan Edwards

Fables and Fabrications

I love spooky stories, the shiver that slides up my back at any hint of the supernatural, the feeling of unease that lingers long after the film is over, or the book has been closed. Given the popularity of the genre, I know I am not alone, but it sometimes hard to find a good anthology of ghost/weird tales, which is why “Fables and Fabrications” by Jan Edwards, is one my favourite collections.

Jan is a subtle writer. No sudden shock horror in her books, just a gradual built up of tension that leads, inevitably, to an ending that might surprise, but which always feels right. Her stories often have an undertone of myth or legend that add depth to the narrative. Norse, in the case of “Grey Magic for Cat Lovers,” Classical, for “Mayday Come Askew,” and Celtic in “Winter Eve.”

My favourite story in the collection, however, references Eastern Mythology. “Pet Therapy” is truly chilling. It deals with death and sprits who steal souls and is one of those stories that, even having read it a number of times, I still wish, for the sake of the main character, had ended differently.

But then, if it had, it would not have been included in this collection.

If you want a good read for October, “Fables and Fabrications” is on special offer on Amazon. To get it while you can, click here

#Friday Favourites: The Lost Words

Lost Words

This is one of the most beautiful and magical books I have seen. Working from the premise that children, in our increasingly urbanised, society are losing the words for birds and plants, Robert Macfarlane has conjured up a book of spells to find and restore the lost words.

Although he says that he is not a poet, the language is lyrical and compelling. My favourite being the song of the Willow which is both mesmerising and sinister. The writer asks,

“Willow, when the wind blows so your branches billow

O will you whisper while we listen so we learn what

Words your long leaves loosen?”

The Willow however, replies

“You will never know a word of willow for we are willow

And you are not.”

Nature may be beautiful but it has and will keep its secrets.

Illustrated on the next page, the darkness of the trees, the uneasy sky, all add depth to the perception of willows as trees linked with sadness and death.

Powerful as the words are, they are only part of the whole. Integral to the book are the illustrations, by Jackie Morris. Spaces where there should be pictures underline the theme of lost, letters are scattered through the pages to be followed by a glorious illustration of what has been found and restored.

The paintings alone are wondrous and together with the text create a book to keep and hand down through the generations.

My own copy has already acquired its own history. Visiting Bristol yesterday, I mentioned the book to my daughter. We then went to collect my granddaughter from school and Maddy came out clutching a copy of “The Lost Words” which she had brought for “show and tell.” Her mum hadn’t realised it was the book I had been talking about, which my son had sent her as a present for the whole family, but which had been annexed by Maddy, who is, of course the target audience.

Coming home, there was a large parcel from Amazon waiting for me in the hall. I knew I hadn’t sent off for anything recently and anonymous post is often a present from my bibliophile son. And yes, inside was my own copy of “The Lost Words.”

As well as the book, there will be an exhibition of the original paintings, so catch this if you can, at Compton Verney.

“The Lost Words Exhibition opens Saturday 21 October 2017

This enchanting exhibition combines the creative talents of writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris to celebrate the relationship between language and the living world, and nature’s power to spark imagination.

Featuring a series of immersive floor to ceiling graphics, family interpretation areas and recordings of Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris reading the poems, The Lost Words experience continues beyond the gallery as visitors are invited to explore the words and themes of the exhibition via an interactive discovery trail through the grounds.

“I want The Lost Words to delight the mind and the eye and send children to sleep dreaming of wild things.” Jackie Morris

The Lost Words is curated by Compton Verney, with Hamish Hamilton and Penguin Books.”

And a final reason to buy the book, if you need one, is that part of the royalties will go to Action for Conservation a charity dedicated to inspire young people to action for the natural world and the next generation of conservations.


So, to sum up, a beautiful book, a great exhibition, and helping to save and protect our environment.


With many thanks to David Miller.

Friday Favourites: The Children of Green Knowe by L. M. Boston

The Children of Green Knowe

Feedback, at Renegade Writers, on my new novella, prompted a discussion on time travel and the appropriate tropes. Creepy music not being an option in print, though possible in an audio book, how to show that a character has slipped back, or indeed forward, into another time?  The conversation, as always, was both knowledgeable and heated and I found myself citing some of my favourite time travel books.

The first, “The Children of Green Knowe” by Lucy M. Boston was one of the most influential books of my childhood. It tells the story of Tolly, who comes to stay with his Grandmother for the Christmas holidays.

Her house, Green Knowe is a magical place. The night Tolly arrives it is surrounded by floodwater and Boggis, the faithful family retainer, ferries him across by boat. Tolly, the last in a long line of Oldknows, who have lived in the house since time immemorial, is given the children’s nursery at the top of the house and it is soon very clear that he is not the only child still there.

The way that Toby, Alexander and Linnet appear and disappear, the expectation that they will be there and the disappointment when they are not is skilfully done. Like Tolly, the reader is never sure what they will see and when. Sometimes, there is only a patter of footsteps, a few bars of music, or quick glimpse of a mother singing to her baby in the Great Hall. On other occasions, like midnight Mass in the local church Tolly is back in the seventeenth century, when Linnet dresses up in boy’s clothes to be able to sing in the choir.

The fact that the three children lived in a different time and died in the Great Plague is neither glossed over, nor dwelt on. Linnet simply mentions their death, as if, after all this time, it is no longer important.

Part of the pleasure of this book is the vivid descriptions of the house and the objects in it. The carved mouse in nursery, the key to the box that the chaffinch pulls out from between the floorboards, where it has lain hidden for centuries. The lumps of sugar that Tolly leaves in the empty stable disappear and is sure that they have been eaten by Feste, the ghost horse. His grandmother, however, suggests that Boggis has put them in his mug of tea.

She is the mainstay of the story, part of the fabric of the house and its history, yet also Tolly’s present and, one suspects, his future. She is full of common sense, but has the ability to see the others who have lived in the house before her.

Time, love and loss, are themes in the book. Toby, Alexander, Linnet and their mother died while Captain Oldknow was away. Tolly’s parents are abroad. The grandmother is alone. But in spite of this the book is a joyful celebration of both change and stability.

Tolly will grow up, the grandmother will die, but a sense of them will remain within the walls of Green Knowe.

I loved this book as child and still do as an adult. If you do get a copy, then make sure it is one that contains the original illustrations by Peter Boston, the author’s son, whose woodcuts add so much to the text.Peter Boston Image