Wolf Winter by Cecilia Eckback

Hello! I have been spending an awful lot of time in a dark room doing my day job lately, editing tv programmes for the BBC. So I haven’t been blown about books as much as I’d have liked to. But I HAVE been reading.

One thing about working long hours is that I spend a lot of time on the train, getting to and from work. You can often catch me on the 7.22 on a weekday morning with my nose in a book and a large travel mug of coffee by my side. During those journeys is when I get most of my reading done. I am just too tired when I go to bed after a long day at work,  so I always make sure I have a book in my bag for the commute.

 

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I have read a lot of crime novels recently,  winter turns me into a murder mystery obsessive. Nothing cosier than a good murder story. That coupled with our impending summer holiday in Scandinavia led me to discover Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback.

Set in the mountains of Swedish Lapland in 1717, Wolf Winter tells the story of new settlers, Finnish Maia, her husband and two daughters as they forge an existence during their first particularly harsh winter living there. Their daughters discover a dead body when taking their goats to pasture on the mountainside. This discovery leads to Maia’s hard resolve to find out what happened and who killed the man, spurred on by the proximity of the murder, only an hours walk from their cottage. There have been other disappearances and deaths too, creating a dark cloud of suspicion that hangs over all of the characters.

This really is a wonderful novel, but not always easy to read. There is a brilliant sense of the harshness of the conditions, of winter creeping in and slowly taking over, making the family so vulnerable in their visceral fight for survival. You feel the harshness of the place, you come to dread the snow storms on their behalf.  I am not sure I would describe Wolf Winter as a crime novel as it is so much more than that, but at it’s heart is a murder mystery and one that I didn’t guess. I really recommend this beautiful and fascinating book.

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The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katrina Bivald

 

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I have read a few disappointing thrillers lately. You know how it goes, I get sucked into an intriguing idea, but then after reading the first few chapters it all either unravels into something ridiculous or you can see the ‘twist’ coming a mile off.

I often buy thrillers after a long day at work, waiting for the train in WHSmith’s. They are often cheaper than magazines, and whilst I cannot usually justify spending ÂŁ4.99 on Country Living, I can always justify spending money on a book.

There’s a large display of new releases on the back wall of this particular WHS and the majority of these books are of the crime genre. However on one occasion I spotted The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend and read the blurb on the back.

Sara is 28 and has never been outside Sweden – except in the (many) books she reads. When her elderly pen friend Amy invites her to come and visit her in Broken Wheel, Iowa, Sara decides it’s time. But when she arrives, there’s a twist waiting for her – Amy has died. Finding herself utterly alone in a dead woman’s house in the middle of nowhere was not the holiday Sara had in mind.
But Sara discovers she is not exactly alone. For here in this town so broken it’s almost beyond repair are all the people she’s come to know through Amy’s letters: poor George, fierce Grace, buttoned-up Caroline and Amy’s guarded nephew Tom.
Sara quickly realises that Broken Wheel is in desperate need of some adventure, a dose of self-help and perhaps a little romance, too. In short, this is a town in need of a bookshop.

Now if there’s any subject matter that’s going to lure me into buying a book, it’s got to be a book about books, mixed up with something a bit Scandinavian and set in small town America. Almost written with me in mind, don’t you think?

I absolutely loved this book, the characters are wonderful and quirkily captured. It’s funny and warm and gave me the same feeling as I get when I am tucked up in bed with a pile of books and a hot chocolate by my side. Sara, the protagonist, is witty and sharp and exasperating in equal measures. And the narrative positively glows with the love of books, beautifully describing the feel and the smell of them and brimming over with literary references. It is definitely a book lovers book.

 

Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase

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Obviously a book cover can have me at ‘hello’ but does anyone else get seduced by the title of a novel? I think the name Black Rabbit Hall promises so much intrigue, so much magic. This was a book I wasn’t willing to wait until it came out in paperback for. I bought it hot off the hardback press, just in time to sit by my mums swimming pool in France and devour, along with copious glasses of kir royale.

Amber Alton is about to pass a summer in Cornwall at Black Rabbit Hall, her London family’s country estate where no two clocks read the same. Summers there are perfect, timeless. Not much ever happens. Until, one stormy evening in 1968, it does. The idyllic world of the four Alton children is shattered. Fiercely bonded by the tragic events, they grow up fast. But when a glamorous stranger arrives, these loyalties are tested. Forbidden passions simmer. And another catastrophe looms…Decades later, Lorna and her fiance wind their way through the countryside searching for a wedding venue. Lorna is drawn to a beautiful crumbling old house she hazily remembers from her childhood, feels a bond she does not understand. When she finds a disturbing message carved into an old oak tree by one of the Alton children, she begins to realise that Black Rabbit Hall’s secret history is as dark and tangled as its woods, and that, much like her own past, it must be brought into the light. A thrilling spiral into the hearts of two women separated by decades but inescapably linked by Black Rabbit Hall. A story of forgotten childhood and broken dreams, secrets and heartache, and the strength of a family’s love.

Black Rabbit Hall is a gothic, romantic tale told from the two perspectives of present day Lorna and 1960s Amber, seamlessly moving between the two eras. It’s so atmospheric, full of beautiful descriptions of the old house and it’s glorious surroundings. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

 

 

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

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I had never read a Maggie O’Farrell book before. I had heard fantastic reviews of her earlier books, The Distance Between Us and After You’d Gone, but I tend to avoid a book that makes me cry! The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox intrigued me when I picked it up from a local cafe’s book swap section. I took it home and immediately started to read.

In the middle of tending to the everyday business at her vintage-clothing shop and sidestepping her married boyfriend’s attempts at commitment, Iris Lockhart receives a stunning phone call: Her great-aunt Esme, whom she never knew existed, is being released from Cauldstone Hospital—where she has been locked away for more than sixty-one years.

This is such a beautifully written and haunting novel, full of family secrets and unexpected developments. Maggie O’Farrell writes exquisitely, drawing you into the narratives of both modern day Iris and 1930s Esme. Her characters are so wonderfully written, it’s hard not to fall in love with Esme. And to be devastated at the life she had stolen from her.

Another of my favourites. It left me reeling long after I’d finished it, one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read and I now wait with great anticipation of her next novel.

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

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My obsession with The Stepford Wives often leads me to some pretty dark, dystopian stories, and this book is as dark as they come. I saw someone I follow on Instagram reading it  and I liked the look of the cover. So I sought out some reviews and decided it was right up my street.

Only Ever yours is a young adult book, which I often read because I find the subject matter of YA books really hook me. And they can be read relatively quickly if I’m looking for something to read on the train. This book may be a fast read, but the subject matter is by no means easy.

Only Ever Yours takes place in a future where girls are no longer born naturally due to their flaws. Females are manufactured, and to the specifications of the men who they will serve. Eves, as the young girls are known, live separately to the rest of society and are schooled in how to attract and please men, right up until they are 16 when they are chosen to have one of three fates: Concubine, Companions or Chastities. To become a Companion is the biggest prize, chosen by one of the young men who come to ‘audition’ them to be the perfect model of wife and mother to as many male heirs as she can produce. A Concubine is a prostitute who will work in one of the many brothels in the city. To be a Chastity is the worst prospect, she will stay at the school and teach younger Eves for the rest of her life, never to be allowed to leave.

We see life through the eyes of Frieda, who, along with her best friend Isabel, is a high ranking Eve. But when Isabel commits the worst possible sin, putting on weight, Frieda has to decide whether to protect her friend and stay loyal, or to focus all her efforts on her path to becoming a Companion. Things start well for Frieda, but soon her life goes horribly downhill, spiralling out of control. Then she faces the worst fate imaginable.

I read this book in a bit of a frenzy, hoping desperately that with each page things would get better for Frieda. It’s a long time since a book has made me feel so angry and despairing. Author Louise O’Neill uses clever devices like the lack of capitalising the girls names and using punctuation to underline the inconsequence of the female characters which make you feel utterly immersed in the girls’ plight.

Brilliant and devastating all at once. A quick read but by no means an easy or unchallenging one. I highly recommend.

 

 

A Bookish Tour of Lacock: Harry Potter

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I need to confess something. I was one of those people who sneered at adults reading ‘those children’s books’ before I saw the first Harry Potter film. I went into the film sneering and I came out of the film frantically back peddling, and trying to factor in a trip to the book shop so I could buy The Chamber of Secrets on the way home from the cinema.  From then on I obsessively read every book as soon as they were published. In fact we even had to make an elaborate detour to visit Exeter Waterstones during our first family holiday with our new son to buy Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (July 16th, 2005 to be precise).

We discovered the beautiful National Trust owned village of Lacock when we moved nearby to Bradford on Avon 10 years ago and it fast became one of our favourite days out.

On out first visit to the Cloisters of Lacock Abbey we saw a sign propped up, proudly declaring that some scenes from the Harry Potter films had been shot in that very location. As soon as I got home I searched the internet for more information and discovered that several scenes from The Philosopher’s Stone, The Chamber of Secrets and The Half-Blood Prince had been shot all over the village.

One grey day in October the children and I (with my husband rolling his eyes in the background) combed through those films and freeze-framed the scenes that we thought looked likely to have been shot at Lacock. A bit more internet searching showed us exactly where to hunt and we planned a Halloween trip to see the locations in real life.

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I thought there might be some likeminded Harry Potter fans who might like to share our excitement, so I’ve produced a map a tour of the village so you too can follow in Harry’s (and Dumbeldore’s, Snape’s, Slughorn’s, Ron’s, Hermione’s…) footsteps.

A Harry Potter Tour of Lacock

If it’s a nice day, pack a picnic. If it’s not, pack a picnic anyway if you don’t mind getting wet, or eat at the tearooms or one of the pubs, you’ll be spoilt for choice.

When you arrive on the outskirts of Lacock, follow the signs to the National Trust car park and park there (small charge for the day, or free if you’re a member of the NT).

Follow the signs to the village, cross a road and walk through a small wooded area, you’ll come out onto a pavement on the other side of the road from the Abbey entrance.

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At the entrance to Lacock Abbey and Cloisters you can decide if you want to just explore the grounds and cloisters which also includes the Fox Talbot museum (that’s what we do!) or go into the house as well.

Interior scenes from The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets were filmed in the Cloisters and the rooms off it, you’ll probably recognise it if you’ve watched the films 12,000 times like we have.

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Small child, massive cauldron.

 

 

The Warming Room, which houses a real 16th century cauldron, was used as Professor Quirrel’s Defence against the Dark Arts classroom in The Philosopher’s Stone.

The Chapter House was where Harry comes across the Mirror of Erised in The Philosopher’s Stone. It was also a classroom in The Chamber of Secrets where Harry speaks Parseltongue.

The Sacristy was Professor Snape’s Potions classroom in The Philosopher’s Stone.

The Cloisters walk is where Harry confronts Lucius Malfoy and tricks him into freeing Dobby in The Chamber of Secrets. And again it’s used for when Harry hears the basilisk’s voice after leaving Lockhart’s detention in the same film.

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Once you’ve finished in the cloisters, go out and explore the grounds. There are lots of interesting little nooks and crannies to discover.

Leaving the abbey, turn right and then right again onto East Street. You can pop into the 14th century Tythe Barn and sometimes there is a craft market just beyond here on your right. At the end of East Street take a right onto Church Street, past the church and at the end of the road you’ll see The Potter’s house  (in Godrick’s Hollow) which appears in flashback in The Philosopher’s Stone when Harry’s parents were killed by Voldemort in their attempts to keep Harry safe.

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Do remember people live in the houses in Lacock so please keep a respectful distance and try to avoid peering through windows!

Retrace your steps back along Church street. Lacock Bakery is on the right hand side sells cakes and refreshments. We also like to buy a Harry Potter inspired chocolate frog from there to keep us going.

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At the end of Church Street turn right up Cantax Hill. Here you will find the beautiful red brick Muggle house which is where Horace Slughorn hid from Death Eaters in The Half Blood Prince in the village of Budleigh Babberton. He was discovered by Dumbledore and Harry cleverly concealed as an armchair.

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Leaving the house, walk back along Cantax Hill and keep going back to the junction with Church Street. Here is where Babberton Square was located, where Dumbledore and Harry aperate at the beginning of The Half-Blood Prince. A large stone cross was built and placed in the middle of the road for the filming.

Further along West Street you’ll come to The George Inn where you can stop for a coffee.

Keep walking a little further and turn right, there are a few shops set back, one of which is Barty’s of Lacock. Part of Wiltshire Scrap Store, it is an absolute treasure trove of crafty stuff. You can buy the materials to make your own wand, or cat or frog decorations.

You’re now at the end of our Harry Potter tour and you’re probably ready for that picnic, or lunch in a cafe. Head left down High Street, past the school and you’ll see Lacock Stores & Post Office on your right where you can buy drinks and snacks. If you turn right at The Red Lion you can eat a slap-up meal there or opposite is the Stable Tearoom, where you can buy sandwiches, soup, cakes and coffee as well as ice-creams.

The picnic area is the next right on the way back to the car park. There’s a lovely little play area there too for little ones who still need to run off some energy.

The tour will probably take 1.5 – 2 hours if you take in lunch and a good explore of Lacock Abbey and grounds too.

As a side note, if Lacock looks even more familiar, it has been used as a filming location for many other productions, including: the 1995 adaption of Pride and Prejudice, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Other Boleyn Girl, Cranford, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Emma.

Hope you have a magical time!

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

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If you haven’t read any of the Cazalet Chronicles then I suggest you remedy that right now. Here’s a link to Waterstones where you can buy all five books. What are you waiting for? Go!

I was given a set of Elizabeths Jane Howard’s five wonderful books by my mum for my 40th birthday. I had never heard of them before. But when I opened up the first in the series, The Light years, I was introduced to a world of enchanted childhoods and old fashioned, endless summers and I was hooked immediately. My only problem was trying not to read all of them at once.

The Light Years begins in 1937 at the family estate, Home Place, in the heart of the Sussex countryside. Three generations of the Cazalet family are home for a summer of lavish meals, picnics on the beach and long, lazy sunny days. But things aren’t always so idealistic, there is a grittiness to this book which undercuts the occasional cosiness

Along with their extended family, their children and their servants, a fascinating drama of love affairs, sibling relationships and rivalries begins, against the backdrop of impending war and devastating loss, and stretches across five novels.

The books are told cleverly through the narrative point of view of over a dozen characters, so that the stories are brought to us in relatively short bursts. However if you think all those characters sharing the storyline would be complicated or confusing you’d be wrong, Howard’s characterisation and clear story telling means that we know exactly who is who and what part of the story is developing. She’s an incredibly clever and confident story teller.

If you are fascinated by social history and the intricacies of familial relationships, there is nothing you won’t love about these books. And the great thing is if you devour The Light Years in a few days, like I did, you have another four books to read.