Tracey Beaker meets the Famous Five

Dead Man’s Cove by Lauren St John.

Lauren St John is the author is a series of books for older children set in Africa. The White Giraffe and its sequels are heartwarming and well-loved, although I admit we’ve not read any of them (sadly, my daughter is not a fan of what she considers ‘animal tales’).  However her latest book, the first of a new series, sounded attractive: – it features an orphan, Laura Marlin, who goes to live with her uncle in Cornwall and becomes a detective like the hero of her favourite books.  

Laura, like Jacqueline Wilson’s Tracey Beaker, lives in a children’s home.  She is delighted to find out she has an uncle who lives in St Ives who wants her to come and live with him – she knows nothing about him at all, but he seems genuinely interested in her and happy to have her there once she’s moved.  The only problem is that she hardly sees anything of him – his work keeps him very busy and he’s often out in the small hours, Laura has no idea what he actually does. She spends more time with Mrs Webb the slightly strange housekeeper who is usually on hand to cook her dinner.  However Uncle Calvin does encourage Laura to be independent and to explore St Ives  – he just cautions her – don’t take the path to Dead Man’s Cove.

Laura soon gets to know the town, it’s hills and beaches and then one day she finds a message in a bottle on her path to school – ‘Can I trust you?’ it asks.  Laura is intrigued and thus a mystery begins to find out who is wrote the message.  She makes a friend, Tariq, the ‘son’ of the Mukhtars who run the North Star Grocery. He can’t speak English yet and Laura is sure there’s a story to him as well. Then there is Skye, the three-legged Husky dog who needs a new home – needless to say, Laura falls for him and he makes a wonderful animal companion for her on her subsequent adventures.

Although the plot of this mystery is totally up to date and there is real peril for Laura, there’s a real charm to this story that reminded me of the spiffing adventures of the Famous Five, Laura being a definite ‘George’ type.  The setting in St Ives is spot on – and having been there recently, I could remember the gorgeous Porthmeor beach amongst places mentioned – I don’t know if Dead Man’s Cove is real or not though.  The Cornish history of smugglers, hidden coves and wreckers adds that slight hint of romance and makes it a definite adventure rather than ordeal, until the heroics are needed at the end.  Laura is a great character, and her Uncle Calvin is rather exciting being so mysterious.

I know more Laura Marlin mysteries are in the pipeline, and I hope they’re as fun as this one was to read.  I’d thoroughly recommend it for 9-11 year olds, and my daughter is interested in this one now I’ve auditioned it for her!

Orion Books, hardcover, 201pp. £9.99  I bought this book.

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To buy books from, click below:
Laura Marlin Mysteries 1: Dead Man’s Cove & The White Giraffe both by Lauren St John
The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson

Bodies in Bologna

Almost Blue by Carlo Lucarelli, translated by Oonagh Stransky.

Lucarelli is apparently an established author of over a dozen books, and a TV presenter to boot, but this is the first of his detective novels to get translated into English.

Ispettore Grazia Negro is part of a new group within the Italian constabulary set up to investigate serial murders.  Several students have been brutally murdered in Bologna, and they appear to be linked.  Grazia and her boss Vittorio Poletto  have arrived from Rome to take over the case.  Being a relative rookie, and female she has a hard job convincing the locals – until she shows the last photo.

Simone is blind. He spends his life in his attic room where he scans the airwaves and listens to jazzman Chet Baker, whose version of Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue is his favourite track. Simone ‘sees’ voices in colour, and one day he hears the killer’s ‘green’ voice.  Grazia and Simone together can catch him – but at great personal risk – will they get there in time?

At just 168 pages of ‘Italian noir’ the plot clips along at a fast pace. It’s original and expertly zips between Grazia and the police, Simone and the killer. There is also plenty of blood – indeed we’re thrown into it on the very first page, and it doesn’t let up.  In the three main characters, the murderer is truly monstrous, Simone is a revelation, and Grazia is feisty and likeable.  Of course as a woman detective, she has to prove herself by being working harder than all the men – sadly it seems ’twas ever thus, (I could have done without the author making her pre-menstrual too though!)

The fast pace and low page toll mean that more words have to count, and this this was an enjoyable read for the most part; would that more books embraced the less is more philosophy.  I would happily read more by this author, especially if Grazia is allowed to develop. (7/10)

Pub 2003 in the UK.  This edition – Vintage Books – 168pp. I bought this book.

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To buy this book from, click below:
Almost Blue by Carlo Lucarelli.

The Grinding Wheels of 21st Century Commerce

Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett.

To some, Doug Fanning would seem to have it all, yet he is damaged goods. His traumatic childhood and experiences in the Gulf War have left him emotionally stunted. Post 9/11, he seemingly lives for his job as a high-powered investment banker, caring for nothing and no-one, and he takes risks – big ones.

Charlotte Graves used to be a teacher, now retired she moulders in her ageing home in the New England countryside with just her two dogs for company.  She keeps her mental cogs going with occasional tutoring in history; Nate, a confused teenager, is the current recipient of her wisdom.

Fanning is now in that dangerous mid-life crisis period of his life and having grown up in a poor village, builds his dream house in the posh one up the road where his mother had cleaned houses.  Unfortunately it’s next door to Charlotte, and on land that used to belong to her father and she thinks she still owns.   He’s now battling on two fronts – home and work, as it’s all going pear-shaped hedging on the Nikkei.

We despise Fanning for the mess(es) he gets into, and it’s pity rather than sympathy that he engenders as we gradually find out what makes this hollow man tick. As for young Nate – get a grip man!  Charlotte is not an easy woman to like, but we can sympathise with her predicament – a brilliant mind edging into decline – her financial bigwig brother Henry would like to get her into a home, but he is humouring her in her courtcase over the land rights with Fanning:

Sauntering drowsily in from the living room, the Doberman rested his head in Charlotte’s lap, and Henry watched his sister pat him gently on the head.
“You know it’s funny, ” she said. “All weekend, I’ve tried to convince Wilkie here that you’re a good sport but he won’t believe me, will you Wilkie? He’s convinced you’re a member of the Klan.”

As evidenced above, the book is not without humour.  Haslett’s style though is very dry and observational, the characters tend to describe rather than feel their own emotions, so you can strongly visualise the scenes; particularly those involving Doug where you’re almost a bystander.  I felt that the plot suffered slightly from the interlocking coincidences that coalesce the stories of the characters together, but this is a timely novel, reminding us of how we got to the state we’re now in both at home and abroad. 
Tuskar Rock Press – Hardback, 304pp.  I chose this book from a list supplied by Amazon Vine. (7/10)

For another review visit Just Williams Luck.

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To buy this book from, click below:
Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett.

Oxford Bookbloggers meet

A group of eight bookbloggers met last night at an Oxford pub – appropriately named ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’. (Good ale, no big screens, decent standard pub food). It was a shame more couldn’t come, the date ended up clashing for few, but those of us there had a lovely evening of mainly (ahem!) bookish discussions – OK we did digress into theatre, movies, and even Emmerdale, but we did talk about books a lot too. We also did our unseasonal secret Santa bookswap – and everyone seemed very happy with the books they got.  No-one took a picture sadly, but here’s who came apart from me …

  • Simon T – of Stuck in a Book – thank you for doing the organising, Simon.
  • Peter who comments as Dark Puss, and blogs about all sorts at Morgana’s cat speaks – you must see the picture of  the steampunk librarian that he has commissioned – it’s fantastic and beautiful.
  • Harriet Devine who blogs here.
  • David Hebblethwaite of Follow the Thread.
  • Sakura from Chasing Bawa.
  • Jackie from Farm Lane Books, poor Jackie got stuck in the traffic but we were delighted to see her when she reached us.
  • Becca who blogs at Oxford reader.

It was a lovely evening, and I really hope we do organise more of these gettogethers. Regardless of how many come, it’s so lovely to make new friends and meet up with old ones –  and with our love of literature (and telly), we’ll never run out of things to talk about.

P.S.  The second annual charity ‘Mostly Bookbrains’ quiznight will take place at the Manor Prep School in Abingdon on Tuesday Nov 9th.  It’s in aid of the Friends of Abingdon Museum appeal, and I’m quizmaster.  I’m hoping Simon will organise a team – Tickets will be available  from Mostly Books soon.

The World of Ephemera #1

Welcome to my first post in my new series on the world of Ephemera – featuring rescued pieces of paper that are just too interesting to recycle.  Today our subject is knitting and crochet patterns.

Yes, back in the late 1960s they had knitting patterns for outfits for fashion dolls – not busty Barbie, the much more girlish UK Sindy.  In fact, this particular pattern is for a nine inch doll – Sindy’s little sister Pepper (who had very prominent freckles which don’t show up on the scan). 

The patterns on offer make an odd combination – a winter three-piece and an Austrian dirndyl – but my dolls had them both thanks to my Gran who, once she no longer had babies to knit for, produced loads of knitted clothes for them.  I can also remember a white moss-stitch textured cocktail dress with salmon-pink sequins on the front. This was the dress which usally adorned my one and only ever, Barbie (with bendy knees) I got when I was ten; it was a real mini-dress on her, and my favourite.

Moving on to knitted teacosies – the butt of many a joke.  There are two variants in this pattern from the 50s/60s – one is knitted and the other crocheted. My Mother-in-law still uses a knitted one that looks suspiciously like the picture to this day. 

They’re actually a jolly functional design; you don’t need to expose the teapot to the cold to pour, although if you have a dribbly pot, the cosy will get stained beneath the spout.  But don’t despair – due to the fab new synthetic fibres in the double-knitting wool du jour, they will always wash well and never wear out!  Just one thing –  tell me, why is it that knitters seemed to choose particularly unattractive colour combinations? 

Now for some more crochet. Afghan squares were – probably still are – a wonderful beginners crochet project.  This newspaper clipping is very reassuring:

“There’s no need to feel apprehensive about tackling a large project if you have never crocheted before. It takes about eight squares to get used to handling a crochet hook in conjunction with wool at the right tension. After this, each square will take you about 30 minutes to complete and, without making a mistake, you will be able to watch televsion or talk to your friends at the same time.”

My Mum did do some crocheting, I don’t recall ever seeing a full bedspread of Afghan squares though – but I still do have the mini blanket she did for my dolls – it’s still in use today on the rare occasions, now my daughter’s nearly ten, that the dolls come out.

If anyone would like the Afghan bedspread/throw pattern, leave a comment and I’ll email you the scan.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these woolly novelties.  I have a thick wodge of other vintage knitting patterns but I’m going to save all the wonderful photos of people posing in jumpers for another post or two in the future.

Gaskella’s Midweek Miscellany #15

I haven’t done a Midweek Miscellany post for some time. But when I discovered Jessica Hische’s wonderful website Daily Drop Cap, I had to share it with you.  Isn’t the candle ‘I’ lovely?  Every day has a different letter and a different style – brilliant.

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B ut on to more bookish things.  There’s been some chat around the subject of the length of books.  Do nights drawing in make it more conducive to reading longer books?  Personally, no – my longer book reading tends to be centred around the school holidays when I don’t have to get up, and can often manage to stay awake long enough for a good read before going to sleep.  But thinking about book length in a different (geeky) kind of way, this made me wonder what the number of pages I read is, and how they’re spread between book length.

So I referred to my spreadsheet – yes I’ve been keeping one for years, however I only have pages read data since 2008.  I added this as I thought comparing total pages read with number of books might tell me something – whether I’ve been reading lots of novellas, or more 500+ page chunksters one year.   It turns out that I’m remarkably consistent – the average number of pages I read per book is between 270 and 290. Scanning down the lists, there are a few more novellas than 500+ page chunksters, but the majority of books I read are bang in the middle. So far, then, it’s not a really useful statistic, but that average figure does perhaps illustrate my preference for shorter rather than longer reads. There are many exceptions that don’t fit that rule of course – so I shall stop waffling about it and talk about something else.

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N ew at Gaskell Towers – It’s a cookbook. Vegetarians may want to look away now.  Hix Oyster & Chop House is the latest book from Mark Hix who features on the Great British Menu TV programmes, and owns a restaurant near London’s Smithfield meat market.  It’s not all meat – there’s a whole chapter on oysters too, plus salads, sauces, desserts etc.  I’m afraid you wouldn’t get me to eat an oyster, but I do like my meat, and meat is the star of this book. It’s the carnivore’s dream as there is a helpful set of pictures of all the different cuts of pork, beef, veal, venison, lamb with comments on texture and cooking each of them. Hix is famed for cooking his meat on the bone – I’m going to have to find a butcher that does veal chops.   

Then there are loads of lovely sounding recipes.  The photography is mouthwatering, and the book has been designed really nicely.  The recipes don’t sound overcomplicated – concentrating on the quality of the ingredients.  We’ll be cooking from it this weekend – there was a hash made with shredded duck legs that caught my eye for starters … I can feel a Homer drool coming on.

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And finally, it’s the second UK Book bloggers meet this weekend in Oxford. If you want to find out the details, please contact Simon Thomas over at Stuck in a book. It’d be great to see you there if you can make it!

My new favourite word …

One of the joys in sorting out all my late Mum’s stuff, was encountering so many interesting pieces of paper.  From 50yr old concert programmes to her autograph book; newspaper clippings on the value of prunes in your diet (yes, really) to all those postcards I described before, not to mention the notebooks monitoring her utility bills…  There is a word that links all of these items – and it is:


The word comes from the Greek ephemeros which means living for one day, and thus is defined as something short-lived. In the world of collectors, it has evolved to describe paper objects – newspaper clippings, ticket stubs, postcards, programmes – anything interesting and worth preserving rather than recycling.  I’ve come across some absolute gems lately – with all those wonderful but boring postcards, nostalgic autograph books and dinner dance high jinks, so I’m going to make a regular feature out of them starting next weekend.  Join me then for:

The Camper Who Stayed.

All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills

This is another black comedy of the highest order from a master of novels about men and their work.  It’s Mills’ second book, the third I’ve read, and the best yet for me. 

We meet a man and his motorcycle, who are camping in the Lake District as a prelude to going off the India. It’s just about the end of the season, and our chap is in no hurry to get going on his road trip, so when the campsite owner, Tommy Parker, offers him some odd jobs, he’s happy to oblige. The local store owner runs out of baked beans, and won’t restock which is irksome, but he does get accepted into the darts team at the local pub, which then runs out of draught ale.  The simple jobs he does all turn out to be marathon tasks, and he’s warned about Tommy’s temper.  Meanwhile, nobody ever exchanges any money – there’s no sign of any cash coming from Tommy and his tabs are racking up – but he doesn’t like to make a fuss.  The milkman is also going mad, and everyone seems to think our narrator would be good for the job – why?  He can’t understand it, he’s helplessly trapped by his own helpfulness!

What Mills does so well is to take the ordinary, everyday slog and dissect it.  He pares work down to the barest actions and motives.  No-one is deliberately bad, indeed, their intentions are mostly good. It’s just the roundabout ways in which people do things obscure why they’re doing it ensuring that everything gets over-complicated, and this leads to confusion. Add a good dose of ‘You’re not from round these parts’ suspicion, the difficulties of getting around the terrain in winter, and the shenanigans of countrymen, (for womenfolk barely put in an appearance), and you’re bound to get events spiralling out of control into broad farce with sinister overtones.

Brilliant – I must read all his others.  (10/10)
I bought this book. 

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To order this book from click below:
All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills

 P.S. Don’t forget my blogiversary giveaway – see the previous post.

Gaskella is 2 – plus a shelf-clearing giveaway!

Woohoo!  Yes, it was two years ago that I started Gaskella.

I started off on Blogspot – moving over to WordPress early this year, and in the 730 days since starting I’ve posted 394 times which is pretty good going I think, and amassed over 1700 comments (that includes my replies).

Despite this being an incredibly busy time of year, I’m still loving it. I love the blogging community and all the other wonderful book blogs I’ve found. Most importantly perhaps, I love reading more than ever.

I’d like to thank everyone who comments in particular – I love reading them and responding to you. By way of a thank you I’m staging a shelf-clearing giveaway, (something Teresa over at the BBAW Award-winning blog Shelflove does occasionally – thanks for the idea Teresa.)  Below are a whole lot of books that I’ve read and enjoyed but have no room to keep – the links go to my reviews.

If you’d like one, please leave a comment together with which book you’d like, then send me an email to gaskella at hotmail dot com with your address. It’s first come first served and I’ll cross them off as I acknowledge their new homes. Sorry, due to size and weight, some will have to be limited to the UK only, but there are plenty I can send worldwide (surface though which can take weeks).

Here’s the list:

  • Madame Verona comes down the hill by Dimitri Verhulst. To Mystica.
  • Fool by Christopher Moore. To Victoria.
  • Loser’s town by Daniel Depp. To Rhonda.
  • Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. A 1977 Penguin – uncreased, but slightly yellowed. UK only.
  • Fortunes of War – the Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning.  To Winston’s Dad
  • Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers. A bit scuffed, slight spine crease and a small tear to back cover – perfectly readable. Worldwide
  • The Shipping News by Annie Proulx To Carol Wong
  • Anglo-Saxon Attitudes – by Angus Wilson. 1992 Penguin edition of this 1956 novel. Slightly scuffed and aged, but spine is not creased Worldwide.
  • The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.  Slightly scuffed and aged Penguin film tie-in.  Worldwide.
  • Fledgling by Octavia Butler. To Kinna.
  • Benny and Shrimp by Katarina Mazetti. A bittersweet Swedish romance – lovely. Near new condition. Worldwide.
  • The Mouse and his Child by Russell Hoban. A modern classic for older children upwards. Near new, just slightly scuffed around the edges. Worldwide.


Incoming – Real lives …

I haven’t done an incoming post for a while, but I bought a book at the weekend that I’m so looking forward to dipping into over weeks to come, then another brilliant sounding book arrived from the OUP (thanks Kirsty)…

Once I’d picked up Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone by Eduardo Galeano, translated by Mark Fried, to have a gander, that book was never going to be put down.

It’s a chronological history of the world from creation to the present day. However this book is so different – it’s told in narrative vignettes by the bystanders and observers, those behind the scenes – those normally overlooked by conventional histories. From the ass in the stable when Jesus was born to Maradona’s ‘hand of God’, history is given a different spin in around 600 little parables. The majority are less than a page long, many have just a few lines, the style simple like parables, but one thing they do have is a moral bite.  One of the longer vignettes lists major companies that supplied Hitler’s regimes, another details a list of monstrosities before revealing they’re in Hieronymous Bosch’s paintings.  Many of the stories are bound up in myths, legends, beliefs, faith(s) and, in a big way, man’s failings. On my first flick through, there aren’t many happy moments in this book, yet I know I will be fascinated by it, and it will spark many questions…

Then today, another book arrived, which is also a collection of vignettes. London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew  originated in the 1850s as a series of articles for a Victorian London magazine.  Each investigates the life of a different kind of street seller, tradesman and the criminal underclasses, with first hand accounts, interviews, observations and some great investigative journalism.  This collection samples the four volumes that the original went to, together with some great original illustrations. I can tell this is going to be another great book to dip into, and being a book from the OUP, it has some great background features.

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To buy these books from, click below:
Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone by Eduardo Galeano, trans Mark Fried
London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew

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P.S. The winner of my giveaway from last week, as picked from the hat by my daugher is – Winstonsdad.  I’ll be in touch.