Saturday 31 May 2008


(yesterday evening, to be strictly accurate)

Friday 30 May 2008

Been shoppin'

Went gift shopping today. Found just what was needed.

These were in the irresistible, revamped stationery department at Waterstones in Colchester:

Penguin pencils. Aren't they delicious?

You can see the whole range of Penguin gifts here - including Penguin deckchair covers and Penguin mugs .

And then I noticed this:

It's not what it seems. It's a notebook! I'm giving this to my mother, since she was responsible for introducing me to Peter and Jane (about whom I recently and not very lovingly blogged).

You can see the whole range of Ladybird notebooks here and matching greetings cards here.

And finally, for good measure, I popped into Guntons, one of Colchester's best beloved emporia, and bought:

some Mersea Island Honey

and one of Guntons' scrumptious own-label panettone.

Together with all the other goodies I've assembled, including a copy of this, some choice pieces of Mersea Sea Glass Jewellery and plenty of flowers, I now feel well primed for my visit to Berkshire to celebrate my mother's 80th birthday (she won't thank me for mentioning her age but luckily her home is completely Internet-free!)

BookRabbit again

Last month I mentioned BookRabbit - a new UK-based online bookshop/readers' networking site. At the time I had a few reservations and although I found aspects of it appealing I wasn't convinced that it was 100% 'for me'.

Well, is fully up and running now. I have placed my initial order and received it very speedily and I must say I'm rapidly turning into one of those madly proselytising new converts.

Taking advantage of BookRabbit's introductory free book offer on initial orders placed before 28 May, I tried out the system by ordering Emma Darwin's The Mathematics of Love and Hugo Hamilton'sThe Speckled People. Finding them was easy. Ordering them was easy (there's a PayPal option in addition to all the usual credit and debit cards). Delivery, which is free, took two working days. My freebie - a lucky-dip selected by BookRabbit on the (as yet scant) evidence of my literary tastes - was Ali Smith's The Accidental, which I'm very pleased with. The freebie arrived ahead of the others, the day after I'd placed my order.

Every week, BookRabbit compares the 100,000 top-selling titles against Amazon UK to ensure that BookRabbit's prices are cheaper. With no postage to pay, and no minimum order, this is very good news for buyers (and bad news for bank balances, as it certainly encourages the instant, impulse purchase - as if that weren't already temptation enough on Amazon).

As for the networking aspect, that's entirely up to the individual. You can interact as much or as little as you wish. Nothing about it is mandatory. You have the option, on every book you browse, to add it not only to your shopping basket but also to your 'wish list' (which is publicly viewable) or to your 'my books' list, which gradually builds up a picture of your reading habits and home library.

You can also upload photos of your bookshelves. I didn't think I'd bother with this but have posted a couple just for fun. You can start a discussion of any bookish topic you wish, and others will join in - it's all incredibly easy and could quickly become addictive. Your profile can link in to your blog, so the more you interact on BookRabbit, the more readers will land on your blog. I imagine that the discussion boards would also be an extremely good way for authors to reach and interact with existing and potential readers.

I've seen a few comments in the bookblogosphere saying that BookRabbit all looks terrifically complicated and scary, but believe me, if I can get the hang of it in less than half an hour, then anyone can! Its beauty lies in its basic simplicity and ease of use, while its advantage over conventional online bookshops is its almost limitless potential for personalised use. It can be whatever you want it to be.

And for those who don't want to be bothered to manage their own blog, it gives access to a whole cyberworld of readers who will be happy to share their thoughts on books and reading. But you remain in control. Nobody else can see what you order. Nobody can become your online 'friend' if you don't want them to. You don't have to think of anything to say or find anyone to say it to if you don't wish. It is perfectly possible to be a 'silent' member, ordering books and reading other people's discussions without any pressure to interact at all.

In full missionary zeal mode, I'm now linking to BookRabbit every time I mention a book here. I'm also looking forward to seeing their forthcoming range of blog-compatible widgets (not sure exactly when those will be available). There's lots of advice on the site to help get you started, including video demonstrations of each feature. And you can keep up to date with news and developments on the BlogRabbit blog.

Go on. Give it a whirl. You know you want to!

Thursday 29 May 2008

A favourite island artist

Seeing some lovely photos of Loch Linnhe (which lies between Glencoe and Fort William in western Scotland) while surfing around some photography sites has inspired me to extract another book from the TBR Mountain (the height of which is reaching Highland proportions itself). And this is what I have chosen: Sea Change: The Summer Voyage from East to West Scotland of the "Anassa", by Mairi Hedderwick.

I bought this three years ago while saying on Mull but have never got round to reading it. At the same time, I bought Eye on the Hebrides - a personal record in words and sketches of Mairi Hedderwick's six-month solitary journey of the Western Isles of Scotland - and Highland Journey: Sketching Tour of Scotland Retracing the Footsteps of Victorian Artist John T. Reid , both of which I did read at the time.

Sea Change slipped through the net, but I'm really looking forward to snuggling down with it. The back-cover blurb is promising:

'What possessed Mairi Hedderwick to undertake a six-week voyage with the Captain down the Caledonian Canal and out to sea in a small, antiquated sailing boat? . . . The names of the places she visited ring out like an old Gaelic song: Lock Linnhe, Loch Etive, Lochs Ailort and Moidart,Loch Nevis, Loch na Droma Buidhe, Loch a'Choire and Loch Leven. And finally, mysteriously, to the "island", her old home, her pilgrimage complete and the purpose of the journey fulfilled.'

There are hand-drawn maps and pull-out watercolour panoramas. I'll post a review here as soon as I've finished it. It seems that it's out of print, but there is a plentiful supply of new and used copies on offer via Amazon and Abe Books.

Mairi Hedderwick is one of my family's top favourite artist-writers. It all started when SD# was a toddler and I used to take her down to Colchester library every week, and it was there that we first discovered Katie Morag.

Katie Morag McColl lives on the tiny fictional Hebridean island of Struay , where her mother is the postmistress. Her father runs the island shop (and in later stories the island Bistro), and her 'Grannie Island' has a croft at the other side of the bay. Grannie Island drives a tractor and wears wellies and doesn't suffer fools gladly - especially Katie's other grandmother, Grandma Mainland, a city-dwelling confection of frothy pink clothes, feathery hats, wafting perfume and bouffant silvery hair.

Struay is populated by a delightful collection of characters of all ages, and Katie's adventures are homely but significant for small children, and filled with love, laughter and the sound of the sea. When a new baby arrives in the family, Katie gets in a grump and hurls her beloved teddy in the tea - but luckily, he survives a few submarine adventures of his own and the tide washes him up on the beach. Katie gets into scrapes with her visiting Boy Cousins, shampoos a sheep ready for the Island Show, makes a point of visiting her neighbours on Baking Day, and takes a starring role in Grandma Mainland's wedding to a local fisherman (spoiler alert!!).

The stories are amusing and realistic, and the illustrations are sheer delight. Hedderwick performs a wonderfully reassuring service to harassed, imperfect mothers who juggle work and family, by portraying a domestic life of general untidiness and sometimes utter chaos. No picture of Katie's bed is complete without a discarded apple core beneath it, and Mrs McColl struggles with breastfeeding and teething babies and burns the cakes on the day an important guest is coming for tea.

If you're new to Katie Morag, I recommend a quick look at her very own web page and suggest that the best book to start with is The Big Katie Morag Storybook, which collects together a selection of stories and poems.

Here's a quick biog of Hedderwick which I've lifted from her publisher's site:

Mairi was born in Gourock, Scotland in 1939. At the age of 17 she took a job as a mother's help on the Island of Coll in the Hebrides and there began a life-long love affair with islands and small communities bounded by sea. After attending the Edinburgh College of Art, Mairi married and had two children, Mark and Tamara. In 1962 she decided to opt out of the rat race, and the family moved to Coll where they lived in a house three miles from the nearest neighbour with no road or electricity, with the only water available from a well. The Isle of Struay, setting for Katie Morag, is loosely based on Coll, and some of the content reflects Mairi's own experiences: Katie's toys are those of her own children, Granny Island's Rayburn stove was Mairi's own, and Mairi admits she has thrown her own teddy bear into the sea - twice!. As an adult! As well as writing and illustrating children's books Mairi writes and illustrates travel books for adults. She spend a lot of time visiting schools and is always accompanied by Katie Morag's teddy that travels with her in a black bag.

And she featured in Scotland on Sunday's 'Welcome to My World' series last weekend, which you can read here here. I certainly like the sound of her 'perfect weekend'!

You can download and print this Katie Morag bookplate absolutely free, as many times as you wish, from Anne Fine's wonderful My Home Library website (there are loads of other bookplates here and printable bookmarks here - altogether a bit of a must for parents and teachers, this one).

And finally, while this Hebridean Desk Address Book sits on my desk (where else?), I do rather hanker after some other spin-offs in the Hedderwick range. There's a Hebridean Desk Diary, a Hebridean Visitors Book and a Hebridean Birthday Book.

Wednesday 28 May 2008

The Manuscript

The Manuscript, by Eva Zeller, translated from the German by Nadia Lawrence, is an exquisite and profound novella of war and love. Based on true events, it tells the stories of Bea, whose father fought for Nazi Germany and Jacob, a German Jew, who meet in late middle-age and instantly form a deep attachment. Both were orphaned during the Second World War, yet neither has ever spoken to anyone of the true circumstances of their parents' demise.

Bea has inherited a large house from her grandparents, in which she discovers, in the attic, a sealed envelope containing a manuscript written by a woman who knew her mother and who witnessed her death. Until reading this account, Bea has never known or understood her mother's fate.

In The Manuscript, the softest, most graceful writing envelopes the telling of the (nearly) present-day love story like a downy embrace, yet within lies the manuscript's matter-of-fact account of the most unimaginable cruelty and suffering experienced by its author, by Bea's mother and by thousands of other German women who were captured by the Russians in February 1945 and deported to a labour camp in Siberia. Routinely starved, beaten, raped and shot, the women are misused by their captors in retribution for the Siege of Leningrad and other horrors perpetrated upon the Russian people by the German army.

Bea and Jacob gradually develop a kind of half-relationship, in which, though deeply fond of, and increasingly dependent on, each other, neither can find the words to recount their past, and so an impossible silence lies at the heart of their affair. Only during an impulsive trip to Russia one Christmas do they finally find their own individual ways to reach each other through their personal histories - to speak, at last, the unspeakable.

This book - purchased on a recent trawl of Colchester's charity shops - was such an unexpected joy. Read in one sitting, has affected me deeply and, moreover, has reminded me of the importance, from time to time, of blocking out the ceaseless noise and clamour of reviews, book-blogs, reading group choices, star ratings, long-lists, short-lists, prize winners and all the rest and instead . . . simply . . . to . . . see a book, . . . pick it up . . . and read it. Simple. And effective.

Which is not to say that I wouldn't be delighted to hear from anyone else who has read this little gem!

Monday 26 May 2008

Raven Black

One of the books I read while confined to barracks by the appalling weather this weekend was Raven Black by Ann Cleeves. I'd read Cleeves's Hidden Depths earlier this year, and reviewed it here. As soon as I'd finished that one, I popped Raven Black in my Amazon shopping trolley, intrigued by the idea of a quartet of novels set on an island - in this case Shetland.

Before getting round to opening Raven Black, however, another island-based crime novel pushed its way forcefully to the top of the pile - Losing You by Nicci French, which is set on an island heavily based on Mersea, where I live. Thinking about Losing You (which I reviewed here) gave rise to some more general musings about the advantages of setting a crime novel on an island.

Clearly, an island gives a writer small, complex community, in which many of the inhabitants will be interrelated; where resentments can fester - perhaps for generations; where secrets have to be kept more deeply hidden than in a less close-knit society; and from which quick escape can be physically difficult or impossible.

In today's age of instant mass communication, a remote island gives a perfect opportunity for recapturing realistically some essential elements from the world of 'golden age' detective fiction which would seem impossibly stilted on the modern mainland.

Islands (even not especially remote ones) often suffer from patchy mobile phone signals and restricted Internet access; they are cut off both literally and maybe socially from the rest of the world; roads may be difficult, police numbers low (and officers inexperienced in murder inquiries); there can be a stark distinction - even open hostility - between natives and incomers. All perfect for the the development of plot and a rich cast of interesting characters. And all cleverly exploited by Ann Cleeves in Raven Black, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

I've never visited the Shetland isles - Orkney is as far north in the UK as I've ventured thus far. But Raven Black has certainly inspired me to investigate, and it seems that I'm not the only one. The Shetland tourist industry is delighted by the effect that Cleeves' first two Shetland novels are having (and two more are in the pipeline). You can read about it all on her website.

Raven Black introduces us Inspector Jimmy Perez, an appealing detective who, despite his exotic name, is actually a native of Fair Isle - and thus at once an islander and an outsider (Fair Isle lies midway between Orkney and Shetland).

It's January, and everyone's looking forward to the Up Helly Aa festival. Heavy snow has fallen. A beautiful and enigmatic sixteen-year-old is found dead in a field one bitterly cold morning. Her murder raises memories of the unsolved disappearance, some years before, of a young girl whose body was never found. Could the two crimes be connected?

I'm always overcome with nerves at the prospect of reviewing a crime novel - the risk of inserting accidental spoilers is extreme. So I'll leave it to the experts: there are reviews by Maxine Clarke (aka Petrona) here and by Sunnie Gill here - both on the excellent Euro Crime site.

Coming from outside the ranks of the truly dedicated crime devotees, as I do, unlike Maxine I welcomed all the atmosphere and didn't find the centre of the novel flagged at all. Raven Black was planned as the first in a quartet of Shetland-based novels, so it's hardly surprising that Cleeves takes her time with some detailed scene-setting. And although it's part of the British Isles, Shetland will be unfamiliar territory for the vast majority of readers in the UK, let alone those from the rest of the world, so I appreciated the way that Cleeves interweaves and underpins her plot with a substantial sense of place.

Suffice to say, this would seem a very worthy winner of the Duncan Lawrie Dagger and I'm very much looking forward to reading the next book in the series, White Nights.

They're not tea cups

. . . so they didn't qualify for today's tea cup post.

But it seemed churlish not to share them with my fellow Glasgow Style enthusiasts simply because they are the wrong shape and don't have handles. I passionately believe in equal rights for tea plates.

So here are some more George Logan designs for Foley Peacock Pottery c.1901-05.

Well, they're mine so I'm biased, but I think they're gorgeous.

Time for tea cups II

I promise not to turn Musings into one of those 'hey, look at all my lovely stuff' blogs. Really, truly, I do.
But last week's Tea Cup post seemed to go down rather well in various corners of the world, so please turn away now if you came here for bookish stuff and/or island pics.

Here are some more of my tea cups!

Today's little lot are all from Foley Peacock Pottery (a trading name of Wileman & Co, Stoke-on-Trent, which later changed its name to Shelley), from between around 1900 and 1905.

The first two pictured above were designed by George Logan 1866—1939, who was one of the most prolific designers for Wylie & Lochhead, a Glasgow department store that popularized the Glasgow Style of the British Arts and Crafts Movement - the most influential exponent of which was, of course, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Logan may well have designed some of the others here, too, but I haven't found any documentary evidence of the designs. They all have that Glasgow feel to them, anyway.

The first two (saucerless) cups I acquired caught my eye when I was in my teens at an antiques fair at Wellington College, which I'd cycled to, just to see what an antiques fair was like (I'm so ancient that such things were a whole new concept at the time!).

I paid 40p each for the cups. I loved their brilliant opalescent whiteness, the characteristic shades of green and pink in Logan's stylised rose design, and of course their 'Mackintoshy' aura.

I've picked up lots more over the years and in fact have more plates now than cups, and more tiny coffee cups than tea cups. The china is so thin that it's rather scary to drink out of them - and many of these, being 'rescue cups', are not fit to use anyway. But on occasions when there have been no children at large I have taken tea from some of my Logan Foley cups.

They absolutely demand something fragrant like Earl Grey or Lapsang Souchong and only the very thinnest and most delicate of biscuits as accompaniment (nearly said 'to dunk' there - heaven forfend!). And it's true what they say - tea tastes so much better out of bone china. Something I tend to forget as I gulp Yorkshire Tea from my pint-size 'work mug'.

So, what do you think? All comments most welcome.

(PS Apologies for the poor quality of these photos. My happy snappy PowerShot is better at views than it is at this kind of thing and the big grown-up Nikons are out of the house today.)

Catching up

Gosh, has it really been five days since my previous post?

Usual excuses: work, work, family, work, family . . . oh, and I've even been reading books!

Yes, it happened yesterday:

while SD#1 and her father were in the European City of Culture, videoing and photographing, respectively, their favourite band at the most famous club in the world;

while SD#2 recovered quietly from his birthday party at Mersea Outdoors, a picnic, an afternoon and evening walking from East to West Mersea and playing on the beach, staying up to watch the Eurovision Song Contest, a sleepover with a couple of friends and playing all morning in the garden despite the pouring rain (their idea, not mine);

while SD#3 watched back-to-back classic musicals (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Oliver and Annie) while simultaneously trying out some new ‘blending chalks’, completing half a Ratatouille colouring book, and making ‘rubbings’ of every textured surface in the house;

while the washing machine chuntered patiently through several loads of muddy clothes and the wind and rain lashed the windows (hard to believe after such a glorious Saturday) . . .

I sat in a chair and I read a book.

And then I read another one.

It is hard to describe quite how luxurious this felt. A rare treat. I could get used to it.

Anyway, what with one thing and another, I’ve had time for only the briefest skim across the blogosphere but here are some bits and bobs I’ve landed on:

* Are there simply Too Many Books out there?

* If so, maybe Amazon’s swingeing new rules on selling Print on Demand titles will help . . .

* Is there ever anything new in Crime Fiction?

* Hooray (as always) for Mick Inkpen. But which Kipper character are you? (And why couldn’t I find a copy my favourite Inkpen title in any local bookshops last weekend?)

* A comment on marginalia on one of my favourite blogs leads to an enquiry into the implications of Green Ink.

* Further ripples in the Sea Glass pond.

* And Leonard Cohen is back.


Wednesday 21 May 2008

The Story of the Sea Glass prize draw winner is . . .


As picked from the sea glass dish (with her eyes shut) by Iona.

Congratulations, Cheryl. Please email me your address and the book will be on its way to you this week.

(Goodness, that was unexpectedly nerve-wracking! Commiserations to the non-winners.)