Monday, 14 December 2020

Quick Lit December 2020


Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy for QuickLit as usual. I rarely read memoirs, and this month I squeezed in two. Retrospectively, I'm not sure it was a great idea because I was feeling emotionally sensitive during a second lockdown, and real-life pain is much worse than fictional pain. But both were worth reading.

Helen Oyeyemi - Gingerbread

The best way to describe this quirky novel is that it's a Brothers Grimm story in a modern setting. Going back and forth in time, it tells the story of how the Lee family women, makers of seemingly magical gingerbread, came to the UK from Druhastrana, a country most claim does not exist, and for Harriet Lee's quest to reunite with her childhood, changeling friend Gretel. Weird, but I enjoyed it.

Raynor Winn - The Salt Path

This was a memoir I simultaneously felt drawn to read and dreaded reading, because I knew it was going to be harrowing. In mid-life, Winn and her husband, Moth, lose everything, and in the same week, Moth receives a diagnosis of a fatal degenerative disease. With no home, little money, and nowhere to go, they decide to walk the 600-mile South West coast path of Britain, wild camping on the way. I picked it up for the Dorset connection and nature writing, but ended up learning a lot about homelessness. Although the ending was positive, it still left me drained and disturbed - but in a way that a deep book does. Highly recommended - one of my top books of 2020.

Raynor and Moth. Credit:

P.G. Wodehouse - A Pelican at Blandings

I had to read something lighthearted after The Salt Path, and knew this wouldn't have any hidden surprises. Poor Lord Emsworth just wants to be left in peace with his prize pig, the Empress of Blandings, but he is plagued by the arrival of his overbearing sister Connie, star-crossed lovers, and wrangling over a nude painting. Enter his unflappable brother Galahad, as usual, to sort all out and make every ending happy.

Lawrence's lyrical chapter on the joy of riding his motorcycle reads painfully ironically

T.E. Lawrence - The Mint

In 1922, worn out by fame and broken by PTSD (which of course was not recognised back then), Lawrence, aka, Lawrence of Arabia, took an assumed name, and managed to enlist as a common airman in the RAF, hoping to be erased and made anew. This is his memoir of that experience (published after his early, accidental death) - raw, concise, painful and quite a departure from the sprawling, genre-defying Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Part of the fascination of this book is that Lawrence could never have got away with it in our digital age. Language warning - you probably did not know that people swore like this in the 1920s!

If you want to read more about Lawrence, check out my account of visiting his grave in Dorset. Oh, and one of the characters in my novel, A Dorset Summer, is inspired by him. Considering that I am not interested in either politics or the military, my obsession is a little odd :)

Hoping that Father Christmas brings you all you wish to read!

Tuesday, 8 December 2020

The Three Good Old Men: Slovenian Christmas

 Slovenian children are particularly lucky in the Christmas period, because they get visits from not one but three "good old men" bearing gifts. Of course, books could be, and are, devoted to each, but here's my summary, with my favourite facts. (I wrote a quick Grandfather Frost blog last year, but didn't have time for more. I guess 2020 cleared my calendar.) The usual festivities will be quieter this year, but the three good old men will not be abandoning children in Slovenia - or anywhere in the world.

Is this a rap battle for supremacy? (Credit:

December 6: Saint Nicholas Day

One of my favourite days in Advent, celebrating one of the most-beloved saints. The original Saint Nicholas was a third/fourth-century bishop of Myra. Legend says he came into the bishopric very early, hence the tradition of selecting a boy bishop in some places on this day. His main association with gifts comes from the legend that he secretly saved three poor sisters from being forced into prostitution (the cleaner versions say he helped them get husbands) by secretly dropping coins into their stockings hung up to air at night, to provide them with dowries. For this, he is the patron saint of prostitutes. He also reputedly came to literal blows with Arian at the Council of Nicea over the latter's heresy - not quite the jolly old elf of modern times. 

In Slovenia, he is known as Miklavž and appears in his bishop's robes. In parades around the country, he is often followed by angels who help to give out gifts - and by devils ready to scare the bad children. Back at home, Slovenian children follow the tradition of leaving out a shoe, or maybe a stocking, for the saint. In return they get small gifts of chocolate and dried fruits. I can only imagine the reaction of most American and British children on getting dried fruit for Christmas. Actually, no, I can really imagine it, which is why our remaining little one gets chocolate and a mini panettone. We picked up this tradition before coming to Slovenia as part of our Advent observance, and it's a lovely precursor to Christmas.

Ok, this is from our trip to Zagreb, but it's a favourite memory - this St Nicholas was roaming the streets spreading good cheer and gifts. I won't forget his kindness towards the mentally disabled young adult behind him

Last year, I took Alcuin down to the old salt warehouse in Koper to greet the saint, but it turned out that there was such a long programme prior to his arrival that we had to give up, as it was beyond a small child's patience. This year, we are still in a strict lockdown and it was bucketing with rain most of the day, but he was happy tucked up at home with the above, plus a bonus Christmas book.

December 25: Father Christmas/ Santa Claus

A relatively later comer, the gift-giver of the Anglo world has managed to sandwich himself between two more traditional figures on the calendar. According to friends, celebrating December 25th, and Saint Nicholas' Day for that matter, were not encouraged during the Tito regime. For this reason, while Saint Nicholas has been welcomed back to this culturally Catholic country,  the more protestant, and commercial, Father Christmas/ Santa Claus tradition has not gained the traction it has elsewhere. I recall that the first time we lived here, nearly twelve years ago, there wasn't a hint of Christmas stuff in the shops until we were into December. Not quite the case now, but still not a frantic period. The 25th is a religious holiday, and the 26th is Independence and Unity Day, less family days than public holidays. Here in Koper, you'll find people thronging the streets and cafes, or skating on the winter rink. Father Christmas is known as Božiček here (božič is the word for Christmas). He is still the main gift-giver in our family, of course.

December 31: Grandfather Frost

The origins of this ancient figure of winter are many and tangled, but he was promoted during the times of communism as an alternative to the Christian saints. His names include Father Frost, Grandfather Winter, and Grandfather Snow. In Slovenia, he is known as Dedek Mraz (Grandfather Frost). He is associated with slavic pagan figures, and his identity has morphed and merged over time. He is alternatively, and simultaneously, Morozko, a Russian spirit or wizard of winter, a hero or smith who chains water with his iron frosts, a being who kidnaps children for ransom, as happy to freeze bad children to death as to reward good ones. At one point recharacterized as demonic by the Orthodox Church, he was eventually adopted as a propaganda figure by the old Soviet empire, by which path he made it to Slovenia. However, by the time the Yugoslavs decided to abolish Christmas, they had also split from the Soviets, so Father Frost had to be Slovenised.

Leaner than fat old Santa and tougher than heretic-punching Saint Nicholas, here Dedek Mraz appears in a leather coat and a hat made from dormouse fur. He is said to live under Mt Triglav, the country's highest mountain, from whence he emerges at the end of the year to bestow presents from a traditional Slovenian woven basket. In the capital of Ljubljana, he rides through the streets in the last days of December, in a carriage drawn by Lipizzaner horses.

In saner times, we have enjoyed attending the little Dedek Mraz celebration the University puts on for children earlier in December, but that of course has not happened this year. I don't know if Father Frost will visit us, as I always give a final gift on the last day of Christmas anyway (Epiphany, January 6).

A nice summary from the Slovenian perspective can be found at Total Slovenian News, where you can also find an account summary of how Dedek Mraz came to be. Merry Christmas! Vesel Božič!

Monday, 23 November 2020

St Aldhelm's Chapel: A Clifftop Mystery

Photo credit:

A pirate or devil, I suppose they are much the same, and a saint guard the coast between them. Tonight the saint wins. The snow has hardened treacherously, and no one will be near Old Harry Rocks until the thaw. But the hardy and faithful among us have squeezed into Saint Aldhelm's chapel for the Christmas Eve service...


I have already written about the legends of Old Harry Rocks, but another iconic landmark that is a supernatural anchor in my novel, A Dorset Summer, is St Aldhelm's Chapel, nestled up on the clifftops at Saint Aldhelm's Head. It is also known as St Alban's chapel/St Alban's head, the Devil's Chapel, and as a Wishing Chapel.

There is considerable mystery surrounding the chapel - and this post is indebted to The Dorset Rambler (see link below) for pulling together the information I remember, but in a more cohesive manner! First, it is set on a circular earthwork, an ancient construction used at least as far back as the iron age (the impressive Maiden Castle earthworks is also in this part of the country - and I can attest that's worth a visit as well). It's Norman in construction, though some say the entranceway is Saxon. Secondly it is not built in a traditional church format: it is not in an east-west orientation, has no obvious place for an altar, and has a huge pillar in the middle of its tiny, square interior, not ideal for a congregation.

Photo credit: By Huligan0 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

As to its names: Saint Aldhelm was a 7th century monk who became Abbot of Malmesbury Abbey and then the first bishop of Sherbourne. Aldhelm was a scholar and, apparently, a pretty good entertainer. He is known most famously for a set of riddles he sent to the King of Northumbria. Perhaps this is why he was also roped in to help with the biggest riddle in 7th century Britain - the controversy between the Celtic and Roman church over whose practice should reign supreme in this isle. (Historian that I am, I still feel upset about the Synod of Whitby.)

I'm guessing that the St. Alban appellation is either a common mis-repetition of the lesser-known name Aldhelm, or that the promontory and chapel were renamed for a more local saint. (Saint Alban is considered to be Britain's first Christian martyr.)

But back to the chapel that was (probably!) named after Aldhelm. Nothing is really known of its function as a religious building in its early centuries, apart from records of a priest here in the 13th century. Some surmise that it was actually built as a chantry, a small religious building where a priest was paid to pray for the souls of the dead (heavenly insurance for the wealthy). The religious connections are strengthened by the discovery in the 1950s of a thirteenth-century grave of a middle-aged woman found on the site, leading to speculation she was an anchoress. An anchorite is a person who chooses to give their life completely to contemplation and prayer, shut up in a tiny cell until death. Except, they became holy celebrities and people constantly sought them out for advice, so there wasn't always a bunch of time for meditation. Perhaps that is why this anchoress chose a remote home! Evidence of a smaller building nearby lends credence to the anchoress story. Since I am also very interested in Britain's most famous anchoress, Julian of Norwich, I like that theory. (I think maybe there's a novel in that!).

Photo credit: By Huligan0 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

If not a chapel, some have suggested that it was a type of lookout - for the navigation of ships at sea (there's a mention of it as a sea mark) or to protect Corfe Castle further inland (it shares some similarities in construction with Corfe Castle). This idea is supported by evidence that a beacon may have sat on the roof where there is now a cross. Yet it has only one, tiny window.

I suspect it was all these and more, an ancient multi-purpose building: chantry, chapel and lookout!

As for its other names, I have not found any speculation for the name Devil's Chapel - maybe that is in keeping with the tradition of naming remote or odd formations after Old Nick (see my blog on Old Harry Rock). Or perhaps that's because it's a devil of a job to get to it! But it was definitely regarded as some sort of wishing chapel, because there is a hole in the central pillar where girls have dropped votive items such as hairpins, presumably after praying for a husband. By the way, you can also read centuries-old graffiti on the pillar.

A windswept visit from many years ago - my younger daughter is 17 now!

The chapel was part of the Encombe estate for centuries, until they handed it over to the Worth Matravers parish council in the 1960s. Even if we are not sure about how it was originally used as a religious building, in more recent history (19th century) it was restored as a chapel for the families of the coastguards who had cottages nearby. When they moved, the chapel was abandoned again. As far as I know there are still services held in the chapel - I recall summer morning prayer being advertised a few years back, but in these days of Covid-19, there are none listed. Here's the parish website, I'll try to update this when things change. It's on my Dorset to-do list to attend one someday: an early summer walk to the chapel for morning prayer, followed by a slap-up breakfast nearby (maybe at Durlston). (Hint to Mum and Dad -  I know you are reading this!!)

There's a quick route and a more challenging route to get to the chapel. If you have limited time or mobility (or small children in tow, which is both), you can drive to a small car park at Renscombe Farm, from where it is a short walk.

The longer way could be undertaken as a mini-pilgrimage, by picking up the South West Coast Path in the area. If you begin near Chapman's Pool, you can include a penitential thigh workout in the climb down (184 steps) and up (219 steps) to the chapel. I admit it's been a long time since I have taken that route.

Well, that was a long post  - and I didn't even exhaust all the stories. There are more than would fit into the tiny chapel! Take a visit, drink in the atmosphere, and decide for yourself.

The excellent Dorset Rambler article on the chapel:

Here's a circular walk along the South West coastal path, taking in other landmarks such as Chapman's Pool - it starts near the chapel for the short walk I mentioned above.

Here's another, longer one beginning at Worth Matravers. They suggest refreshments at the Worth Matravers tea room. Don't start with tea there - trust me, you might not get any further!

If you got all the way down here and don't feel like scrolling up again, here is the link to the legends of Old Harry rocks.

Finally, of course, here's an extract from my novel, when Phoebe is taken to the chapel by James, whose attentions she is gently trying to dissuade.

A DORSET SUMMER: from Chapter 17

Ahead of us, Saint Aldhelm’s chapel beckoned, a small, square stone building close to the cliff, topped with a tiny steeple crowned with a cross. The chapel sank slightly below the surrounding ground, as if weighed down by the years. A single path wound west from the low wooden door. We tramped across the scrubby grass to join it.
‘Is it a real chapel, or a wayfarer’s place?’ I asked.
James looked over his shoulder. ‘Probably a chapel. Some believe it is built on an ancient Christian site. Others say it is a secret lookout because it isn’t situated in the standard orientation for a church.’
‘A lookout for smugglers?’
‘For sailors. The coast is treacherous here. Mind you, I would not be surprised if the chapel played its part in smuggling operations.’
Given what he had told me about his family’s involvement with contraband, I wondered if he was being disingenuous. I could imagine him and the Major creeping up here in the dark to meet men whose names they pretended not to know, scurrying back under cover of the barley with their cigars and brandy.
James pulled the door open, scraping the paving. Inside, a faint musty smell pervaded the small, dim space. A few tiny pews faced the altar table, lit only by an equally tiny recessed window, more like a hermitage than a chapel. The roof was supported by a crumbling stone pillar. A vase of blown roses balanced on a stand by the front pew, the only indication that anyone had a thought for the place.
I took a closer look at the pillar, taken aback to find it desecrated with the names of bygone walkers or worshippers, but intrigued to note dates going back several centuries.
‘Do people still worship here?’ I asked. Talking with James was so easy when the conversation was not about us.
‘I believe a priest holds a service once a month for the coastguard families, and we celebrate a community Christmas Eve service out here, providing the weather allows. The chapel belongs to the Encombe estate.’
Though physically empty, the atmosphere of the chapel enveloped me, kindly, patient, long suffering, as though it had seen more joy and tragedy than its small walls could contain. Perhaps that was only my mood. I turned towards the door. ‘I have seen enough now, may we leave?’
We traipsed out, but instead of returning to the car, James led the way around the chapel and along the narrow path to the cliff’s edge. He was prolonging the outing, I knew, waiting for the right moment to say something, or for a sign from me.
I’m sorry, I said silently to his back. If I had not been a coward, I would have run forward and taken his strong, brown farmer’s hands in mine, and told him: You are sweet and kind and honourable, everything a girl should want. You don’t deserve to be anyone’s consolation prize, and I won’t let you be mine.
We stopped a foot from the edge. The cliff face dropped sheer for maybe a third of the way down before sprawling in a crumbling, heaped mass of white rocks to the sea.
I leaned forward and watched the waves pound the rocks at the base of the cliff, reminded once more of James’s story and the doomed lovers he had cast into the sea at Old Harry Rocks with adolescent indifference. I closed my eyes against the sting of the wind, letting the gusts buffet me. My hearing muffled by the competing roar of wind and waves, I saw in my mind’s eye Philippa and Roger, hands clasped, about to leap. Surely the chapel knew their story. Across the millennia, it must have witnessed its share of desperate and broken-hearted people poised on this cliff’s edge. Did they take one last glance behind them at the steadfast stone walls, murmur one last prayer for forgiveness, or did they turn their backs on hope to meet the cold arms of the sea?
James snatched me back from the cliff’s edge. ‘Steady, Phoebe.’ At the fear in his voice, I opened my eyes, realizing only now that I had been swaying back and forth with the wind. A dislodged pebble clattered down the cliff face.
‘Sorry,’ I said, attempting to sound light. ‘My imagination was wandering. I was thinking of your story, of the cliff top climax.’
‘I didn’t know it was that affecting. First my cousins, now you. I don’t think I dare tell it a third time.’ He tried to echo my levity, but the way he brushed my arms as he let go of my cardigan told me I had scared him.

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Quick Lit November 2020

 Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy as usual for QuickLit. On reflection, it was a mixed bag for last month's reading - one classic, one so-so, and ending with some escapism as we went into a second lockdown. But here are the quick reviews:

P.G. Wodehouse - Pigs have Wings [audiobook]

How did I, with multiple degrees in English literature, escape reading P.G. Wodehouse this far in life? To be honest, because I harbour a suspicion of novels that are deliberately trying to be funny, and rarely try one. How wrong I was. With the impeccable upper class accent of the narrator, Jeremy Sinden, I was giggling from the beginning. Pig napping and star-crossed lovers are all adroitly managed by Lord Emsworth's incorrigible brother, Galahad. I have another Blandings Castle novel already in my TBR pile.

Donna Fletcher Crow -  Glastonbury: A Novel of Christian England

I wavered over whether to post a review of this because in some ways I don't feel qualified. To cut to the chase, it turned out that this novel is from Crow's pre-Anglican days, when she wrote for the Evangelical Christian fiction market - not my cup of tea at all. It was inspired by Edward Rutherford's Sarum: The Novel of England, an equally fat novel (actually, series of linked novellas),which I loved. As it says, Glastonbury tells the story of English Christianity from the time of Christ (following the legend that Joseph of Arimathea came to England with the Grail) to the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII. I liked the overall premise and the basis for each novella, and so I persevered through 1000-plus pages because I had been promising myself I would read this when I got a new Kindle, and also because the parts that I enjoyed, I really enjoyed. However, I confess to skipping chunks of the evangelical stuff.

Nancy Warren - The Vampire Knitting Club Books 1-3

I was seduced by Bookbub again into buying this collection on the cheap, to re-read the first and devour the others for a Halloween treat. Well-written escapism. American-raised Lucy has inherited her grandmother's Oxford knitting shop, although she can't knit to save her life. But it is soon apparent that her grandmother not only didn't die of natural causes, but is not technically dead. Oh, and she happened to be a witch who hosts a knitting club for her vampire friends, who are happy to break the boredom of eternal life by helping Lucy solve the murders and mysteries that fall her way as she herself takes up the family witches mantle.

Hope books are keeping you sane in these strange times! Going out on the BBC adaptation of the Blandings novels.

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Sečovlje - a salacious experience

 Intimations of a second lockdown in Slovenia drove us off our backsides and into the open air while we could still do so - or at least without wearing masks while outdoors. We headed for a local nature reserve in Sečovlje (I think you pronounce it seh-chow-lee-ay), right on the border with Croatia, which co-exists with one of the few remaining salt pan works in the region. Since we moved back, I have been talking of another autumn walk here. I have fond memories of our several visits about a dozen years ago, and some spectacular photos courtesy of a friend with far better photographic skills than I. 

The last time I visited was to go to the summer open air spa in the middle of the salt pans, a traumatic experience involving disposable thong underwear. Quite the opposite this time. Convinced there was going to be a cold wind blasting across the open landscape this time of year, I stuffed hats, gloves and an extra layer of outerwear in my backpack. Apparently, I was wrong: by the time we paid the small entrance fee, we were so warm that we threw all the outer layers back in the car and set off sans coats.

First excitement for me was a profusion of Michaelmas daisies. I start to hanker after growing them every September - our school's Founder's Day was on Michaelmas, and we used to wear posies of Michaelmas daisies for the church service. This is all pure nostalgia - when I was a teenager, we thought it stupid and complained about wearing weeds. But anyhow, here they were at last, the first wild ones I had seen in Slovenia. But we were in a nature reserve, so was this a gift of Mother Nature or a test of my moral fibre?

They have now built a boardwalk across the water and parallel to the main path so walkers can avoid cyclists and the odd car (they are working on cutting down motor traffic through the park). Trauma occurred early on when Alcuin got two splinters from climbing the rail. We got one out, and I assured him the other would soak out in the bath, so he proceeded to stop about every six feet to lie down and dip his hand in the water (at least that was his excuse). Actually, he stopped about every six feet for something most of the walk - getting or handing back the map, asking for a snack, asking for a drink, handing back the snack... Ted just kept walking on and back, probably tripling his exercise.

An abandoned salt worker's home

So, the nerdy stuff that interests me at least: salt has been harvested here since about the year 800, and some of those centuries were pretty cut throat. When the Venetian Empire took control, coercing the towns in the Eastern Adriatic to sign a compulsory purchase agreement, they deliberately destroyed most of the nearby salt works to create a virtual monopoly. They periodically continued this policy, leaving the Sečovlje pans untouched to become the most important source of salt in the Venetian Empire. In the wake of its collapse, the Austrian Empire took over and formally declared salt a state monopoly in 1814. By the mid-twentieth century (and more political changes of hands), salt mines were seen as more profitable; the pans declined, and were bought up by a succession of small companies. In the 1990s, the process of declaring the wetlands a nature reserve began. The Sečovlje pans are one of the last in the Mediterranean area (nearby Štrunjan has some, but the area is currently closed to walkers).

The simple evaporation process has been largely unchanged for centuries. Sea water is filtered into a huge network of rectangular basins, pans, linked by a series of small canals that have a miniature lock and dam system to let water in and out. The salt is moved down from deeper to shallower pans until it has evaporated to the extent that the salt can be scraped out. A little rail network enables the harvesters to push the wagons of salt to the salt works where it is piled up to dry out. The most gourmet salt is the fleur de sel (flower salt), that forms as a crust on the evaporating sea water.

The canal/channel system

What draws me to the reserve is its bleak beauty, its vast flat lands stretching out to the sea. Here and there a mallard plods across the shallow water, leaving a trail of footprints in the brine-soaked clay. A little egret (the park's symbol) perches on a canal, to spread its wings and fly off with a cry as we approach (over 200 species of birds have been recorded here). Tiny red brine shrimp dart through the water beneath the shadows of salt flies. Patches of purple Michaelmas daisies and golden samphire flowers cling to the sides of the scrubland, visited by saline bees (I wonder what salt pan honey tastes like?). We were lucky to spot a shore crab, too, scuttling through the seaweed of the canal. 

Dry pans

Apart from the board walk, the basics have not changed since our first visit. A shop and gallery half way along the walk, a visitor centre at the end of the main path (updated of course), and a bar that I'm pretty sure was not there before. I spent generously in the little shop because of course although I pass their outlet in town about every day I never bother to go in - plus we are trying to put money into local businesses hurt by the epidemic.

A better bird photo courtesy of my friend, Martin

The little documentary at the visitor centre reminded or informed me of so many things we don't think about when we are sprinkling the white stuff onto our chips. It has been an element of religious rituals for eons. You might think of modern day pagans and witches using salt, but it's a valid sacrament in liturgical churches, too. Or do you remember throwing spilled salt over your shoulder into the devil's eye? Did you know we get the word 'salary' from the fact that Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt? Think, too, of salty language or salacious gossip. Perhaps we don't give salt enough respect nowadays.

I know the shadow is there, but I rarely get a photo of myself

I was glowing when I got home - literally, because I had caught the sun. I was not expecting that in October. And yes, small confession - we brought home some Michaelmas daisy seed heads. Then I found out that they are actually sea asters and like salty soil. So much for that.

Touristy stuff. The salt pans are about a twenty-minute drive from central Koper. They are in the middle of a little village, and there are places to eat close by, but I have not explored the area. Here is the website. I found that the Slovenian language version was more up-to-date than the English version, which still said the reserve was closed until further notice, so you might want to double check the original with a translation tool. At the time of writing, the museum and the road that leads to it (a walk on the other side of the reserve) were definitely closed. You can also explore the salt pans with the Nexto app, that covers several tourist areas in Slovenia. I'm not big into electronic tourist guides (I like to read and then experience the place), but others may love it. Take layers and sun cream - there can be a biting wind in the summer, and apparently, scorching weather in the autumn. And if you go in the summer, of course you can try out the Thalasso Spa, but be prepared to bare all.  

Thursday, 15 October 2020

QuickLit October 2020

 Back to linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy for QuickLit after a September trip to see family in Dorset, England (and play in the sand and eat lots of cake). Plus, the local bookshop owner agreed to stock my novel set in Dorset!

Local fame for A Dorset Summer :)

Fun family fact - the Seaweeds book next to it was published under a project my brother was involved in! Here's a few reading highlights from the last couple of months:

Daphne Du Maurier - Mary Anne

This is another of Du Maurier's fictionalized family biographies, this time of her notorious great-great grandmother, Mary Anne Clarke, who pulled herself out of poverty to become a courtesan, and was for a short time the mistress of the Prince of Wales - until she reached too far. Du Maurier does not paint a pretty world or likeable characters, but this is the eighteenth century where reputation, money and a woman's body are commodities in the game of politics. Not as riveting as her fiction, but interesting if you are already a Du Maurier fan and want to know more about her family.

Jane Borodale - The Book of Fires

Keeping to the eighteenth century for this literary historical novel, shortlisted for the Orange prize. Agnes is seventeen and pregnant out of wedlock. When an unexpected way out presents itself, she flees to London and ends up as the apprentice to a fireworks maker, from whom she hides her shame. But her salvation has a time limit, and her all choices are desperate. Lyrical, lots of fascinating details about pyrotechnics, and a surprise happy ending.

My book stash from the UK, with the new Kindle I bought there on top

Jenny Colgan - The Endless Beach

My Mum gave me The Book of Fires to read, and I left her this when I was done (because my bags couldn't take one. more. thing). A sequel to The Summer Seaside Kitchen (or The Cafe by the Sea if you are in the US). Flora wonders if her new relationship with Joel is actually getting anywhere. Lorna, her friend and headmistress of the tiny island school, is wrestling with her love for refugee doctor Saif, whose wife and sons are missing. Only Flora's brother seems to enjoy unalloyed happiness with Colton - but their new love is about to be tested to the full. Typical delicious Colgan fare that will keep you turning the pages.

Plenty of new publications from my critique group this past month or so. Here' s a sampling:

Ursula Thompson - Brothers of the Sun. Book 1: All at Sea.   Piratical debut.

Katherine Pym - Begotten. Fantasy based on the ancient Sumer civilisation.

Maggi Andersen - Introducing Miss Joanna. Second in her romance novella series Once a Wallflower. Plus The Heir's Proposal. Maggi is prolific :) Oh, and a romance novella collection she contributed to, The Midnight Hour: All Hallows Brides, won the RONE award!

Anne Marie Brear - Market Stall Girl. Historical family saga set in Yorkshire.

Hope you are having a safe and happy October. I confess this is the time of year when I am grateful I have moved back to Europe and only have to think about Christmas :)

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Milano without FOMO

 So, we finally got on the road again. Actually, we have sort of been on the road for day trips several times, but it mostly ended in tourism failures which I could have made into witty blog posts if I had been in the mood, but coronavirus somewhat sapped my usual store of sarcasm.

Anyhow, when our daughter's Venice flight to her new school got cancelled, and Milan was the nearest airport offering an alternative, we decided to take a few extra days' break. It's a major Italian city I have never visited, and hubby has a good friend and colleague there. Plus our daughter got to enjoy telling everyone how her family was sending her off to boarding school and then going on holiday.

A little Milan street art

The FOMO? Well, it's Milan in August, post lockdown. Like many Europeans, the Italians see the holiday month of August as sacred. Even in non-pandemic years, businesses and restaurants, regardless of whether they are in the middle of famous tourist cities, think nothing of shutting up for the whole month - "chiuso per ferie" (closed for holidays) was the phrase we saw displayed on shop after shop. Museums and many other city attractions were open only for two days a week, and then only accepting visitors on timed tickets bought in advance. 

But, we were trying to holiday in a city with a five year-old and couldn't have big plans, so there was no pressure to see and do it all. Plus, the only real goal was to get our daughter safely off on her new adventure. As long as the plane left, it was a success. In fact, I had rashly declared to a friend that the rest of the holiday could be a disaster as long as she got off okay.

The Duomo. Credit:

The first plus: the roads were empty, so there was none of the usual terror of driving in an Italian city. We pulled into the carefully chosen car park, only to find that it was a supermarket. We'd mistaken it for the actual car park next door, which was "chiuso per ferie". We decided to leave the car there and go to meet the host of our AirBnb apartment. There was only one other car in the whole place, and who was going to fine us in August when all the traffic wardens were "chiuso per ferie"?

The AirBnb was the second plus: we got a one-bedroom apartment in the Isola district for a discount, less than 60 euros a night. A little squashed for the one night our daughter was there with all her luggage, but plenty of room for the three of us after she jetted off (see my review below). And, it turned out that even if half the city car parks are "chiuso per ferie", street parking is widely available.

Unfortunately, our first outing, and our daughter's farewell dinner, was not so great. We headed out to Chinatown to seek out a ramen restaurant - and spent about an hour and a half trailing from place to place which Google thought was open but in actuality was... "chiuso per ferie". Tired, hangry and with sore feet, we trudged back to the apartment to find that the Indian takeaway next door had at least opened, but with a limited menu. Not the best last night, but nothing could be done about it, and we had bought the next day's train tickets on the way, so that was a small victory.

Inside Milan's vintage trams. Credit:

The next morning, Alcuin and I saw Ted and our daughter off on the train to the airport (aside - DON'T FORGET TO VALIDATE YOUR TRANSPORT TICKETS BEFORE USING THEM. Just saying.). I had decided to take Alcuin for a ride on the #1 tram, which still uses the old, vintage cars and trundles through the main tourist areas. We made it to the central station, but then got into trouble. I asked for directions three times, and got vague answers from stallholders around the station probably annoyed that I wasn't buying anything when they were having a terrible summer, and weren't "chiuso per ferie".

 Ted checked in mid morning and told us what had happened with his tickets (but daughter's plane was on time, so what was a hundred euros compared to that?). I was beginning to think I shouldn't have called down disaster on our heads, and was about to limp off back to the apartment when I spotted one last tram line around a corner - and thank goodness it was the right one. The real thank goodness was that I found a small packet of biscuits hidden in my backpack, which stopped Alcuin from having a meltdown.

But yes, the tram ride was fun - and I had validated my ticket. Very few people were riding, and, like the underground trains, seats were marked off so we had lots of space. We journeyed through town until I could no longer follow where we were,, and got off near a park for a break before hopping on the tram in the other direction.

Guess what this is!*

In the afternoon, reunited with Ted, we made our way to the Duomo (cathedral) piazza to meet his good friend and colleague. The place felt like an oven. The temperatures were due to be similar to Koper, but a heatwave swept in at the last moment. We couldn't get inside the Duomo fast enough - literally, because we had to have a bag check and temperature check to be allowed in. There's lots you can do at the Duomo, but we knew our son's limits and just paid the few euros to go inside, forgoing the crypt, treasury and tower to admire the architecture. Taking six centuries to complete, it's technically the largest church in Italy (Saint Peter's in Rome is inside Vatican City).  Like all great cathedrals, it is designed to be a huge space that gives you a glimpse of eternity as it draws your eyes upwards to heaven. I'd go with the writer Henry James on the description that it is "not... commandingly beautiful, but grandly curious and superbly rich".

Next stop the Galleria in the same piazza, where the glory of capitalism rubs shoulders with the glory of God, to cool down with an ice cream and look at all the designer shops I would never step into. There was a lady and her baby dressed up to the nines in front of one, with her husband doing some sort of photo shoot for them. The beginning of the child's instagram life, I guess. There are several mosaics in the Galleria, and someone came up with the idea that it was good luck to spin three times on the bull's testicles of one of them. Luckily we had Alcuin to do that for us so the adults didn't have to be seen being cheesy but we could check it off our list.

From there, we walked ten minutes to the Sforza castle, built up around a 14th century fortress. Again, this is a budget and child-friendly option. You can enjoy the castle and environs, and even the courtyard for free, but pay to get inside the museum rooms (again, only open two days a week), which include Da Vinci frescoes. Alcuin had the most fun walking around spotting the colony of well-fed cats who live in the former moat. There's a notice up that roughly translates "Please don't feed the cats because we do". A short play in the Sempione park that backs onto the castle, and it was time to go back to our thankfully air conditioned apartment to cool down before dinner. Our friend took us literally around the corner in the other direction from the one we had gone the night before - and lo and behold there was an entire restaurant district on our doorstep. Oh well.

Our 'new' family of three at the fountain by the Sforza castle (that's not it in the background!)

The biggest plus of the coronavirus/August situation was that we were able to book tickets to see Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper only one week in advance, when it's usually months, so the next morning we were off to the monastery of Santa Marie delle Grazie and another temperature/ security check. (It's Cenacolo Vinciano in Italian if you're following the clear signposting.) Groups of eighteen are allowed in for fifteen minutes at a time, after going through a carefully climate-controlled entrance. The moment we entered the refectory was pretty emotional. Alcuin was incredibly patient for once and even allowed himself to be placated when he got a little antsy. And all was well, until our friend whispered to me, "Whose arm is that?" Bother, he was right, there's this arm that must be Peter's but doesn't quite sit right. This is what happens when you go around with mathematicians. (I've since discovered that yes, it must be Peter's but is twisted and that everyone who has read or seen The Da Vinci Code of course knows all about it.)

The Basilica cloister

With temperatures set to soar to 36 degrees, we could only choose one more spot to hit before we had to take a siesta, and we chose the Basilica of Saint Ambrose (Sant'Ambrogio), founded by the saint but extensively rebuilt. Saint Ambrose, if you are wondering, is famous for a couple of things in particular. The first is being instrumental in the conversion of Saint Augustine, whose writings influenced western thought for centuries. The second is that he dared to defy the Emperor Theodosius, refusing him entry to the cathedral (and excommunicating him to boot) after the ruler was complicit in a massacre at Thessalonica - and the Emperor capitulated and repented.

Saint Ambrose flanked by two martyrs

It was a good choice - a shaded cloister for exercising Alcuin, and, though we had not figured this out beforehand, Saint Ambrose is still there in person, decked out in bishop's robes! Admittedly, he's looking a little thin nowadays, but wow! Being in the presence of such a seminal figure of early history just blew me away. Even better - they had the forethought to entomb the bodies of his brother and sister there, too. Plus, under the pulpit is the tomb of Stilicho which almost certainly contains the body of the famous Roman (but half Vandal) general. This visit may have eclipsed The Last Supper for me. Ambrose, by the way, is still revered in Milan and his feast day is celebrated on December 7th each year.

And that, folks, was it for us. A rest from the heat and a final curry, but from a restaurant this time, and it was ciao to Milan, but we'll be back when it's cooler, and not "chiuso per ferie".

*I don't know. It was on the column outside the main door of the basilica.

Touristy stuff

The Last Supper: Don't be fooled by the first sites that come up when doing a search for The Last Supper: they inevitably try to sell you very expensive package tickets. We paid 15 euros per adult via the official site.

Accommodation:This is our apartment. We had no complaints - but if you are looking for an upmarket AirBnb experience, this might not be for you. It had comfortable beds, a decent amount of towels and bedding, and a fully, but not over, equipped kitchen, plus a utility room with a washing machine and lots of storage space if you are en route to somewhere else or travel with everything but the kitchen sink (but be warned if you do that as it's up 4 flights of stairs). It will not sleep four adults unless you are very short, because the sofa bed is not long enough for the average man, plus the place would be crowded. But if you are the sort of traveller who wants a decent, comfortable, budget place to rest your head, and the city is what you have come to enjoy, I recommend it. It's in the heart of the Isola district, across the road from a small supermarket, and a short walk from the train and underground stations - and restaurants, if you turn in the right direction.

Transport: Milan has a good public transport system that is very cheap. Tickets cover duration, not rides - 90 minutes per ticket, valid on buses, trams and the underground. (I thought at first that it was more complicated than London, but I say that of all other underground systems, even though they have about three lines and London has a hundred and three. Familiarity.) I bought a 24-hour ticket and it easily paid for itself with zipping here and there, because it was too hot to walk. VALIDATE YOUR TICKET - look for the machines, which will often have instructions in English as well as Italian.

If you are foolish enough to take a car, there are several parking apps that can at least make it less of a headache - I used EasyPark and it was very, well, easy.

Planning: This was a last minute trip, so there was no great planning campaign. If you are travelling with children, this might be an interesting website. I also perused this one on free or freeish things to do in Milan. 

Saturday, 15 August 2020

Quick Lit August 2020

Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy as usual for QuickLit.
Ah, the dog days of summer. We're sweltering here on the edge of the Mediterranean, so thank goodness we live only a five-minute walk from the sea. I feel like I'm not really into my reading at the moment, so it's nice to keep this record and remind myself that I've managed to squeeze in some good books.

Melon and very little clothing - that's how it's going at our house nowadays

Katherine Reay - The Bronte Plot [audio]
This was free via the InSnyc teen summer reading programme. I liked the premise of the novel: a dying woman, Helen, determines to settle past regrets, and travels to England, choosing as her companion Lucy, the granddaughter of her first love. Lucy is also grappling with her past, wondering if she can ever break free from the dubious influence of her family - and has also just broken up with Helen's grandson over this. However, the setting was the lives of the super rich, which does not interest me, so I felt somewhat detached from the characters.

Daphne Du Maurier - The Parasites
Not so with this novel, that is still haunting me. Several avid Du Maurier readers told me they had not heard of this one, so I suppose it must be a hidden classic. The Delany children - step siblings Maria and Niall, linked by Celia, half-sister to each - are the children of famous artistes. When Maria's husband bitterly announces one afternoon that they are nothing but parasites, they delve into their past to put themselves on trial. To call it a psychological drama might sound boring, but it is anything but. Even the narrative voices are parasitic, feeding off one another and merging in and out of one unidentifiable 'we'. If I could make a wish to write like only one novelist, I think it would have to be Du Maurier (Barbara Pym would be second). Absolutely read it if you have enjoyed her other books.

Dorothy L. Sayers - Five Red Herrings
There seems to have been a run on sales for the Lord Peter Wimsey novels. I have to say, I wish I had read this one in a physical copy so that I could flick back and forth. There are six suspects, many of whom Sayers gave standard Scottish names, and much of the mystery involves railway timetables. Many times, I felt like I should go back to the beginning and start a whodunnit spreadsheet. But, to the plot: a belligerent artist is found dead with his half-finished painting, and all his acquaintances are suspects. A good story, excellent red herrings, but an abrupt ending, I thought.

And now, onto confession time...

Katherine Hayton - Marjorie's Cozy Kitten Cafe [audiobooks]
I was getting the 'second wave' of Covid-19 anxiety, and this trio of audio mystery novellas beckoned for only 99 cents. Actually what sold me was the reviewer who complained 'Not enough cats.' Easy listening while I make dinner, and better for the hips than chocolate therapy.

I hope you are enjoying summer reading. With any luck, I won't be posting next month, because I have a holiday booked to see family in the UK. Fingers crossed for the flight!

Thursday, 16 July 2020

Legends of Old Harry Rock

Photo credit:

Old Harry Rock (or, Old Harry Rocks) near Studland is/are an iconic landmark in Dorset, although perhaps a little less famous (if postcards are anything to go by) than Durdle Door in Lulworth. The chalk outcrop looms as a geographic phantom throughout my novel, A Dorset Summer.

Just as people don't agree on exactly how to name them (just counting the main rock, or those surrounding him), how they got their name is also in dispute. Some say they are named after the fourteenth-century Poole pirate, Harry Paye. Explanations include that his ships hid near here as a launch point for his raid on merchant ships, or that his treasure was stashed in the cliff's caves. History suggests that Harry ferried pilgrims across the sea to Spain, and, in an admirable display of business acumen, filled his empty holds on the return journey by indulging in piracy along the Spanish coastline, as well as accepting money from Spanish nobility to aid them in their feuds.

The main reason he is celebrated comes a little later - and I've seen slightly different versions of that story. Either in payback for the piratical antics of the man they called Arripaye, or in a run-of-the-mill act of aggression,  A Spanish-French alliance raided the coastline along Dorset, launching an attack on Harry's home town. The people of Poole beat the invaders off in a desperate fight, even ripping doors from their hinges to use as shields. Apparently Harry was absent, but in revenge, he gathered a small fleet and captured 120 French ships, giving their cargo to Poole. It is said the people were drunk for a month afterwards on the claret. I'm surprised they even remembered his name after that, but they (maybe) named the rocks for him, and commemorate him on Harry Paye Day - Pirate Day - in Poole.

Photo credit:

The other most popular legend links the rocks to "Old Harry", the devil, joining with many other geographic oddities in the British Isles, which are said to be places visited by the devil. The Dorset legend says he slept on the rock one night. The expression "to play Old Harry" means to ruin or destroy, and it's linked here to the idea that it's a warning to ships to steer clear of the rocks. By the way, other places in Dorset with satanic etymology include Agglestone (meaning "Prince's Stone") and the village of Dewlish (devilish).

Another legend, one that I only found out about when I delved a little deeper into Old Harry legends, is that the rock is a drowned Viking, Earl Harold, turned into a pillar of chalk after his raid on the English coast was thwarted. I tried to investigate that tale further, but only got broken links, so maybe it's a legend about a legend :)

Geography says the rocks were once part of a chalk cliff line that stretched out to what is now the Isle of Wight. Erosion over thousands of years left us the Needles at the Isle of Wight and Old Harry by the mainland. Old Harry used to have a wife, but she collapsed into the sea at the end of the nineteenth century, and her title was transferred to the next rock along, so I suppose Old Harry is not that doting a husband.

By the way, H.G. Wells' ashes were scattered here by his son.

Painting copyright Beatrice Dobson 2020 (aka my talented daughter!)

Whatever the origins, Old Harry is an impressive focal point for your walks along the Jurassic coastline. I like to do the walk from Swanage, the town where my parents now live. You can start from the town itself, picking up the path to the cliff near the Grand Hotel, but I prefer to begin at Swanage beach, walking along almost to the point where it turns the corner of the coastline, to pick up the stairs that wind up the cliff and meet the coastal path. From there it's a clearly-marked path along the cliff edge and through fields to Old Harry. After you've rested on the cliffs, a short walk will bring you down into Studland and the Bankes Arms for a very well-deserved pint, and the bus back to Swanage. As far as I can recall, that's less than a couple of hours of walking.

The easiest and more popular route, especially in summer, is to pick up the path in Studland itself, down the road from the Bankes Arms, where you start on a wooded, shaded route and break out into sunshine near the cliff edge. We used to do that quite a lot when I was a child, as a break from sitting on the beach below. Whichever route you choose, you'll be well rewarded at the end.

I chose to put the legends of Old Harry into the prologue of my novel, setting the tone of something vaguely supernatural lying beneath the surface. Here it is in full:

Photo credit: all my own work :)

A Dorset Summer: Prologue 
I lean against the windowsill, my face so close to the pane that my breath dissolves a little circle in the frost clinging to the glass. In the fading light, an unfamiliar landscape meets my eye. Snow: shovelled into grey heaps three feet high on either side of the pathways, drifting pristine against the fences, melding gardens and fields into one expanse.
On a whim, I fling open the casement. An avalanche of hardened snow cascades from the roof above. A gull, hunkered down by the chimney, takes flight, startled and angry, and screeches off into the dusk.
Little clumps of snowflakes waft into the room and settle on my cheeks, melting down my face in icy tears. Water trickles to my collar as I trace the dark outline of the bird, headed towards the coast. My head tells me he will make for the nearest barn or house, to take shelter where he can until the darkness lifts. In my heart, I follow him to the sea.
I close my eyes and visualise his imaginary flight, sweeping the miles to the cliffs, to Old Harry Rocks. Foolish, I know. What would drive him all that way, cold and blind and weary?
What drove me?
Old Harry. Not even here in Dorset, where memory is long, can they agree on how the rocks came to be named. Many swear it is for Harry Paye, a pirate in the days of the Plantagenets. Harry pillaged his way along the coast of Normandy to the Bay of Biscay, until the French and Spanish fleets united to raid his home town, Poole, in revenge. But like the land, the people here are resilient. They fought off the foreign invaders, using only doors for shields, then immortalised the man who brought destruction on their heads by christening these rocks after him.
I take a long breath, drawing the chill air deep into my lungs, as if testing my own resilience against the outside world. In these twilight hours, it is easier to believe the folklore that the rocks take their name from a destroyer of souls far older than Harry Paye. They say the devil slept there one night, tired out from making mischief perhaps, or from carousing with his pagan comrades at nearby Stonehenge.
I lean out to swing the casement shut. A final blast of frigid air envelops me. I step back, arms wrapped around myself, watching the view fade from my sight as the window pane fogs up.
The land outside my window tells its own silent story about Old Harry Rocks; in the end, I think, more true than either legend. Any guide to Dorset will inform you these stone outcrops are part of the flint and chalk downs that spread through the county and out across the sea. The rocks have stood, outwardly impregnable, for tens upon millions of years, but the elements assault them mercilessly. Air and water work their way into each little fissure, eroding caves, which in turn become open hollows. Eventually, the archways gape so wide, the rock cannot support itself and collapses into the waiting arms of the ocean.
Such are we. We hide our inmost selves from those around us, standing tall and hard as rocks. But little by little, the world works its way into our cracks, exposing our frailties, until we can no longer sustain the façade of our outward lives and plunge headlong into the abyss of our own making.

And who is there to catch us when we fall?

A Dorset Summer is available via Amazon: here's the link to the blurb and other info. Meanwhile, if you are interested in Old Harry Rocks, here's a couple of online sources to get you started:

A short article on Dorset place names in general is found at

And here are some walks that take in Old Harry Rocks:

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Quick Lit July 2020

Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy for the QuickLit round up. June was a slower reading month, but with one unfinished novel and two I loved, I guess it was a winner overall.

Dorothy L. Sayers - Strong Poison
What I appreciate about Sayers's detective novels is the emphasis on 'novel'. The Lord Peter Wimsey stories don't follow a formula, but rather Sayers experiments with style and theme. This novel introduces the partnership with Harriet Vane beloved by many readers, as Lord Peter races to prove she is innocent of poisoning her former lover. I also enjoyed the balanced themes in this book: Even as the men - Lord Peter, Detective Inspector Charles Parker, and The Hon. Freddie Arbuthnot - are contemplating marriage, we are introduced to a slew of unmarried, independent women whose resourcefulness matches Lord Peter's own. I've got two more Wimsey books waiting on my Kindle now!

Dacre Stoker - Dracula: the Un-dead
I was lured to try this by the promise that it is the authorised sequel - I made it through the original on my second go (the first time, I foolishly tried to read it at night) and loved it. Plus, I can claim to be vaguely related to Bram Stoker through my husband's side of the family. However, the claim that it is based on Bram Stoker's notes is stretching it a bit - I doubt he planned a gory, lesbian vampire fantasy. If you're wondering, it was the gore that made me put the book down - but if you like classic vampire novels, this might be for you.

Ruth Saberton - The Letter
I've read one other novel by Saberton - The Island Legacy - and it was OK. But this one, unlike Dracula, I couldn't put down - it was right up my alley and had surprising similarities to my own writing style (well, maybe not, considering the setting and subject matter). This is a dual timeline novel, which I am gathering are quite popular right now. Young widow Chloe rents an old rectory in the Cornish village where her husband's roots are, hoping to find a resolution to her grief. She becomes embroiled in a mystery surrounding an obscure World War I poet, but the key she is searching for also becomes the one that opens a door to her new life.

From my critique group (I read this in July but am squeezing it in here!):

Saturday’s Child completes Rosemary Morris’ seven-book series of loosely connected Regency romances. You don’t need to read  them in order. They are all “sweet” or “closed door” romances. But although they may be gentle in tone, Ms. Morris uses these novels to explore issues of love across various barriers, be they disability, race or class. This story takes the latter angle, focusing not on a member of the upper class but working-class Annie, who builds up her own business after the loss of her father. Her determination and compassion earns her the attention of Marcus, a member of the ton, but can true love really cross class barriers? With Saturday’s Child, you can escape into the Regency era, root for a resourceful heroine, and admire a hero who is willing to challenge his beliefs for the sake of the woman he loves. Best of all, if this is your cup of tea, you have six more to enjoy!

Finally, here's a little taste of the 80s Wimsey and Vane series to round out this post. Each mystery gets 3-4 episodes, so you really get into the details. I recommend it!

Monday, 15 June 2020

QuickLit June 2020

Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy as usual for QuickLit. I have something to celebrate as we finish coming out of lockdown - I finally published my novel, A Dorset Summer (a promise seven years in the making, which is a whole other blog post). Here is a link to the post all about it, and the  Amazon link, if anyone is interested. Meanwhile, here's what kept me going in May:

The Venerable Bede. Source:

Donna Fletcher Crow - An Unholy Communion, A Newly Crimsoned Reliquary, and An All-Consuming Flame (The Monastery Murders, books 3-5)
I was definitely losing it by the end of lockdown - making cinnamon rolls at 10pm, and randomly choosing to read an entire series of cosy mysteries set in the heart of the Anglican church. As I mentioned last month, I enjoyed the first but the second was a let-down. The third picked up for me. In An Unholy Communion, ordinand Felicity and history lecturer Father Anthony, now engaged, take a young group of pilgrims through ancient Wales after the mysterious falling death of a past student of Anthony's. But the evil that seems to dog their footsteps is not wholly of this world. Oxford is the setting of A Newly Crimsoned Reliquary. Felicity is translating a manuscript for an order of nuns - but their Mother Superior has gone missing, and a grisly new "relic" turns up in a reliquary. The last installment, An All-Consuming Fire, meandered a bit, like the second: in the run-up to Anthony and Felicity's wedding, Anthony is roped in to help with a documentary on the English mystics, but the misfortunes dogging the set start to get closer to home...
What can I say - they have their ups and downs (Felicity must have some serious brain damage given all the times she's been knocked on the head, and Ms. Crow seems to paint anyone who isn't white middle class with broad brush strokes), but the historical parts of the mysteries are informing and entertaining, and it has spurred me to start re-reading the classics of my faith. Brain candy for church history geeks.

Jenny Colgan - The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris
Usually I stick to Jenny Colgan books that involve remote British locations plus baking or books. Also (quelle horreur!) I am not in love with Paris (Florence, now...). Anyhow, this is two parallel stories: while in hospital, Anna is roomed with her old French teacher, who helps her brush up her language skills and gets her a summer job with a chocolatier, who happens to be the teacher's first love. Anna's story is interspersed with that romance, set in the 70s. It's the classic Colgan formula, breezy, heartwarming, and not explicit. I wept a little, too.

Lorna Cook - The Forgotten Village
I had to read this dual timeline novel because it incorporates a fictionalised account of Tyneham, the Dorset village requisitioned by the army in the Second World War, a place I've visited several times. Just as Melissa's relationship falls apart on a holiday in Dorset, she meets TV historian Guy on a visit to the village. Struck by an anomaly in the photo of Lady Veronica and Sir Albert, they begin a spontaneous investigation of what actually happened in Tyneham in the last few, fateful days before the entire population was relocated, and, of course, find themselves falling for each other. Once I got over my initial disconnect between the facts I know and the fictional story Ms. Cook creates, I enjoyed this. I also recommend visiting the village if you are down that way and it is open (the army still uses the land for target practice so it's sometimes closed).

Bede - History of the English Church and People [also known as: Ecclesiastical History of the English People]
I got right to my promise and pulled this off my bookshelf. British readers may well recall the Venerable Bede from history lessons. This 8th century monk is known as a father of British history - he gathers sources from his network across Europe to present the church history of the English. I have to admit my eyes glazed over at the difficult names, except for Bishop Sexwulf - I bet he had a good congregation, but I'm glad I tackled it. I was also amused by Bede's shameless plug for another of his books right at the end; some things never change in publishing, it seems.


Colleen Donnelly - Letters and Lies
From a member of my critique group. Don't Come. I can't marry you. This is the telegram Lizzie's fiance-by-correspondence sends just as she is due to head out West for their marriage. But Lizzie, desperate to be married and to save her family business, boards the train under the guise of a widow intending to change his mind. But one lie leads to another, and she soon finds herself embroiled in trouble she hadn't anticipated. And she's not the only one concealing the truth. I wouldn't usually pick up a novel set in the Wild West, but I enjoyed this. It's an easy read, and, though romance is at its heart, it's more about sisterhood.

Let me know if you have any recommendations for Anglican mysteries - or just good Anglican books!

Available at Amazon