Thursday, 3 December 2020

Read in September - British Humour and Murder Mysteries

Somehow the autumn turned out so stressful that I never got round to writing any reviews of the books I read and listened to during September-November. By now, I've probably forgotten too many details to be able to write proper reviews, but I'm thinking I'll try to at least list them (one post per month), and add some blurb quotes + general impressions.


Born to be Mild - Adventures for the Anxious
by Rob Temple (2020)

Audio book, 8:30 hours, narrated by Mathew Baynton

"Rob Temple runs a social-media empire from the comfort of his sofa. Living the dream! But what happens when a lack of colleagues, bosses and alarm clocks means that your sofa and the four walls of your very quiet living room become your whole world? 

In this tender and life-affirming memoir, Rob explores what it will take for him to become a little less Bear (Pooh) and a little bit more Bear (Grylls) and how mild-mannered, anxious rule-followers can get their own share of (gentle) adventure from time to time."

I know the author as the man behind "Very British Problems" which I've been following on Facebook for years, and whose Very British humour often makes me smile and think that I must have some British DNA somewhere in my genes if I dig deep enough. (Viking ancestors, perhaps?) This book I think I'd call a biographical novel (not knowing exactly how much he's twisting reality). I enjoyed it very much, and in some ways it remins me of one of my all-time British favourites, Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome (1889). I bought it as audio book and I think it's one I'll return to when in the mood for some mild and humorous encouragement. I'd also say it's a great book for Corona times, when even the more sociable among us have been forced to live a more isolated life than usual.


I also read/listened to four detective novels by T.E. Kinsey (new author to me), which I bought on special offers including both Kindle + Audible version. (There are three more books in the series, so far; whether I'll some day buy those as well remains to be seen.) The audio books are narrated by Elizabeth Knowelden; each about 8-9 hours long.

The author T.E. Kinsey grew up in London, studied history at the University of Bristol, and had some other writing jobs before he started writing his own historical murder mysteries. 

A Quiet Life in the Country (1)

The first book is set in 1908 and introduces Lady Hardcastle, an eccentric widow with a secret past, and her lady's maid/companion Florence (Flo) Armstrong, as they have just moved from London, hoping for a "quiet life" in the countryside.

... But it is not long before Lady Hardcastle is forced out of her self-imposed retirement. There’s a dead body in the woods, and the police are on the wrong scent. Lady Hardcastle makes some enquiries of her own, and it seems she knows a surprising amount about crime investigation…

As Lady Hardcastle and Flo delve deeper into rural rivalries and resentment, they uncover a web of intrigue that extends far beyond the village. With almost no one free from suspicion, they can be certain of only one fact: there is no such thing as a quiet life in the country.

In each of the following books, of course, they keep getting involved in more mysteries; and we also gradually get to know a little more about their background(s) - which also included travels in foreign countries.

In the Market for Murder (2)

Spring, 1909. A week after a trip to the cattle market, Spencer Caradine, a local farmer, turns up dead in the pub, face-down in his beef and mushroom pie. Once again, it is up to Lady Hardcastle and her maid, Florence, to solve the case.

Death Around the Bend (3)

September 1909, and Lady Hardcastle and her maid, Florence, have been invited to Lord Riddlethorpe’s country estate for a week of motor racing and parties. They both agree that it sounds like a perfectly charming holiday. But when one of the drivers dies in a crash…

A Picture of Murder (4)

Late October 1909, and the season of ghouls and things that go bump in the night has descended on the village of Littleton Cotterell. Lady Hardcastle and her trusted lady’s maid, Florence, find themselves hosting a colourful cast of actors whose spooky moving picture, The Witch’s Downfall, is being shown to mark Halloween. But things take a macabre turn when the first night’s screening ends with a mysterious murder...

What I enjoyed most about these books was the main characters, Lady Hardcastle and Florence, and the relationship between them: Florence is employed as lady's maid but at the same time is really treated more like a friend and companion than like a servant...

(End of book review)



... and this intrigued me, because it made me think of my grandmother's older half-sister Gerda, who worked in similar positions around the same period of time (and onward). I think I've told her story before, but: As a young girl Gerda emigrated from Sweden to America in 1901 or 02 (only a year or two after my grandmother was born). There she worked her way up as maid/ lady's maid/ travel companion. She stayed in America (Chicago) for around ten years; then made her way back to Europe, working as lady's maid/travel companion for one or more English ladies who liked to travel the world. At some point the travels even took her to India. During WWI Gerda got stuck in France and couldn't get back to Sweden until after the war. In 1928 or not long after, she got employed as lady's maid / housekeeper to a young American 'lady', Estelle Manville, who married the Swedish count Folke Bernadotte, related to the Swedish royal family, and who came to play an important role as an international diplomat, especially during WWII. Among other things, towards the end of the war he organized prisoner exchanges to bring home thousands of prisoners of war from Germany via Sweden. He was also appointed United Nations Mediator in Palestine after the war, but was sadly assassinated in Jerusalem in 1948. My great-aunt Gerda remained living with his widow, countess Estelle, long after that; way past normal retirement age (she lived to be 92). Estelle eventually got remarried - but not until the same year Gerda died, in 1973. I don't think I ever met Gerda (possibly in my very early childhood, but I'm not sure). But when I've been digging a bit into the family history (after my own parents died), her story is certainly the most intriguing. I have some old photos and postcards, but no long letters or diaries or anything of that kind; so a lot of things I can only guess at. Like, for example, how formal or informal her relationship with her employers was. (I know she accompanied the Bernadotte family on some of their travels as well, though. In her photo album there are photos from what I've managed to identify as the Manville estate in Pleasantville, N.Y.; and also of her sitting on a donkey in front of the pyramids in Egypt. ) (More about Gerda can be found in my blog Greetings from the Past - which I've not had much time to keep adding to lately, but the info I have gathered there so far is still there. And readers who came across that blog in their own internet searches have actually helped me confirm and fill in some facts and gaps in the story.)



  1. Gerda led a super interesting life for sure

    1. Sandra, she really did - and as with so many things, I wish I had learned more about it while there were still people around who might have known more about it. Mind you, even my grandmother probably did not really know all that much, as there was an age gap of 19 years between them and they were only half-sisters on their father's side - who died when my grandmother was little (and Gerda was living in America). From my own childhood, I just remember that grandma often talked with certain pride about her older sister, who had been to America in her youth, and then returned to work for "the royal family".

  2. Well, I DO have British heritage! You find the best books!

  3. A Gerda-biography would make for great reading, Monica!

    Thank you for the book reviews. They appeal to me. If only I had more time (and better eyes) for reading!

    1. Meike, I wish I had more time and better eyes for reading as well - which is why I often listen to books instead... I also agree a Gerda-biography would be interesting, I'm afraid there are way too many gaps in the story though. Sometimes I've played with the idea of a fictional story - but even besides the fact that she ended up working for really famous people (about whose lives one couldn't feel free to just make things up), I think other details as well would require more research than I'd ever be able to do.


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