Thursday, May 23, 2013
Richard Hannay - soldier, spy catcher, detective - is John Buchan's most famous character. He first appears in The Thirty-Nine Steps, a book that has been adapted for film & television many times since it was published in 1915. Most of the adaptations depart from the book quite a bit I've never understood why film makers do this. (Don't ever get me started on the latest Miss Marple travesties!) so I'd recommend that you read the book first so that at least you can see what they've changed. I've also read Greenmantle, the next Hannay adventure, & Mr Standfast is the third.
Mr Standfast was published in 1919 & the action takes place during WWI. Hannay has been serving with his regiment on the Western Front when he is suddenly summoned home by the War Office & given an important mission that will take him out of the front line for a while. He's not particularly happy about this & even less happy when he realises that his role will be as an anti-war peace activist. His old Intelligence boss, Bullivant, sends him off to stay at Fosse Manor near Isham to get a lead on a very dangerous man, Moxon Ivery - or at least, that's what he calls himself. Hannay has assumed his old alias, Cornelius Brand, & while at Fosse Manor, he meets Mary Lamington & falls instantly in love. Mary, however, isn't just the token love interest. She's part of Bullivant's intelligence network & is a bright, resourceful young woman who has a crucial part to play in the narrative.
Ivery is posing as one of the anti-war crowd but in reality he's a German spy sending intelligence back to Berlin through an elaborate network of informants & rendezvous in remote locations. I won't even try to describe Hannay's adventures which include dodging the police in the wilds of Scotland after getting himself involved with industrial politics in Glasgow, being trapped in a cage in an impregnable cellar in Switzerland (he shoots his way out of that one in a very surprising way) & trekking over an Alpine pass in the middle of winter in six hours. He even finds himself taking over as director of a war film & using his abilities as a commander of men to foil his pursuers. Every escapade is breathtaking & because the narrative is in the first person, we're right there with Hannay as he makes his discoveries & escapes from his enemies. In between, Hannay returns to his regiment in France & even comes across a lead on Moxon & his cronies at a chateau in Picardy.
Hannay's old friends from previous adventures are much in evidence. Blenkiron, the brash American engineer, is now high up in the Intelligence Service & he's the one who explains the background to Hannay & pulls strings for him. Peter Pienaar has joined the Royal Flying Corps & is having a wonderful time as a crack pilot until he is shot down, badly wounded & taken prisoner. The final confrontation between Hannay & Ivery (who reveals himself as the Graf von Schwabing) is a classic standoff between good & evil, highlighted by the fact that Ivery is also in love with Mary (who had been nursing in France) & planning to kidnap her & take her back to Germany. He hasn't counted on the resourcefulness of either Hannay or Mary & his eventual fate is poetic justice.
The title refers to a character in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress & the book is referred to many times by Hannay, Peter & Mary. Peter in particular becomes absorbed in Bunyan & the Bible during his imprisonment as he comes to terms with his injuries. His badly damaged leg means that he will never fly again. Peter is repatriated to Switzerland & that's where he meets up with Hannay. The scenes between the two old friends are very moving. I have to wonder though whether George Lucas had Peter in mind when he wrote the final scenes of the first Star Wars movie. I was reminded of those scenes very strongly.
Mr Standfast is the kind of novel that you race through without getting too bogged down in detail. So much happens so quickly that it's impossible to work it all out anyway. Buchan is always at home in Scotland & these scenes were the most vivid. The Scots characters like Andrew Amos & Geordie Hamilton just leap off the page with their humour & impenetrable dialect. I enjoyed reading Mr Standfast very much & I look forward to reading the last two Hannay novels, The Three Hostages & The Island of Sheep, very soon.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Simon's initial reluctance to make a complete lifestyle change is understandable & the fact that he commutes from London to Exmoor every week means that he finds it harder to become part of the local community. Initially they rent a house with no land but eventually they buy land close to their house & the smallholding begins to take shape. Debbie immediately finds her feet, getting a job as a cook. She convinces a reluctant Simon to keep chickens which they house on a friend's property in return for looking after her poultry as well. Eventually they have pigs, horses, sheep as well as chickens, ducks, geese & a dog called Dex.
Simon finds it difficult to reconcile killing & eating animals that he's grown to love - however reluctant he might have been to have any animals in the first place. From his first horrible attempt at killing a chicken & the day when he has to send his first pigs, Black Bum & Spotty Bum, off to the abattoir, Simon soon decides that rearing animals with kindness so they have a happy life is the only way he can bring himself to eat meat at all. He has to learn to contain his rage at the unfairness of Nature when a hand reared pig dies or a fox kills all the chickens. The Dawsons experience a lot of setbacks, especially financially but, after more than ten years on the land, they know they made the right decision to keep trying to fulfill their dream, even when it would have been easier to give up.
I enjoyed Pigs in Clover with a few reservations. Simon's relationship with his family seems odd, to say the least. It's not until halfway through the book that we learn that the estate agency he works in is owned by his mother & brother, neither of whom are ever named. Of course, it could have been their choice to be anonymous but they're distant, slightly hostile figures all the same. His mother tells him of a reduction in his working hours from full-time to part-time over the phone & finally lets him go altogether in the same way without really having any idea just how finely balanced their finances are or what a devastating effect this will have on their lives. Their one visit to Dorset is a disaster as they just can't understand what the Dawsons are trying to achieve.
I would also have loved to have heard more of Debbie's experiences. Alternate chapters about Debbie's life on her own in Dorset while Simon was in London would have been fascinating. We learnt a lot about Simon's many near-death experiences with quad bikes, electric fences & rogue sheep & his philosophical tortures over eating the animals he's grown to love. he even becomes a miserable vegetarian in London because he can't bear to eat animals that haven't had a happy life. I wanted to know more about the work Debbie put in to learning butchery & all the ways she made ends meet. They eventually made a modest living through selling their organic produce at farmers markets & online & Simon became a writer with a weekly newspaper column & wrote The Self Sufficiency Bible which led to running courses on what they'd learnt to others wanting to have a go at self sufficiency. They also made a decision to streamline their tasks so they could become self-sufficient without dying of exhaustion. This became even more important once Simon was living full time in Dorset & their relationship began to suffer because they did nothing but work without ever feeling they were getting ahead.
I read Pigs in Clover courtesy of NetGalley.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
'Tis time the heart should be unmoved,
Since others it hath ceased to move:
Yet, though I cannot be beloved,
Still let me love!
My days are in the yellow leaf;
The flowers and fruits of love are gone;
The worm, the canker, and the grief
Are mine alone!
The fire that on my bosom preys
Is lone as some volcanic isle;
No torch is kindled at its blaze--
A funeral pile.
The hope, the fear, the jealous care,
The exalted portion of the pain
And power of love, I cannot share,
But wear the chain.
But 'tis not thus--and 'tis not here--
Such thoughts should shake my soul nor now,
Where glory decks the hero's bier,
Or binds his brow.
The sword, the banner, and the field,
Glory and Greece, around me see!
The Spartan, borne upon his shield,
Was not more free.
Awake! (not Greece--she is awake!)
Awake, my spirit! Think through whom
Thy life-blood tracks its parent lake,
And then strike home!
Tread those reviving passions down,
Unworthy manhood!--unto thee
Indifferent should the smile or frown
Of beauty be.
If thou regrett'st thy youth, why live?
The land of honourable death
Is here:--up to the field, and give
Away thy breath!
Seek out--less often sought than found--
A soldier's grave, for thee the best;
Then look around, and choose thy ground,
And take thy rest.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
Hendrickson in the US have started reprinting her books, including The Scent of Water, of which I read an enticing review here,
Up At The Villa & The Painted Veil (now I can't decide which of the Vintage covers I like best...) from my favourite remainders bookshop, Clouston & Hall in Canberra. I've been buying books from them by mail order for over 30 years now. I must have bought hundreds of books from them over that time & they have the most wonderful bargains. Most of my collection of Wodehouse came from them when the Arrow reprints were remaindered. The links are to reviews of the Maugham books by Simon at Stuck In A Book & Dani at A Work in Progress.
Maybe one day, when I actually get around to reading their books, I'll be inspired to join the Elizabeth Goudge Society & the Angela Thirkell Society (there doesn't seem to be a Maugham Society). If anyone is a passionate advocate of any of these books, let me know in the comments. I just need a gentle shove in the right direction, I'm sure, & I'll be off!
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
The situation is even worse than she feared. The local Welfare Officer has given Stevie's father, Tom, a deadline to sort out Nettlebed Farm but Cecil is elderly & Tom is unable to do much except sit in the kitchen & threaten intruders with a rifle. He's also not happy & not grateful when Stevie turns up to help. Stevie loves the farm & soon realises that this is what she was meant to do with her life. The mammoth task she's taken on soon consumes her every thought & her niggling doubts about her relationship with Nick soon become overwhelming. Stevie realises that she was always meant to be a lady farmer rather than an accountant & Nick, who is so very much a townie, just doesn't fit in. She grits her teeth & tries to ignore her father's hostility & relies on Cecil & his wife, Mary for support. She also finds the locum vet, Leo, very attractive & although they get off to a bumpy start, their friendship soon looks set to develop into romance.
Stevie's hard work slowly begins to pay off & she meets the welfare deadlines for the animals. She begins to relax into her role as lady farmer & starts to build bridges with the neighbours & suppliers that her father has antagonized. She also starts to work on a plan to diversify from dairy & put in place a plan for the long term viability of the farm. Her breakup with Nick was difficult but necessary & her slow burning relationship with Leo looks set to take off. Then, a life changing event puts all these plans in jeopardy & Stevie has to make some hard decisions.
Country Loving is a lovely mix of comedy, drama & rural romance. I don't know if it's a worldwide trend but there's been a recent fashion here in Australia for outback romances. the covers are all the same - a young woman, usually blonde with long hair & wearing an Akubra, gazing into the dusty distance with a windmill in the background as you can see here. The setting of Country Loving fits right in to the genre although there's less of the sunburned country & more West Country lushness about the location. What sets this book apart from many of the other novels about women moving to the country is the depth of knowledge that Cathy Woodman obviously has of farm life & especially veterinary work. Not surprisingly as she started out as a vet & has previously written a series of romantic novels featuring vets. Stevie has a lot of problems to overcome & the rural setting seemed very realistic to me. Her fractured relationship with her father & the difficulties she faced in fitting in to the rural community were certainly not sugar-coated. Stevie realises that the ten years she spent away from the farm have made some things easier but nothing can overcome the need for hard work, tact & a lot of luck when it comes to dealing with the people of Talyton St George.
I read Country Loving courtesy of NetGalley.
Sunday, May 12, 2013
Maid of Athens, ere we part,
Give, oh, give back my heart!
Or, since that has left my breast,
Keep it now, and take the rest!
Hear my vow before I go,
My life, I love you.
By those tresses unconfined,
Wooed by each Aegean wind;
By those lids whose jetty fringe
Kiss thy soft cheeks' blooming tinge;
By those wild eyes like the roe,
My life, I love you.
By that lip I long to taste;
By that zone-encircled waist;
By all the token-flowers that tell
What words can never speak so well;
By love's alternate joy and woe,
My life, I love you..
Maid of Athens! I am gone:
Think of me, sweet! when alone.
Though I fly to Istamboul,
Athens holds my heart and soul:
Can I cease to love thee? No!
My life, I love you.
Thursday, May 9, 2013
I can remember when I first met Kinsey. It must have been the early 1990s & the first book in the series I read was G is for Gumshoe. I'd read a few other series featuring female private investigators, I particularly remember Sara Paretsky & Marcia Muller (who I'm still reading). I was working at my first library & I must have picked up G is for Gumshoe from the shelves as it was published a couple of years earlier. I loved it & went back to A is for Alibi & read all the earlier books. Since then I've read all the books as they've been published & I see that the next book, W is for Wasted, is due out later this year.
The attraction of these books for me is that Kinsey is still living in the 1980s. When the series began in 1981, Grafton decided that Kinsey would age one year for every 2 1/2 books. So Kinsey has aged from 32 in 1981 to her early 40s in the latest books but it's still the 1980s in Santa Teresa, the fictional Californian town where Kinsey lives. She conducts her investigations without mobile phones, computers, the internet or many of the forensic tools available to modern day investigators. She relies on a phone with an answering machine, writing notes on index cards & physically going to government offices or the reference library to look things up. The books have become historical novels which for me is a large part of their charm.
The first half of Kinsey & Me consists of a selection of short stories Grafton has written featuring Kinsey that were published in the late 1980s. For me, the books published in the 1980s & early 90s represent Kinsey's Golden Age. Reading the first story, Between the Sheets, was so nostalgic. A woman is sitting in Kinsey's office telling her that she's found her lover dead in her apartment. They'd argued the night before which several neighbours overheard. She threatened to kill him & had just bought a handgun which she describes in great detail. She didn't call the police but, after finding him shot dead & lying in her daughter's room, she picks up the gun lying beside him, puts it down again & runs out of the apartment,. When Kinsey arrives at the apartment to investigate, the body is gone & there's no evidence that the story is true at all. Kinsey has the case worked out before the police arrive.
The charm of this series is Kinsey's voice. The narrative is first person & Kinsey has the wry, amused voice of all the best private investigators. She's not quite the loner that Marlowe & Spade were, though, even though she was orphaned young & grew up living with her Aunt Gin. Twice divorced & wary of new relationships, Kinsey nevertheless has a circle of friends that have become her family. Her landlord, Henry Pitts, is the most important of these but his siblings (all in their 80s & 90s) & restaurant owner, Rosie, all make regular appearances.
Here's the opening of another story in the collection, The Parker Shotgun. All the novels & stories begin in a similar way, introducing Kinsey for new readers & making fans settle down with a smile.
My name is Kinsey Millhone. I'm a private investigator, licensed, bonded, insured; white, female, age thirty-two, unmarried and physically fit. That Monday morning, I was sitting in my office with my feet up, wondering what life would bring, when a woman walked in and tossed a photograph on my desk. My introduction to the Parker shotgun began with a graphic view of its apparent effect when fired at a formerly nice-looking man at close range. His face was still largely intact, but he had no use now for a pocket comb. With effort, I kept my expression neutral as I glanced up at her.
"Somebody killed my husband."
"I can see that," I said.
The book opens with an essay about the beginnings of the series & the second half consists of more personal stories Grafton wrote after the death of her mother. I have to admit that the Kinsey stories were the reason I picked up the book & I've had a lovely time reading them over the last week.