Wednesday, September 17, 2014

TBR 999 & 1,000

Here they are, nos 999 & 1,000 on my tbr shelves. Very appropriately, they're two recent books from Greyladies, Parson's Nine by Noel Streatfeild & Gin and Murder by Josephine Pullein-Thompson.

And for my next challenge? Well, according to Library Thing, I have 2,775 books. How long would it take for me to round that up to 3,000? Maybe I should just calm down & read a few of the great unread before I buy any more...

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Mary Stewart Reading Week - This Rough Magic

I'm so pleased that Anbolyn's Mary Stewart Reading Week gave me the incentive to reread This Rough Magic. I read all Mary Stewart's novels as a teenager in the 1970s & I bought several of the Hodder reprints a few years ago but have only read a couple of them. I was on holidays from work last week - which was meant to be relaxing but didn't turn out that way - so a trip to Corfu, even if it was only in my imagination, was just what I needed.

Lucy Waring is an actress whose career has hit a bit of a lull. She's happy to swap dreary London & the demise of the play she was in, for a holiday with her sister, Phyllida, on Corfu. Phyllida is married to a rich Italian banker whose family own not only the Castello dei Fiori, but also two smaller villas nearby. Phyllida & Lucy are staying at the Villa Forli while the other, Villa Rotha, is rented to Godfrey Manning, a writer & photographer. Lucy is intrigued to discover that the Castello is home to Sir Julian Gale, one of the most famous actors of his generation. Sir Julian had suffered some kind of breakdown after the deaths of his wife & daughter in a car crash & had become a recluse. Sir Julian's son, Max, is staying at the Castello while working on a film score but Lucy doesn't expect to see very much of them as their privacy is fiercely guarded by their gardener, Adonis, known as Adoni, who lives up to his name in looks.

Sir Julian has been visiting Corfu for many years & one of his most cherished theories is that the island is the site of Shakespeare's Tempest. He is godfather to Spiro & Miranda, the twin children of the Castello's housekeeper, Maria. According to Phyllida, the relationship may be even closer &, even though Spiro is supposed to be named after the patron saint of Corfu, St Spiridion, Phyllida is sure that the reference to Prospero is significant. While Miranda helps her mother at Villa Forli, Spiro has been employed to work for Godfrey Manning. As well as working on Manning's boat, he also models for photographs with a dolphin he's tamed. Lucy encounters the dolphin on one of her swims when someone starts taking potshots at it & she dives in to drive it out to sea. She also meets Max Gale on this occasion & is unimpressed by his manners.

On one of Godfrey's night sailing trips to take photos, Spiro falls overboard & is presumed drowned. Soon after, a fisherman suspected of smuggling goods to communist Albania just across the ocean, is also drowned. On the night of his death, Lucy had seen this man,Yanni, on his way up to the Castello & she suspects Max of some involvement in the smuggling, especially given his suspicious behaviour when Yanni's body is found. By this time, she has met Sir Julian & been entranced by his stories of the theatre & his theories about the Tempest. Max has been watchful of his father & slightly suspicious of Lucy, making her wonder why he doesn't encourage visitors. Her increasing attraction to him is just another complication. Godfrey Manning is attractive, intelligent & very attentive to Lucy but could he have other motives for being on Corfu? Lucy becomes involved in the lives of all these people & will risk her own life to uncover the truth.

This Rough Magic had just the right combination of romance, suspense & action all set in a gorgeous location. The lush descriptions of the Castello's gardens, the beaches & the surrounding countryside were so evocative.

After the dappled dimness of the wood, it took some moments before one could do more than blink at the dazzle of colour. Straight ahead of me an arras of wisteria hung fully fifteen feet, and below it there were roses. Somewhere to one side was a thicket of purple judas-trees, and apple-blossom glinting with the wings of working bees. Arum lilies grew in a damp corner, and some other lily with petals like gold parchment, transparent in the light. And everywhere, roses. ... I must have stood stock still for some minutes, looking about me, dizzied with the scent and the sunlight. I had forgotten roses could smell like that.

Lucy has found her way into the Castello's gardens & Sir Julian is about to greet her with a quotation from the Tempest. Lucy's encounters with the dolphin in the bay are also almost mystical. She & Max save the dolphin when it has beached itself, she swims with it & it appears at a crucial moment when Lucy is in danger. It all seems part of the magical quality of the island with its legends & religious parades, a simpler side of island life to be contrasted with the deadly serious business of evil treachery that also has its place. The last third of the book is almost unbearably tense & I sat up late one night to finish the book because I couldn't resist reading just a little more. Lucy is a resourceful heroine & although there's not much doubt where her heart lies, her ability to stay out of trouble & to stay alive is more dubious. What acting talent she has comes in very handy before the adventure ends.

I'm not sure that This Rough Magic fits too many categories in Leaves and Pages wonderful Gothic Romance primer here but I just wanted to point any Gothic Romance fans to her blog anyway. I'm in awe of the amount of reading & reviewing that Leaves and Pages does & her blog is eclectic, funny & full of great recommendations of the kind of books I enjoy reading. In the post I've linked to, she reviews Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting as well as Madeleine Brent's Tregaron's Daughter & Georgette Heyer's Cousin Kate, rating all three according to her own taste as well as the Gothic Mystery criteria. Mary Stewart comes out on top with 10/10. Very appropriate for Mary Stewart Reading Week. Copies of This Rough Magic, as well as several other Mary Stewart titles are available from Anglophile Books.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sunday Poetry - A E Housman

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I'll be featuring Housman's A Shropshire Lad here for the next few weeks. Even though the poems were published in 1896, for me, many of them are inescapably connected to WWI. I think it's because several of the poems were set to music by George Butterworth, who was killed in 1916. I recently listened to a radio documentary about some of the composers involved in the War which reminded me of these poems. I've also become addicted to BBC Radio's drama series, Home Front, which is set in Folkestone during WWI & is ambitiously planned to run for the next four years, with a 15 min episode every weekday. I've been catching up with the omnibus episodes, thanks to Darleen at Cosy Books, & I'm completely addicted!

The subject matter of some of the poems is very melancholic as well, almost prophetic, as in one of my favourites, The Lads in Their Hundreds. The song setting by Butterworth is just beautiful &, of course, no one can sing it like Bryn Terfel.

The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair,
There's men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold,
The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there,
And there with the rest are the lads that will never be old.

There's chaps from the town and the field and the till and the cart,
And many to count are the stalwart, and many the brave,
And many the handsome of face and the handsome of heart,
And few that will carry their looks or their truth to the grave.

I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell
The fortunate fellows that now you can never discern;
And then one could talk with them friendly and wish them farewell
And watch them depart on the way that they will not return.

But now you may stare as you like and there's nothing to scan;
And brushing your elbow unguessed-at and not to be told
They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Folio Society splurge

You'd think Phoebe didn't want me to get at those books, wouldn't you?! Well, this was one battle of wills she didn't win.

I'm rushing towards my goal of 1,000 books on the tbr shelves with a vengeance lately. I was tempted by the Folio Society special offer for their new titles & bought these three gorgeous editions. I've always wanted to read William of Malmesbury's Deeds of the English Kings, which was written in the 12th century & tells the story of English history from the coming of the Romans to the reign of Henry I. This is the 1998 translation for OUP but with the usual attention to detail & gorgeous illustrations of Folio editions.

I already own a copy of Desmond Seward's biography of Richard III, first published in the 1980s. The subtitle says it all really : England's Black Legend. Although I'm a member of the Richard III Society, I've always been interested in different interpretations of Richard's life & reputation & Seward has updated the book twice - in 1997 & again this year after the discoveries in Leicester. I'm looking forward to reading it again.

After reading Pushkin's poetry over the last few months, I couldn't resist this volume of his stories, including his most famous, The Queen of Spades.

Another incentive for this little purchase was the inclusion of a free copy (yes, it was free!) of this beautiful edition of A E Housman's A Shropshire Lad. Apart from the poetry, this edition includes the woodcuts by Agnes Miller Parker that were used in the 1924 edition.

I love woodcuts & these are just lovely. Here are a couple of examples. There are full page examples like these as well as little vignettes. One of the joys of the early Persephone Quarterly magazines was the inclusion of woodcuts by artists like Claire Leighton, Gwen Raverat & Tirzah Garwood. This book is so lovely that Sunday Poetry will be featuring Housman for the next little while.

I've also bought a couple of secondhand Folio editions. When I book my car in for a service, I often hop on the train & go to Camberwell, a suburb with a lovely Art Deco cinema (the Rivoli) & an equally lovely secondhand bookshop, Sainsburys Books. I saw a very sweet movie, Begin Again, with Keira Knightley & Mark Ruffalo, had some lunch & browsed around Sainsburys. I've bought some lovely Folio editions there &I wasn't surprised to find two more to add to my collection.

The woodcuts by Peter Reddick were the attraction of this edition of Thomas Hardy's Desperate Remedies.

Also, the lovely endpapers with a map of Wessex. This was Hardy's first published novel & is a bit of an anomaly as it has definite elements of the sensation novel. I've never read it & look forward to seeing what Hardy does with a plot that sounds more Woman in White than Mayor of Casterbridge.

Then, there was the Chevalier de Johnstone's Memoir of the 'Forty-Five. Despite his title, the Chevalier was a Scot who rallied to the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie. I couldn't resist the lovely binding of this copy which is based on an original binding of the period.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Round the Bend - Nevil Shute

Tom Cutter wants to fly. As a young boy in Southampton, he leaves his job in a garage to hang around a flying circus. From this first job, picking up paper & cleaning the planes, he eventually becomes part of one of the clown acts & meets Constantine Shaklin, a boy of his own age of Russian-Chinese parentage. Connie is an unusual boy with his mixed parentage & experience of living all over the world. His religious curiosity also makes him different. He goes to church, synagogue & mosque, as if he's searching for something or just exploring any idea that comes his way. Tom is intrigued but accepting of his friend's eccentricities. Eventually the circus moves on & Tom moves on with it, working on the planes in the winter, learning all he can. After a few years, the circus is wound up & Tom finds a job with an aircraft company while he waits to be old enough to train as a ground engineer. Connie goes out to live with his mother in the United States & the boys lose touch.

During the War, Tom stays with Airspace as an engineer but also takes advantage of cheap flying lessons for employees & qualifies as a test pilot. He spends part of the war in Egypt, repairing crashed aircraft. At the end of the war, Tom returns to Southampton to consider his future. A brief wartime marriage had ended in tragedy &, although he's offered an excellent job, he realises he can't face staying in Southampton with the sad memories of his wife, Beryl. With his experiences in the Middle East, he decides to start a charter freight business for companies operating in Bahrain.

From humble beginnings with just one old plane, Tom builds the business up through sheer hard work & rigid economy. He has no racial prejudices & employs local Arab & Asian pilots & engineers, giving them responsibility & trust. He also knows that local staff are cheaper to employ than Europeans. The change in Tom's fortunes & his life comes when he meets Connie Shaklin again. Connie is an engineer who had spent the war in Canada servicing aircraft. As a British citizen he joins up but insists that he won't fight as his beliefs do not permit him to kill. His other skills are utilised instead & after the war he went out to Bangkok & worked for Siamese Airways. Connie agrees to work for Tom & takes over the engineering side of the business.

From the beginning, Connie exercises a remarkable influence over the other men. He begins an evening prayer session at which all religious groups are welcome. Connie's own beliefs are never spelled out but he begins to be seen as a prophet, even a messiah by the locals. Tom is bemused but happy to let Connie continue as his workshop has never been better run & it's obvious that his influence is good. The business grows as Tom buys more aircraft, negotiates better deals & expands operations into South East Asia. Connie's religious mission also seems to be growing in popularity until there are hundreds of people gathering at the airfield each evening for prayers. This causes some friction with the local British authorities, already a little suspicious of Tom's willingness to work with the locals & stay outside the establishment. eventually, tom is told that Connie must leave.

On a trip to Burma, Tom meets an Englishman, Colonel Maurice Spencer, who has become a Buddhist monk who has heard of Connie & is keen to learn more. He speaks of Connie & his mission in a very mystical way,

We must look for the new Teacher. One day the Power that rules the Universe will send us a new Teacher, who will lead us back to Truth and help us to regain the Way. There have been four Buddhas in the history of this world, of whom Guatama was the last. One day a fifth will come to aid us, if we will attend to Him. Here in Burma we earnestly await His coming, for He is the Hope of the World.

Connie's religious mission continues alongside Tom's more prosaic story of his business. Connie's sister, Nadezna, comes out to Bahrain to work as Tom's secretary; the business continues to expand & it becomes obvious that Connie's mission is drawing to a climax.

Round the Bend is an unusual novel with a mixture of the practical & the mystical. The story of Tom's business is remarkably detailed; Nevil Shute's books all have this quality of building up the layers of detail, very practical & methodical, detailing all his decisions & contrivances. I found all this fascinating & Shute's own background in engineering is obvious. On the other hand, there's the ephemeral nature of Connie & his mission. Connie himself is modest, self-effacing but remote, rejecting all human relationships apart from his love for his sister & friendship with Tom. He seems to do very little but his influence on those around him is profound. The Christian overtones are sometimes a little too obvious, as when Tom denies that he thinks Connie has any divine qualities three times, but generally, Connie's influence is seen as a general force for good without beating a drum for any one kind of religious experience.

I found that the two aspects of the story worked well together. The Middle Eastern & Asian setting helped with this, I think, as Westerners still see the East as mysterious & this plays in to our perceptions as readers, as we identify with Tom. Round the Bend is a compelling book & I found it very hard to put down. Shute's style is so matter of fact, almost prosaic, that the religious elements seem quite ordinary within the charmed circle of Tom & his company. Tom himself just accepts Connie for who he is, without prejudice, as if he has been just as affected by Connie's magnetism as the workmen who believe that he is a prophet. The reactions of others, usually Europeans, just point the difference between two vastly different ways of looking at the world. I have several other Nevil Shutes on the tbr shelves & I'm looking forward to the next one very much.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Afanasy Afanasievich Fet

The final poet in this anthology is A A Fet. Illegally adopted by his mother's husband, Shenshin, he was brought up as gentry until he was fourteen when the illegality of his mother's marriage & his adoption was discovered. It meant that he was no longer gentry & not even a Russian citizen as his mother was German. He was sent to school in Estonia, only returning to Moscow to study at the university some years later. He joined the Army as a private, his goal being to regain his gentry status by becoming an officer. Eventually he left the Army & became a wealthy landowner & poet. At the age of 53, he was reinstated to his former status by Imperial decree & allowed to use his adopted father's name. In the last ten years of his life, he published four collections of poetry, although this poem is from earlier in his career & was published in 1859.

The stars glowed red in leaf-still weather
And it was thus
We two gazed at the stars together
And they at us.

When all the host of heaven come stealing
Into the breast,
Cannot the breast withhold, concealing
Something at least?

All that preserves or prompts life's ferment
From infancy,
All that is borne off to interment
In secrecy,

Then stars more pure, than dark more tender,
Black night more dread,
All this, in eye-to-eye surrender
Was what we said.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Sue Hepworth's novels - perfect weekend reading

Sue Hepworth's funny, romantic, unputdownable novels, Plotting for Beginners & Plotting for Grown-ups, are both available as ebooks from Amazon at the moment for just 99c or 99p.

What are you waiting for?