Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Moby-Dick or The Whale - Herman Melville

How can I possibly write about Moby-Dick? It's such a famous story but also one of those classics that I've always been daunted by. I've had a copy on my tbr shelves for several years now. Then, I bought another copy, this beautiful Penguin Deluxe Classics edition. I'd heard how difficult the book was, how elusive the language, how monumental the digressions. Finally, I borrowed the audio book from our e-library. Listening to William Hootkins' wonderful reading of Moby-Dick made me fall in love with the story & for the last six weeks, I've been listening to one of the most exciting, engaging & funny books I've ever read.

The story is well-known. Ishmael, a young man tired of working on merchant vessels, decides to give whaling a try. Arriving on Nantucket Island, he meets harpooneer Queequeg, a tattooed Pacific Islander, the son of a High Chief, with cannibal tendencies who worships an idol called Yojo. They are taken on by the owners of the Pequod, & are not deterred even when they are warned about the odd behaviour of the captain of the vessel, Ahab. They don't see much of Ahab during the fitting out of the Pequod but they meet the other mates, Starbuck, Stubb & Flask, & the rest of the crew, men from all over the world. It's not until they're at sea that the captain emerges from his cabin.

Captain Ahab has his own reasons for undertaking the voyage to the whale hunting grounds & it has nothing to do with procuring precious whale oil for the boat's owners. Ahab has lost his leg to the great white whale, Moby-Dick, & has sworn revenge. His obsession with Moby-Dick has become madness & he incites the crew's greed by nailing a gold doubloon to the mast with the promise that the man who kills Moby-Dick will have the coin as his prize. The Pequod sails from Nantucket to South America, round the Cape of Good Hope to South-East Asia & Japan. Whales are chased, caught & slaughtered but Ahab's only question to the other boats they encounter is "Hast thou seen the white whale?" Nothing else matters but his revenge & they sail towards the encounter with Moby-Dick that is the climax of Ishmael's story.

No mere retelling of the plot can give an idea of the flavour of this book. The language is heightened, convoluted, Biblical in cadence. Here's Captain Ahab telling the crew about Moby-Dick,

"Aye, Starbuck; aye, my hearties all round; it was Moby-Dick that dismasted me; Moby-Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now. Aye, aye," he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose; "Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!" Then tossing both arms, with measureless imprecations he shouted out: "Aye, aye! and I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. What say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it, now? I think ye do look brave."

Ishmael's narration is intimate & confiding. The long passages about the history of the whale & the whaling trade, the detailed descriptions of hunting, harpooning & catching whales are exciting if also a bit mind-numbing at times. When Ishmael describes the sperm whale's head, he takes several chapters to do it as well as describing every variety of whale & disputing the stories told of whales by every historical writer from the Bible & Aristotle to Beale & Bennett. But then, there are the tales of other ships that Ishmael tells along the way & the many funny incidents such as Ishmael's first meeting with Queequeg when he is terrified of sharing a room with a cannibal but ends up sitting up in bed with him confiding their life stories to each other as the best of friends. Or Stubb's determination to have a steak from the first whale they catch & making old Fleece the cook preach to the sharks scavenging on the gigantic corpse of the whale as it floats by the side of the ship because his steak was badly cooked & tough.

There are also some reflective moments of great beauty as when the Pequod comes across a pod of whales protecting the females & their calves,

But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at then time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;- even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their new-born sight.

William Hootkins' narration won an Audie award in 2006 & it's a wonderful performance. He contrasts Ishmael's lightheartedness at the beginning of the story with the more serious passages describing whales & explaining every aspect of the whale hunt. Ahab's mad mutterings build to a crescendo as he becomes more obsessed with his hunt for the white whale & his monomania puts everyone's lives at risk. I usually listen to audio books in the car on the way to & from work but I was listening to this one when I was ironing, cooking & any other time I could find. It was the perfect way to get in to this mythic story & I'm so glad that I finally read it.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sunday Poetry - New Year

This 17th century carol is one of my favourites, even though we never have to drive the cold winter away here in Australia. This version by the Rose Ensemble is just lovely (even though there's only two minutes of it). The original meaning of the word carol is from the French word for dance & this song with its jaunty rhythm always makes me want to dance, imagining that I'm sweeping the winter out the door although at this time of year it's more sweeping the old year out & welcoming the new year in. Happy New Year everyone.

All hail to the days that merit more praise
    Than all the rest of the year,
And welcome the nights that double delights
    As well for the poor as the peer!
Good fortune attend each merry man's friend,
    That doth but the best that he may;
Forgetting old wrongs, with carols and songs,
    To drive the cold winter away.

 Let Misery pack, with a whip at his back,
    To the deep Tantalian flood;
In Lethe profound let envy be drown'd,
    That pines at another man's good;
Let Sorrow's expense be banded from hence,
    All payments have greater delay,
We'll spend the long nights in cheerful delights
    To drive the cold winter away.

 'Tis ill for a mind to anger inclined
    To think of small injuries now;
If wrath be to seek do not lend her thy cheek
    Nor let her inhabit thy brow.
Cross out of thy books malevolent looks,
    Both beauty and youth's decay,
And wholly consort with mirth and with sport
    To drive the cold winter away.

 The court in all state now opens her gate
    And gives a free welcome to most;
The city likewise, tho' somewhat precise,
    Doth willingly part with her roast:
But yet by report from city and court
    The country will e'er gain the day;
More liquor is spent and with better content
    To drive the cold winter away.

 Our good gentry there for costs do not spare,
    The yeomanry fast not till Lent;1
The farmers and such think nothing too much,
    If they keep but to pay for their rent.
The poorest of all now do merrily call,
    When at a fit place they can stay,
For a song or a tale or a cup of good ale
    To drive the cold winter away.

 Thus none will allow of solitude now
    But merrily greets the time,
To make it appear of all the whole year
    That this is accounted the prime:
December is seen apparel's in green,
    And January fresh as May
Comes dancing along with a cup and a song
    To drive the cold winter away.

 This time of the year is spent in good cheer,
    And neighbours together do meet
To sit by the fire, with friendly desire,
    Each other in love to greet;
Old grudges forgot are put in the pot,
    All sorrows aside they lay;
The old and the young doth carol this song
    To drive the cold winter away.

 Sisley and Nanny, more jocund than any,
    As blithe as the month of June,
Do carol and sing like birds of the spring,
    No nightingale sweeter in tune;
To bring in content, when summer is spend,
    In pleasant delight and play,
With mirth and good cheer to end the whole year,
    And drive the cold winter away.

 The shepherd, the swain do highly disdain
    To waste out their time in care,
And Clim of the Clough2 hath plenty enough
    If he but a penny can spare
To spend at the night, in joy and delight,

   Now after his labour all day;
For better than lands is the help of his hands
    To drive the cold winter away.

 To mask and to mum kind neighbours will come
    With wassails of nut-brown ale,
To drink and carouse to all in the house
    As merry as bucks in the dale;
Where cake, bread, and cheese is brought for your fees
    To make you the longer stay;
At the fire to warm 'twill do you no harm,
    To drive the cold winter away.

 When Christmas's tide come in like a bride
    With holly and ivy clad,
Twelve days in the year much mirth and good cheer
    In every household is had;
The country guise is then to devise
    Some gambols of Christmas play,
Whereat the young men do best that they can
    To drive the cold winter away.

 When white-bearded frost hath threatened his worse,
    And fallen from branch and briar,
Then time away calls from husbandry halls
    And from the good countryman's fire,
Together to go, to plough and to sow
    To get us both food and array,
And thus will content the time we have spend
    To drive the cold winter away.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Middlebrow Feminism in Classic British Detective Fiction - Melissa Schaub

If ever there was a book title that ticked all my reading boxes, this would have to be it. The combination of middlebrow fiction with the Golden Age detective novel is irresistible. The intriguing subtitle of the book is The Female Gentleman, & I was curious to find out what this meant.

Schaub places the detective novels of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham & Georgette Heyer (she also discusses Heyer's romances) in a line leading from the Victorian Angel in the House & the New Woman texts of the 1890s through to the novels of the feminism of the 1970s & 1980s. The disdain of Modernist writers like Virginia Woolf for these middlebrow writers & their audience intrigues Schaub. All these writers are still in print & their work is enjoyed today when the equally revolutionary novels of the New Woman writers - Mona Caird, George Egerton & Sarah Grand - have been largely forgotten. Schaub discusses the "boomerang" nature of many of the plots of New Women fiction. The authors allow their heroines considerable freedom until about the halfway point of the novel & then they have to be reined in & usually punished by the end of the book for their temerity in pushing the boundaries of convention.

The popularity of detective fiction has been apparent since Victorian times & Schaub briefly discusses characters such as Rachel Verinder in Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone & Baroness Orczy's Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, but it was only in the post WWI era, when education & political change led to women gaining the vote, that women could realistically take on the role of sleuth, becoming female gentlemen, with the same codes of honour as their male counterparts.

... the core of the ideal is a woman who is competent, courageous and self-reliant in practical situations, capable of subordinating her emotions to reason and the personal good to the social good, and possessed of 'honor' in the oldest sense of the term. These are personality traits, corresponding with the moral aspect of Victorian gentlemanliness. Most of the characters who fill the Female Gentleman role also fulfill the more archaic class aspect of gentlemanliness through birth or breeding, but with significant revision consistent with the class negotiations performed by the middlebrow novel as a whole.

After WWI, many of the male fictional detectives were scarred by their experiences in the trenches. Lord Peter Wimsey is probably the most famous example, suffering shell shock & eventually finding stability in his work as a detective. Even then, he's prone to emotional collapse at the end of a case when he has to confront the fact that his actions have led to a murderer's execution. He's just one example of the effete young gentleman contrasted with the women in detective novels of the period who take on masculine traits almost in compensation. Emotional self-control is crucial & the heroes & heroines of these novels often display a detached ironic form of speech, Lord Peter & Harriet's piffle is the best example.

The loosening of social conventions is also important here. Women had experienced a measure of freedom during the war, working as nurses or in munition factories. Suddenly young women could walk through London alone, without a chaperone, without the threat of being taken as prostitutes. Elizabeth Dalloway, in Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, takes a walk through London, unchaperoned, riding on a bus, which is even more radical than her mother's stroll to buy flowers. Women were shortening their skirts, even wearing trousers & ties, smoking in public, voting & earning a living. Although middlebrow novels are often seen as conservative, the examples here show the rewards of feminism as women became better educated & more politically active.

The Female Gentleman is characterised by her sense of honour, physical & moral courage, self-reliance, sense of submitting her personal desires to the greater good & usually belonging to the upper middle to upper classes. Often she has become an outcast from her social class because of the need to earn a living or because she has gone outside the accepted conventions of the class she was born into. Critics have called these novels conservative because of the predominance of upper class characters & the often casual racism & anti-Semitism of the times but highbrow & Modernist fiction wasn't exempt from these attitudes & the authors often treat characters of different races with sympathy.

Harriet Vane has been to Oxford, earns a living as a writer & lived with her lover, Philip Boyes, without expecting or wanting marriage. It was only when Boyes humiliated her by offering to marry her once she had passed his "test" of devotion, that she left him & was then accused of poisoning him with arsenic in Dorothy L Sayers's Strong Poison. Lady Amanda Fitton, in Allingham's novels, designs airplanes & Agatha Troy, in Marsh's novels, is an artist. All these women have the attributes of the gentleman & they are portrayed as the intellectual equals of the men they marry. It's significant that the novels of women writers like Allingham, Marsh & Sayers all depict such an equal relationship. There may be an element of wish fulfillment here but the concept was certainly not so outrageous as to be unbelievable in the context of the times. Along with the more traditional spinster amateur sleuths like Christie's Miss Marple & Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver, there were other single women like Sayers's Miss Climpson & Miss Murchison, who represented another reality of post-war society, the surplus women who overturn the stereotype of catty old ladies in boarding houses & country villages, using their considerable skills to pursue justice & outwit villains.

I feel that I've only skimmed the surface of this book. I found the idea of the Female Gentleman to be thought provoking & intriguing. I've read nearly all the novels discussed (there are some inevitable spoilers when discussing plots but I would think most readers of this book will be fans of the authors discussed & will already know the plots backwards) & Melissa Schaub's prose is readable & blessedly free of jargon. The discussions of the books, their plots & characters are guaranteed to make you want to read or reread one or more of these books immediately. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to everyone who visits I Prefer Reading from Phoebe, looking very much at home among the books on my crowded desk

& Lucky, looking slightly wary as ever & ready to dash off at any moment.

I hope everyone has a happy day whatever you plan to do. I'll be having lunch with my family at my nephew's house & the weather is looking perfect, warm & sunny. Once Christmas is over, I'm looking forward to ten days holiday & the difficult task of coming up with my Top 10 books of the year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Talisman Ring - Georgette Heyer

Vulpes Libres recently spent a week celebrating the work of Georgette Heyer & I was inspired to pick up The Talisman Ring after reading Kate's post on it. I have quite a few Heyers on the tbr shelves & I do want to read more of them. The novels I've read since discovering her a few years ago have been a lot of fun & I must make an effort to read more of them.

The Talisman Ring is one of her early novels & has two contrasting heroines. Eustachie de Vauban is only 17 & has been rescued from the Revolutionary Terror in Paris by her English grandfather. Eustachie is a Romantic & would really have preferred to have stayed in Paris & be condemned to death so that she could look pale but beautiful & unafraid in a tumbril on the way to the guillotine. Eustachie's grandfather, Lord Lavenham, is dying & his great-nephew, Sir Tristram Shield, has been sent for to marry Eustachie, thus ensuring her future. Tristram is older, calm & very no nonsense but is willing to marry Eustachie for Lord Lavenham's sake.

Lord Lavenham's grandson, Ludovic, would have been her intended husband but he is in exile, suspected of murdering a man to whom he owed money. Ludovic had gambled away a talisman ring, a family heirloom that he had given as a pledge. Ludovic admitted to being in the vicinity when Sir Matthew Plunkett was shot & the ring went missing after the murder so he was the obvious suspect. With help from Tristram & another cousin, Basil Lavenham, known as the Beau, Ludovic escaped to the Continent. Now that the old Lord is dying, the succession is in doubt as Basil would be the next heir if Ludovic is dead.

Eustachie decides to run away to London & in the course of this escapade, she meets Ludovic, who has returned to England as part of a gang of smugglers, in search of his talisman ring. If he can find the ring, he will have found the murderer of Plunkett, can establish his innocence & claim his inheritance. Ludovic is shot by the Runners after the smugglers are discovered & is taken to a sympathetic innkeeper. Staying at the inn are Sarah Thane & her brother, Sir Hugh. Sarah is in her late twenties, very calm, sensible but with an ironic sense of humour & a love of the absurd. Sarah soon discovers Ludovic's plight & becomes involved in the plans for his concealment, bringing a much needed sense of proportion & common sense to Eustachie's wilder schemes. She also soon clashes with Sir Tristram as she teases him by pretending to agree with all Eustachie's Gothic fantasies & plays the part of the scatty featherbrained woman to perfection.

Tristram & Ludovic have their suspicions about the real murderer & believe that the talisman ring is concealed in a secret panel in the library of the Dower House, Basil Lavenham's home. With the help of Eustachie & Sarah, they lay their plans to recover it.

The Talisman Ring is a real romp, a mixture of historical romance & mystery. I love Heyer's older heroines & Sarah is a wonderful example of this type. She manages to stay in Eustachie's confidence by convincing her that she is just as madly romantic as the younger girl but allows Sir Tristram & the reader to know that she is much too sensible to be swept away by romance through her constant use of irony & humour.

She could not forbear giving him a look of reproach. 'You must be forgetting what assistance I rendered you at the Dower House,' she said.
'No,' replied Sir Tristram, at his dryest. 'I was not forgetting that.' 
Miss Thane rested her chin in her hand, pensively surveying him. 'Will you tell me something, Sir Tristram?' 
'Perhaps. What is it?'
'What induced you ever to contemplate marriage with your cousin?'
He looked startled and not too well-pleased. 'I can hardly suppose, ma'am, that my private affairs can be of interest to you,' he said.
'Some people,' remarked Miss Thane wisely, 'would take that for a set-down.'
Their eyes met; Sir Tristram smiled reluctantly. 'You do not seem to be of their number, ma'am.'
'I am very thick-skinned,' explained Sarah. 'You see, I have not had the benefit of a correct upbringing.'

Sarah & Tristram always understand each other perfectly & spend much of the novel restraining Eustachie & Ludovic's wilder flights of fancy. Whether the reader prefers mature irony, youthful romanticism or an exciting adventure of smugglers & murder, The Talisman Ring will satisfy every mood. It's the perfect read for the holidays.

Anglophilebooks.com There's a copy of The Talisman Ring available to buy at Anglophile Books.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Christmas

This week's choice is an early version of Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, called Hark! How All the Welkin Rings. I first heard it on this wonderful CD, While Shepherds Watched, recorded by Psalmody & The Parley of Instruments (now available at a very reasonable price as part of the bargain Helios label). The whole CD is full of 18th century English carols & hymns that would have been sung in parish churches of the time. Often they're carols we still sing today - God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, While Shepherds Watched & Angels From the Realms of Glory - but with alternate tunes. It always reminds me of the Melstock Choir in Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree. The CD is one of my favourites & I listen to it every Christmas.

Hark, how all the welkin rings,
"Glory to the King of kings;
peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!"

Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
join the triumph of the skies;
universal nature say,
"Christ the Lord is born today!"

Christ, by highest Heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord:
late in time behold him come,
offspring of a Virgin's womb!

Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see,
hail the incarnate Deity!
pleased as man with men to appear,
Jesus, our Emmanuel here!

Hail, the heavenly Prince of Peace,
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
risen with healing in his wings.

Mild he lays his glory by,
born that man no more may die;
born to raise the sons of earth;
born to give them second birth.

Come, Desire of nations, come,
fix in us thy humble home;
rise, the woman's conquering Seed,
bruise in us the serpent's head.

Now display thy saving power,
ruined nature now restore;
now in mystic union join
thine to ours, and ours to thine.

Adam's likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp thy image in its place.
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.

Let us thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the life, the inner man:
O, to all thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas at Thompson Hall - Anthony Trollope

Christmas at Thompson Hall is one of a set of five Christmas Classics published by Penguin this year. This is the only one I bought but they all have variations on the same elegant cover with snow & cardinals on a pine tree. The other authors are Charles Dickens, Nikolai Gogol, Louisa May Alcott & E T A Hoffmann. Series like this are one of the reasons that, however much I love my ereaders, I will always want real books as well. I have these Trollope stories in my Delphi Classics ebook edition of Trollope but this little hardback was just irresistible.

The title story is about a couple traveling from the south of France to the woman's home in England. The Thompson family love getting together at Christmas but, since their marriage some years before, Mrs Mary Brown & her husband, Charles (their names have been changed to spare them embarrassment) have stayed in France rather than travel back to England for the holiday. Mrs Brown's family have become more & more upset about their defection & so, this year, even though Mr Brown has a terrible head cold, she convinces him to make the journey. When they arrive in Paris, Charles is so ill & so irritable that he almost refuses to go on. However, his wife proposes to make him a mustard plaster, having seen a jar of mustard in the dining room. So, late at night, & in her nightclothes, she begins wandering the endless corridors of the hotel.

Discovered by a porter, she is too embarrassed to admit her real errand & pretends she has lost a handkerchief. The porter insists on accompanying her to the dining room & back to her room so she then has to retrace her steps once he's gone to find the mustard & make up the plaster. Unfortunately, she gets lost on her way back to her room, enters another man's room & applies the mustard plaster to him instead. Mortified by the impropriety of this, Mary rushes back to her room & prepares to brazen it out next morning when the hotel is in uproar over the assault on a defenceless guest & the very strange behaviour of an English matron. I have to admit that this story, at almost 60pp, was too long & a bit tedious. Mary's wanderings through the hotel were interminable & the identity of the man with the mustard plaster is not difficult to work out. It's a very English story of embarrassment & a level of refinement that prevents poor Mary from just telling the truth.

Christmas Day at Kirkby Cottage is the story of a young girl, in love with a boy but unable to get past her pride & a silly quarrel when he declares that Christmas is a bore. There are many tears & misunderstandings before the happy ending. In The Mistletoe Bough, Elizabeth Garrow has broken off her engagement to Godfrey Holmes & has ever since been miserable. It takes a Christmas visit from Godfrey & his sister, Isabella, to reveal the true story of why Elizabeth broke the engagement.  The Two Generals is set during the American Civil War & concerns two brothers, each a general but one fights for the North & the other for the South. They both love the same woman & their rivalry in every area of their lives leads to the potential for betrayal one Christmas. Not If I Know It concerns a quarrel between brothers-in-law, George & Wilfred, at Christmas time & the efforts of the exasperated woman who loves them both to make them see sense.These are slight but charming stories, all set at Christmas & just right for reading at the end of a busy day.

My Christmas reading seems to have started later than usual this year. I'm reading several books at the moment & still listening to the sublime Moby-Dick but I do hope to get to these two Christmas mysteries, Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer & Mystery in White by J Jefferson Farjeon, as well as my annual reading of Dickens's A Christmas Carol. I haven't even started watching Christmas movies yet although I have them all lined up - several versions of A Christmas Carol, including the Muppets, The Holly & the Ivy, Miracle on 34th Street & The Bishop's Wife. I have been listening to carols for several weeks though as I cook & wrap presents. Christmas seems to have crept up on me this year although I'm organised, even though I'm working until Christmas Eve, & now don't need to go near a shop until it's all over, thank goodness. Plenty of time for all this Christmas reading, watching & listening.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Christmas

Another of my favourite carols. It was written in the 19th century by James Montgomery. Here's a lovely performance by the Truro Cathedral Choir which was part of Howard Goodall's TV program about the origins of Christmas carols. Apparently the service of Nine Lessons and Carols didn't begin at King's College, Cambridge but in Truro.

Angels from the realms of glory
Wing your flight over all the earth
Ye, who sang creations story
Now proclaim Messiah's birth
Come and worship, come and worship
Worship Christ the newborn King

Shepherds in the fields abiding
Watching over your flocks by night
God with man is now residing
Yonder shines the Infant light
Come and worship, come and worship
Worship Christ the newborn King

Sages leave your contemplations
Brighter visions beam afar
Seek the great Desire of nations
Ye have seen His natal star
Come and worship, come and worship
Worship Christ the newborn King

Saints before the alter bending
Watching long in hope and fear
Suddenly the Lord, descending,
In His temple shall appear
Come and worship, come and worship
Worship Christ the newborn King

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Willa Cather Reading Week

I had plans to join in with Willa Cather Reading Week which is being hosted by Heavenali at her blog here. However, I haven't had a chance to read any Willa this week. I did read two of her novels earlier this year so I'll cheat & just link to my reviews of One Of Ours & Death Comes for the Archbishop. I loved both of them & I do plan to read & reread more Willa Cather over the summer.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Death's Dark Vale - Diney Costeloe

Adelaide Anson-Gravetty wakes up on the morning of her 21st birthday & discovers that she's not who she thought she was. A letter from a firm of solicitors informs her that she is not the daughter of the man she calls her father. Her half-French mother was married before & her first husband, Freddie Hurst, Adelaide's father, was killed during WWI. Richard Anson-Gravetty had married Heather Hurst when Adelaide was only a toddler. He adopted Adelaide but didn't want her to know about her father or his family. Adelaide was only permitted to speak French with her mother when they were alone &, although she's close to her French grandmother, she knows nothing of the Hurst family. Now, however, she discovers that she has come into a considerable fortune from her Hurst grandfather & also receives a letter, written by her late mother, telling her something of Freddie & explaining the reason for the secrecy about Adelaide's birth.

Adelaide also discovers that she has an aunt, Sarah, who is a nun in a French convent. Worried that her grandfather's will makes no mention of Sarah, Adelaide visits her, now Reverend Mother Marie-Pierre, & learns more about her father, Freddie. She also meets her great-aunt Anne, Sister St Bruno, an elderly nun, almost bedridden but with a sharp mind. Sarah explains how she came to enter a French convent (a story told in Diney Costeloe's earlier novel, The Ashgrove, which I read last year) & that Adelaide need not worry about her inheritance. Sarah received her inheritance from her father as a dowry when she entered the convent. After nursing in the convent hospital during the war, Sarah stayed on & now, almost twenty years later, she is Reverend Mother of the Convent of Our Lady of Mercy in St Croix. Adelaide is happy to have made contact & delighted to learn about her birth family. She returns home, goes to university & life goes on.

Two years later, in 1939, war breaks out. In France, Reverend Mother Marie-Pierre finds herself & her convent involved in this war as they had been in the last. The convent hospital cares for the local people but soon, refugees fleeing from the advancing German army are also in need of help. Sarah takes in the children of a Jewish woman killed when a group of refugees are bombed & hides them among a small group of orphans that the convent cares for. She has no illusions as to their fate if the Germans should find them & eventually she takes them to the Mother House of the Order in Paris where their story will not be known.

An English airman is shot down & finds his way to the convent. Sarah & Sister Marie-Marc hide him in the cellars & get him away by disguising him as a nun & taking him to Albert, where a sympathetic priest, Father Bernard, helps him get home. Sarah is reluctant to get involved in any more illegal activities, conscious that she has the responsibility of the welfare of all the nuns. She is also well aware that not all the nuns are willing to disobey the German regulations & there are informers among the villagers who would profit from informing on Sarah if they discovered what was happening. She may have lived in France for over 20 years but many remember that she is English & there is also some resentment that she has been promoted to Reverend Mother at such a young age. The German commander, Major Thielen, is suspicious of Sarah's activities but finds nothing on searching the convent. He is also Catholic & has a certain reverence for the convent & the sisters. That cannot be said of Colonel Hoch, a Gestapo officer who arrives in St Croix soon after, determined to find any traitors, as he calls them, who may be assisting the Resistance or harbouring Jews.

Adelaide, meanwhile, has been recruited to the SOE. Determined to do some war work, she joined up as a driver with the WAAF but, with her fluent French, was soon sounded out about her willingness to be dropped into France to help a Resistance network helping Allied soldiers escape. When Terry, the airman helped by Sarah, returns to England, & Adelaide's connection to the convent are discovered, she is sent to St Croix to make contact with Sarah & see if the convent is a suitable place to use in the escape route.

Death's Dark Vale is an exciting story full of suspense & danger. Adelaide & Sarah are both wonderful heroines, incredibly brave & resourceful. Their stories reflect those of many people during WWII who risked their own lives to help others. However, there are just as many characters determined to thwart their plans, whether from cowardice or greed. There's a real sense of the terror of the times as the Germans settled in to occupation, stealing the convent's chickens & appearing at any time to conduct a search, respecting no one & questioning everything they're told. The anguish of not knowing who to trust was ever-present & Adelaide experiences this just as much as Sarah. They are always aware that their actions have consequences, not only for themselves but for the people who help them & the people they're trying to help & not all their plans are successful. I also loved the impressive level of detail in the descriptions of Adelaide's training & then her mission in France as well as the many contrivances of Sarah & Sister Marie-Marc as they try to outwit the Germans.

As I mentioned when I reviewed The Ashgrove, Diney is a friend from my online reading group & she kindly sent me a copy of Death's Dark Vale to review.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Christmas

My favourite Christmas songs are carols but this song, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, is an exception. I was listening to Bryn Terfel singing this on his Christmas CD during the week & it made me think of the most famous version of the song, this one by Judy Garland in the movie, Meet Me In St Louis. The Judy Garland version is very melancholy, it's not a cheery, happy song in the context of the movie. Judy Garland's character is comforting her little sister, played by Margaret O'Brien, as they contemplate leaving St Louis. It always brings tears to my eyes.

The music was by Hugh Martin & the lyrics by Ralph Blane.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
From now on,
our troubles will be out of sight

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
From now on,
our troubles will be miles away.

Here we are as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more.

Through the years
We all will be together,
If the Fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Together and Apart - Margaret Kennedy

The Christmas edition of Shiny New Books is now available. There are lots of new reviews & I'm very pleased that my review of Together and Apart by Margaret Kennedy is among them. You can read it here.

The reprints section of Shiny New Books is my favourite (& not just because I have a review there). Edited by Simon of Stuck in a Book fame, there are also reviews of Gogol's A Night Before Christmas, R A Dick's The Ghost and Mrs Muir & another of the British Library Crime Classics, Mystery in White : a Christmas crime story by J Jefferson Farjeon.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Podcasts

I blame Melvyn Bragg. It's his fault that I can't seem to settle on any one book or subject. Every time I listen to In Our Time, I immediately want to know more about Hatsheput, or reread Marlowe's Edward II or Siegfried Sassoon's war poetry. I've done all these things in the last week which is why I'm still halfway through several books. As you can see if you follow the link, there are literally hundreds of In Our Time podcasts available. I've listened to dozens of them since I discovered podcasts on my iPad about a year ago. I've only chosen the History & Culture archives & I listen to the new series as well. The format of the 45 min program is that each week Melvyn discusses a topic with three academics. The topics range from history & philosophy to science, literature & religion. The discussions are often very lively but nearly always well-mannered - except when Melvyn wants to move on & a guest has just one more point to make.

BBC Radio 4 is my main source of podcasts. As well as In Our Time, I also love Great Lives with Matthew Parris (recent programs on Lucille Ball, Dorothy L Sayers, Arnold Bennett & Henry Purcell). The Books & Authors podcast includes two programs, Open Book with Mariella Frostrup, a magazine type program about all things bookish & A Good Read, where Harriett Gilbert & two guests discuss the books they consider to be good reads. This can lead to all round agreement & joy about a book or an embarrassing silence while one guest tells another that their choice did nothing for them whatsoever. There's also the monthly Bookclub with James Naughtie. Then there's Home Front, a drama about the people of Folkestone during WWI. Darleen reminded me the other day that, after a break, Home Front is back this week after a two month break. Hooray! Also Desert Island Discs, which has a very extensive archive of programs (over 1500 of them from 1942 onwards). This week, I listened to Mairi Hedderwick & Robert Hardy.

Home Front's role as my Drama of the Week has been taken over by Serial, which I mentioned the other day. only three more episodes of Serial to go &, as it's a real story rather than a fictional drama, who knows if we'll be given any definitive answers at the end? Other podcasts are linked to magazines I subscribe to, like History Today & BBC History magazine. Always interesting & often linked to articles in the latest issue.

Then, there are the bookish podcasts. Simon Savidge from Savidge Reads is involved in two of them. You Wrote The Book! where he interviews authors from Richard Flanagan & David Nicholls to Rose Tremain (coming soon). The Readers is a book-based banter podcast with Simon & Thomas from the My Porch blog. Two men, one on each side of the Atlantic, talking about everything from favourite bookshops to reading plans & what you would replace if your books were lost in a flood or fire. Books on the Nightstand is a podcast I've only recently discovered. Ann & Michael work for Random House US (although the podcast is a private project not connected to RH) which gives them access to lots of new books & they also talk to booksellers as part of their work. They discuss everything bookish & often answer questions from listeners about bookish problems. They've just posted their Christmas gift guide here. It's where I first heard about Serial. Why I Really Like This Book was one of the first podcasts I became addicted to. Kate discusses many of the middlebrow authors I enjoy like Georgette Heyer, E M Delafield, Rose Macaulay & Nancy Mitford in fortnightly podcasts of about 10 minutes. The last few weeks have been devoted to the Harry Potter series which I'm lukewarm about but I've listened to most of the archive & I almost always want to read the books that Kate really likes.

So, that's it. The podcasts that inspire & sometimes confuse my reading. Thanks Rose for suggesting I post about my listening as well as my reading.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Emily Dickinson

The last of my Dickinson selections for now. In December, I'll post some of my favourite Christmas poems & carols.
I've been reading about the Gothic lately, from this piece in the Guardian about the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ann Radcliffe, to wishing I could visit the British Library's new exhibition, Terror and Wonder : the Gothic Imagination. Ann Radcliffe always reminds me of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey & Valancourt Books are reprinting the seven Horrid Novels that Isabella Thorpe & Catherine Morland frighten themselves into fits over. I was reminded of the images of haunted houses, abbeys & assassins in this poem, even though it's about the mind's capacity to be haunted rather than literal haunted houses. I've always loved it.

One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—
One need not be a House—
The Brain has Corridors—surpassing
Material Place—

Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
External Ghost
Than its interior Confronting—
That Cooler Host.

Far safer, through an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a'chase—
Than Unarmed, one's a'self encounter—
In lonesome Place—

Ourself behind ourself, concealed—
Should startle most—
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror's least.

The Body—borrows a Revolver—
He bolts the Door—
O'erlooking a superior spectre—
Or More—

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Books & Cats miscellany - Part 2

Part 2 of the miscellany has to begin with the latest photos of Phoebe, taken last weekend as she lolled on the back steps, one of her favourite spots on warm days. She moves from step to step as the shade moves & then, eventually gives up altogether & comes inside if I'm home & the air conditioner is on.


I've been reading short stories, including these two collections released as ebooks. Trisha Ashley's Footsteps in the Snow and other teatime treats is a collection of 11 stories previously published in magazines as well as the opening chapters of Trisha's new book, Creature Comforts, which will be published next year. These are lovely, romantic stories, just long enough to read in a coffee break or at teatime as the subtitle says. Most of the stories are set around Christmas so they're seasonally appropriate too, even if my Christmas isn't going to involve snow, frost & open fires.

Martin Edwards was the winner of the inaugural CWA Margery Allingham short story competition, sponsored by the Margery Allingham Society. His winning story, Acknowledgments, has been published by Bloomsbury in this ebook which also contains two more stories by Edwards & an appreciation of Margery Allingham as a short story writer. Martin Edwards is an expert on the Golden Age of detective fiction so it's appropriate that he was the winner of the competition with a wicked story about an author of travel guides thanking his friends & family for their help with his career. As the narrator thanks his second wife, his agent & his publicist for their help with By-Ways Around Britain, the tone moves from comic self-satisfaction to something much darker.

Martin Edwards also announced some exciting news on his blog last week. He's been appointed as the Series Consultant for the British Library Crime Classics series I've been enjoying so much this year. The series has been incredibly successful & there are more treats in store next year, including two anthologies of short stories compiled by Martin. All the details are here.

I was very pleased to discover that The English Air by D E Stevenson has been reprinted by Greyladies. If this book & the other DES titles available from Greyladies sell well, hopefully other reprints will follow.

Anglophilebooks.com It's also available in the US from Anglophile Books as are lots of books by Georgette Heyer.

Finally, for Georgette Heyer fans, Vulpes Libris featured posts on Heyer's novels all last week. Here's the link. With the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo coming up next year, I feel that I should definitely read An Infamous Army, even if I read nothing else about Waterloo. Or, I may listen to it. I see that Audible has the audio book read by Clare Higgins.

I can't finish this post without a couple more photos of togetherness. On Monday night, I was watching the news on TV & Phoebe was asleep on my lap. Lucky was not impressed & sat on the arm of the chair looking plaintively at me for the whole half hour.

A couple of hours later, all change. Next time I sat down, Lucky was right there. She wasn't going to be usurped again. So, Phoebe sat on the arm of the chair staring alternately at Lucky & me. Every so often she would put her paw on my arm & made me feel as guilty as possible that there wasn't room for her on my lap as well.
Sorry about the terrible angles of these photos. I used the iPad & I could not work out how to fix the angle on the second photo. Actually I'm amazed I managed to get the girls in the frame at all when I was holding the iPad out to my right & hoping for the best!

PS I just noticed that this is my 900th post, not that I'm counting. Almost five years of blogging & 900 posts - I feel exhausted. I think I need to sit down with a cup of tea & a book or maybe listen to a podcast or watch another episode of An Age of Kings...

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Books & Cats miscellany - Part 1

Or should that be cats & books miscellany? I'm sure Phoebe & Lucky would prefer it that way around.So, I'll begin with a photo of Lucky, sitting on the arm of a chair in the evening light one night last week.

I'm writing this post instead of a proper review because I haven't finished a book in the last week or so. I did finish reading The Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reade (cover picture from here) with my 19th century bookgroup but I'm not going to post about it. It was a very long book &, while I enjoyed the beginning & the end, the middle was just so discursive & so interminable that I can't even summarise the plot. I'm glad I've read it, if only because I won't get it mixed up in my mind with Dickens's Cricket on the Hearth, ever again. Cricket on the Hearth is much shorter, for one thing.

Very briefly, The Cloister and the Hearth is the story of Gerard & Margaret, 15th century lovers who are separated by the Church, an evil Burgomeister & Gerard's own family. Margaret stays at home in Holland while Gerard goes to Rome to avoid prison & earn enough money through his talent as an illuminator of manuscripts to take Margaret away & start a new life. Many hundreds of pages later, they are reunited but not in the way you might expect. The book is based on the true story of the parents of the philosopher, Erasmus, who was a friend of Sir Thomas More & lived in England for a time. If only I'd known about the 44 page comic book version (click on the link for the picture credit & you can read the whole story)! No, I'm joking, I did enjoy it, it kept me reading over six weeks, & I'm really pleased it was chosen for the bookgroup.

Next, we'll on to Inevitable by Louis Couperus. I loved The Hidden Force by Couperus which we read last year so I'm looking forward to this.

I've just started listening to Moby-Dick on audio, read by William Hootkins. I bought this lovely Penguin Deluxe edition a few months ago & thought that listening to the book on audio would be a good way to get me into the story. Well, it worked because I'm loving it. I didn't expect Ishmael to be so funny & William Hootkins' narration is excellent (the recording on Naxos won an Audie Award in 2006).

I also listen to a lot of podcasts & the one that has me, & millions of other people around the world, glued to their iPads, iPods & PCs at the moment is Serial. I heard about Serial on another podcast I listen to, Books on the Nightstand. Serial is an investigation into a murder that happened in Baltimore in 1999. 17 year old Hae Min Lee was murdered & her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of the crime & is serving a life sentence. Journalist Sarah Koenig was alerted to some of the inconsistencies in the prosecution's case & has been re-investigating it, talking to Adnan & the witnesses, friends of Adnan & Hae, retracing the steps of the police, reading the trial transcripts & listening to the tapes. The podcast has been running 9 weeks with another 3 to go & it's addictive. It's like reading an in-depth article into an investigation or watching a TV series one week at a time. It's suspenseful & brings up so many issues about justice, & our perceptions of guilt & innocence. Sarah Koenig's narration is so engaging as she takes the listener with her through all the twists & turns.  She often confesses that she doesn't know what she thinks about Adnan's guilt or innocence. The music score is also haunting & is now stuck in my mind. There's an article in the Wall Street Journal here & the website is here. If you decide to listen to Serial, you really need to begin at Episode 1.

I have a lot of DVD box sets waiting to be watched (there's another list I could create, tbw instead of tbr) & at the moment I'm watching An Age of Kings. This is the 1960 BBC production of Shakespeare's history plays from Richard II to Richard III. It was originally screened fortnightly in 15 episodes. Each play (except Henry VI Part 1) was spread over two episodes. It's wonderful. Shot in black & white & obviously shot in a studio, the performances have been wonderful with some well-known names among the cast. That's Eileen Atkins as Joan of Arc on the cover & Robert Hardy plays Prince Hal/Henry V. Sean Connery is a very effective & charismatic Hotspur & Judi Dench has one of her first roles as Princess Katherine in Henry V, which I've just finished watching. There are also lots of character actors in minor roles, from Hermione & Angela Baddeley as Mistress Quickly & Doll Tearsheet to Julian Glover as the Earl of Westmoreland (& I see that he also plays Edward IV later on) & Cyril Luckham as Archbishop of Canterbury.

Well, this post is much longer that I planned & I still haven't mentioned the short stories I've been reading or posted the latest photos of Phoebe. I'll have to leave you in suspense for a couple of days - although nothing like the level of suspense I experience between episodes of Serial - & post Part 2 on Thursday.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Emily Dickinson


Another of my favourites. Rejecting her baptism into the Church when she was too young to have a choice, the poet now crowns herself. A radical proposal for a 19th century woman.

I'm ceded—I've stopped being Theirs—
The name They dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church
Is finished using, now,
And They can put it with my Dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools,
I've finished threading—too—

Baptized, before, without the choice,
But this time, consciously, of Grace—
Unto supremest name—
Called to my Full—The Crescent dropped—
Existence's whole Arc, filled up,
With one small Diadem.

My second Rank—too small the first—
Crowned—Crowing—on my Father's breast—
A half unconscious Queen—
But this time—Adequate—Erect,
With Will to choose, or to reject,
And I choose, just a Crown—

Thursday, November 20, 2014

My Family and Other Animals - Gerald Durrell

I often say this, but I can't believe it has taken me so long to get around to reading Gerald Durrell's memoir of his childhood in Corfu, My Family and Other Animals. It's been on my tbr shelves for a long time & I eventually listened to it as an audio book, so beautifully read by Nigel Davenport. It was actually Nigel Davenport who led me to the book. I'd watched the 1970s TV series, South Riding, in which he played Robert Carne. I loved it but I especially loved Davenport's voice & wondered if he's narrated any audio books. When I saw that he had read this one, I knew what I would be listening to next. So, I've spent the last few weeks listening to the adventures of the Durrell family as I drove to work, cooked & ironed.

The Durrells - Mother, Larry, Leslie, Margo & 10 year old Gerry - are suffering through a miserable winter when Larry decides that they should move to Corfu to get away from the awful English climate. The decision is no sooner made than they set off through Europe, eventually arriving on Corfu with a mountain of luggage & Gerry's dog, Roger. They are taken over almost immediately by Spiro, a giant of a man who thinks he speaks perfect English & who protects the Durrells from being robbed or taken advantage of during their stay on the island. They find a strawberry-pink villa with a bathroom (Mother's main requirement) & settle in. Larry is a writer & fills his room with books. Leslie is gun-mad, hunting anything that moves while Margo spends her time sunbathing & reading fashion magazines.

Gerry is mad on natural history & he & Roger explore the island observing & collecting the animals, mainly insects, that they come across. Unfortunately the rest of the family aren't as excited about scorpions in matchboxes as Gerry is & there are regular eruptions when his latest specimen is discovered in the fridge or the bathtub. Every so often, Mother becomes concerned about Gerry's education & employs a tutor for him, all of them lovable in varying degrees but none of them very useful as tutors. Gerry's best friend on the island is Theodore, a lovable man who is just as absorbed by natural history as he is. Every Thursday, Gerry has tea with Theo & they discuss Gerry's latest acquisitions or go on expeditions themselves to look for new animals to observe.Gerry's animals & his observations of the natural world are one of the many delights of the book. The adventures of Achilles & Cyclops the tortoises, Ulysses the owl, & especially the Magenpies (Spiro's mispronunciation of magpies) are very funny. As well as the mad adventures, there are also the quiet moments when the island truly seems a paradise.

Though I spent many days voyaging in the Bootle-Bumtrinket, and had many adventures, there was nothing to compare with that first voyage. The sea seemed bluer, more limpid and transparent, the islands seemed more remote, sun-drenched, and enchanting than ever before, and it seemed as though the life of the sea had congregated in the little bays and channels to greet me and my new boat. A hundred feet or so from an islet I shipped the oars and scrambled up to the bows, where I lay side by side with Roger, peering down through a fathom of crystal water at the sea bottom while the Bootle-Bumtrinket floated towards the shore with the placid buoyancy of a celluloid duck. As the boat's turtle-shaped shadow edged across the sea-bed, the multi-coloured, ever-moving tapestry of sea life was unfolded.

The Durrells moves from the strawberry-pink villa to a daffodil-yellow villa when Larry invites hoards of people to stay without considering where they're to stay then, later, to a snow-white villa to avoid a visit from a miserable old aunt. Mother just calmly tries to keep the peace as all she wants is for everyone to be happy. She's remarkably calm when Gerry brings yet another creature into the house or Larry, in his superior, sarcastic way, invites his literary friends to stay for indefinite periods. She calmly goes along to chaperone Margo on a date with a very unsuitable young man & seems able to cater for a large party at a moment's notice. Eventually, after five years, the family reluctantly decide to return to England for the sake of Gerry's education, & their final farewell to Corfu is incredibly poignant as the boat takes them away from this little paradise.

The success of the book is partly due to the picture of Corfu before tourism made the Greek islands so popular. To a child like Gerry, it seemed to be a paradise where he could spend whole days wandering through the olive groves & on the seashore exploring & observing. The descriptions of the natural history are fascinating but really, it's the eccentricities of the Durrell family that make it so very funny. I laughed out loud many times as I listened to stories of Larry's pomposity being squashed by the puppies Widdle & Puke destroying his room, or Margo's forlorn lovesickness over one of Gerry's tutors leading to her taking the puppies out on a boat trip that nearly ends in tears. Every time Leslie appeared with a gun, I laughed over his complete obsession with firearms over everything else. To Leslie, Corfu was just somewhere to hunt, he couldn't see the natural beauty of the place at all.

Apparently the book takes some liberties with the facts (Larry was married & living in another part of Corfu & the Durrells left because of the outbreak of war rather than for Gerry's education) but it seems the essential truth of the book was recognized, even by Larry (the writer Lawrence Durrell) who later said "This is a very wicked, very funny, and I'm afraid rather truthful book – the best argument I know for keeping thirteen-year-olds at boarding-schools and not letting them hang about the house listening in to conversations of their elders and betters." I just think it's one of the funniest books I've read in a very long time.

Naturally I'm going to find myself collecting copies of this book as I seem to collect copies of all my favourite books. I already own one paper copy & the audio book & next month, I'll have another copy as My Family and Other Animals is the new Slightly Foxed Edition & I collect those too.
Anglophilebooks.com
There are also secondhand copies available from Anglophile Books.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude

One of the most exciting recent publishing ventures for lovers of the Golden Age of crime fiction has been the British Library Crime Classics series of reprints.It's been so popular that titles are being published ahead of schedule. My copy of John Bude's Sussex Downs Mystery arrived last week although it wasn't due to be published until early next year. If I were being frivolous, I'd say it was the beautifully nostalgic cover art that's selling the series but that wouldn't be enough on its own. On the strength of the books I've read so far, it has just as much to do with the content which is a real treat for anyone who's looking for a new Golden Age mystery author.

The Cornish Coast Murder was the first of 30 books by John Bude (the pseudonym of Ernest Carpenter Elmore). It's a traditionally plotted mystery enhanced by the evocative setting & the mix of amateur & professional detectives. The story begins with the Reverend Dodd, Vicar of St Michael's-on-the-cliff, Boscawen, sitting by the fire waiting for his friend, Doctor Pendrill, to arrive for their traditional weekly dinner. Every Monday night, the two friends divide the contents of a box of library books, every one of them mysteries. On this evening, though, a phone call for Doctor Pendrill interrupts the evening. Julius Tregarthan has been found shot dead in his study.

Tregarthan's house, Greylings, is only a short distance away & the doctor & Reverend Dodd arrive on the scene to find Tregarthen's niece, Ruth, who found the body, shocked & upset. Mr & Mrs Cowper, housekeeper & odd job man, are the only servants. None of them seem to have heard anything but a thunderstorm overhead may have masked the sound of the shot or shots as three bullets have been fired, as it seems, from the cliff path outside the study window. Local constable Grouch arrives soon after followed by Inspector Bigswell from the County Police. Tregarthan seemed to have no enemies although he was a secretive man. He didn't get on well with his niece as it seemed he disapproved of her friendship with local writer & war veteran, Ronald Hardy. On the night of the murder, they had quarrelled at dinner & Ruth had left the house, returning some time later to find her uncle dead. Ruth's behaviour since the murder is evasive & suspicious but is she trying to hide something that incriminates herself or is she trying to protect someone else? When Ronald Hardy & his revolver go missing on the very same night & it emerges that Tregarthan had just confronted him about his relationship with Ruth, he becomes the number one suspect. Then there's Ned Salter, local "black sheep", who was seen arguing with Tregarthen on the day of the murder about the eviction of his family while he was in jail.

The Inspector whistled. He couldn't see the wood for the trees. Ruth Tregarthen? Ronald Hardy? Ned Salter? Which? they were all under suspicion. They all had a motive for the murder. They had all quarrelled with Tregarthan a few hours before his death. The puzzle was assuming gargantuan proportions. No sooner had the Inspector assembled a few bits to his satisfaction, when the puzzle altered shape, with all the startling inconsequence of a landscape in Alice in Wonderland.

I loved The Cornish Coast Murder. The Cornish village setting is beautifully drawn &, as it turns out, integral to the solution of the mystery. Reverend Dodd is a clever, intuitive detective who comes up with some vital insights with his practical knowledge as well as his insights into the hearts of his parishioners. I'm not sure a Police Inspector would have taken a parish priest into his confidence quite as readily as Inspector Bigswell does here but it's very well done & he certainly wouldn't have come up with the solution without him. There's plenty of routine police work too which I always enjoy reading about.

Martin Edwards has written an informative Introduction for this edition which gives some background on the writer. A series of mysteries set in the English countryside was very unusual for the 1930s when London was the setting used by most writers. We're used to mysteries set in cities, towns & villages all over the United Kingdom from Ann Cleeves' Shetlands to Edwards's own Lake District series &, of course, the murder capital of England, Midsomer, but it wasn't so common during the Golden Age. I'm so pleased to have had a chance to read John Bude & I have two more of his books on the tbr shelves.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Emily Dickinson

Back with Emily Dickinson again this week. Another spectacular poem, with its almost metaphysical imagery of the blacksmith & the forge.

Dare you see a soul at the white heat?   
  Then crouch within the door.   
Red is the fire’s common tint;   
  But when the vivid ore   
 
Has sated flame’s conditions,           
  Its quivering substance plays   
Without a color but the light   
  Of unanointed blaze.   
 
Least village boasts its blacksmith,   
  Whose anvil’s even din          
Stands symbol for the finer forge   
  That soundless tugs within,   
 
Refining these impatient ores   
  With hammer and with blaze,   
Until the designated light           
  Repudiate the forge.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Fig at the Gate - Kate Llewellyn

Kate Llewellyn is a poet and diarist who is best-known for her poetry & her memoirs of creating gardens in various parts of Australia. The Waterlily is probably her most famous book, about living in the Blue Mountains. I realised when A Fig at the Gate was published that I still had her previous book, Playing with Water, on the tbr shelves. I've pulled it off now though & look forward to reading it soon.

Llewellyn is now in her seventies & has moved back to Adelaide, South Australia, where she grew up. Her siblings are near by as well as friends she's known from her nursing days. She knows this climate well, & prepares to create a new garden in her house by the sea. The book is a diary, written from 2009-2012, moving through the seasons. Adelaide has experienced even hotter, dryer weather than Melbourne over the last few years so I could relate to her struggles with the climate & the failure of plants to thrive in the hot summers. I love this description of the beginning of autumn,

The first cold day and welcome, too, a feeling of zest and a sting in the air with rain in the night. The tank is half full. I knock, knock with my knuckles on the corrugated iron rings of the tank to hear where the water level makes a dull sound. ... A flock of starlings flies up from the newly mown lawn. A willie wagtail hops around in its cheerful way and a Murray magpie flutters down and then up. when pruning the apricot tree a while ago, I found a small bird's nest high up in the tree. I left the branch in case the bird uses the nest again. A sparrow flew into a dense olive tree in the front garden and, thinking it may be nesting there, I have been out to search but, apart from a small crop of green olives, the tree is empty. A flash of green and a lorikeet flew out. Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Apart from the planning & enthusiastic planting of the garden, Llewellyn visits friends & family, tries to make friends with neighbours, starts a garden on the roadside opposite her house, lies on her bed watching the trees through her window. She is very frugal & always on the lookout for some free seedlings or a way to reuse an object that would otherwise be thrown out. She rescues some old pink bricks from a demolished house (carrying them in a green wheelie bin) to create borders around the garden beds &, walking past a house with a load of soil on offer for free, soon has a friend there to help carry away as much as possible in buckets & wheelbarrows.

The garden causes just as much pain & frustration as pleasure. Seeds are sown & fail to come up. A crop of tomatoes at the side of the house, where nothing has probably ever been planted, give so much fruit that it can't all be eaten. Nothing ever grows there so well again so was it just that it was virgin soil? I loved the story of the blood orange tree. Nurtured, fed, mulched, watered, the tree gave no fruit at all. Listening to a gardening show on the radio, Llewellyn hears that blood oranges should be left alone & if neglected, will thrive. Which hers does as soon as she pulls away the mulch & ignores it.

The other major saga is that of the chickens & later, ducks. Llewellyn grew up with chooks & her brother rears them for a living so she is keen to have her own small flock. She begins with six white pullets & all is well until she introduces six red chickens. She calls the result the War of the Roses. She learns from her mistakes about feeding them & caring for them when ill. She even sets up an intensive care unit in her shower for the hens when they're sick, bathing them & anointing their bare red skin with calamine lotion. The story of the chickens becomes as suspenseful as a soap opera. I find I'm racing on to the next entry to see what has happened to the latest patient. Rearing ducks is more successful as the pair she buys soon have nine ducklings, most of which have to be sold as pets as there's not enough room for them.

There are many beautiful quiet moments in this book where Kate Llewellyn meditates on the pleasures & pains of getting older. The aches & pains of her body & a bout of depression are the downside but the advantages, from being able to lie in bed late watching the trees to being eligible for Council help with maintenance around the house, are also celebrated. I enjoyed reading about Kate Llewellyn's garden, her chooks, her clever contrivances, her successes & failures, everything that goes to make up this one woman's life.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Professor - Charlotte Brontë

Novelists should never allow themselves to weary of the study of real Life - if they observed this duty conscientiously, they would give us fewer pictures checquered with vivid contrasts of light and shade; they would seldom elevate their heros and heroines to the heights of rapture - still seldomer sink them to the depths of despair; for if we rarely taste the fulness of joy in this life, we yet more rarely savour the acrid bitterness of hopeless anguish...

This is the beginning of Chapter XIX of Charlotte Brontë's first novel, The Professor. As she wrote in a later novel, Shirley, she was determined to give her readers a plain story, "Something real, cool, and solid, lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning". Maybe the very plainness & lack of excitement in The Professor is the reason that it was never published in her lifetime. It was edited by her widower, Arthur Bell Nicholls, & first published in 1857, two years after her death. It does have a special place in the story of the Brontës though. Charlotte sent the manuscript of The Professor to Smith, Elder (after it was rejected by six other publishers) & it was the kind letter she received in return from William Smith Williams that encouraged her to send them the manuscript of Jane Eyre. It's also fascinating to see Charlotte trying out in The Professor many of the elements that make Jane Eyre & Villette such remarkable novels.

The Professor is the story of William Crimsworth. William has been brought up by his mother's aristocratic family to go into the Church. When he rejects his uncle's offer of a comfortable living & one of his cousins as a wife, William decides to visit his brother, Edward, a mill owner in the North of England. The two brothers barely know each other & Edward is suspicious of William with his rich relations & Southern education & accomplishments. He grudgingly agrees to give William a job as a clerk in his mill but declines to have anything else to do with him. William soon tires of this dismal existence. His employment is uncongenial & he dislikes his brother, who goes out of his way to humiliate him in the office & ignores him socially. William's one friend is Yorke Hunsden, a mill owner like Edward but a man with more liberal principles.

Hunsden gives William a letter of introduction to a friend of his in Brussels & suggests that William might find work as an English teacher there. William has burned his boats with his brother after resigning in a fit of temper & decides to try his luck in Brussels. When he arrives there, he finds a position as tutor in a boys school run by M Pelet. He is permitted to take on additional teaching in his spare time & begins to teach next door at the girls school run by Mdlle Zoraïde Reuter.

William becomes infatuated with Mdlle Reuter who is a few years older than himself but pretty, accomplished & runs her school in a very respectable manner. He also meets Frances Henri, a young Swiss-English woman who teaches needlework in Mdlle Reuter's school. Frances attends William's English lessons so as to improve her English, which she learnt from her English mother. Frances is not pretty but is very neat, modest & an excellent pupil. She lives with her aunt in very reduced circumstances. William's infatuation with Zoraïde comes to an abrupt end when he discovers that she is secretly meeting M Pelet & plans to marry him. He also hears them laughing about his own infatuation with Zoraïde & his presumption in thinking he could marry her. William's attitude to Zoraïde becomes cold & distant & perversely, she now pursues him. When Zoraïde realises that William has become fond of Frances, she dismisses her. William resigns from both his teaching posts &, with the help of the father of a grateful pupil, he finds another job & begins to save. He searches Brussels for Frances, determined to begin a new life with her if she can accept him.

In The Professor Charlotte Brontë tries out her theories of what a novel should be. She was not a novice as she had been writing tales & stories herself & with her brother, Branwell, for many years. These stories of an imaginary land called Angria, were full of sensation, romance & excitement. Charlotte decided that she must calm down her writing to be taken seriously & so she wrote this very quiet, unromantic story. She used Brussels as a location because she had recently returned from teaching there. Her employer, Mde Heger, had grown cool towards Charlotte when she realised that Charlotte had fallen in love with her husband & Charlotte left Brussels hating Madame Heger. Mde Heger is the model for Zoraïde Reuter. A much more well-developed & nuanced portrait of Brussels & Mde Heger appears in Villette.

Frances Henri is an early version of Jane Eyre, even down to the way her clothes are described - plain, quiet, clean & respectable. Frances herself is Jane observed from the outside, with none of the passion & fire within. There's just an echo of the passionate letters Charlotte wrote to M Heger in the letter Frances writes to William when she fears that she will never see him again, "... I am oppressed when I see and feel to what a reverse fate has condemned me; you were kind to me Monsieur, - very kind - I am afflicted - I am heart-broken to be quite separated from you - soon I shall have no friend on earth - but it is useless troubling you with my distresses."

Yorke Hunsdon was based on Mr Taylor, the father of Charlotte's great friend, Mary. The Taylor family appear as the Yorkes in Shirley. William himself is an odd hero. Charlotte never seems comfortable writing from a male perspective & William never convinces. He is proud, always standing on his dignity, yet curiously boastful & overly emotional. All Charlotte's prejudices are on show here - about foreigners but especially about the Catholic Church. She is scathing about Rome & its iniquities. Once William's infatuation with Zoraïde is over, she becomes, for him, everything that is duplicitous & wicked about foreign women.

Even though The Professor is too quiet & sober to be a completely successful novel, I enjoyed reading it again because there's so much of Charlotte's own voice there. It was fascinating to pick out the ideas, even sometimes the very phrases, that Charlotte used in her later, more accomplished novels.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Remembrance Day

With Remembrance Day on Tuesday, I've had to replace Emily Dickinson with a poem by another of my favourite poets, Wilfred Owen. Anthem for Doomed Youth is so poignant & I especially love the second stanza with the image of the sadness of the women at home, living on with that sadness through all the years afterwards.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds
.

Another poem that evokes a similar feeling of looking back to another time was written fifty years later. MCMXIV by Philip Larkin. Looking back at an England that didn't survive the Great War, the innocence that was lost along with the open pubs & the cheery photos of young men joining up for a great adventure.

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again


Thursday, November 6, 2014

Death is a Word - Hazel Holt

The Sheila Malory series by Hazel Holt has always been one of my favourites & Death is a Word is the final book in the series. Set in the fictional town of Taviscombe in Dorset, my interest has always been just as much in Sheila's life, interests & friends as it has been in the various murder mysteries she's found herself involved in.

In this final book, Sheila's friend Rosemary's cousin Eva Jackson has moved back to the area after the death of her husband, Alan. Alan had been a journalist, a foreign correspondent, but instead of being killed in some overseas conflict, he died in London of kidney failure. Eva has a garage full of Alan's papers & Rosemary is keen to help her settle in to her new life, encouraging her to sort through the papers so they can be edited for publication. Sheila is less keen. A widow herself, she knows how raw emotions can be & tries to rein Rosemary in a little. Eva's son, Dan, lives in London & works for a foodie magazine. His relations with his mother are affectionate but a little remote. Both very private people, they've never been very close although he does visit her in Taviscombe & meets Sheila, Rosemary & Rosemary's formidable mother, Mrs Dudley.

Sheila's bossy friend Anthea, who runs local cultural centre Brunswick Lodge, is keen to get Eva involved in her many plans for talks & events. Luckily her attention is soon taken by another new arrival to the area, Donald Webster. Donald has recently retired from working in South America for a pharmaceutical company & seems happy to go along with Anthea's plans. He seems helpful, polite & enthusiastic but Sheila can't help feeling that there's something odd about a successful businessman choosing to retire to sleepy Taviscombe where he has no ties or family associations. Eva becomes interested in researching her family history & Rosemary is pleased that she's moving on from Alan's death. However, she's a little put out when Eva & Donald Webster begin going out together.

Sheila & Rosemary are shocked when Eva dies suddenly. She had been suffering from a virus & the coroner concludes that she must have felt so ill that she forgot to take the insulin for her diabetes. Eva's son, Dan, & his partner Patrick come down for the funeral & decide to stay on in Eva's cottage while Dan decides what to do next. He decides to continue the genealogical research his mother had started. Dan & Patrick seem content to stay at the cottage & Dan becomes very fond of Mrs Dudley, visiting her to ask about the family & looking through her photo albums. One morning, Dan is knocked down by a car & killed while on his usual morning run. Sheila begins to suspect that Dan's death wasn't an accident or a random hit & run. If Dan's death wasn't accidental, could there be more to Eva's death? Was there something in Alan's papers (there was that suspicious fire in the shed where they were stored) or could Eva's genealogical research have disturbed family secrets? Sheila talks to everyone, comes up with several incorrect theories but eventually realises that there can only be one solution, however unlikely it seems.

This is a very satisfying mystery with everything I enjoy about English small town (or village) stories. Sheila is a widow, with a married son, a dog, Tris & cat, Foss, who rule her life in a very believable way! I'm also very fond of Mrs Dudley, who dominates Rosemary's life but is really quite vulnerable & a little lonely. The small town atmosphere of walks by the shore, morning coffee & visits to the theatre in Bath is very inviting, everything a cosy mystery should be, really. It's a shame that there will be no more books in the series but also reassuring that Hazel Holt didn't feel the need to kill off anyone apart from the designated victims. Hazel Holt's books have been brought back into print in recent years by Coffeetown Press & her books about her friend, Barbara Pym, the biography, A Lot To Ask & the edited diaries & letters, A Very Private Eye, are now available as ebooks or POD paperbacks from Bello.