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


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.