Saturday, April 30, 2011

Aunts Aren't Gentlemen - P G Wodehouse

I'm a recent convert to the joys of P G Wodehouse but I can definitely say that Bertie Wooster is one of my all-time favourite characters. I love Bertie. I can’t say quite yet that the Jeeves & Wooster novels are my favourite Wodehouse because I haven’t read any Psmith or Mulliner, but they couldn’t be as funny, witty & mad as Bertie & Jeeves, could they? On Wednesday I spent the day in the city after dropping my car off for a service. I wanted something to read on the train & I chose Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen by P G Wodehouse. I liked the idea of another novel starring Bertram Wooster but this one came with aunts & the cover promised a cat so I knew I was set for an amusing read. Two train journeys, lunch & half an hour sitting in the gorgeous Exhibition gardens on a perfect autumn day later, I’d laughed & chuckled my way through all but 30pp of Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen.

The plot, as always, is completely mad, full of things that could only happen to Bertie Wooster. Bertie wakes up one morning with spots on his chest. On the recommendation of a doctor (who thinks he spends too much time drinking cocktails & smoking), he decides to spend some time in the country & ends up staying in a cottage in Maiden Eggesford, organised for him by his Aunt Dahlia who’s staying at nearby Eggesford Hall with some friends who own a horse entered in a local race. On his way to lunch at Eggesford Hall, Bertie ends up by mistake at Eggesford Court, another stately home in the area owned by a horse racing rival of Aunt Dahlia’s friends. He’s accosted by the hunting-crop wielding owner of the Court, Mr Cook, who also happens to be the father of Vanessa, one of the many girls Bertie has been unluckily in love with over the course of his life.

Mr Cook accuses Bertie of attempting to steal a cat, a stray that lives in the stables & is the favourite companion of his horse, Potato Chip. Mr Cook is as single-minded about his horse’s welfare as Lord Emsworth ever was about the Empress of Blandings & Potato Chip pines when the cat is not there. Mr Cook chases Bertie off the premises & this is the beginning of a series of increasingly farcical events including repeated attempts by Aunt Dahlia to steal the cat (she has a large bet on her host’s horse, Simla, & is trying to nobble the opposition), Bertie trying to avoid being disembowelled by Vanessa Cook’s jealous ex-fiance, & an African explorer called Major Plank trying to remember where he’s met Bertie before while telling gruesome stories of his African adventures.

It’s not so much the adventures as the way Bertie narrates them that’s the charm of these books. In nearly every one, Bertie is imposed upon by bossy young women or overbearing aunts. He falls in love or tries to escape matrimonial entanglements. He’s attacked by jealous young men who think he’s stealing their girlfriends or by fathers who think he’s a fortune hunter. Bertie’s tangled explanations, coupled with Jeeves’s deadpan replies are just priceless.

‘What are those things circumstances have, Jeeves?’ I said.
‘You know what I mean. You talk of a something of circumstances which leads to something. Cats enter into it, if I’m not wrong.’
‘Would concatenation be the word you are seeking?’
‘That’s right. It was on the tip of my tongue. Do concatenations of circumstances arise?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Well, one has arisen now. The facts are these. When we were in London, I formed a slight acquaintance with a Miss Cook who turns out to be the daughter of the chap who owns the horse which thinks so highly of that cat. She had a spot of trouble with the police, and her father summoned her home to see that she didn’t get into more. So she is now at Eggesford Court. Got the scenario so far?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘This caused her betrothed, a man named Porter, to follow her here in order to give her aid and comfort. Got that?’
‘Yes, sir. This frequently happens when two young hearts are sundered.’
‘Well, I met him today, and my presence in Maiden Eggesford came as a surprise to him.’
‘One can readily imagine it, sir.’
‘He took it for granted that I had come in pursuit of Miss Cook.’
‘Like young Lochinvar, when he came out of the West.’
The name was new to me, but I didn’t ask for further details. I saw that he was following the plot, and it never does, when you are telling a story, to wander off into side issues.

I also recently bought this gorgeous Vintage Classics edition called Week-End Wodehouse. It’s a compilation of bits & pieces from the Wodehouse canon with original line drawings by Kerr. It was originally published in 1939. I couldn’t resist buying it for the lovely Art Deco cover art but also because I love Wodehouse & just can’t get enough of his witty words.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Royal Wedding

On the day of the wedding of Prince William & Kate Middleton, here are a few of my favourite pictures from royal weddings of the past. Queen Victoria famously proposed to Prince Albert (photo above from and her dress set the fashion for white wedding dresses when they married in 1840.

Victoria & Albert's eldest son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales married Alexandra of Denmark in 1863 (photo from A beautiful bride & another wedding that stopped the nation.

Queen Victoria's granddaughter, Alix of Hesse married Tsar Nicholas II in 1894 (photo from A marriage that began & ended in tragedy but Nicholas & Alexandra were a devoted couple, very much in love until their deaths during the Russian Revolution.

I'll be sitting up tonight to watch the whole thing. Luckily, it all begins at about 7.30pm Melbourne time so I won't have to prop my eyes open to stay awake. Abby & I will settle down with a pot of tea & enjoy all the pageantry. Fingers crossed that it doesn't rain.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Hanging Wood - Martin Edwards

How could you do that to your own brother? These words, spoken by Orla Payne, echo throughout the book. Sibling relationships are at the heart of The Hanging Wood, the latest in the Lake District series of mysteries by Martin Edwards, one of my favourite writers of contemporary crime fiction. Twenty years ago, Orla Payne’s teenage brother, Callum Hinds, disappeared. When their Uncle Philip is questioned by the police after his brother names him as a suspect & then commits suicide, the case is quickly wrapped up, even though Callum’s body hadn’t been found & there seemed to be no real motive for Philip to murder his nephew. Philip was a quiet man who enjoyed the visits of his niece & nephew. There was no indication that his interest in them was unnatural.

Orla & Callum’s childhood had already been disrupted by the breakdown of their parents’ marriage. The children lived with their mother, Niamh, who had married Kit Payne. Orla took her stepfather’s surname but Callum never accepted him. Callum stayed in contact with his father, Mike, & often visited his farm. Philip lived nearby in a derelict cottage in a place called the Hanging Wood. The farm & the wood are adjacent to a holiday resort, a very upmarket caravan park, owned by the Madsen brothers, Gareth & Bryan. The madsens are local bigwigs with a lot of local influence. Their generous financial support of police initiatives puts Hannah under extra pressure from her boss to wrap up the investigation quickly.

Also nearby is St Herbert’s, a residential library established by a local landowner. It’s here that Orla Payne, returning to the Lake District after years away, meets Daniel Kind. Daniel is a historian & writer, working on his latest book at the library & Orla tells him that she doesn’t believe her Uncle Philip murdered Callum. Daniel suggests that Orla call DCI Hannah Scarlett, head of the Cold Case Review Team at Cumbria Constabulary. Orla’s phone calls to the Team are muddled by alcohol &, when she can’t explain her reasons for her theories about her brother’s disappearance, she hangs up in despair. When she is found dead shortly after, in a grain silo on her father’s farm, Hannah feels compelled to investigate the case further.

Hannah's investigations stir up old rivalries & motives in a satisfyingly complex plot that had me guessing right to the end. All my guesses were completely wrong of course, that goes without saying!  Daniel & Hannah work well together on this investigation. Daniel is able to learn a lot about the Madsen & Hinds families & the tangled relationships of the people in the small community that was touched by Callum’s disappearance. Hannah’s investigation is fuelled by her guilt about Orla’s death & the possibility that it might not have been suicide. What if Orla was right? If Philip wasn’t responsible, the person behind Callum’s disappearance could still be out there.

Apart from the convoluted plots, the reason I love this series is the relationship between Hannah & Daniel. Throughout the series, they have both been in relationships but at the beginning of this book, they’re both single. Daniel has broken up with Miranda & is living with his sister, Louise, while she looks for a place of her own. Hannah has separated from Marc but hasn’t quite been able to make a decisive break. Daniel & Hannah have become good friends but there’s a spark of attraction between them that keeps the reader on tenterhooks. This is a very satisfying book with enough clues & red herrings to keep any mystery lover up half the night to finish it.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Tinker & the Snow Goose

Every year, around Remembrance Day & Anzac Day, I find myself reading books about WWI & WWII. Fiction, non-fiction, letters, diaries, poetry. I’m endlessly fascinated & humbled to read about the experiences of men & women who gave up the comfortable, certain lives they knew & joined the forces or worked on the Home Front to help the war effort in any way they could. A few months ago, Lynne, better known as Dovegreyreader, sent me a copy of her father’s memoir of his war service, Bugle Boy. Len Chester is better known to the readers of Lynne’s blog as The Tinker & he makes regular appearances there, most recently, eating a hot cross bun on Good Friday.

Len served throughout WWII as a Boy Bugler in the Royal Marines, having joined up just a few months before the beginning of the war at the age of fourteen. That’s the first shock to get over. Fourteen years old. It seems like something out of Nelson’s Navy and, as Len soon discovers, some of the routines & punishments on board ship hadn’t moved on much since Nelson’s day. Len soon recovers from the shock of having to make his own bed to regulation standard (having never made his own bed before), being woken by Reveille at 6am, polishing the cork floor till it shone like a mirror and getting his uniform ready to go on parade at 8am. Len was a fast learner & soon knew all the tricks of the barrack-wise. When his parents came to visit for the first time, he marched up to the Sergeant on the gate to ask permission for leave.

Drawing myself up to my full height, I halted in front of the Sergeant. 
‘PO/x 3943 Boy Bugler L Chester, permission to leave barracks Sergeant.’ 
My father was bursting with pride and my mother had tears in her eyes; I was terrified. Whilst I stood there with my proud parents watching, he did a 360-degree inspection of me, including a bird’s eye view of my cap cover, because I’m sure he was 7’6” tall. 
‘You have dust in the welts of your boots, go back and clean them properly.’ 
My father’s pride at that moment knew no bounds, my mother shed some more tears and I was completely humiliated.

Of course, Len was an old hand of three weeks standing so he just went back to his bunk, sat there for a few minutes, went back to the Sergeant & was passed through with no problems. After his initial training, Len was posted to HMS Iron Duke stationed at Scapa Flow, the supposedly impregnable base of the Royal Navy in the north. An air raid in March 1940 almost ended Len’s career in the Marines.

I was very lucky during that raid as I was sent with a message to the bomb area and had to move along the starboard waist when I heard the whine of a plane diving. I didn’t wait but ran as fast as I could, easily breaking the four-minute mile, undoing eight cleats on an armoured door and getting inside to safety. The plane machine-gunned all down the starboard side and after the raid I dug a bullet out of the decking where, a short time before, I had run. I still have that bullet – it is a tracer bullet – but it hasn’t got my name on it.

The most dangerous part of Len’s war service was when his ship was part of the Arctic Convoy fleet. He was now on HMS King George V, a 35,000-ton battleship. At the age of 16 & with two years service, Len was looked on as an “old soldier”, and he found the life on board more agreeable even though life was more precarious. The ship had a Royal Marine band so he had the company of the other band members instead of just himself and another boy bugler who were kept apart from the other seamen. The task of HMS King George V was to keep between the Norwegian shore & the convoy of ships sailing from Scapa Flow to Russia. The bitter cold meant that life on board was a constant struggle to keep the ship clear of ice which could damage the guns. Mines were the main danger as the German battleship Tirpitz was often expected but it never actually put to sea.

Incredibly, the men who served on the Arctic Convoys were never awarded a campaign medal. The Arctic Association was formed to remedy this & eventually a lapel badge, the Arctic Star, was awarded & a white beret could be worn. There are very few men left who have the distinction of wearing the white beret but Len Chester is one of them,

It isn’t truly white, actually; it has a yellow shading to denote the fact that blood turns yellow when frozen on ice.

After the Arctic Convoys, Len was posted to the Mediterranean and, when he turned 18 in April 1943, he transferred to the Royal Marines. After training, he was drafted to HMS Glasgow and served in the Far East. Len’s story is a fascinating one. I don’t think the current generation really has any idea of the hardships endured by the men & women of the war generation & that’s why it’s so important that stories like Bugle Boy are written down & published. Len credits his late wife, Vera, & daughter, Lynne, with pushing him into writing down his story & anyone who reads the book can only thank them for their persistence.

I also read Paul Gallico’s lovely story, The Snow Goose, as part of my Anzac Day reading. I know I’ve read this story before but it’s been a very long time & I loved reading it again. My local Classic FM station sometimes plays the radio version of The Snow Goose with Herbert Marshall as narrator & playing Philip, usually around Remembrance Day. This is a very moving production. Herbert Marshall had a beautiful voice, I always loved him in two of my favourite movies, The Letter with Bette Davis & The Enchanted Cottage with Robert Young & Dorothy McGuire.  

The Snow Goose is a fable about innocence, beauty, courage & love. Set on the wild Essex coast, it’s the story of Philip Rhayader, a man who sees himself as an outcast because he has a hunchback & a crippled hand. He retreats to a lighthouse where he sets up a sanctuary for the birds who stop there on their migration. He also paints and sails & lives a completely solitary life. One day, a young girl, Frith, comes to him with a snow goose, wounded by hunters. Together they heal the goose & form a tentative friendship. Frith is timid & initially frightened of Philip’s appearance but she grows in confidence. The snow goose, a rare visitor from Canada, continues to return to Philip every year on her migration. For several years, the snow goose doesn’t visit & Philip realises how much he has come to rely on Frith’s visits. Then, in the first year of WWII, the snow goose returns, just as Philip is about to join the great flotilla of boats that set out to Dunkirk to help with the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force. Frith watches Philip set off in his tiny boat with the snow goose soaring overhead & waits for his return. This is such a gentle story, but its themes of friendship, love & sacrifice are very relevant to Anzac Day & every other day of the year.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sunday poetry - Abraham Cowley

Abraham Cowley (photo above from was another of the Cavalier poets of the 17th century. Born in 1618, he studied at Cambridge but went to Oxford at the outbreak of the Civil War & is said to have become a spy for the Royalist cause. His loyalty was questioned in later years & he never felt he received his due after the Restoration. I especially like the second verse of this poem, The Wish. A small house, large garden, few friends & many books, I can't argue with that!

Well then; I now do plainly see,
This busy world and I shall ne'er agree;
The very honey of all earthly joy
Does of all meats the soonest cloy,
And they, methinks, deserve my pity,
Who fo it can endure the stings,
The crowd, and buzz, and murmerings
Of this great hive, the city.

Ah, yet, e'er I descend to th' grave
May I a small house, and large garden have!
And a few friends, and many books, both true,
Both wise, and both delightful too!
And since love ne'er will from me flee,
A mistress moderately fair,
And good as guardian-angels are,
Only belov'd, and loving me!

Oh, fountains, when in you shall I
My self, eas'd of unpeaceful thoughts, espy?
O fields! O woods! when, when shall I be made
The happy tenant of your shade?
Here's the spring-head of pleasure's flood;
Where all the riches lie, that she
Has coin'd and stamp'd for good.

Pride and ambition here,
Only in far-fetch'd metaphors appear;
Here nought but winds can hurtful murmurs scatter;
And nought but echo flatter.
The gods when they descended hither
From Heav'n did always choose their way;
And therefore we may boldly say,
That 'tis the way too thither.

How happy here should I,
And on dear She live, and embracing die?
She ho is all the world, and can exclude
In deserts solitude.
I should have then this only fear,
Lest men, when they my pleasures see,
Should hither throng to live like me,
And so make a city here.

A very happy & peaceful Easter to everyone.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Letters of T S Eliot Volume 2 1923-1925 - ed by Valerie Eliot & Hugh Haughton

I’ve been waiting for the publication of Volume 2 of T S Eliot’s letters for 20 years. That’s how long ago Volume 1 was published. As this Volume only covers three years, 1923-1925, & is over 800pp long, I don’t know if I’ll be around to see the end of the project. I’d like to think I’ll see at least a couple more Volumes though. I love reading letters. It took me a few weeks to be in the right mood to pick this book up but, once I did, I couldn’t stop reading. Several times I read 100pp in a sitting. My neck & wrists would be sore & I’d think I would have to stop. Then, I’d see that the next letter was to Virginia Woolf & the next one to Ottoline Morrell & I’d read just a few more pages. I don’t want to deceive you that the book is full of the Bloomsbury Group. Eliot was only on the fringes of the group &, apart from the Woolfs & Lady Ottoline, the only other Bloomsbury correspondent is Mary Hutchinson, Clive Bell’s mistress.

Most of the letters are concerned with Eliot’s involvement with the Criterion literary quarterly. In the three years covered by this volume, Eliot was working full-time at Lloyd’s Bank & editing the Criterion in the evenings & weekends. The Criterion was bankrolled by Lady Rothermere, wife of a newspaper baron. It was a vanity project for her, really, but she didn’t interfere in the editorial decisions & Eliot shaped the quarterly to reflect his own ideas about art, literature & criticism. Unfortunately Eliot received no salary for his work so he was forced to stay at Lloyds, a decision that had a detrimental effect on his health & his own writing. He wrote virtually no poetry during this period, apart from the sequence that became The Hollow Men. He also began work on his play, Sweeney Agonistes. Apart from this, all his writing was criticism & editorials for the Criterion.

Literary connections are always uncertain. I am no longer very popular with the Nation people, because my political and social views are so reactionary and ultra-conservative. They have become gradually more so and I am losing the approval of the moderate and tepid whigs and Liberals who have most of the literary power. It is less offensive to be a Socialist nowadays than it is to be a Tory. I want to be able to say just what I think. But if I stay in the bank I shall never have time to say what I think. There is so much I want to do.  (To his Mother late February? 1924)

The hundreds of letters to the printer, publisher & contributors of the Criterion are fascinating. Eliot did all the work of chasing contributions, organising review copies, cajoling reluctant or slow writers to meet his deadlines, hurrying up the printers & making decisions about the font size of reviews as opposed to feature articles. His reach was enormous. He was soliciting articles from writers all over Europe & the US. He was always striving for that balance between serious articles & a famous name to put on the cover to attract readers. All this work was done with only occasional secretarial help in his own time.

The other major theme of the letters is his marriage & his wife, Vivien’s, ill-health. The Eliots were married in 1915 & Vivien’s health had been precarious from the start. She comes close to death several times during these three years, suffering from influenza, bronchitis, colitis, liver problems & rheumatism. The financial burden is just as great as the emotional strain as Eliot takes Vivien to see endless new doctors & tries to find a country cottage so she can live away from the fogs of London. He wrote to Virginia Woolf asking her to be on the lookout for something suitable,

I don’t know whether you are in London. I hope at Rodmell. Now what we want – again!- is a cottage, a barn, a stable, or a shed, or even a bit of land on which a sectional bungalow could be put up – it doesn’t matter what, so long as it is in the country, and is cheap. Ever since we have been without even that miserable place at Fishbourne we have pined more and more. It’s the only way to get out of London – however miserable, we want something of our own. So if you hear of anything, or can find anything...We only want to go and live in the country, and if Lady R. would only provide a possible salary – which is not to be hoped – we should go at once. (To Virginia Woolf February 4th 1925)

By mid 1925, Eliot’s own health had broken down & he was on the verge of a breakdown. He blamed himself for Vivien’s ill-health but also felt trapped by it,

In the last ten years – gradually, but deliberately – I have made myself into a machine. I have done it deliberately – in order to endure, in order not to feel – but it has killed V. In leaving the bank I hope to become less a machine – but yet I am frightened – because I don’t know what it will do to me – and to V – should I come alive again. I have deliberately killed my senses – I have deliberately died – in order to go on with the outward form of living – This I did in 1915. What will happen if I live again? ‘I am I’ but with what feelings, with what results to others – Have I the right to be I – But the dilemma – to kill another person by being dead, or to kill them by being alive? ... Does it happen that two persons’ lives are absolutely hostile? Is it true that sometimes one can only live by another’s dying? (To John Middleton Murry mid-April? 1925)

Fortunately, by the end of 1925, Eliot’s financial worries had eased. He was able to leave Lloyds when he was offered a position as editor of a new literary quarterly to be called the New Criterion. It was to be published by a new house, Faber & Gwyer (later Faber & Faber), with whom Eliot would be associated for the rest of his life. There’s a photo of Eliot in the book, taken at around this time. He’s standing outside the offices of Faber & Gwyer, still looking like a banker, in his bowler hat, leaning on his umbrella. He looks pale, thin & weary but happy. I’m looking forward to the next Volume of letters to find out what happens next. I hope I don't have to wait another twenty years!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Almayer's Folly - Joseph Conrad

One of the things I love about reading groups is that they force you to at least try books outside your usual comfort zone. I’ve just finished reading Almayer’s Folly by Joseph Conrad with my 19th century group. I’ve never been a fan of Conrad. I read Heart of Darkness at school & two of his other novels, The Secret Agent & Under Western Eyes, with this group & none of them engaged me. When I saw Almayer’s Folly in the list of books I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic. Conrad again & set in Borneo, oh dear. Surprisingly, I enjoyed Almayer’s Folly very much.

Kaspar Almayer is a disappointed man. He feels European, although he was born in the East & has never visited Europe. He had great ambitions as a young man when he was apprenticed as a clerk to a trader in Macassar. After a year’s clerking, he joins the service of Lingard, a charismatic merchant who is said to have a map showing the whereabouts of a great treasure in the interior of the country. Almayer becomes a surrogate son to Lingard & eventually marries Lingard’s adopted daughter. He hopes to inherit Lingard’s fortune & discover the secret of the treasure. This girl (we never know her name) was rescued by Lingard after a battle with some Malay pirates. Lingard sends her to a convent school to be brought up as a European but he has no idea of her inner thoughts. She had expected to become the old man’s concubine, maybe his wife, & she is pragmatically resigned to that role. Instead, Lingard sends her to the convent & then marries her off to a clerk.

But her destiny in the rough hands of the old sea-dog, acting under unreasonable impulses of the heart, took a strange and to her a terrible shape. She bore it all – the restraint and the teaching and the new faith – with calm submission, concealing her hate and contempt for all that new life...And dressed in the hateful finery of Europe, the centre of an interested circle of Batavian society, the young convert stood before the altar with an unknown and sulky-looking white man. For Almayer was uneasy, a little disgusted, and greatly inclined to run away.

Such a marriage with two such unwilling partners was destined for failure. Twenty years later, they are still miserably together. Almayer’s business has dwindled to almost nothing. His father-in-law disappeared up the river one day, having used all his money on his futile treasure hunts. The trading business has been taken over by the Arabs. Almayer’s boast that he’s the only white man on the river, as though this were an advantage, seems increasingly hollow. Almayer & his wife have nothing but contempt for each other. Almayer has never loved or respected his wife. He is ashamed of having married a native woman & she is contemptuous of his lack of success in business. She spends her days chewing betel nuts, making sarongs for the servants out of the curtains & breaking up the furniture to feed the kitchen fire, growing more and more resentful & bitter.

Almayer's only consolation is his daughter, Nina.  He sends Nina to school under the protection of a trader’s wife but Nina learns the subtle discrimination of white, colonial society towards those of mixed race. Beautiful & proud, Nina returns home where she increasingly comes under the influence of her mother, who tells her stories of her Malay pirate forebears. Almayer still dreams of making a fortune & taking Nina to Amsterdam. He imagines they will be admitted to the best society & Nina will be feted for her beauty & charm.  He decides to try to find Lingard’s treasure one more time & enlists the help of a Balinese prince, Dain Maroola. Dain & Nina fall in love, encouraged in their secret meetings by Mrs Almayer.

(Nina) had little belief and no sympathy for her father’s dreams; but the savage ravings of her mother chanced to strike a responsive chord, deep down somewhere in her despairing heart; and she dreamed dreams of her own with the persistent absorption of a captive thinking of liberty within the walls of his prison cell. With the coming of Dain she found the road to freedom by obeying the voice of the new-born impulses, and with surprised joy she thought she could read in his eyes the answer to all the questionings of her heart.

Dain falls foul of the Dutch rulers of the province when he buys gunpowder from Almayer & kills two Dutch sailors during a fight. He’s now on the run & refuses to leave without Nina. He pays Mrs Almayer a rich dowry & she comes up with a plan that will allow the lovers to escape & thwart all her husband’s plans at the same time. Almayer is devastated when he discovers that Nina loves Dain. He has deluded himself that, because he is of European blood, he & his daughter are superior to the native population. All the assumptions of colonisers throughout history are embodied in Almayer’s prejudices against his wife, his servants, the Arab traders & the Malay inhabitants of the country.

The title of the book has many meanings. Almayer’s folly could be his high opinion of himself, his love for his daughter that turns to disappointment & bitterness, the grand house he builds that he never lives in or his assumption of equality with the Dutch authorities who despise him.

For many years he had listened to the passionless and soothing murmur that sometimes was the song of hope, at times the song of triumph, of encouragement; more often the whisper of consolation that spoke of better days to come. For so many years! So many years! And now to the accompaniment of that murmur he listened to the slow and painful beating of his heart. He listened attentively, wondering at the regularity of its beats... No heart could suffer so and beat so steadily for long. Those regular strokes as of a muffled hammer that rang in his ears must stop soon. Still beating unceasing and cruel...How much longer? O God! How much longer?

Almayer’s Folly
is an absorbing look at one man’s path through life from hope to disappointment, never realising that his own pride & narrow-mindedness are the causes of his lost ambitions.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Hot Cross Bun time again

It's the time of year for enjoying hot cross buns again. I made these on Sunday morning & took them into work yesterday for morning tea.

I love making these. The dough is so warm & the scent of the spices just fills the whole house as the buns rise & cook.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Unbearable Bassington - Saki

Serendipity in my online reading group means that there will be times when we all want to read the same book at the same time. It’s like viral marketing. It’s usually not the latest blockbuster though, it’s more likely to be a book published 50-100 years ago. Last week, Simon who blogs at Stuck In A Book & Hayley from Desperate Reader discovered that they were both reading Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington. Their enthusiasm led to several other members muttering that they were sure they had a Complete Saki somewhere or racing out to their nearest charity shop on the off-chance of finding an ancient Penguin lurking on the shelves. One of our members who loves to quote funny or extraordinary passages from her latest book began tantalising the Saki-less ones with quotes. I tried to borrow a copy from the library but it was out so I downloaded a copy to my e-reader. Suddenly, half a dozen of us were all reading this wonderful novella, a totally unplanned group read. Elaine from Random Jottings has also just posted about it.

The story is about the relationship between mother & son. Francesca Bassington is still a beautiful woman in her 40s but she is now a widow & not well-off. She lives in a house bequeathed to her by a friend but only until the friend’s daughter marries. Then the daughter will inherit. When the story begins, Francesca is scheming to marry her son, Comus, to this girl, Emmeline Chetrof. Comus is a very handsome young man but seems to have no moral compass & no instinct for self- preservation either. He seems almost wilfully determined to sabotage his chances, as Francesca realises,

“Comus,” she said quietly and wearily, “you are an exact reversal of the legend of Pandora’s Box. You have all the charm and advantages that a boy could want to help him on in the world, and behind it all is the fatal damning gift of utter hopelessness.” ”I think,” said Comus, “ that is the best description that anyone has ever given of me.”

We first meet him as a prefect at his school, about to punish a new boy who is Emmeline’s younger brother. Naturally when Emmeline hears of this, any chance of romance for Comus is dashed. Francesca’s brother Henry, a pompous politician, organises a job for Comus as secretary to the next Governor of the West Indies. Comus puts his name to a scathing letter accusing the said Governor of undiplomatic doings & sends it to the Times. The actual writer of the letter, Courtenay Youghal, is a rising young politician & Comus’s mentor. Francesca encourages Comus to court Elaine de Frey, a young heiress & soon Comus & Youghal are rivals in love.

At this point, I wasn’t sure who the unbearable Bassington of the title was meant to be. Both Francesca & Comus seemed to have no redeeming features at all. Comus is a selfish sponger & Francesca a bored society woman whose only interest in her son appears to be finding a way to get him off her hands - preferably in the direction of a wealthy wife. Gradually though, Comus's flippancy is shown to hide a degree of self-awareness & this only deepens the sense of cross purposes & missed chances for both Comus & his mother. Then, Saki turns everything around with a couple of chapters that are so poignant & moving that all my judgments & expectations had to be turned around.

Saki is a clever, witty writer. He’s best-known for his short stories, which I haven’t read but am now very keen to get my hands on. There’s something almost Wildean about the comments & observations in this book. Here he is on an unwelcome guest,

“Hostesses regarded her philosophically as a form of social measles which everyone had to have once.”

on a woman who supports Free Trade,

“I wonder,” said Lady Caroline, in her gently questioning voice; “a woman whose dresses are made in Paris and whose marriage has been made in heaven might be equally biased for and against free imports.”

and on a fashionable young artist,

“There are two manners of receiving recognition: one is to be discovered so long after one’s death that one’s grandchildren have to write to the papers to establish the relationship; the other is to be discovered, like the infant Moses, at the very outset of one’s career.”

The Unbearable Bassington is, on one level, a portrait of Edwardian society, a portrait of bored, self-absorbed people with no moral conscience or real feeling about anything. On another level, it’s the poignant story of a mother-son relationship haunted by misunderstandings & faults on both sides. So much emotion packed into such a short book, a novella really, only just over 100pp. I loved it & I’ll definitely be looking out for more Saki. Capuchin Classics have recently reprinted The Unbearable Bassington & I downloaded my free copy from

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sunday poetry - John Suckling

I've just picked up Reprobates by John Stubbs from the library (it's had rave reviews so I'm looking forward to reading it) so it's appropriate that today's Sunday poetry is by Sir John Suckling, one of the Cavalier poets featuring in John Stubbs' book. The portrait of Suckling by Van Dyck above is from He was a leader of the Royalist party at Court during the Civil War, was involved in various ill-conceived plots to help the King, fled into exile in France & came to a sad end. He's said to have committed suicide by taking poison. His reputation today rests on the witty love poems he wrote, such as this one, The Constant Lover. The opening lines are quite cynical, in the style of John Donne, but the ending is tender & gentle.

Out upon it! I have lov'd
Three whole days together;
And am like to love three more,
If it prove fair weather.

Time shall moult away his wings,
Ere he shall discover
In the whole wide world again
Such a constant lover.

But the spite on 't is, no praise
Is due at all to me:
Love with me had made no stays,
Had it any been but she.

Had it any been but she,
And that very face,
There had been at least ere this
A dozen dozen in her place.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Abby's autumn afternoon

Just a few photos I took this afternoon of Abby enjoying an autumn afternoon in the sunny spots on the back porch. Autumn is our favourite season.

Death at the Opera - Gladys Mitchell

Gladys Mitchell spent most of her working life as a teacher & this experience is reflected in the settings of many of her detective novels. Death at the Opera is about an ill-fated production of The Mikado at Hillmaston School. Inofffensive, mousy spinster schoolteacher Calma Ferris is found dead, drowned in a washbasin. The verdict of the inquest is suicide but the headmaster, Mr Cliffordson, isn’t satisfied & calls in Mrs Beatrice Lestrange Bradley to investigate further.

The circumstances of the death are odd, and, to be honest, I didn't see why the police & coroner thought suicide was a likely option. Miss Ferris had gone to wash a cut on her cheek after she collided with the art teacher, Mr Smith, in the corridor before the performance of the opera. When Miss Ferris is found dead after the performance, the sink had been stopped up with clay & the lights had been tampered with so the room was in darkness. It seems an odd way to commit suicide but why would anyone want to kill Miss Ferris?

Although she was a quiet woman, Miss Ferris knew about a lot of other people’s secrets. She knew about the affair between two senior staff members, a widow & a man married to a mentally ill woman whom he would never divorce. She knew that one of the sixth form boys fancied himself in love with a young teacher who happened to be the headmaster’s niece. Miss Ferris had walked in on the pair locked in a passionate embrace. Miss Ferris had accidentally knocked over a clay model by the art master & ruined it. The model was a commission that the teacher was relying on to get him out of a financial mess. Unfortunately he had been working on it in school time & had asked one of the female students to pose nude for him. Miss Ferris had antagonised the sports mistress by refusing to allow the school’s best netball player to skip a detention on the day of a big game.

Miss Ferris had financed the production of The Mikado & had been offered an important part, Katisha. Unfortunately she wasn’t a very good singer or actress & the sports mistress, Miss Camden, who had expected to play the part, had been overlooked. When Miss Ferris can’t be found before her first entrance at the end of Act 1, Miss Camden refuses to step into the breach & Mrs Boyle, a former actress & the director of the production, steps in. Then, there was Miss Ferris’s personal life. Miss Ferris had spent her holidays in Bognor at her aunt’s boarding house. While there, she had become acquainted with a man who had been acquitted of the murder of his wife & was now living under a new identity.

Mrs Bradley has a wonderful time interrogating the staff & students at the school, Miss Ferris’s aunt & her companion & especially the unconvicted wife-murderer who, like Joseph Smith, is suspected of having murdered his wife in her bath for the insurance money. Death at the Opera is a classic Golden Age murder mystery & I had no idea who was responsible until the very end.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Linda Gillard on e-publishing House of Silence

I'm very pleased to hand over the blog today to Linda Gillard, author of House of Silence, which I reviewed yesterday. Linda has kindly agreed to write about the struggle she experienced trying to get her book accepted by print publishers & why she decided to go it alone & e-publish.

To paraphrase PG Wodehouse, “It’s never difficult to distinguish between an author with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.”

Two years ago I was dropped by my publisher. I was in good company. A lot of mid-list authors – some well-known names – were dropped as the recession bit deep. It seemed all editors wanted was “stunning début novels”, genre fiction and books by celebs. So-called “respectable sellers” like me were told our sales were disappointing and we were quietly dropped. Though I didn’t go that quietly. My third novel STAR GAZING was subsequently short-listed for three book awards and won one of them. (I think I hold the record for The Most Short-listed Author Without a Publisher.)

You’d think awards and short-listings would have made it easier for me to find a new publisher. Er, no. Publishers are ruled by the bottom line. Unless a book award stimulates big sales, it doesn’t count for much. It’s easier and cheaper to launch “stunning” début authors, offering in some cases risible advances or even no advance at all. (Some authors are now being offered just a share of the profits.)

After two years of my agent’s best efforts, we hadn’t found a publisher for my fourth novel, HOUSE OF SILENCE. Editors said the book would be hard to market because it belonged to no clear genre. Well, they had a point. HOUSE OF SILENCE is a country house mystery/family drama/rom-com/love story. Or to put it another way, COLD COMFORT FARM meets REBECCA.

What’s that? You’re salivating already? Your clicking finger is itchy?… I must now explain a fundamental difference between authors and publishers. (Brace yourselves. You might find the next bit upsetting.) Authors are trying to sell their books to readers. Publishers are trying to sell their books to retailers. Increasingly, in the UK this means supermarkets.

It was very frustrating. I had a considerable, worldwide following and my loyal fans had been begging for a new novel for three years. Meanwhile I’d kept myself in the public eye by writing guest blogs, chatting on book forums and – ahem – winning the odd book award. I had a ready-made market for a new book, but no editor wanted to publish it.

To be fair, a couple of editors really loved HoS, but they couldn’t get their marketing team on board. One enthusiastic editor backed off when she discovered my next book wasn’t the same. She was dismayed to discover I wrote one-offs, which are – you guessed it! – hard to market. (Versatility is apparently a publisher’s nightmare. In what other field of creative endeavour is that true?)

And then the e-book revolution happened. Kindle was the answer to a grumpy author’s prayer. I no longer cared if I made money, so long as I broke even. I wasn’t desperate to see my name on a book cover or on a shelf in Waterstones. (Been there, done that.) No, this was about letting a book find its readers, who I just knew would love the story and characters.

So, with my agent’s approval, I decided to publish HOUSE OF SILENCE myself on Amazon for Kindle. Believe it or not, selling the e-book at £1.90, I'll still make more per copy sold than I did from my paperbacks! I only need to sell 100 to go into profit. (I paid a professional designer to do a cover to – oh joy! – my specifications. So there are no headless people. No supermodel legs. No illegible fonts. Just a cover that makes a very clear statement about the content of the book. Spooky old mansion under a lowering sky. An oldie, but a goodie.)

Readers think authors are giving e-books away at silly prices, but the appalling irony is, we’re actually making more money this way. That’s why some established authors are moving away from mainstream to e-publishing. They can make more money and have artistic control. So authors are rejoicing. The revolution is here!

Personally, I have nothing to fear from the e-publishing revolution. I’m already acquiring new readers with HOUSE OF SILENCE and they’ll turn to my out-of-print back-list, so I’ll publish two more e-books, EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY and A LIFETIME BURNING on Kindle later this year. If editors don’t want my fifth novel (finished) or my sixth (work-in-progress), then I’ll put those on Kindle too. There are plenty of people waiting to read them.

But I know a lot of my readers would prefer a paper book – to be honest, so would I - so I’m looking into print-on-demand to see whether it could be economic to produce “limited edition” paperbacks for readers who don’t have access to e-books or who want to own “a proper book”. Those won’t come cheap, so it all depends how much readers are prepared to pay to own a paper book.

Some fear e-publishing heralds the death of paper books, but I think there could be a backlash. I suspect the Folio Society will do very nicely out of the e-publishing boom. We’ve seen fountain pens and letter writing make a big comeback. Music on vinyl has become popular again. I’m sure readers will continue to collect special, well-produced books for their shelves, while amassing e-books on their Kindles. It isn’t either/or. We can have both.

Thank you Linda for sharing a writer's experience of the world of publishing. Have a look at Linda's website here for more information on her work & check out House of Silence at Amazon.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

House of Silence - Linda Gillard

Gwen Rowland is an independent, self-contained young woman in her mid twenties. Christened Guinevere by her drug-addicted mother because she was conceived at Glastonbury, Gwen’s life has deliberately taken the opposite track to that of her mother, aunts & uncles, all now dead from drink, drugs & misadventure. Gwen studied art, fell in love with textiles & works as a wardrobe assistant on film & TV sets. While working on a Regency drama, she meets Alfie Donovan, an actor who seems strangely familiar. Alfie’s childhood has been just as dysfunctional as Gwen’s. His mother, Rae Holbrooke, is the author of the wildly successful series of children’s books, Tom Dickon Harry. Alfie had been the inspiration for the boy in the books, a much-loved son after the birth of four daughters. A documentary on his mother’s work when he was young had just augmented the legend & led to a distance, both emotional & physical, between Alfie & his family. He only goes home, reluctantly, for Christmas.

Alfie & Gwen’s friendship becomes a relationship &, when Gwen asks if they’ll spend Christmas together, Alfie reluctantly invites her to his family home, Creake Hall. Gwen is entranced by Creake Hall, an Elizabethan mansion kept going by Viv & Hattie, Alfie’s two sisters who still live at home. They care for their mother, Rae, who has had a breakdown & now rarely leaves her room. Viv is in her fifties, works hard in the house & the garden. She seems to have no inner life at all, never having had a relationship of her own. Hattie has also been damaged by her past. She’s a little fey, a little fragile, but she is a wonderful seamstress & makes gorgeous quilts, using vintage fabrics from the trunks & wardrobes of Creake Hall. This forms a bond between Gwen & Hattie when they meet. Viv tries to explain this odd family to Gwen,

Well, I think all you really need to know about us as a family, Gwen, is that we’re... fragmented. We aren’t close. Never have been, never will be. Oh, I’m fond of Hattie, but she’s only a half-sister and I’m old enough to be her mother. Ours is a strange relationship... We’re an odd bunch of siblings altogether! The only thing we have in common is Rae. Our ambivalence towards her. And our concern for her... Alfie comes to see her once a year and we’re all very grateful to him for that. It keeps Rae going. He’s her obsession now – has been since the last breakdown. He’s her precious son. But she was never a mother to him. Never a proper mother to any of us, if truth be told.

Gwen becomes uneasy when she starts to realise that Alfie hasn’t told her the truth about his background. She notices things. The photo of a boy playing cricket left-handed when Alfie is right-handed. The scraps of letters she finds in Hattie’s scraps bag that Alfie supposedly wrote home from school. The details don’t add up & Alfie’s story becomes just one of the secrets hidden in the past of this family & this house.

Gwen’s life is also shaken by her meeting with Marek. Marek is working as the Holbrooke’s gardener. He’s known as Tyler because Rae always calls the gardener Tyler, just as the dogs are always Harris & Lewis, although the original Harris & Lewis died years before. Gwen Is immediately attracted to Marek, a man with secrets of his own. Half-Polish, half-Scottish, Marek practiced as a psychiatrist until five years ago when he left his profession & became a gardener. Marek is strong, sensitive & he plays the cello like an angel. He’s also a good listener, the product of his former life as a therapist,

‘I’m not wise,’ he replied, ‘just a people-watcher. If you watch enough people and watch them carefully, patterns emerge. From those patterns you can glean a few truths about human behaviour. It’s not wisdom, just observation. So, no, it’s not exhausting, it’s fascinating. Sometimes satisfying. I don’t do it intentionally any more. In fact, my intention is not to do it, but it still happens. It’s who I am. What I am.’

Linda Gillard’s heroes are always gorgeous, sexy & irresistible. I’ve read all her novels & loved all her heroes but Marek is very special. He can even make old, grey pyjamas sexy. As Gwen & Marek fall into bed & begin to fall in love, Gwen realises that she has never really known Alfie at all. Gwen becomes the catalyst that exposes the lies & deceit at the heart of the Holbrooke family.

I think Linda Gillard is a wonderful writer of contemporary fiction. I’ve known Linda for several years now. We were both members of the same online reading group for a while & we’ve kept in touch via email ever since, so this is my disclaimer! House of Silence is a compulsively readable book. It’s a compelling story of family secrets & lies, set in a crumbling Elizabethan mansion at Christmas in the depths of a freezing Norfolk winter. The heroine is smart, independent & compassionate. The hero is, quite frankly, gorgeous. You would think that publishers would be falling over themselves to publish this book. Well, they’re not. Linda Gillard has published three other novels.

Emotional Geology & A Lifetime Burning were published by Transita & Star Gazing by Piatkus. All three novels are award winners (Star Gazing was shortlisted for the Romance Writers Association award for Best Romantic Novel in 2009) but Linda has been trying to get House of Silence published for over two years. So, Linda decided to take advantage of the move towards e-books & e-publish.  

House of Silence has just been released exclusively as an e-book for the Kindle through Amazon. The reasons for Linda’s decision to publish in this way will be revealed tomorrow in a special guest blog that Linda has written for I Prefer Reading. In the meantime, have a look at Linda’s website & at the Amazon US listing for House of Silence (if you're anywhere in the world except the UK). If you're in the UK, you can buy House of Silence at Amazon UK. If you have a Kindle or can read Kindle e-books on your e-reader or PC, please have a look at Linda's book on Amazon.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Highland Fling - Nancy Mitford

After the gruesome serial killings of The Jackal Man & The Last Sherlock Holmes Story that I reviewed on Saturday, I needed to read something light & fluffy. Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling was just what I was looking for. In an interview in the 1960s, Nancy Mitford said that she “wrote a book because she wanted to earn a hundred pounds.” Highland Fling is that book, her first novel, written as a bit of fun, to make some money & maybe to score some points off the people & institutions that annoyed her.

The novel is about the clash of a quartet of Bright Young Things of the 20s & 30s with the Establishment figures of Lords, Ladies & Generals. Walter & Sally Monteath are newly married, very much in love but living way beyond their means. When Sally’s Aunt & Uncle, the Craigdallochs are suddenly called away to Rhodesia, Aunt Madge invites Sally & Walter to go to Dalloch Castle in the Highlands to host a shooting party that’s been arranged. Sally sees this as the answer to their prayers while Walter thinks it would be cheaper to go on holiday to the Lido. As Walter’s extravagance is the main reason for their poverty, Sally cajoles him into her way of thinking. The Monteaths meet the Craigdallochs at the House of Lords to go over the fine details &, after listening to Lord Craigdalloch make an interminable speech to a few sleepy peers & attendants, they discuss the details of the shooting party. The authentic Mitford voice is obvious here,

‘How wonderful you are looking, Sally. Where did you get so wonderfully sunburnt?’
‘At Elizabeth Arden’s, Aunt Madge.’
Lady Craigdalloch inwardly supposed that this must be one of Walter’s Bright Young but Undesirable friends that she was always hearing so much about from Sally’s mother. The creature probably had a villa in the South of France – so much the better, those sort of people are not wanted in England, where they merely annoy their elders and breed Socialism.

The Monteaths invite Albert Gates, a Surrealist painter & Jane Dacre, Sally’s best friend to accompany them. The shooting party in Scotland is a real delight. The young people, lying in bed until lunchtime & avoiding the great outdoors at all costs, come up against the older generation. General Murgatroyd is an early version of Uncle Matthew in Love in a Cold Climate. Devoted to hunting, shooting & fishing, he can think of nothing better than a day out on the moors,

‘Why, my dear young lady, by the time you’ve been out with the guns, or flogging the river all day, you’ll be too tired to do anything except perhaps to have a set or two of lawn tennis. After dinner we can always listen to Craig’s wireless. I’ve just asked the chauffeur to fix it up.

Lord & Lady Prague are also part of the County set. He is stone deaf & she talks very loudly & confidently about any subject under discussion. Admiral Wenceslaus is obsessed with the subject of the naval blockade of Germany during WWI & brings every conversation around to the topic. Captain & Lady Brenda Chadlington are said to be immensely charming but the Monteaths & their friends can’t see it. Mr Buggins is a gentle soul, boringly knowledgeable about the legends & poetry of Scotland. Albert is a lover of Victoriana & he’s thrilled to discover rooms full of Victorian pictures & bric a brac in the attics so he spends most of his time photographing them for a monograph, Recent Finds at Dalloch Castle.

Albert & Jane fall in love &, after many misunderstandings, become engaged. The young people are taken out shooting & experience every horror from boredom to hunger & freezing cold while their elders take it all in their stride. A visit to the local Highland Games leads to the incident of the disappearing picnic basket & there’s the ghost that haunts Dalloch Castle & Lady Prague in particular. Highland Fling is a frothy romp, interesting mostly for the biting wit & satire that was evident in this early novel by one of the wittiest writers of the 20th century.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunday poetry - George Herbert

This poem of George Herbert's, The Gifts of God, always reminds me of Barbara Pym because she used a line from it as the title of her novel, A Glass of Blessings, & the poem is quoted in the novel. After spending his youth at university & then pursuing his ambitions as an orator & politician, he took orders as a deacon &  spent the last few years of his short life as rector of the parish of St Andrews, Bemerton near Salisbury.

This is a stained glass window installed in 1933 showing Herbert on the right with his friend, Nicholas Ferrar, on the left. (Picture from Herbert's poetry explores the spiritual life & our relationship to God. I love the image in this poem of God pouring His blessings on man but then, fearing that if Man has everything, he won't need God, He holds back Rest.

When God at first made Man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by;
'Let us,' said He, 'pour on him all we can:
Let the world's riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.'

So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flow'd, then wisdom, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone, of all His treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.

'For if I should,' said He,
'Bestow this jewel also on My creature,
He would adore My gifts instead of Me,
And rest in nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to My breast.'

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Jackal Man - Kate Ellis

Kate Ellis’s new novel, The Jackal Man, is the latest in her series featuring DI Wesley Peterson & DCI Gerry Heffernan. Set in Tradmouth, a fictional town on the south coast of England, this is one of my very favourite mystery series. I’ve been reading them since the first novel, The Merchant’s House, was published in 1998. The initial attraction for me was the mix of contemporary crime with history & archaeological. I love history & I’m an unashamed fan of archaeological TV shows like Time Team & Meet the Ancestors, so this series grabbed my attention. I still love the mix of crime & history but I’ve grown to love meeting up with Wes, Gerry, their families & friends. I settled down last Sunday afternoon, eager to catch up with the characters & be swept away by an absorbing mystery.

The Jackal Man is a breathless ride. I started it on Sunday, read 100pp without moving from my seat & finished it on Tuesday night. A teenage girl is attacked as she walks home from the pub. The attacker tries to strangle her but he’s disturbed by a passing car & she survives. All Clare can remember of the person who grabbed her is that he had a dog’s head. A few days later, another young woman is not so lucky. Analise, a Norwegian girl working as an au pair, is found murdered. She too had been strangled but this time, the killer was not disturbed. Her body had been mutilated, her organs removed & laid beside the body & her body wrapped in a linen shroud. A small figure of a dog was laid on the corpse. D I Wesley Peterson studied archaeology at university & he recognizes the dog as a jackal, the likeness of Anubis, the ancient Egyptian god of the dead. He suspects that the murderer, wearing a mask of the god Anubis, was trying to replicate the Egyptian rituals of mummification by removing the organs & wrapping the body in linen.

Wes’s friend, archaeologist Neil Watson, has also become interested in Egyptology. He’s been called in by Caroline Varley to assess the collection of her great grandfather, Egyptologist Sir Frederick Varley. Caroline has just inherited his home, Varley Castle. She wants to give it to the National Trust to be kept as a museum but needs to know what’s there & what it’s worth. Neil soon realises that he needs to consult an expert at the British Museum but he’s intrigued by Caroline & the castle, especially after she tells him that her great-uncle, Sir Frederick’s son, John, was a madman who murdered & mutilated four women 100 years before. Neil is also wary of Robert Delaware, a writer working on a biography of Sir Frederick, who seems to be making himself quite at home. Then, there are the alternate chapters written in the form of a diary by a governess who comes to Varley Castle & becomes emotionally involved with Sir Frederick.

When another woman is murdered in the same disturbing way, Wes & Gerry have almost too many suspects from the ex-boyfriend of Clare’s mother who had a grudge against her, to Analise’s employer who fancies younger women. As Neil & Wes recognize the similarities between the modern murders & those committed by John Varley 100 years before, more suspects emerge. Who could have known of these earlier crimes? Is there a copycat on the loose? Will the murderer feel compelled to match or exceed John Varley’s crimes? Throw in Wesley’s ex-boss from the Arts & Antiques Squad at the Met coming down to Tradmouth on the trail of a group of forgers smuggling in fake Egyptian antiquities & you have more subplots, motives & suspects than I could hope to keep straight!

The Jackal Man is an absorbing thriller with enough tension to keep any lover of crime fiction up until the small hours. The personal relationships of the police team are also involving. Wes is a young man who joined the police after his university studies. He’s calm, intelligent & compassionate. Married to Pam, a harassed teacher who complains about the hours he works & juggles her work with looking after their two young children & coping with her tearaway mother, Della. Gerry Heffernan has settled in Tradmouth after living in Liverpool. His children are grown & he’s recently found love with Joyce, a widow who shares his love of choral singing. Wes & Gerry have a great friendship & working relationship. Wes’s friendship with Neil often provides clues to the case of the moment & the historical & archaeological threads of the plot are well-balanced.

The historical murders in The Jackal Man are inevitably compared to the Whitechapel murders of Jack the Ripper & coincidentally I’ve just finished listening to an audio book on a similar theme. It’s surprising really as I don’t enjoy books about serial killers, fiction or non-fiction, so to find myself reading two at once was unusual. The Last Sherlock Holmes Story by Michael Dibdin is a pastiche of the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The story takes the form of a manuscript by Dr Watson, embargoed until 50 years after his death. When the manuscript is revealed in the 1970s it proves to be an account of the Jack the Ripper killings with Holmes on the trail of the murderer. Narrated by Robert Glenister (one of my favourite narrators), this is a wonderful story. Dibdin has reproduced the tone, language & atmosphere of the original stories perfectly. There are enough details of the Holmes stories to satisfy the purists & Dibdin has done a fine job of recreating Victorian London & the character of Watson, as well as the style of Conan Doyle. Robert Glenister’s narration was terrific, as always. I haven’t read any of Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen thrillers but I’ve had another of his novels, A Rich Full Death, set in 19th century Florence & concerning Robert & Elizabeth Browning, on my shelves for far too long. I’ve moved it a bit further up the tbr pile now.

Abby's Saturday morning

Abby loves leaves, preferably brown autumn leaves. She loves sitting in them, rolling around in them & sleeping in them. This morning she was out in the garden, enjoying the warmth before a cool change & rain predicted for this afternoon.

I'll be back after lunch with a review of Kate Ellis's new mystery novel, The Jackal Man. I loved it, couldn't put it down. An excellent addition to one of my favourite mystery series.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Pair of Blue Eyes - Thomas Hardy

A Pair of Blue Eyes was Hardy’s third published novel & I think it’s the first that could be described as typical Hardy. By that I mean that he uses irony & fate in this novel as he does in his more accomplished novels, The Mayor of Casterbridge & Far From The Madding Crowd.  This is also an interesting novel because the situation & setting are closely linked to Hardy’s own early life & his first meeting with his first wife Emma.

The plot of A Pair of Blue Eyes concerns three people who are all innocents in their own way. Stephen Smith, a young architect’s assistant is sent from his London office to a village in Cornwall to look at the tower of the church with a view to rebuilding it. Stephen stays with the rector, Christopher Swancourt, & is immediately attracted to Elfride, the rector’s beautiful daughter. Elfride has led a sheltered life. Her father is a widower & he has kept Elfride at home. She’s not well-educated or socially experienced. She has barely seen a handsome young man so when Stephen arrives, she is as ready to fall in love as he is. Mr Swancourt is a snob & very socially conscious. Stephen is treated as an honoured guest & the growing attraction between the young people is smiled upon until it emerges that Stephen is the son of the local stone mason & builder. Stephen’s parents are Mr Swancourt’s parishioners &, as he sees it, social inferiors. Stephen’s efforts to educate himself & enter a profession are nothing to the fact of his lowly origins. Mr Swancourt forbids the relationship.

Stephen & Elfride continue to correspond & decide to force the issue by running away & marrying. They meet in Plymouth but discover that it’s too late for them to be married that day. They decide to carry on to London & marry there the next morning. Elfride becomes more uneasy as the journey continues & when they reach London, she takes fright & wants to go home. Stephen is too inexperienced & self-effacing to insist on her staying in London & he accompanies Elfride back on the next train. When they reach home, no one recognizes them except Mrs Jethway, a woman who already holds a grudge against Elfride. Mrs Jethway’s son had been in love with Elfride but she had rejected his proposals & shortly after, he died. Mrs Jethway blames Elfride for his death & her grief has become a monomania. However, nothing is said, the lovers are not discovered. Shortly after, Stephen has an opportunity to further his career & maybe make his fortune by going out to India. He leaves Elfride, pledging his undying love & they continue secretly writing to each other.

Mr Swancourt remarries &, through his new wife, Elfride is introduced to Henry Knight, a man in his 30s who is a writer & critic living in London. Henry Knight also knows Stephen, as he had been his mentor & helped his education. Knight is an innocent too as he has never been in love & has a vision of womanhood gained from reading rather than living. When he falls in love with Elfride, he believes her to be completely innocent, unkissed & unloved. To Knight, this is her main charm. Elfride begins to forget Stephen & falls in love with Knight & they become engaged. She gradually becomes uneasy as she learns more of his ideas of love & becomes frightened that he will stop loving her if he discovers her relationship with Stephen. She is also haunted by Mrs Jethway who keeps hinting that she will tell Knight what she knows about Elfride’s relationships with her son & Stephen. Then, Stephen returns after a successful time in India & the scene is set for revelations & misery.

Hardy’s writing about landscape & place is always one of his attractions for me & his writing about Cornwall is very beautiful. There are several scenes with the characters walking on the clifftops near Beeny Cliff, including a memorable scene when Knight falls over the cliff & is left hanging on by his fingers until Elfride comes to his rescue by constructing a rope from her petticoats. Endelstow in the book is based on St Juliot where Hardy went as a young man to look at the local church & met his first wife, Emma & their social situations were very similar but that seems to be the only autobiographical element in the book. Death is also ever-present & there’s a wonderful scene in the church where several villagers, including Stephen’s father, are renovating the burial vault of the Lord Luxellian of the manor to accommodate his wife. It’s like the gravedigger’s scene in Hamlet as the men stop work & eat their lunch sitting on the coffins of long-dead Luxellians.

Later that same day, newly-engaged Knight & Elfride are walking near the church & go into the vault to see how the work progresses, meeting up with Stephen, who has returned home to visit his parents. This is such an uncomfortable scene, as Stephen watches the young woman he thought was his own fiancée on the arm of another man, his friend & mentor. Elfride is terrified that Stephen will speak & Knight is oblivious to all these undercurrents & thinks Stephen awkward & Elfride overcome by the close atmosphere. It's not until the final pages of the book that another irony in this scene is revealed.

I love Hardy’s obsession with Fate although it can be a little contrived as when Elfride finds herself kissing Stephen & later, Henry Knight, while sitting on the tombstone of poor young Jethway. If you love Hardy, A Pair of Blue Eyes is a chance to catch him at the beginning of his career with all his major themes & preoccupations in place, just waiting for the touch of genius that came later.