Thursday, 26 May 2011

Great Tales of English History by Robert Lacey

The subtitle of this book is Cheddar Man to the Peasants Revolt, so it covers very early English history. It's a good book for dipping into, each story is only three or four pages long. Some of the most famous characters are here such as King Canute, Boadicea, Richard the Lionheart. Lacey sets the facts straight on some of the stories, for example King Alfred probably didn't burn the cakes, and Lady Godiva was unlikely to have ridden naked through the streets of Coventry.

Some names I recognised but didn't know anything about. One of these was Piers the Ploughman, who I thought was a real person. But he is a character in a 14th century poem by a clergyman named William Langland. It was an epic, satirical poem, fiercely critical of the king and very much on the side of the poor. Lacey says that the poem gives us 'a rare chance to hear the early voice of an ordinary Englishman'.

A story that was new to me was that of 'Elmer the Flying Monk'. A monk at Malmesbury Abbey in the early seventeenth century, Elmer studied the story of Daedalus and Icarus and decided that he too could fly.  He constructed himself wings, probably made of parchment, and launched himself from the abbey tower. He glided about 200 feet before crashing and breaking both his legs.

I found this book very useful for putting the events in early English history into order. Though I knew some of the stories I didn't really know where they fitted in chronologically. Lacey has a nice, accessible style and I enjoyed dipping into this book.

Monday, 23 May 2011

The Angel with Two Faces by Nicola Upson

This is the second in the series of books featuring the writer Josephine Tey.  I've read the first, An Expert in Murder, and loved it.

This story takes place in Cornwall. Josephine has been invited for a holiday there by her friend Archie Penrose. Archie grew up in Cornwall, and his relatives still live on the family estate. The death of a popular young man, Harry Pinching, has thrown the local community into turmoil and Josephine and Archie soon become embroiled in the mystery surrounding his death.

I have to say I didn't enjoy this as much as the An Expert in Murder. I felt that it was less tightly written and plotted. I didn't feel that I got to know the characters very well. I think that the idea was to show how the pressures of a small community can lead to tragedy, but it just didn't work for me. Also there was a theme of incest, which I found quite disturbing.

Josephine and Archie's relationship seems to be slowly developing into something more than friendship. I do like those two characters, they're both quite worldly, but both rather reserved. And Archie's theatrical cousins, Lettice and Ronnie are good value, as they were in the first book.

I will definitely read the third in the series, but I was a bit disappointed with this one.

Friday, 20 May 2011

The Convent by Panos Karnezis

The story is set in an isolated convent, I think some time around the 1930s. The five nuns who live there have very little contact with the outside world. One of the nuns goes to the city for supplies each week, and their only visitor is the bishop, who visits once a month. Then one day a new born baby is found at the steps to the convent.

It is quite a dark tale. The arrival of a baby is usually such a happy event, but this child is the innocent cause of a schism in the group. The Mother Superior, Sister Maria Ines, immediately takes charge of the him. She sees him as a reward for her years of sacrifice to the convent. She became a nun to atone for something in her past which she saw as a great sin. The baby is a signal to her that God has forgiven her. She guards him jealously, refusing to let the other women help take care of him.

Opposing Sister Maria Ines is Sister Ana. Ana is a clever and ambitious woman. She longs for other people to recognise her talents and their failure to do so has made her bitter. She sees the arrival of the child as the work of the devil.

The atmosphere at the convent becomes more fevered and madness threatens. I found it a very tense novel. The baby triggers the unravelling of the community. Secrets are uncovered and tragedy looms.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

It's a long time since I read Sense and Sensibility. The main characters of Pride and Prejudice are cemented into my brain but the characters in the other novels sort of mingle together and I'm not quite sure who belongs where. Does Catherine Morland live at Norland? Does Anne Elliot become fast friends with Isabella Thorpe? Does Emma Woodhouse end up marrying Edward Ferrars?

So it was good to read Sense and Sensibility again and get it straight in my head. We're dealing with Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Willoughby, Colonel Brandon, Edward Ferrars, a cottage in Devon and a winter season in London. Plus, of course, a large cast of supporting characters.

Elinor and Marianne are the Sense and Sensibility of the title. Elinor is practical, sensible and refuses to give in to her emotions. Marianne is nothing but emotion, everything she feels must be expressed. I think as  readers we're supposed be on Elinor's side, Austen seems to admire her qualities. But I can't help wondering if many of Marianne's outbursts are about getting some kind of reaction out of the impassive Elinor.

After the death of their father the two girls, with their mother and younger sister move into a small cottage in Devon. They are taken under the wing of Mrs Dashwood's cousin, Sir John Middleton, and are often at his house for dinners and parties. Marianne is very dismissive of the people she meets there. Sir John's mother-in-law, Mrs Jennings, is a particular problem for both girls. She is obsessively interested in finding out the details of their love lives. She isn't cruel, it's all in fun, but the girls find it excruciating.

Both girls fall in love and both romances go wrong. Elinor ploughs on through, suppressing her heartache and taking care of Marianne, who has made herself ill with grief. It is during this time and its aftermath that they discover hidden depths to some people they had dismissed, and Marianne in particular is let down by someone she thought she knew well.

I enjoyed re-reading this, though I don't think it's my favourite Austen. As always with her, the writing is light and easy to read. If reading Dickens is like entering a dark labyrinth, drawing you into another world, reading Austen is like a country walk on a sunny spring day.

This review is part of the Classic Circuit blog tour. The schedule is here. Thank you to the organisers, I've really enjoyed taking part, and am looking forward to the next one.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey

This is my first ever Persephone - and it didn't disappoint. The story takes place over a few hours on the wedding day of Dolly Thatcham. It is clear that Dolly is having doubts. An air of forced jollity and pretence hangs over the whole proceedings. The guests are downstairs, the bride is getting ready upstairs. Nobody is happy - but nobody is saying that they are unhappy.

Kitty, self-conscious in her bridesmaid's get up is telling anyone who will listen that she looks dreadful and brushing away any attempts to convince her otherwise. Joseph, in love with Dolly, is torturing himself by being at her wedding. The groom, Owen, blunders in, awkward and unwanted. There is an sense of menace about the way that the bride's cousin Tom is bullying his brother Robert about wearing bright green socks with his suit.

There is no plot as such, it is a study of these people, at this time. I thought that Strachey's prose was spare and straightforward, capturing the repression of everyone's feelings perfectly.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White

This book is a collection of letters from Gilbert White, a 18th century Hampshire vicar, to the naturalists Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington. A keen amateur naturalist, White made a study of the flora, and particularly the fauna, around his home village of Selborne. The book was originally published in White's lifetime and has become a natural history classic. In his introduction to the Penguin edition that I have, Richard Mabey writes;

More than any other single book it has shaped our everyday view of the relations between man and nature...........he was perhaps the first writer to talk of animals - and particularly birds - as if they conceivably inhabited the same universe as human beings.

This is the third or fourth time I have read this book. I am interested in natural history but not particularly knowledgeable about it. I have to admit there are parts of the book I skip, lists of birds, the Latin bits etc. What I love about it is the enthusiasm which White shows for his subject. He was writing at a time when there was still a lot to be discovered about native flora and fauna. White was particularly interested in birds, and in those days it was still unclear whether birds migrated, and if so, where to. White spends a lot of time thinking and writing on this subject.

I also love his curiosity and open-mindedness. While on a visit to a friend he makes a detour to a town where a woman is claiming that her cancer had been cured by applying a live toad to the affected area;

I thought I discerned circumstances which did not a little invalidate the woman's story of the manner in which she came by her skill. She says of herself 'that labouring under a virulent cancer, she went to some church where there was a vast crowd: on going into a pew she was accosted by a strange clergyman; who, after expressing compassion for her situation told her that if she would make such an application of living toads as is mentioned she would be well'.

White is a sensible man and concludes that if a toad-cure for cancer were available, the 'strange clergyman' would be far more likely to disseminate the knowledge by publishing a paper on the subject, than by accosting random women in churches. Another anecdote which made me smile was this:

My musical friend at whose house I am now visiting, has tried all the owls that are his near neighbours with a pitch-pipe, set at concert-pitch, and finds that they all hoot in B flat. He will examine the nightingales next spring.

This is a lovely book, good for dipping into on a bright spring morning.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston

This is a book I remember loving as a child and so was pleased to re-visit it with Billy.

The main character is Tolly, a seven year old boy who is sent to stay with his great-grandmother for the Christmas holidays. Tolly is a lonely and unhappy child. His mother has died and his father and step-mother live in Burma. The time period isn't specified, but I think it's just after WWII. He goes to boarding school and until now has been spending the school holidays at the school.

Under the loving and nurturing care of his great-grandmother, Mrs Oldknow,  Tolly begins to come out of his shell. She lives in a very old, isolated house called Green Knowe. The house has been in her family for hundreds of years. It is filled with things from the past, in fact it is difficult to separate the past from the present. Tolly feels at home there, and realises that he is part of the history of the house, just as his great-grandmother is.

He senses the presence of children who lived there many years ago. Mrs Oldknow tells him that their names are Toby, Alexander and Linnet and that they had lived in the house during the Civil War. Toby longs to see them and make friends with them, and as he grows more confident in himself he begins to catch glimpses of them.

Green Knowe is a world apart. History and magic and folklore combine with Tolly's imagination to create a very special place. As I was reading it to Billy I wondered how he would cope with the ghost story aspect of it (I half expected to have to put it aside for a couple of years). But he was fine with it. I think because Tolly and Mrs Oldknow weren't scared, and the children themselves are a friendly, benign presence.

I hadn't realised that it's one of a series of books, I'm going to get the rest of them to read to him. This was my choice for the bedtime book. Billy had next choice and I braced myself for more Horrid Henry, but he chose The Secret Garden, which was a pleasant surprise.