What a difference 200 years makes!

MacdonaldI have just been reading There and Back by George Macdonald. Macdonald was a novelist and theologian and preacher born in 1824 and a prolific writer of phantasy novels, romantic and other fiction as well as non-fiction books of collected sermons and poetry.

The writer, C S Lewis regarded him as a mentor, and there is some evidence of his writings influencing writers a diverse as E Nesbit, Walter de la Mere and even W H Auden and several others.

MarinerI was reading There and Back because it was cited as a typical example of a book influenced by The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in a book by Malcolm Guite about Samuel Taylor Coleridge which I was reading in Lent this year. But while the theologian in Malcolm Guite made his Christian message and his reading of The Rime seen through this lens exciting and entertaining; the same cannot be said of There and Back.

While I did enjoy this book, its eye-stretchingly preachy prose clouded what was really a rather simple romance. The basic tale is fairly unsophisticated: a baronet marries a blacksmith’s daughter, socially beneath him, the lady delivers an heir and dies, her sister acts as the child’s nurse without actively being identified as his aunt, but when the baronet marries an ice-cold aristocratic woman, the aunt recognises the danger to her charge and runs away with the baby, which she brings up as her own with her husband. The child grows up unaware of his true heritage and becomes a gifted bookbinder…the tale continues with much in the way of romantic twists and turns, until the denouement when like any good romance the boy gets the perfect girl.

But all this is buried in some deep Christian thought and theology, not that I have any objection in principle, but sermonising throughout an adventure story seems a sorry way of bulking up a novel.

Not assisted by a very evil edition – one of Amazon’s reprints of out-of-print classics. It is described as having been proofread by Project Gutenberg. Just look carefully at the cover! What a travesty: misprints, incorrect capitalisation and plenty of inaccuracies that make the sense difficult to understand.

But my main astonishment was in the liberal sermonising in the text, it would not pass muster now. No matter how good the story, no editor would allow this to reach the page. So I wonder what the audience was like for these apparently very popular books? Were they all agog as they turned page after page of musings on the nature of God, first from a non-believer and then by his girl-friend who endeavours to enlighten him, successfully of course! As I said – what a difference two hundred years makes.


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Don’t cry, my beloved country

Snowy RiverWhat another Australian novel? Yes, just so.

The Trout Opera covers a number of Australian tropes, but once again the characters are largely European Australians. There is one native Australian in the whole book and he, a character called Percy, gets the opportunity to prick a fair number of assumptions made about the indigenous people.

In the following scene, Wilfred Lampe and Percy are looking for someone who has gone missing in the Snowy Mountains:

They reckoned Hayes had become disoriented, despite his expertise on the skis. […]

They’d already found Hayes’ gloves and scarf. And ski tracks near Merritts Lookout. Yet  no Hayes.

On the ride up, Percy said: ‘I think the tree line.’


‘You are not going to leave the tree line in the big snow.’

‘Why not?’

‘Have to be crazy to leave the tree line. Maybe he was crazy.’

They rode to where Seaman was found and ate quietly, looking down into the valley.

‘You think you can find any tracks?’ Wilfred asked. ‘You’re a black bloke.’

Percy chewed a sandwich. ‘You think all black blokes can track?’

‘I dunno. Can you?’

‘You don’t know much.’

‘I’m just asking you.’

‘If you knew anything you don’t need to ask if I can track. Course I can track. My mother could track. My sisters, they track. It’s nothing special to track. Just a way of getting food. Taught when we’re little. If you knew anything you’d be able to track.’

However, in spite of the apparent disappearance of the “blackfella” in so many modern Australian novels, this is still an interesting and well constructed novel. It shows an Australia that is steeped in manufactured myth. The year is 1999/2000. A team responsible for the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics are looking for a typical near-one-hundred-year-old Australian and eventually they settle on Wilfred Lampe. Sadly, the day they arrive at his shack, they find him collapsed in the back yard amongst the weeds and long grass. Panicking, the two men summon assistance, and Wilfred is whisked off to hospital.

Matthew Condon‘s novel segues between Wilfred’s life, almost a hundred years living in the same spot, near to the Snowy River, so the ultimate man from Snowy River [a famous Banjo Patterson poem] and the means by which the men from the committee try to find his family, and try to incorporate him into the festival ceremony. At the same time, the novel also covers the story of the Snowy River itself, once a huge and gushing torrent, full of fish and life, until choked and spoiled by damming and pollution.

There are poetic stretches of life as a fly fisherman, and the tying of flies for fishing which are interesting in themselves. The delicacy of these deadly lures and the inventiveness.

It is also a long love story, a human love story and a love story devoted to a place – the Snowy River and its environs.

Unlike The Dry and many other novels, this is real Australia. The places mentioned all exist in real time and in character. And it is a land despoiled by pollution, and by cheap housing but also, in places completely unspoiled.

The novel covers the big debate about where the capital city should be built. Dalgety, the first, and seemingly obvious, choice has its moment in the sun and then suddenly it is dropped in favour of Canberra. Dalgety is where Wilfred Lampe and his family live, Callistus his grandfather, Uncle Berty, a damaged veteran of World War I, his mother and his sister Astrid.

It is also about the darker side of life amongst drug addicts and city drop-outs.

It is a marvellously complex story, beautifully told.


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A little blog of books

It may be slightly unusual to write a post about another blog. Surely, you will think, I want you to read mine. But I owe so much of my reading to this blog, that I feel it is time to acknowledge my resource.


The writer is more than merely a reader of books, which to all intents and purposes is what I am. The author of this blog gives each book space and time, her/his writing expands into a thoughtful and generous appreciation of the novel and the author, and even when not liked, the book gets a fair hearing.

This blogger has the attention, not only of several publishers who now send review copies – a fact which is always gratefully acknowledged – but is also on several “shadow” judging panels for the more prestigious prizes.

Thankfully there is no room in her/his busy schedule to cover the Man Booker, so I can safely claim that territory for myself, though the shortlist is always presented with any comments on books the blogger has read.

Alittleblogofbooks covers the Man Booker International prize; The Independent Foreign Fiction prize; Women in Translation and the Wellcome Book Prize and much, much more.

It is because of this blog that I have really come to love Sarah Moss. The Tidal Zone, her debut novel is a startling and moving account of isolation, dislocation and loss; to some extent this is an emotional palette that she has explored at length, which is not to say that she writes the same book each time. Very far from it.

Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children, published in 2014 and 2015 respectively, cover a period of great change in the lives of women. The leading female character, Alethea Moberley is the daughter of a painter/designer – somewhat in the style of William Morris – judging from the descriptions of his painting and his wallpaper designs. Alfred Moberley is at the beginning of his career in Victorian Manchester; he has married Elizabeth, a Quaker woman of strong Puritanical bent, whose life is wholly devoted to good works amongst the poor and indigent – upon whom she lavishes such efforts as behoves a charitable woman, but without much actual kindness.

They have two daughters, Alethea and May. Charity in this family does not start at home and the strictures of maternal discipline have in many ways warped the lives and characters of these two girls; both Papa, and his friend Aubrey, use the girls for models, often in quite louche and abandoned poses, paintings popular at the time; while the mother drags them to the poor schools and hospitals to show them the darker side of life.

Ally ends up with her mother’s dictums drumming through her head, always to her detriment. However, she does rise above this a little way and through her education and innate intelligence she achieves a place at a London Medical School. She travels to London and lives with her Aunt Mary – ending up after considerable struggle at the top of her class.

The novel, while ostensibly being about Alethea, does present an accurate and devastating picture of the huge barriers to a woman’s life; whether wealthy or poor.  Both had nearly insurmountable problems locking them into a stultifying life of idleness and gossip or burdening them with domesticity, childbearing and factory work.

Education, the sort that would provide a person with the skills for professional work, was provided for boys and men. To liberate a woman from home and hearth, whether above or below stairs was to disorder Society, which would never do.

Alethea bucks the trend, and along the way makes a great friend in Annie, another trainee doctor, but at great cost to her emotional life and she remains fragile, even after great success.

The second novel covers her marriage to Tom Cavendish, her life in Falmouth and her work in a local insane asylum; Tom, an engineer, goes away to Japan and the book has the most wonderful descriptions of his life there compared to Ally’s life in Cornwall.

SM Night WakingMay Moberley has a different sort of adventure, and appears in a earlier novel, Night Waking.

The first person narrator is a writer who is living on Colsay Island with two young children, Raphael and Timothy, trying to finish a book for which the deadline is past while juggling with childcare and Giles, a husband whose sense of entitlement does not often include nappy changing, feeding or caring for the heir and the spare.

In this book, Sarah Moss is also dealing with feminine issues and though set in the twentieth century, the chapters are interspersed with letters from May Moberley, writing in 1878, to Aubrey, to her sister Ally and to her patron Mr Cassingham, who is Giles’ great-grandfather and whose family has owned Colsay for generations. May is attempting to bring some order and hygiene into the lives of the crofter families, but their stubbornness and superstitions make her life intolerable.

Through these letters we are introduced to the life on the Scottish isles in both Victorian and modern Britain. Colsay is fictional, and the description in the novel largely but not accurately adumbrates the history of St Kilda, an island in the Outer Hebrides.  Conditions were harsh in Victorian Britain and are merely difficult in the twentieth century; but isolation, loneliness and struggle eat into the very bones of the people’s suffering.

The novel is hung upon the excruciating find of an infant grave in the garden, dug up accidentally by Raph while planting apple trees. The enquiry and the emotional backlash adds to the tensions already described.

I am enthralled, but would not want to suggest in any way that these are novels written for women. The research sits lightly on the text. My aim is contrarily to urge my readers to take a look at this other blog, full of the most wonderful insights and books that might otherwise have past you by.

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“The Scottish Play” in prose

Actors are very superstitious about playing in The Tragedy of Macbeth, and will not say the name as the tragedy is often associated with extreme bad luck. Jo Nesbo has no such qualms, and his rendering of the play as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, launched in 2012, has Macbeth as the title, unlike other writers in the series: Howard Jacobson rendered The Merchant of Venice as Shylock is My Name; Margaret Atwood called her version of The Tempest, Hagseed for example and others followed.

Equally, each writer has taken different liberties with the text they have been given (or chosen). Edward St Aubyn re-wrote King Lear in a novel called Dunbar which followed pretty much the trajectory of the play, but in a different era and stressed the more dysfunctional aspects of the Lear family, rather than the old man’s madness or dementia. Dunbar (Lear) has retired voluntarily to a care home and left his two elder daughters (Abby & Megan – Goneril and Regan) control of his large corporate business; things are not going well though and they are trying to force him to sign over even more powers and diminishing his powers as a result, aided by a fellow inmate, he escapes into the Lake District and is ultimately rescued by his youngest daughter (Florence – Cordelia).

Howard Jacobson, though, has altered the story completely.  His main character Simon Strulovitch, a wealthy art collector and philanthropist, meets Shylock at the graveside of their respective wives, Shylock materialises beside him and they spend the time discussing marriage, daughters, disappointment and petty betrayals, Shylock adamant that it was not the money that his daughter stole that gives him grief, but selling of the ring that he had given his beloved Leah. From this remarkable meeting grows a particular and unusual friendship, their philosophical conversations range over topics of relationship, being Jewish and the potential for good in humanity.

Nesbo MacbethJo Nesbo has followed more in the line taken by Edward St Aubyn. Macbeth has been transported to a nowhere/nameless town and when the novel starts he is the leader of a SWAT team. First we meet his subordinate, Duff, as he and his men try to prevent a huge stash of drugs from being delivered into the town; this goes horribly wrong and Macbeth and Banquo are luckily on hand to retrieve the situation. The back-story turns out that Duff and Macbeth have both been at the same orphanage, lost touch with each other and then met up again at Police Academy. Macbeth, having left the orphanage has dropped into the dregs of society, using and pushing drugs, but has been rescued by the much older, father-figure of Banquo. By the time we meet them all though, Macbeth is doing well and rising in the ranks, thanks partly to his relationship with Lady, a casino owning mistress who also has an unenviable background, which includes incestuous rape and the deliberate killing of her resultant child.

The novel follows through with a modern drug busting tale of murder, power and villainy.  To gain more power Lady and Macbeth start on a killing spree than can only end in disaster.  So first, urged on by the ambitious Lady, he kills Duncan, the present Chief Commissioner; then has to kill Banquo and his son;  Fleance, though, escapes to reappear later as part of the fight back, and so on through to the bloody end. The characters appear and disappear exactly as according to the play but the tense drama of both the novel and the play remains intact.

I am not sure why the critics have not been kinder to this novel. Is it either because it is not typical Nesbo or because they have slightly missed the point? In my view, Jo Nesbo has cracked the most difficult aspect of the play, the witches and the prophecies and the hallucinations, without at the same time letting go of the more contemporary scenario. It sent me back to Shakespeare while at the same time engaging my attention and giving me several satisfactory moments of tense delight – so even though I knew who should still be standing at the end, there were moments of extreme suspense as I turned page after page.

The complete list of Hogarth’s Shakepeare for the Twenty-First Century is as follows

Margaret Atwood – The Tempest – Hagseed

Edward St Aubyn – King  Lear – Dunbar

Jeanette Winterson – A Winter’s Tale – The Gap of Time

Anne Tyler – The Taming of the Shrew – Vinegar Girl

Jo Nesbo – The Tragedy of Macbeth – Macbeth

Tracey Chevalier – Othello – New Boy

Gillian Flynn – Hamlet – not due until 2021

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Read on, read on

To find a new voice on the crime scene is generally a pleasure and in this instance double the pleasure for me because it comes from Australia. Jane Harper lives in Melbourne.  Her debut novel, The Dry, was written at a time when the state of Victoria had suffered several years of drought and the book is set in Kiewarra among the farming community.

HarperFederal Agent Aaron Falk, normally in the department chasing the money, returns to his home town to attend the funeral of a family: mother, father and son – all shot by the same gun – leaving an eighteen month old baby daughter. Aaron has a personal history with Luke Hadler, the dead man, going back to their teenage indiscretions and he has not been back to Kiewarra since he and his father left when he was about fifteen.

Old stories, old suspicions and old rumours burst to the surface when the townspeople find him amongst them again. Luke’s father and the father of another person, long dead, both want to see him; one to talk to him and one to threaten him off.

The police have seen this as an open and shut case of murder by the father, followed by suicide but the rookie cop, the one actually in the town who only took up his post a couple of months before the shooting, is not completely convinced.

Aaron is persuaded to stay around for a few days to dig into the case a bit more; an investigation which throws up some revealing and disturbing results…

The new offering from Jane Harper, Force of Nature, finds Aaron called in to look into a disappearance. He is only there because he received a fractured and indistinct mobile phone call early in the morning from the girl who has vanished. This is the last known contact.

Five women and five men, all from the same company, go into the fictional Giralang Ranges for a team building weekend.  They are split into two groups – men and women – and are given two separate routes to follow. The men make it back first, the women are late, in fact nearly a day late when they stagger out of the bush minus one of the walkers, Alice Russell.

The odd coincidence is that Falk and his team have been investigating this company, and Alice is their inside mole…

If I have any criticism of these novels, which I thoroughly enjoyed in spite of this complaint, it is that this is an all-white Australia. In The Dry, since it is set in a farming community and small town, one would have expected to have at least one or two Indigenous Australians working on the farms, most of the homesteads might be expected to have them as sheep-hands or domestics – nary a one. OK the community was going through a very bad patch, but total lay-offs seems a far cry. In Force of Nature I would have expected there to be at least one, if not more Indigenous trackers, especially in such wild and rugged terrain as the Giralang Ranges, a densely forested region some hours drive from Melbourne.

Kiewarra and Giralang are both invented places, but the author demonstrates a very accurate understanding of Australia’s wilderness and its isolated farming communities – small places with big characters and Jane Harper absolutely nails this in these books – so where are the original inhabitants? I know for a fact that the police regularly use indigenous trackers when some idiot backpacker strays off into the bush and frantic friends and parents ask for help.

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Wild about Wilde

Not Oscar, but Thomas. Rory Clements has abandoned his Elizabethan hero, John Shakespeare, brother of the more famous William, in favour of a period a little closer to hand: specifically Britain in the late 1930s.

Clements - CorpusThe first volume, Corpus, of a promised three, is set in the short period between King Edward VIII’s accession to the throne and his abdication. There are moves afoot to prevent the abdication, championed by among others Winston Churchill, but also a much more sinister group who looked kindly upon National Socialism in Germany, and felt rightly that King Edward with his wife beside him, whether Queen or no, was also mightily in favour of Herr Hitler’s regime.

Reading this book brings forcibly to mind the months of crisis that eventually led to The Abdication. Historical facts bleed seamlessly into this fictional narrative which centres on Cambridge and an American history professor, Thomas Wilde and his neighbour Lydia Morris.

At the start of the novel, there is an unexpected death, heroin overdose or something more sinister? Lydia’s friend, Nancy Hereward is found with a syringe by her side, slumped on her bed. To all intents and purposes, this looks like a simple case of one dose too many; but Lydia is not quite sure.

A second more horrifying murder site is found, and this one has links to Nancy through her father, Sir Norman Hereward who is close friends of the victims. A third murder points sickeningly towards involvement with Russia, but maybe all is not what it seems.

Lydia and Thomas, with the connivance of a Times Correspondent, Philip Eaton follow an increasingly dangerous and contorted trajectory of intrigue and conspiracy, while at the same time we are following the tense machinations going on between Edward and his government regarding the possible marriage to Wallis Simpson, twice-divorced American wife of the industrialist Ernest Simpson.

It is hard, possibly, for readers very much younger than me, to recognise a world in which newspaper magnates could be asked by Buckingham Palace and the Government not to report on The Situation. David, Prince of Wales (now Edward VIII) was hugely popular; debonair, handsome and easy-going, the ordinary people loved him; the aristocrats played at his court in Fort Belvedere, aware that he was loose in his morals, flagrantly cuckolding at least two well-born husbands, but that he was good fun and a great host. But the arrival on the scene of the glamorous, stylish but cold schemer, Wallis Simpson changed the climate. Many close friends of the King distanced themselves from the ensuing debacle; courtiers and officials made efforts to curb the excesses but without much success. Meanwhile, Edward, in many ways a weak man, fell completely and unequivocally in love with Wallis Simpson and insisted that he would marry her.

As I said, the historical background blends seamlessly and importantly into this gripping saga.

It is worth remembering that even without The Abdication, we would still have Elizabeth II on the throne, but Britain would have been a very different place, a protectorate island of Germany possibly, or a satellite state of the USSR, like Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Not a happy thought!

Clements - NucleusIn the second book, Nucleus, war still has not started and we are back with our two friends Thomas and Lydia in another intrigue of devastating consequences, if successful.

Scientists and physicists in laboratories Germany and Cambridge are close to the realisation of creating nuclear fission, and the chain reaction which would, they think, lead on to great energy and possibly an atom bomb. Germany in particular needs to know quite how near Britain is to mastering this force.

The Nazi regime has forced the mass exile of many Jewish physicists and others, most of them have entered laboratories in Cambridge or in Princeton, America. German warmongers need information about the extent and success of their research. So, once more, against an historical background, our story, with Thomas Wilde and Lydia Morris in its meshes, outlines this uncomfortable stand-off with a convoluted plot that involves several different strands.

There are many aspects of this novel that bring to the fore genuine acts of heroism by real people. One strand in the novel follows the path of a little German Jewish boy put on the Kindertransport, he is to be met from the train by Lydia Morris – but he is not there.

The book names many real people involved in the race to save as many Jewish children as possible, an undertaking by the Society of Friends led by the astonishing and brave Bertha Bracey. She deserves a whole book to herself.  With The Society of Friends and volunteers she was responsible for soup kitchens which were set up in Germany after the First World War to feed starving children, that effort alone must have saved thousands and then when it became clear, after Kristallnacht, that things in Germany were going to be deathly for the Jews, she persuaded the British Government to allow 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children into this country. The Society of Friends funded and managed this evacuation just in the nick of time.

The other real person in this book, apart from those in the German high command, is Frank Foley who was an official at the British Passport Office in Berlin. Against all the codes of conduct, he handed out exit visas to many Jewish families trying to leave the country.

Another strand intertwined with the nuclear problem is the possible involvement of the IRA, who were being funded and supplied by Germany and who hoped that as a result of co-operation with the Nazis, would finally succeed in uniting the island of Ireland. But you need a long spoon if you sup with the Devil.

It is all grippingly told, page-turning-un-put-downable stuff. Can hardly wait for volume three, I hope it does not take as long as the one awaited from Hilary Mantel.

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Wiser on the morrow morn

The title is a description given by Samuel Taylor Coleridge of the wedding guest held captive by the glittering eye of the Ancient Mariner.

Part of my Lent reading has been Malcolm Guite‘s monumental revisiting of Coleridge’s life seen through the prism of his early, life-enhancing, poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

MarinerMalcom Guite is, of course, himself a well known poet and theologian and he had taken the reader upon a journey through the poem and, stanza by stanza, through the ways in which it adumbrated S.T.C’s own life; a life he could not possibly have imagined when he penned the first version, which he shared with William Wordsworth in March 1798. Coleridge went on to revise and rework the poem until in 1813 he added the glosses, or margin notes, giving us the poem in the form in which it is usually presented today.

1796 to 1798 were years of marvellous production for the poet, in 1797 he completed three of his best known and best loved poems, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan and Frost in Winter.

I belong to that generation of semi-educated schoolchildren who studied these poems briefly among many others, and whose knowledge of Samuel Taylor Coleridge consisted of the fact that he was a Romantic Poet and an opium addict. Such was the received wisdom of the time, except in more academic circles. But latterly, thanks to several new biographies and studies, that view has ameliorated.  A far greater understanding and sympathy for drug addiction has demonstrated that it is not lack of moral fibre that leads to severe addiction; furthermore a much kinder and more generous appreciation of what the Romantic Poets (of which Wordsworth and Coleridge were the earliest) have given the English language and literature has arisen and then there are his prose writings most of which few people have ever read, except again in the groves of academe.

In S.T.C’s studies on Shakespeare, given first as a series of lectures in Bristol, he has demonstrated a reassessment of the genius and spirit of the playwright which from that time on altered the status and understanding of The Bard for all time, and the texts of the lectures are still part of fundamental teachings on Shakespeare to this day – who knew? Apart from the academics.

However, this is not really the subject of Mariner, Malcom Guite’s book. He sees the poem as a journey from a completely different perspective. That the mariner’s journey is one which we should all take in one form or another, a journey through emotional and intellectual blindness towards a baptism (death and resurrection) of spiritual awareness and self realisation and Christian wisdom and through our own sensitive and dedicated reading of the poem should become wiser people.

He also shows how the emotional and spiritual awakenings of the mariner strangely mirror the life of the poet, his early voyage in the sunlit Quantock hills, through the graduals degradation of his physique through copious doses of laudanum (the classic go-to pain-killer and cure-all of his time, it should be noted) and finally his tremendous and extraordinary efforts successfully to rid himself of his addiction with the help of Dr Gillman.

This barely scratches the surface of this remarkable book. Guite fills in gaps everywhere, showing the influence The Rime had on its contemporaries and the present day alike. Including great artists, other poets and literature scholars everywhere.

And throughout, how Coleridge struggled with faith through constant prayer, even when dry as dust and unable to approach His Source, his source and all of our sources of inspiration – the great I AM.

WaldegraveFurthermore, it added greatly to my appreciation and understanding of another great book – The Poet’s Daughters by Katie Waldegrave. [see my post 30 December 2013].

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