The Tree That Sat Down by Beverley Nichols

The Tree That Sat Down cover

The Tree That Sat Down by Beverley Nichols was first published in 1945 and it’s the first of his books for children that I’ve read. Having said that – there are parts of this book that are probably aimed more at any adults who might read it.

Beverley Nichols describes it as ‘a fairy story and it’s a real old fashioned one, full of magic spells, wizards and transformation scenes. Maybe some of the characters have a modern touch … the witch for instance keeps a vacuum cleaner to assist her with her spells, but otherwise it joins all those other magic tales which begin once upon a time.’

The setting is a woodland where Judy and her granny have opened a shop to cater for the needs of the woodland animals – yes, it’s all very anthropomorphic. But then Sam and Old Sam open another shop nearby, with the intention of fleecing all the animals, conning them out of their money, and at the same time ruining Judy’s shop.

I enjoyed this book which is on one level a children’s fantasy tale and on another is a vehicle for the author to get some things off his chest, such as his feelings about how animals are treated by some humans, the over-commercialisation of society and mad consumerism – and his attitude to war.

Did you ever hear of such impertinence? It is an insult to the noble and peaceful family of Sheep. It is the Humans who go about in herds and don’t think for themselves! Look at the way they make War! Sheep would never be so foolish, nor would any other animal. Did you ever hear of a herd of sheep or any other animal leaving their homes and their pastures, and going off to fight say, a herd of zebras whom they’d never even met, just because some silly sheep had told them that the silly zebras wore striped coats, and that anybody who wore striped coats must be their enemy? That is exactly what Humans are doing all the time. Look at their dreadful way of waging war in the air. If I have a fight in the air it is because I am attacked. I fight for my life. But what would you think of me if I were to take a rock and fly off with it to a farmyard and just drop it into a basket of eggs.That is what Humans call “bombing”. They all do it, and they think it is wonderful, and they give medals to the Humans who break the most eggs. To me, it is all sheer folly and wickedness. I have very little hope for the Human race … very little. It will take them at least a million years to reach the level of animals … and long before then, I am afraid they will all have killed each other off.’

It’s fair to say that the previous six years of war seems to have left the author exasperated and a bit depressed I think. This is the first book in a trilogy, the other two are The Stream That Stood Still and The Mountain of Magic. I intend to get around to reading those ones – sometime.

The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor

 The King's Evil cover

The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor was published in 2019 and it’s the third book in his Marwood and Lovett series, the first one being The Fire Court and the second book The Ashes of London. It’s 1667 now, so just after the Great Fire of London and the city is obviously still in turmoil with homeless refugees forming lawless camps outside the city.

A body has been discovered down a well and Marwood is asked to investigate it. It turns out that it’s the body of Edward Alderley who is Cat Lovett’s cousin and a person that Cat despises for all sorts of reasons, not least because his branch of their family has robbed Cat of her inheritance. Marwood fears that Cat is the culprit since she had previously attacked Alderley, as she has disappeared things look very black for her, but Marwood is determined to save her from the noose. Obviously Marwood has to discover who the real murderer is.

As ever I’m not saying too much about the plot, suffice to say that for me there were plenty of surprises and interesting characters as well as historical details.

These books are so atmospheric of just how I imagine London to have been in the reign of Charles II. A dangerous place to be with huge differences in the wealth and poverty of the population – actually nothing much has changed in that regard in London!

The King's Evil End Papers

I really love the endpapers of this book however the publishers state that they are a map of the area of London affected by the Great Fire in 1666. This is obviously wrong and I suppose this is meant to show the type of grand house – Clarendon House, which appears in the book.

Guardian links

There were a few articles that really struck me in this week’s Guardian. The first one is titled Laws of Nature. Apparently a movement is gaining momentum that grants legal rights to natural phenomena such as rivers, lakes, trees and mountains. Robert Macfarlane investigates the rise of the new animism. I’m all for it if it means that such wonders of nature are going to be nurtured for future generations instead of being plundered and polluted for business purposes as they often are nowadays. But of course it’s not as simple as that. You can read the article here.

Novel Houses by Christina Hardyment is subtitled Twenty Famous Fictional Dwellings. I had it in my mind that writing books where houses are as much a character as the people was something that was done mainly by female authors, but of course I was wrong about that as you’ll see if you read the review here.

Have you read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy? I enjoyed them some years ago and I think that the new BBC1 dramatisation has been really well done. I hadn’t realised that Pullman had inadvertently invented the name Lyra. It’s quite a rare thing to do, but the inventors of Pamela, Miranda and Vanessa get a name check, however this article doesn’t mention that J.M. Barrie invented the name Wendy, from calling a little girl a ‘fwendy’ originally.

If we were lucky enough to have a daemon (animal manifestation of the human soul) what would yours be? Mine changes from time to time, but then I am a Gemini – allegedly! Having a red squirrel daemon appeals to me at the moment.

Doreen by Barbara Noble

 Doreen cover

Doreen by Barbara Noble was first published in 1940 but my copy is a Persephone. I really enjoyed this one which begins in London during the heavy bombing of the Blitz. Walking to her work as an office cleaner through devastated streets Mrs Rawlings whose soldier husband has left her, decides that she’ll have to do what most mothers have already done which is to send her only child, nine year old Doreen away to the country for safety. After the previous night’s bombing she no longer has any faith that the bomb shelter will keep her and Doreen safe.

When Helen Osborne, one of the secretaries at the office finds Mrs Rawlings in tears she wonders if she can help by offering a country home to Doreen with her married sister Francie and her husband who are childless. They haven’t been allocated any evacuees because their home is seen as being too remote from a village for convenience. Francie quickly agrees to the plan and in no time she’s imagining what the little girl will be like.

After a shaky start Doreen settles down to life in a situation very different from what she’s used to. She has gone from a one room slum in London to living in a large country house and as she has been well brought up and she’s also quite clever and likeable, it isn’t long before Francie loves Doreen, she has always been sentimental about children. Geoffrey her husband has left the decision to take Doreen in up to Francie. He suffers from asthma and blames himself for not giving her a child. But inevitably Doreen’s mother is torn and visiting Doreen in the country she realises that Doreen has moved into a very different class from her poverty stricken previous existence and she doesn’t approve of it, she’s jealous and she knows that when the time comes for Doreen to go home she’ll never settle to life in a London slum again. It isn’t going to end well, but this is a really good read.

Considering that Doreen was written so early on in the war Barbara Noble must have quickly realised how evacuating the children to the countryside was going to make all sorts of problems for all concerned. It’s something that I’ve always known about as I’ve known people who were affected by it. One man in particular that I knew was very much surplus to requirement in his own large family and being evacuated to a loving couple was a definite plus for him and no doubt for them too. Luckily they did keep in touch after he had to go back home and they were the family that he had always wanted to be part of, I don’t think his parents were that bothered about losing him though.

The Tempest by William Shakespeare – The Classics Club spin 21

The Tempest cover

A wee bit late, but I got my Classics Club spin choice finished. I actually began reading The Tempest ages ago and got half way through it before being distracted by something else, so when I eventually got back to it I started from the beginning again. This is probably the last play that William Shakespeare wrote, way back in 1610-1611.

Prospero was the Duke of Milan but he wasn’t really interested in ruling his kingdom as he was obsessed by honing his skills as a magician. Prospero was happy to allow his younger brother Antonio to take over all the power that he should have had, but in time Antonio decided that he wanted to have his brother’s title too, so he deposed Prospero who managed to escape with his three year old daughter Miranda, helped by his trustworthy servant Gonzalo.

When the play begins twelve years have passed since Prospero and Miranda landed on an island somewhere in the Mediterranean, and Prospero has been practising his magic arts aided by the books he managed to take with him and Ariel who is a spirit, he/she had been held captive on the island by a witch who had lived there earlier along with her son Caliban. Prospero has been able to send a huge storm to blast a ship which has his treacherous brother on board, among many others, including Ferdinand who is the son of the King of Naples who was also on the ship. Ferdinand thinks he is the only survivor of the shipwreck and when he and Miranda meet it’s love at first sight. But when Prospero meets Ferdinand he sets him to work for him, hauling firewood around, that’s not something that the heir to a throne is used to doing.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the island some of the other survivors who had been returning from a wedding are plotting to kill King Alonso, but Ariel gets wind of the plot and foils it. There’s a lot of confusion and some drunkeness among the survivors – but what can I say except – All’s well that ends well except that’s another of his plays.

That’s the thing about reading Shakespeare, you keep coming across phrases that have become part of the English language, and often you don’t realise that they were first written by Shakespeare, and of course other writers have borrowed them. The phrase – this rough magic appears a few times to which I say Step forward Mary Stewart. His words have found their way into our psyche whether we realise it or not. I expect we’ve all heard from Act 4 scene 1:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep

It’s thought that he was inspired to write this play on hearing of what happened to a fleet of nine ships which set sail for Virginia. The ship the Sea Adventure was separated from the other ships during a storm and washed up near Bermuda, stuck between two rocks. The crew and most of the cargo and fittings managed to get ashore safely, but it was assumed that they had all perished and it was some time before they managed to continue their journey to Virginia.

Shakespeare knew some of the people involved and was able to read an original letter from William Strachey which described the strange experiences of those who had been shipwrecked.

It seems that nothing changes as I know that writers today often get their ideas from things that they see in the news.

Anyway – that’s The Tempest under my belt – so to speak. It’s a great read and I can only imagine how enthralling it must have been for the original audience and will definitely try to watch a modern version of it, but not too modern as I prefer my Shakespeare to come with period costumes and stage sets. I just love Arthur Rackham’s illustrations.

How did you get on with your Classics Club spin book?

The Tempest

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine cover

A lot of people seem to have been reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman which was published in 2017, and I had no intention of doing so too as I tend to dodge what seems to be flavour of the month. Then I discovered that it’s written by a Scot and Jack borrowed it from the library and suggested that I should read it too – so I did and I really loved it. The setting is Glasgow but really it doesn’t feature in the book, it could have been set anywhere I think.

Eleanor Oliphant is almost thirty and working in the accounts department of a small company, despite having a Classics degree. She leads a very narrow life with no friends and has no idea how to interact with other people. Socialising is a complete mystery to her, consequently she’s seen as a bit of an odd bod by her work colleagues and it doesn’t help that one side of her face has been damaged by fire.

The one interaction she has apart from work is a weekly phone call from her mother who calls to abuse Eleanor verbally, she dreads the calls but seems unable to take control and put a stop to them. There’s a mystery about where her mother is. Is she in a prison, or maybe a state mental hospital? Obviously Eleanor has been badly damaged both physically and mentally by her upbringing. She’s still being visited by social workers and the only relationships in her life (if they can be called that) are with Polly her houseplant, Tesco supermarket which she loves and Glen’s vodka which she quaffs by the bottle at weekends. She definitely isn’t completely fine.

She’s suffering from arrested development among many other things, and she develops a huge crush on a musician who it turns out lives near her. Eleanor is convinced that her future lies with the musician and sets about transforming her image starting with a perplexing but hilarious visit to a waxing salon (French, Brazilian or Hollywood?) Slowly she begins to get to grips with modern life, helped by Raymond the IT guy’s friendship with her which develops when she needs his help with her computer at work, and bit by bit the reader learns about what has led to the development of Eleanor’s weird and anti-social character.

Or do we? As Jack says – she could be seen as being a very unreliable narrator and the truth could be completely different from how she portrays it. I like to think of her as a victorious victim though, but no doubt that is because I loved the character of Eleanor who had a hard time fitting in anywhere and understanding other people. I enjoyed seeing her learn how to interact in the modern world, even although that involved her doing things that I’ve never felt the need to do such as learning how to put on make-up or getting my nails done.

The Classics Club spin number 21 – not quite

I think I’ve completed all of the Classics Club spins and I intend to finish number 21 but for the first time I haven’t managed to finish my book (The Tempest) within the time allotted. I got The Tempest in the spin, something I’ve been wanting to read for years.

However, October just ran away from me and before I knew it it was the end of the month – where did the rest of it go? I’ll have my thoughts on The Tempest on ‘Pining’ by tomorrow. Honest!

The Library Book – foreword by Rebecca Gray

The Library Book cover

The Library Book has a foreword by Rebecca Gray and the book consists of a collection of essays written mainly by authors’ about their thoughts and feelings about public libraries. How libraries had influenced their lives from an early age and the short sightedness of politicians and local councils who have been busy shutting down libraries as a means of saving money. It’s something of a painful subject for me, I used to work in libraries and took part in a campaign to stop 16 local libraries being closed down in Fife. We failed of course despite having support from local authors such as Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and James Robertson.

Anyway, back to the book. I enjoyed it but as you would expect some of the essays appealed to me more than others. Alan Bennett is always amusing of course and I found myself reading out excerpts from it to Jack. In fact some of the conversations he has had with other library users have made it into his work.

China Mieville was a bit lazy and cheeky as he took the opportunity to slot an entire excerpt from one of his books into the book instead of writing about libraries, but it worked as I enjoyed it and as we have the book in the house I intend to getting around to reading it soonish – and I never intended to read it – it’s Jack’s book.

Susan Hill’s contribution annoyed me quite a bit as she mainly name dropped all the various authors that she had bumped into while visiting King’s College library and London Library. Again she has disappointed me on the subject of books.

Zadie Smith’s offering came closest to my feelings on libraries. She says – “It has always been, and always will be, very difficult to explain to people with money what it means to have no money.” I agree with her when she says that those in the Cabinet who went to Eton, Winchester, Harrow and such places just can’t understand the importance of libraries to ordinary people.

This is one of those books that has led to me taking note of other books and authors mentioned in it, despite promising myself that I’d eschew the library for a while and concentrate on my own books.

Guardian Review links

Porto

I suspect we’re all being driven around the bend by the political news – in the UK anyway, but the Guardian Review section has an article about the relationship with Europe that some well known writers have, J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Mary Beard, Michel Faber, Sandi Toksvig and others contribute their thoughts to this article. The photo above is of Porto and it took me straight back there and the lovely trip along the river we had.

The Book of the Week is Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout which is apparently a set of interlinking short stories, but as I thought that Olive Kitteridge was exactly that – and not all that well interlinked – I’ll be giving that one a miss, but you might be one of the many fans. You can read about Olive, Again here. But I’m just saying – ‘Why oh why?!’

I’ll be reading The Life and Loves of E.Nesbit by Eleanor Fitzsimons at some point in the future although it will probably be quite a sad read as from what I know of her it wasn’t an easy life. You can read Sarah Watling’s review here.

I know so many people who adore cheese so I imagine that A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles by Ned Palmer will be a big seller, especially for Christmas, have a read here if you’re a cheese addict.

Lastly I’m wondering if any of you have read anything by the American author Laird Hunt. I found the review of his new book In the House in the Dark of the Woods interesting but I’m wondering if it might veer too much to the horror side for my liking. You can read Justine Jordan’s review of it here.

It Walks by Night by John Dickson Carr

It Walks by Night cover

It Walks by Night by John Dickson Carr was published in 1930 and it’s the first of his books to be published. As with vintage Penguin crime books it’s short at just 190 pages, but it felt like twice as long for me. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for it, the crime takes place very quickly which is always a plus for me and it’s a locked room mystery which I usually enjoy. I can only say that John Dickson Carr’s writing improved over the years.

The setting is a gambling house in Paris where the decapitated body of the Duc de Saligny has been discovered in a room. How did it happen?

I slogged on to the end but didn’t really care who did it or why. I rarely manage to give up on a book when I’ve begun reading it – a habit that I wish I could break!

Maybe you enjoyed this one, if so – do tell.