The Pearl by John Steinbeck

The Pearl cover

The Pearl by John Steinbeck was first published in 1947 and my copy seems to be a first edition, not that I bother about such things, it cost me all of £3. It’s a very slim volume, so I read it in no time at all – a bedtime read.

It begins early in the morning in a shack in Mexico where Kino, a pearl fisher, and his wife Juana are just waking up. They have one child, a son called Coyotito, the centre of their lives, so when he is bitten by a scorpion they’re panic stricken.

They have no money to pay for a doctor and hope that Juana’s swift action in sucking out the poison will save the child. But Juana still wants to go to the doctor to make sure, the doctor isn’t much better than a quack and he’s not interested in helping the child of peasants who don’t have money to pay him.

Kino is desperate to find a large pearl, thinking that that would solve all of their problems, but when miraculously he does find a huge pearl it brings out the worst in just about everybody around him.

This is a story about greed and envy which was apparently based on a Mexican folk tale. It’s not exactly uplifting and I can’t say that I really enjoyed it much, in fact it’s quite depressing, but no doubt it’s quite realistic in its portrayal of human character.

The Watersplash by Patricia Wentworth

 The Watersplashcover

The Watersplash by Patricia Wentworth was first published in 1954 and it’s a Miss Silver mystery. Wentworth is so skilled at conjuring up the atmosphere of a small English village, and the way that so many of the inhabitants are linked to each other – by blood, marriage and extended family friendships. Throw in a local telephone system where everybody has a party line and can listen in to their neighbour’s conversations and a huge capacity for gossip as a way of brightening up what is generally a boringly quiet life and you have a good recipe for a mystery.

Edward Random has just returned home to Greenings after a five year absence during which time his father (the local squire) believed him to be dead. Edward’s father had changed his will in favour of his brother Arnold, so his nose was very much out of joint when he realised his nephew was still alive. Everyone expects Arnold to give up his inheritance to Edward, but he has no intention of doing that, in fact he won’t have anything to do with his nephew.

Rumours abound – what has Edward been up to during his five years of absence? When there’s a murder in the village Miss Silver is asked to investigate. Luckily she had already been invited to stay at Greenings by the daughter of an old friend and it’s not long before she’s getting submerged in everybody’s business.

Whilst she knits a succession of pale pink baby vests she gets to the bottom of it all satisfactorily. I had a fair idea who the perpetrator was but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment. I really think I prefer Miss Silver to Miss Marple. I believe the two characters were ‘born’ in the same year. Patricia Wentworth just seems to have been unfortunate that Agatha Christie’s books were much more of a commercial success. Maybe Patricia Wentworth should have indulged herself with some sort of adventure that was taken up by the tabloid newspapers the way Christie did!

The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

The Black Prince cover

The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch was first published in 1973 and I know that this is one of the few books that I had previously given up on, way back in the 1970s. I can’t remember now why I abandoned it but possibly when I realised it wasn’t historical fiction . I read this one because it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and I’m trying to read as many as those books as I can – a personal project.

I must say that although I can appreciate that it’s well written, it just wasn’t my cup of tea, it took me quite a while to read the 415 pages, about six days probably, just because I was never in a hurry to get back to the story. The book is written in three parts and then has several postscripts from various characters, but during the second part I was tempted to pack it in because I really didn’t like or care what happened to any of the characters.

The main story is told by Bradley Pearson who has recently retired from working in a government tax office. He’s hoping to concentrate on his writing as he has published some books in the past. His closest friend is Arnold Baffin who is a much more successful author and his life becomes entangled with Arnold’s family.

Or does it? Because Bradley isn’t exactly a reliable narrator – or is he? Like many people Bradley rewrites history to suit himself and the postscripts leave the reader none the wiser as other characters throw in their tuppence worth. Basically the reader ends up being judge and jury. Who is telling the truth?

Not for me. I’ll probably give it a three on Goodreads.

Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett

Pawn in Frankincense cover

Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett was first published in 1969 and it’s the fourth book in her Lymond series.

To begin with I had a look at the chapter headings to see where the story was set because I much preferred the Scottish parts of the last book, so I was slightly down-hearted when I realised that it was almost all set in the near/middle east. But I needn’t have been as this was a great read.

The year is 1552. In the last book Lymond discovered that a woman he had had a brief relationship with had given birth to a son, but they’ve been captured and he’s intent on tracking them down.

An old soothsayer has given him hope that his quest will be succesful. At the same time he plans to seek out Sir Graham Reid Mallett and give him his comeuppance.

As ever with Dunnett there’s plenty of action and intrigue, right up to the very end.

I’m not doing very well with my Scottish reading so far this year, this is only the second book I’ve read by a Scottish author – must do better.

Classics Club Spin number 17

Well the Classics Club Spin number has been chosen, it’s number 3 so the book that I’ll have to read before April 30th is Sir Walter Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor.

That’s fine by me as I’ve been meaning to read that one for ages. My copy which was published by Richard Edward King Limited originally belonged to Jack’s grandfather so it’s very old, but strangely it has no publication date on the front. The print is very small so although it’s only 316 pages long that probably translates to over 600 pages in a more modern print size. I think I’ll download it from Project Gutenberg so I can read it on my Kindle, or get a more modern copy.

Did you take part in the spin, and are you pleased with what you have to read?

Ironbridge, Shropshire, England

When I realised that we would be staying quite close to Ironbridge during our recent visit to England and Wales that went on our list of places to see. I’ve often seen the bridge on TV and it always looks beautiful. We drove into the small town and managed to park quite close to the shops (it was a Sunday) but we had only walked a few yards before we realised that the big plastic structure spanning the river was the actual bridge, swathed in scaffolding and plastic. What a disappointment, but not totally unexpected as we have a history of inadvertently visiting iconic locations when they’re being refurbished, including Chatsworth, the entire front of which was hidden.

Iron Bridge at Ironbridge

Anyway, we walked across the iron bridge as it’s not actually closed off, in fact it was very busy. Peering down at the River Severn was a strange experience. Any photographs I’ve seen of the bridge show a beautiful reflection of it in the water, but the river wasn’t looking its best. Mind you, having said that I can actually see reflections of some buildings in that photo, despite the sludginess of the water, so maybe it’s always like that.

I love rivers and bridges but I’m beginning to wonder if it’s just Scottish rivers that I love. They’re always lovely and clean and they rush and tumble towards their destination – sea or loch, in a mad dash to get there and making a joyous sound.

I don’t know if the area surrounding the River Severn had had heavy rain and storms just before we went there, maybe the character of that river’s water is always murky and slow moving, it looked like a brown sludge, with strange circular swirls on the surface. Colour wise it resembled a river of melted Galaxy chocolate, like something out of Charlie and the Chocolate factory, but it was somehow diabolically dangerous looking too.

Anyway, our trip there wasn’t a complete dead loss as despite it being a Sunday there were quite a lot of shops open, and one of them was a good secondhand bookshop. That was where I got the two Agatha Christie paperbacks I blogged about earlier. On the way out of the shop I caught a glimpse of a book called The Story of Scotland by F. Fraser Darling and realised that I already had one in this particular book series, they were published by William Collins in 1941, 1942 and 1943. They only have 47 pages in them but they’re really nicely illustrated with interesting prints and drawings. I also bought British Ports and Harbours by Leo Walmsley, I love its cover design. English Villages by Edmund Blunden is the book that I already had at home. These books are really lovely and it amazes me that they only cost me £3 each. It seems to be the price that booksellers ask for them no matter where you are in Britain, they’re underrated I reckon, but maybe I shouldn’t say that!

William Collins Books

Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken

Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken is the second book in this series and was first published in 1965.

This book features some of the characters from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Simon travels to London with his donkey, he’s determined to become an artist and has a letter of introduction.

This is an alternative history, the setting is London in the 1830s, and King James III is on the throne which means that the Stuart dynasty is still on the throne which of course didn’t happen. But the Hanoverians are plotting against them and planning to grab power. There’s a group of Londoners willing to help and they’re stock-piling guns and ammunition.

But people are disappearing, including Simon’s friend Dr Field. Will Simon be able to track him down?

I enjoyed this one but I’m really looking forward to reading the third book in this series Nightbirds on Nantucket, which is the first one I bought, purely because the blurb sounded absolutely crazy.

Classics Club Spin number 17

classics club

* List any twenty books you have left to read from your Classics Club list.
* Number them from 1 to 20.
* On Friday 9th March the Classics Club will announce a number.
* This is the book you need to read by 30th April 2018

Yes it’s Classics Club Spin time again. Just a bit of fun and the bonus for me is I don’t have to decide which book to read next. So I’m listing 20 books from my Classics Club list. April the 30th seems a long way away to me, but no doubt it’ll gallop up on us. The spin number will be announced on March the 9th.

My list is:

1. The American Senator by Anthony Trollope
2. Nana by Emile Zola
3. The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott
4. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
5. The Black Arrow by R.L. Stevenson
6. The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor
7. Montaigne
8. Summer Half by Angela Thirkell
9. Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott
10. Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Laclos
11. Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter
12. High Wages by Dorothy Whipple
13. Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
14. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
15. Orkneyinga Saga
16. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
17. The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively
18. The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison
19. Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant
20. If This Is a Man by Primo Levi

I’m not terribly fussed which number I get but as I’ve recently read Anna Karenina and at the moment I’m reading Pawn in Frankincense, both of which are hefty volumes, I’d rather avoid a chunkster. I’ve just realised though that there are quite a few thick books on my list.

Book sculptures in Edinburgh

When we visited the Muriel Spark exhibition at the National Library of Scotland last month I was disappointed that they weren’t allowing people to take photos of the exhibits, but I was allowed to photograph the book sculptures that are on display in the foyer. An anonymous female sculptor made these lovely things and left them at important cultural locations.

Artist work  book sculpture

book sculpture

The first sculpture was found in 2011 and nine others appeared at various locations in Edinburgh. In 2015 the artist decided that her project was coming to an end and she announced she wanted the public to help her with the last one – The Butterfly Tree and Lost Child. People sent in butterflies to be included in the design. The artist has remained anonymous. You can see some images here. It’s obviously much bigger than the others.

The Oaken Heart by Margery Allingham

Margery Allingham was asked by some American friends to write about the experiences of life in her Essex village during the run up to the outbreak of war – and the next couple of years. I’ve been wanting to get my hands on a copy of this one for some years and at last I gave up hope of finding it in a secondhand bookshop and resorted to the internet. I was particularly interested in this one because for a couple of years I lived in Essex, in Braintree which is a town just 15 miles from Tolleshunt-Darcy where Allingham lived. Of course due to the need for secrecy the village was given a different name – she chose to call it Auburn after a village in an Oliver Goldsmith poem.

She makes it clear that the locals have a certain character, they would possibly be seen as being a bit odd compared with people elsewhere in England as the East Anglians are a bit of a breed apart, but when you get down to it where the war is concerned they behave much the same as the rest of Britain. Although that ‘eastern’ character is recognisable in the whole of the east coast of the UK I think. I was quite surprised by how naive they seemed to be though – regarding Neville Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hitler. They gave him a lot of credit and placed great trust in him, so when the inevitable happened and we ended up at war with Germany AGAIN – they were truly shocked.

This misplaced trust was almost certainly because the village had suffered badly from the loss of a generation of young men in World War I. They probably just couldn’t bear the thought of it all happening again, and that the death of those youngsters had been for nothing. In fact there were hardly any children in the village for that reason. When Churchill took over they all sighed with relief and Allingham judged his character perfectly I think.

For some reason the villagers all had great faith that mainland European countries would be able to see the Nazis off, particularly the French. I cannot fathom why they thought the French would be great fighters.

Auburn went from being a sleepy rural idyll to a place of constant night time noise as hundreds of Nazi bombers flew overhead under cover of darkness, on their way to nearby London. Inevitably bombs began to fall on Auburn and the surrounding towns, Allingham’s husband joined up to do his bit and she eventually had to take over from the war work that he had been doing locally.

One thing that really struck me was her description of watching a formation of 75 Junkers bombers flying overhead and noticing that there were two tiny things like white lice threading there way across and up and down in the formation, like a sewing machine – then she realised that those white specks were the RAF doing their thing. Eventually the bombers gave up and turned back towards France again. Reading that it made me realise just how plucky the young men (hardly more than boys really) of the RAF had been.

Sometimes the more you know about authors the less you like them but Margery Allingham comes across as being a really likeable person (on a par with John Steinbeck for me). She really avoids party politics although she does say that the village is true blue, but if that is meant to mean Conservative then their behaviour is the opposite of the Conservative party of today as they have become progressively more nasty with every decade since the war. My Conservative voting father wouldn’t recognise that party today and certainly wouldn’t vote for them. To lots of people the word socialism is a dirty word, even evil, but Margery Allingham describes socialism as being like Christianity without the religion. That’s perfect as far as I’m concerned.

Towards the end of the book she writes about her personal thoughts on life, class and politics. Her attitudes are definitely those of middle England, too class ridden for my Scottish sensibilities as we are more inclined to take people as they actually are – not because of their status in society. This is what attracted Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to Scotland and the Scots. It’s a more healthy way of looking at society as it avoids that bizarre ‘respect the uniform/status’ nonsense which is a danger to society. As we say in Scotland, ‘we’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns‘ which means that when you get down to it – be we queen or pauper we’re all human beings. Although as the Scots were very popular with the Auburn villagers and Margery Allingham, particularly the Scottish regiment that camped out in the village for a while, I can’t help feeling just a wee bit – no not quite superior about it, but certainly happy!

Phew. That was a ramble and a half, anyway, if you’re at all interested in the social history and the run up to the start of World War 2 and on until 1941 when the book was first published you’ll find this book really interesting.