Transformation by Mary Shelley – 3 short stories

 Embers of War cover

Transformation by Mary Shelley is a quick read at only 101 pages. It contains three short stories by Mary Shelley. I had only read her Frankenstein before and I had put off reading that for years as I didn’t think it would be my kind of thing, but I was agreeably surprised by it.

Transformation, first written in 1831 is set mainly in in Genoa and it’s an account told by Guido who is a young man who had been promised to Juliet since childhood. But Guido had grown into a reckless spendthrift and over the years he has lost all of the land and property left to him by his father. Eventually Juliet’s father decides he doesn’t want his daughter to be married to Guido and Guido is sent away. It’s an enjoyable gothic morality tale.

The Mortal Immortal was first published in 1834 and as you would expect is about the pitfalls of living forever.

The Evil Eye was first published in 1830 and I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the others. The setting is Greece and Albania and features child abduction.

None of the stories are exactly ground breaking and wouldn’t even have been back when they were first published, but they’re still entertaining.

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019.

Malice in Wonderland by Nicholas Blake

Malice in Wonderland cover

Malice in Wonderland by Nicholas Blake (Cecil Day-Lewis) was first published in 1940 but my copy is a 1947 reprint. Apparently this is titled The Summer Camp Mystery in the US. It has also been titled Malice with Murder and Murder with Malice. This is the sixth book in Blake’s Nigel Strangeways series.

The setting is Wonderland – a holiday camp in England. Hitler gets a brief mention but the book was obviously written just before war was declared.

The holidaymakers at Wonderland are a mixed bunch ranging from Cockneys to some rather well-heeled people, but when a prankster calling himself The Mad Hatter starts to cause trouble they’re all equally perturbed. As the pranks get progressively nastier Captain Wise the manager of the camp calls in Nigel Strangeways, a private detective. Suspicion falls on several people, and some even suspect themselves, but this one kept me guessing almost right to the end. I really enjoyed it.

Until I read this book I had been under the impression that holiday camps hadn’t been in existence in the UK until after World War 2 as I had read that somewhere. This book describes the wonderful London chefs who provided the meals, a ball room, a concert hall with professional entertainers and bars. All very luxurious compared with what most people would have had at home. The camp is set on a clifftop overlooking the sea and it occurred to me that cruises have now taken over from holiday camps which sound like they were just static cruises, and as some people never even get off a cruise ship when they reach their destinations – they might as well be in a holiday camp such as Wonderland.

To the River by Olivia Laing

To the River cover

To the River by Olivia Laing is about a journey along the length of the River Ouse in Sussex. The Ouse is of course the river that Virginia Woolf drowned herself in in 1941. I believe Laing wrote that the Ouse is 42 miles long, but not all of it is accessible by walkers. I wanted to know exactly how long she had walked but perhaps she never worked it out.

I don’t know what I really expected of this book but I found it to be a bit of a disappointment. I began by enjoying the meandering of the author’s mind, never knowing which subject might come up next. There’s geography and history, odd snippets of information such as that “the silver-leaved tormentil can both stem the flow of blood and dye leather red.” She carried out her walk during mid-summer so the fields were full of wild flowers and she wrote multiple lists of flowers that she had seen, which is fine if you know the flowers. Some more in-depth descriptions would have been useful for those who aren’t so well-versed in wild flowers. She wrote about The Piltdown Forgery, Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows – all sorts, she’s definitely eclectic, but ultimately for me – as a person who loves rivers – there just wasn’t enough in it about the Ouse. Also the author felt the need to tell us about the dead animals that she stumbled across and even sought out (by smell) along the way – bizarre.

The reason for Laing embarking on this project was her reaction to the end of a relationship and thoughts of Matthew kept popping up. Apparently neither of them could agree to live outwith their own counties. Eventually Matthew went back to his beloved Yorkshire, but really it would have been better if he had never made an appearance in the book as it all seemed rather pathetic, with the author weeping down the phone to him which must have made him think that he had made a good move.

I believe this was Olivia Laing’s first attempt at writing a nature book and it might be something that she has improved on and other readers have loved it. The Sunday Times said: ‘A beautifully written meditation on landscape.’

My Life by Annie S. Swan

 My Life cover

Have any of you ever read any books by the Scottish author Annie S. Swan? Between 1878 and her death in 1943 she wrote over 200 novels, short stories and serials. She has been called “one of the most commercially successful popular novelists of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” but only a few of her books have been recently reprinted. She began her career writing serials for the wildly popular Peoples’ Friend which is still going although they can’t be selling nearly as many copies as in earlier times as it used to be sent all over the British Empire. She also wrote under her married name Annie Burnett-Smith and as David Lyall she wrote serious newspaper articles about politics, including the Boer War.

I’ve read a few of her books and quite enjoyed them, but she’s a bit of a local hero among some people here in Fife as for a couple of years she lived in the teeny village of Star of Markinch when her husband was a schoolteacher there. In this book she says very little about her time there but to be fair it must have seemed like the back of beyond for her as even now it’s a bit of a backwater.

Apparently she wasn’t all that keen on writing her autobiography as inevitably ‘the Ego, which I don’t very much like abounds’. But she had an eventful life, considering that she was born into a farming family near Edinburgh, but her father wasn’t a very good businessman and failed even at growing potatoes. With really no encouragement from her family Annie got stuck into writing short stories and when she got married it wasn’t only a couple of years until her husband was able to give up his teaching job and study medicine, something he had always wanted to do but it hadn’t been affordable.

Annie discovered that she was good at public speaking, addressing hordes of women, often they were keen to get a sneak preview of her ongoing serial. This talent for speaking led her to be asked to go to America during World War 1 to tell them how urgently the UK needed food that only they could supply as we only had six weeks’ worth of provisions left. After a difficult start she ended up being invited all over the place and meeting ‘high heid yins’ such as Herbert Hoover. She also met Howard Heinz and I imagine his beans were deployed against the Kaiser.

She felt most at home in Boston of course, but “wished that American history books could be more accurate in their accounts of certain events in which the British were also involved.” Hmm yes I know what she means!

The war woke her up to politics and she stood for the Liberals in the 1922 General Election, but came in last. This didn’t put her off though and she later became a founder member of the Scottish National Party. I wish they had been more careful when choosing a name for it and hadn’t stuck in that word ‘national’.

When she was speaking to one poverty stricken woman she was told “Ah, weel, I dinna understand it a’. We’ll vote for onybody that will mak’ us better.” – and that’s the problem with democracy. People believe all the promises that rarely come to fruition. Nigel Farage said as soon as the poll booths were closed that he regretted things said in his campaign, but they get away with it.

She has quite a bit to say about marriage and specifically her own as she and her husband often held very different views on things and as they both had tempers things were often fraught I think but she thought that that was much better than being a part of one of those couples who agree on everything. I agree with that, in my experience that just means that one person is always suppressing their feelings and being a doormat.

Despite having a full and successful career her happy family life ended when her 15 year old son died in a shooting accident while packing to go back to Rugby School at the end of school holidays. I always have my doubts about those teenage ‘accidents’. It’s obviously something that she and her husband and their daughter never quite got over.

When her husband Dr Burnett-Smith was working up his business (pre NHS obviously) they moved down to England and ended up in London where they moved in literary circles, in this book she does drop a lot of names, but she had lots of friends among other writers such as J.M. Barrie and Thomas Hardy. Scotland always pulled them home though and they built a large house in Kinghorn on the east coast not far from me in Fife. Annie, her husband and their son are apparently buried there so I plan to go there soon to see their graves and track down the house they built – The Anchorage.

I found this to be an interesting read but I’m not sure how easily obtainable it is, my friend Maureen kindly loaned me her copy.

The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor

 The Fire Court cover

The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor was published in 2018 and it’s the second book in his James Marwood series which is set just after the Great Fire of London. The previous book in this series is called The Ashes of London and in that one Marwood’s future seems much brighter as he has been noticed by the king, but his elderly father is a problem and he’s beginning to wander from home and get into trouble.

It’s 1667 and The Fire Court has been set up to settle all disputes between tenants and landlords of property which had been burnt in the Great Fire. In Marwood senior’s latest wander he thinks he has seen his wife Rachel in the distance, forgetting that she is long dead. He chases after her and eventually finds himself in the building where the Fire Court is held. But when he tracks down Rachel in an upstairs room he realises it isn’t his wife at all, but worse than that – the woman is dead – there’s been a murder.

But when he tells his son James about it, James is sceptical to begin with as he knows his father is becoming more and more confused. It isn’t long before James thinks that his father’s tale just might be true and so begins in investigation which leads to danger for him and his young assistant Cat Lovett.

This was another enjoyable read, so atmospheric of London as it must have been post the Great Fire. I see that he has published another one in this series – called The King’s Evil so I hope to get hold of a copy of that one soon.

Reading Andrew Taylor’s Wiki page I was really surprised to see that he had written the Bergerac books which were televised back in the 1980s, although he wrote those under the name of Andrew Saville.

New to me books

A couple of weekends ago we went to a book charity sale in the Scottish Borders and inevitably I came back with quite a few more books for my ever groaning bookcases, in fact within the last three weeks I’ve managed to squeeze four more into the house!

I have to say that there were loads of modern paperbacks for sale but the books that came home with me were the type that most people would dodge. They’re all fairly old and this time they’re mainly for children. In truth a few of them I bought just for the book cover or illustrations – as good a reason as any I think you’ll agree.

Books Again

So I bought:

We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea by Arthur Ransome.

Riders and Raiders by M.E. Atkinson (the author was recommended by a friend.)

The Golden Book of Children’s Verse – this book was published by Blackie and Son, the Glasgow based publisher who was a client of Charles Rennie Mackintosh who designed Blackie’s family home Hill House in Helensburgh, but also designed a lot of the Blackie book covers, including this one.

Granny’s Wonderful Chair by Frances Browne – it’s another Blackie book.

Two Joans at the Abbey by Elsie J. Oxenham. This seems to be an adventure tale which was first published in 1945. Chosen because of the title – well why not!

Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden. I’ve been buying her books when I see them over the years. This is one of her Indian ones.

Mortimer’s Bread Bin by Joan Aiken, illustrated by Quentin Blake.

And lastly

Just What I Like which is another Blackie publication. It’s an annual sized book and has an inscription dated 1932 and I think the illustrations are lovely – so of their time. I suspect I’m turning into a Blackie book collector. Inadvertently of course!

Blackie

I was really surprised to see the evidence in this 1932 book that apostrophes were also misused back then. Bus’s indeed!

Book Illustration

The Looking-Glass War by John le Carre

The Looking Glass War cover

The Looking Glass War by John le Carre was first published in 1965. This is the third le Carre book that I’ve read and it’s the one that I least liked, it seems that I’m not alone in that as le Carre said that “his readers hated me for it”, but he was cheered by the fact that it went down better with American readers. I suspect that this tale is just too near the truth for most Brits to want to accept. The two government military intelligence departments involved are rivals, don’t share information and a lot of mistakes are made.

A Soviet defector claims that the Soviets are positioning missiles at Rostock close to the West German border. That information is treated as suspect and in an attempt to get some clarification an airline pilot is paid to divert his plane over Rostock to get photographs of the area. The intelligence officer sent to pick up the film is killed in a hit and run accident but this is interpreted as being a murder by the Stasi. A lot of the book is about a Polish officer being trained to go into the east to send radio messages back to London. Almost as soon as he gets there things go wrong. It’s not going to end well.

This book was written as a satire but mainly hasn’t been read as such.

It shows that lives were/are cheap but as the reader is involved with the spy and the relationship between him and the man training him then the casual lack of loyalty leaves a bad taste in the mouth. For that reason I found it quite depressing particularly as John le Carre was an MI5 and MI6 agent himself and he said it was an accurate representation of his own experiences. It sounds like ‘botched’ is the operative word.

Not long ago the man at the top of such things nowadays gave a speech at St Andrews University, saying that you didn’t have to be an Oxbridge graduate to be recruited by them. I’d advise anyone to just say NO.

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

The Last September cover

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen was first published in 1929 and it was just her second book and I think it shows, although having said that I must admit that her first book The Hotel seemed far better to me. Her books are very hit and miss, I wasn’t at all keen on The Little Girls, but I did enjoy In the Heat of the Day.

Anyway The Last September was fairly recently made into a film and my copy of the book is the tie in. The film starred Keeley Hawes, Jane Birkin, Michael Gambon, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith and Lambert Wilson.

The setting is Ireland in 1920 at the beginning of ‘The Troubles’. The problem is that it takes great skill not to make reading a book tedious – if you’re writing about really rather boring parties. Danielstown is the local ‘big house’ which is owned by an Anglo Irish family. They’re very gregarious and as the area is full of very young English officers the house has been thrown open to them for tennis parties and dances. There are a lot of upper class single women around, presumably because so many men were killed in World War 1 and there are some pairings off despite parents saying that such pairings can’t happen because the officers are just out of school and have no money or prospects, or come from Surrey which is just the absolute end to the snobbish Anglo Irish.

But the young subalterns are there to do a job, and they have to go out looking for IRA men and searching for guns and it ends in disaster for some of the young people.

There’s an introduction by Victoria Glendinning who says that this is her favourite Bowen book but I felt that it was in dire need of a good editor, just too much meandering chat and thought, but obviously that appeals to other readers. I wasn’t keen on her writing style. I have to say that I went right off Bowen after reading The Love-charm of Bombs in which it’s described how she regularly took herself off to neutral Ireland during World War 2 when she had had enough of the bombing and lack of food in London.

Elizabeth Bowen was herself Anglo Irish – they were Protestants who were transplanted to Catholic Ireland from England for political reasons generations before, and the tragedy for them was that they weren’t truly accepted by either community, but that’s something that they never seemed to realise. Some of the locals would have been employed by those in the ‘big house’ as servants who I’m fairly sure would have despised them as being English and upper class and so they always lived in fear of being attacked and their houses being burnt down by the ‘real Irish’. That didn’t stop Elizabeth Bowen from actually having an affair with an IRA man – delusional I’d say, or she just liked living dangerously. I remember in the 1970s there were some terrible incidents with Anglo Irish people being murdered in their own homes, but presumably if they left their ‘big houses’ then they would never be able to afford the same standard of living in England.

Bonnie Dundee by Rosemary Sutcliff

Bonnie Dundee cover

Bonnie Dundee by Rosemary Sutcliff was first published in 1983 and it’s a Puffin book. Previously I’ve enjoyed quite a few of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books for adults and I found this one to be well written and informative, very early on in the book I learned that a lorimer was a maker of spurs and horse accoutrements. I had just thought of lorimer as being a surname.

Young Hugh Herriott is an orphan and is living in the Highlands with his mother’s family. His mother had more or less been cast off by her family as she had married a travelling artist against their wishes. Hugh’s grandfather had taken him back into the family but Hugh was very much an outsider, just tolerated by the rest of his relatives. It is a turbulent time in Scotland (when isn’t it?) and religious zealots in the shape of Covenanters are being hunted down by government soldiers. A close encounter with some redcoats makes Hugh realise that he’s happier on the side of the redcoats than with his Covenanting family. If you thought that ‘redcoats’ were always English think again, there were plenty of Lowland Scots in that army.

In truth it’s seeing Claverhouse (Viscount Dundee) that pushes Hugh to leave his family and eventually he finds himself as part of Claverhouse’s household which leads him to follow him into battle. Things had come to a head when the Catholic King James succeeded to the throne on his brother Charles’s death. When James’s wife gives birth to a son the Protestants at court are determined to bring William of Orange over from Holland to push James out, William’s wife is a Stewart and of course they are Protestants. Some deluded people are still fighting this religious mess – it’s what has caused all the trouble in Ireland.

So begins the Jacobite cause with James eventually legging it to France after Claverhouse or Bonnie Dundee as he was nicknamed pays the ultimate price. If you want to learn a bit of Scottish history painlessly then this is an ideal read, a bit of an adventure tale woven into historical fact, and very atmospheric.

I’m fairly sure that Sutcliff’s mother must have been Scottish as she’s very good at writing Scots dialect, and her mother’s name was apparently Nessie – another clue I think. Rosemary Sutcliff spent most of her life in a wheelchair which makes her ability to write such great descriptive scenes all the more impressive as her own experiences must have been sadly narrow, especially as she lived at a time when access for disabled people was not great.

This is one of those books that you continue to read, knowing what the outcome must be – but daftly hoping for a better one.

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

 Crooked Heart cover

I borrowed Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans from the library as some blogger pals had enjoyed it so much and I thought that with its World War 2 setting it would be right up my street. To begin with I actually found it quite slow but when I did get into it I really enjoyed it. There are quirky characters and on the surface they seem unlikable but I ended up really appreciating them.

Noel Bostock is an unusual 10 year old, he loves books and speaks like a well-educated adult, which doesn’t endear himself to the other children in the school in St Albans that he has been evacuated to from London. His parents are dead and he’s really alone in the world. He’s billeted with Vera Sedge who is a 36 year old unmarried mother of a brat of a 19 year old son. Her mother is also part of the household, but she hasn’t spoken since Vera announced to her that she was pregnant, the shock was too much for her.

Vera is always short of money and her various nefarious schemes to get out of debt have been unsuccessful – until Noel gets involved. Vera had been lonely as she could never have a conversation with her mother, and her son wasn’t interested in her at all. When Noel begins to actually have conversations with her it’s a pleasant surprise for her, even if he’s often explaining things to her – as if he were the adult. They end up being quite a team.

I’m more used to reading books that were actually written during the war but I think this one captured the atmosphere well, particularly the amount of dodgy dealings that were going on. There used to be a myth going about that criminal activities almost disappeared during the war effort when of course the opposite is true. Often formerly honest people turned to crime. Dishonest people grabbed the new opportunities that opened up for them, and the blackout was a great help to people getting up to things under the cover of darkness.

Amongst the blurb on the back is this: ‘Spirited, quirky characters and a devilish wit… Why is Lissa Evans not one of our best-known and best-loved authors?’ Sunday Express

I’ll certainly be looking out for more books by her.