Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Black Arrow - Robert Louis Stevenson

I have wanted to read The Black Arrow, by Robert Louis Stevenson, since I was a little kid. One of my older brothers must have read the book, or a Classic Comics version, or somehow learned the story and told me the basic outline because I remember playing it in the big maple tree in our front yard. One of my brothers nailed boards to the trunk for stairs and I would spend a lot of my play time up in the tree, pretending I was living with a pack of outlaws in Merry England in the trees and wearing Lincoln Green.

Yes, The Black Arrow is basically a Robin Hood story, set during the War of the Roses, and the hero, Dick Shelton, actually meets Richard III, when he was still Duke of Gloucester, before his brother Edward was crowned Edward IV. The outlaws are led by Ellis Duckworth, a worthy who is robbed of his lands by the evil, grasping Sir Daniel Blakeley--a shoe-in for the Sheriff of Notingham if there ever was one. Maid Marion is Joan Sedley, who Dick first meets when she is disguised as a boy and calls herself Jack--she is brave, witty, lovely, and devoted to Dick. To complete the cast, there is a fat friar, outlaws called Lawless and Greensheave, and all are, of course, first rate archers who shoot, you guessed it, black arrows, which are their calling card.

Not only is The Black Arrow a Robin Hood story, but it's also a Hamlet story. Dick discovers that Sir Daniel, his guardian, is responsible for his father's murder. He feels he must avenge his father but first has to prove that Sir Daniel is guilty. He loses opportunity after opportunity for vengeance with his dithering. Dick also kills one of Sir Daniel's men whom he discovers hiding behind the arras (aka curtain, but RLS insists it is an arras), spying on Joan and Dick during one of their rare trysts.

The story is definitely an adventure, complete with lots of fighting (swords, arrows, daggers), stolen ships and pirates, castles, chases, disguises, and derring-do.

The biggest problem is the language. RLS decided to employ the language of Shakespeare, in both dialogue and narrative, making it more difficult to read than it needed to be. While I can get what he was trying to do, with the Robin Hood/Hamlet/War of the Roses mashup, but it would have been less tedious had the characters spoken like Victorians instead of Shakespearean actors.

The portrait of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is also straight out of Shakespeare's Richard III, showing him as an ambitious, ruthless, cold young man who will let nothing stand in his way. Grrrr.

I didn't read the version with the NC Wyeth illustrations, but I wish I had because they are so marvelous.

This is the final book in my Back to the Classics 2018 challenge, fulfilling the category, title with a color in it. I think this is the earliest in the year that I have ever finished this challenge. A good year for classics for me!

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Travelogue: Port-en-Bessin-Huppain

While visiting Normandy last August, we stayed three nights in the fishing village of Port-en-Bessin-Huppain. As land-locked Coloradans, we seize every opportunity to stay near the ocean when we can, and it was perfect for access to all the Normandy Beach sites as well as Bayeaux.

We found marvelous restaurants along the water's edge, an interesting beach to walk along, and this amazing church. I've visited many churches over the past few years, from the Vatican in Rome to tiny, unheated and unlit St. Oswald's church along Hadrian's Wall, but this one stood out as providing incredible insight into the people who worship in the church from the town.

First and foremost, Port-en-Bessin-Huppain is a fishing village, and has been so from time immemorial.

Here's a peak inside the church so you can see what I mean...

Sunday, October 28, 2018

When Gods Die - RIPXIII #3

October continues to be great fun, reading wise, with another mystery logged for RIPXIII.

Last week I read When Gods Die by C.S. Harris--#2 in her Sebastian St Cyr series. I read the first book a couple of years ago, and enjoyed it. This one was even better.

It is initially set in Brighton, at the Royal Pavilion, which I actually visited in 2000 and found absolutely enchanting in a thoroughly over the top way. The mystery involves a plot to overthrow the Hanoverians on the throne, has a marvelous chase scene through the London sewers, and gives the reader much backstory of the very charming hero, who has a penchant for ruining his beautiful clothes, much to the dismay of his valet.

It's a true Regency romp with mystery and derring-do, lords and ladies, upstairs and downstairs. The mystery itself is quite interesting--a variation on the closed door approach, this time the mystery hinges on when the murder happened and how the body got to where it was found.

I also loved the connection to Wales and the Arthurian legend, with a whole family of witchy women with names likes Morgana, Guinevere, and Isolde.

Speaking of names, I think I just got the author's pun on the hero's name--since I know that St John, as in St John Rivers of Jane Eyre, to be pronounced Sin-Jin. I assume St Cyr to be pronounced Sin-Cere...or sincere. I think that's kind of cute because, despite appearance, Sebastian is sincere.

I'm not sure whether I'll get the fourth book read to reach Peril the First level. It's a set of short stories that aren't really doing it for me, and I've set it aside for other more interesting books.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Sup With the Devil - Abigail Adams rides again

Second book in my R.I.P. XIII reading challenge and last in Barbara Hamilton's excellent Abigail Adams mystery series was Sup With Devil.

The year is 1774, and the nervous patriots of Boston are awaiting the ship from London that will determine the fate of the city and Massachusetts Colony for the crime of dumping crates of tea into Boston Harbor the previous December.

Against this backdrop of tension, Abigail is sucked into life at Harvard College, where her erudite nephew is a scholar, and solves a murder of a student. The story involves pirates, buried treasure, prostitutes, alchemy, and a host of other delightful elements.

I absolutely adore this series, and am so sorry that I don't have another book in the series to read next October. The relationship between Abigail and husband John is simply wonderful, and I enjoy meeting other revolutionary notables such as Paul Revere, John Hancock, and the ever-maddening Sam Adams.

Hamilton gives them believable dialogue and characters, and I appreciate the details she piles on--Abigail having to do her housework (laundry, cooking, child rearing, cleaning, etc.) all while gadding off to Cambridge, Concord, Lexington, and other outlying villages around Boston.

The mystery itself is well-constructed and whodunit neatly hidden for most of the book

A thoroughly enjoyable historical mystery with one of America's leading ladies as the star.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

The House on the Strand

I've been meaning to reread Daphne Du Maurier's The House on the Strand for decades now, and so decided to make it my first book in the R.I.P. challenge this year.

I read it when I was in my teens, in the mid-70's, shortly after it was published in 1969, after reading Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel and being eager for more of DMM. 

It wasn't the first time-travel book I had read, but it helped cement my love of the genre. In the intervening decades, I forgot most of how it works, with a couple of notable exceptions. I remembered that the first-person narrator, Dick Young, took drugs to voyage back to the 14th century, that it took place in Cornwall, and that Dick was invisible to the 14th people he encountered, but his body never actually left the 20th century. Oh yes, and encountering trains while tripping can be dangerous.

This time around, I found it utterly fascinating and my admiration for DMM's skills as storyteller of psychological thrillers knows no bounds. The way time travel works in The House on the Strand is that the drug transports the individual back to the physical location in which they are occupying, but centuries earlier, and then the person returns after the drug's effects fade or they touch a person of the distant past.

This time reading the book I found two aspects intriguing. First, the role of Magnus, Dick's friend from youth, who is a scientist and develops the drug and talks Dick into being his guinea pig. Magnus is definitely a Mephistopheles character who tempts Dick and enables his addiction to visiting the past, not only by providing the drug but also by supporting Dick's growing fascination with the world of the past by digging up the historical records on the various people he encounters, from his alter-ego in the other world, Roger, to the damsel in distress, Isolda, who he comes to love more than his 20th century wife. Magnus/Dick also sort of reminded me of Gatsby/Nick from The Great Gatsby. Dick, like Nick, is enthralled by the aura of the flashier, more confident, bigger than life Magnus/Gatsby, and becomes a pawn in a game he in no way understands.

Second, DMM leaves ambiguous whether Dick actually was able to travel back in time, at least in his head. The doctor who treats him near the end of the novel makes a convincing case that the drug is hallucinogenic and the trips are entirely figments of Dick's mind, with all the Freudian nooks and crannies creating the House on the Strand that Dick loves so much. However, Dick himself believes that time and space are not a continuum, and the drug enables him to inhabit both, one with his body and one with his mind. Because there is no way that Dick could've know the histories of the real people he encounters, DMM leaves that possibility open.

The ending reminded me of the ending of DMM's classic short story, Don't Look Now. The ending really leaves you breathless.

This was a perfect start to R.I.P. for me--chilling, spooky, ghostly, mysterious--everything I like in an October book.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Travelogue: Normandy Beaches

I just finished Stephen Ambrose's magnificent D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, and thought it appropriate that I incorporate it into my post on visiting the Normandy Beaches in August.

After Mont St Michel, we drove across the Cotentin peninsula to the Normandy beaches, where we would spend three nights in the lovely little fishing village of Port-en-Bessein, which will be getting its own post later on, and is between Omaha and Gold beaches.

We stopped enroute at Utah Beach, the westernmost part of the D-Day landings because our tour the next day didn't include it and we wanted to see it. We didn't have time to visit the museum, but instead opted to sit on the beach and eat the sandwiches we picked up in Mont St Michel and enjoy the beauty of the place.

A very striking monument at Utah beach, showing a replica of a Higgins boat.
The next day we did two tours with Bayeux Shuttle -- the morning focused on the British beaches and cemeteries, and the afternoon focused on the American beaches, ending with a visit to the American cemetery. I'm usually not one for tours, but I felt that this would really be the best way to get to the most interesting sites and get good info from an expert. 

The tours were both fantastic--definitely the right choice. In the morning, my husband and I were the only ones on the tour, so we had the very personable and knowledgeable guide all to ourselves. We got to ask loads of questions, and he gave us a first rate intro to D-Day. In the afternoon, the American tour had about a dozen people and so was less personal but still excellent.

We started at Longues Sur Mer and I got my first view of the German pillboxes, or batteries that shelled the beaches on D-Day.  The ground around was cratered by the aerial bombing that the Allies did leading up to D-Day, and it was eerie to walk inside and stand behind the guns.

We also visited the town of Arromanches (Gold Beach), and I was absolutely fascinated by the remains of "Port Winston," which was a Mulberry (or temporary) harbor that the Allies constructed  since there isn't a natural harbor in the immediate area.

Arromanches, Gold Beach - absolutely lovely, would love to return and spend some time here.

WWII remnants- full disclosure, my husband photoshopped the people out of this image. 
We ended our morning with a visit to one of many British cemeteries, which included casualties from Great Britain as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and also German troops. Not a lot, but some. Unlike the American cemetery, the gravestones are not uniform, and family members were able to add a few words (usually scripture or poetry) to the vital information. 

Ryes British War Cemetery
In the afternoon, we visited Pointe du Hoc, a cliff overlooking the beach, and then Omaha Beach. Omaha is a spectacularly beautiful beach, and since we visited on a hot August day, it was crowded with people playing in the surf and sun. Our guide made a point of saying that while sometimes visitors are a bit shocked that people are playing where so many thousands died, it is a fitting tribute to the cause for which they died that the beach can today be enjoyed by everyone.

Memorial at Omaha Beach with people photoshopped out.
We ended the day at the exquisite American cemetery, where we observed the flag ceremony at the end of the day, which was very moving.

During our morning tour, I asked the guide for a book recommendation and his number 1 choice was D-Day by Stephen Ambrose. It was absolutely excellent, with most of the narrative being snippets of interviews the author conducted with veterans of the landing. The stories they told surpass anything that a novelist could create and reading their words was inspiring, chilling, and incredibly moving. Ambrose did an first-rate job of putting the invasion into context--from the massive preparation, including years of training and scouting right up to the last minute--as well as his own analysis of why it succeeded, what the Allies did right and what the Nazis did wrong. 

I was so glad that I was able to visit Normandy before reading the book as the place names and geography and feel of the land and sea helped me better understand the stories that the soldiers told of their experiences.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Cry, the Beloved Country

I've been meaning to read Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton, for years and finally did so. It was a profoundly moving novel about South Africa in the late 1940's.  It was beautifully written, lyrical at times, and was a story of unconditional love for a place despite its manifold faults and injustices. It is a story of European imperialism. It is a tragedy. It defines irony. It breaks your heart while giving you faith in human kindness that transcends race and culture, language and religion.

Cry, the Beloved Country is the story of Stephen Kumalo, a Zulu pastor who journeys from his remote village to Johannesburg to find his wayward sister and lost son. There he ultimately finds both, but also finds that he cannot save either. He cannot save his son from the consequences of his actions, and he cannot save his sister from being herself and being herself means she has no place in his family.

I admired how Paton was able to set up so many parallel stories--the two fathers who lose their sons but find new families as they deal with their grief and loss, the brothers who react so differently to the sins of their sons, the two little boys who desperately want to bridge the gulf between the imperial masters and the exploited natives.

It is a powerful and important book not only in that it gives voice to the abject reality of South Africa in the 20th century, but it is a masterpiece of literature.

So glad I decided to read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge, fulfilling the category of Author New to Me. One more book left to read in the challenge for 2018!

Sunday, September 16, 2018

R.I.P. XII Challenge - Looking forward to October

I had so much fun reading mysteries last October, I decided to do the same for this year's R.I.P. (Readers Imbibing Peril) Challenge. I'm also throwing in a collection of ghost stories for good measure, and I may do a Daphne du Maurier reread as well.

I'm going for Peril the First, which means 4 books. I have a good selection from which to choose:

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, by M.R. Jones - Jones was a scholar and folklorist and this collection was first published in 1904. Here's the wikipedia link on this collection--very excited to read this.

The Man He Never Was, by James L. Rubart - a modern retelling of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I won this in a book giveaway and I think R.I.P is a perfect time to read it.

Sup With the Devil, by Barbara Hamilton - book 3 and the final one in this absolutely wonderful historical mystery series with Abigail Adams as the sleuth. I read book 2 last October and vowed to read book 3 this year.

The Cater Street Hangman, by Anne Perry - looking forward to book 1 in this series featuring Thomas and Charlotte Pitt. Comes highly recommended by many fellow bloggers.

The House on the Strand, by Daphne du Maurier - I read this when I was in junior high back in the Dark Ages, and as a lover of the time travel genre, I am eager to reread this. I remember a few parts vividly, and DDM is always a treat to read.

A Monstrous Regiment of Women, by Laurie R. King - book 2 in the Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell series. I enjoyed book 1 last October, and decided to read book 2 this year.

When Gods Die, by C.S. Harris - book 2 in the Sebastian St. Cyr mystery series. I read book 1 a few years ago, thought it good and promising, but haven't carved out the time to read book 2...yet!

But first, I need to complete the books I'm currently reading:

Drums of Autumn (book 4 in the Outlander series), although that may go on hiatus until November if I don't get it done in September. I wanted to get a good start on it before season 4 of the TV series started up in November so I would have the details fresh in mind so I could quibble over what they did and didn't include or do properly! :)

D-Day by Stephen Ambrose - I love this book so much. Detailed, well-written, engaging, moving.

Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton - heartbreaking and sobering

At Home, a Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson - I'm listening to BB read his own words, which is my favorite way to experience his books. This is a reread, and an absolute treat.

Happy Reading!

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Two big summer books: The Essex Serpent and World Without End

I participated again this year in the Big Book Summer Challenge, hosted by Sue at Book by Book.

Not only did I finish three marvelous big books as part of the challenge, but I also won the prize, a gift card at Amazon! Talk about the icing on the cake--and yes, I've already spent it on two books that I plan to read this fall: The Black Arrow, by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, by M.R. James. Thanks, Sue!

So my three big books were Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens, The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry, and World Without End, by Ken Follett.

The Essex Serpent almost didn't make the cut to qualify as a big book, clocking in at 418 pages, but it did so I counted it. I picked up this book a year ago in the Manchester airport, waiting for my flight home after walking the Hadrian's Wall Path. I had heard about it and loved the cover and felt the premise had promise, and had a few extra pounds I needed to spend. So glad I picked it up as I really enjoyed it.

Here's part of the Amazon blurb:

When Cora Seaborne’s brilliant, domineering husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one. Wed at nineteen, this woman of exceptional intelligence and curiosity was ill-suited for the role of society wife. Seeking refuge in fresh air and open space in the wake of the funeral, Cora leaves London for a visit to coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year old son, Francis, and the boy’s nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend.
 While admiring the sites, Cora learns of an intriguing rumor that has arisen further up the estuary, of a fearsome creature said to roam the marshes claiming human lives. After nearly 300 years, the mythical Essex Serpent is said to have returned, taking the life of a young man on New Year’s Eve. A keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, Cora is immediately enthralled, and certain that what the local people think is a magical sea beast may be a previously undiscovered species. Eager to investigate, she is introduced to local vicar William Ransome. Will, too, is suspicious of the rumors. But unlike Cora, this man of faith is convinced the rumors are caused by moral panic, a flight from true belief.
 These seeming opposites who agree on nothing soon find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart—an intense relationship that will change both of their lives in ways entirely unexpected.
I loved so much about this novel--the weaving of science and folklore, the psychology of fear (not unlike the hysteria of Salem), and the interesting mix of characters. I particularly liked Stella Ransome, the wife of vicar William Ransome, and her yearning for blue things as she copes with the disease that is consuming her vitality. Once again, this book left me wanting to read about Charles Darwin--maybe next year!

World Without End by Ken Follett is the second in his Kingsbridge trilogy. I loved Pillars of the Earth, and World Without End picks up the story of Kingsbridge and its inhabitants 200 years later in the early 14th century, during the time of Edward III.

Whereas Pillars of the Earth focuses almost exclusively on the building of the cathedral, with some tangents into areas such as town building and the wool trade, World Without End has a variety of topics that are interrelated but fascinating in their own right. To name a few: the plague or Black Death, how the clergy and townspeople and villagers survived, and how it affected them (namely, more opportunities for people to rise socially, rid themselves of the yoke of serfdom, earn more and become more mobile); the interconnections of  European economy (i.e., the wool trade in England versus Florence); the beginning of the 100 Years War between France and England and how the tactics of the French were slow to adapt to developing warfare technology; and the always fascinating role of women and use of accusation of witchcraft as means of keeping smart women home and quiet.

All of that, plus a wonderful cast of characters and a tightly constructed plot that had political intrigue and that connected the main characters to each other throughout the long novel made for a wonderfully enjoyable historical romp in fictional Kingsbridge.

I will definitely finish the trilogy next year with Column of Fire, which takes place during Tudor times.

I've always really enjoyed Edward Rutherford's historical novels that track a few families in a specific location over the centuries. The criticism I and others have about these novels is that the stories of the individuals are really just short stories--you don't have time to really get to know and love them. Not so with this trilogy--you still get the family stories that span generations over the centuries, but at ~1000 pages each, you have ample time to get to know and love or loathe the characters.

Final note about World Without End--at times I did feel like Follett was recycling parts of Pillars of the Earth. For example, the main characters line up pretty well:
Pillars of Earth     World Without End     Trait
Lady Eliana           Caris Wooler               Strong, smart female with an incredible business saavy
Jack Builder          Merthin Fitzgerald      Wiry, smart male with an intuitive engineering sense
William Hamley    Ralph Fitzgerald         Thug of Shiring--given to rape, murder, vengeance, pride
Waleran Bigod      Godwyn/Philemon       Corrupted priest/prior/bishop - unscrupulous, thief

All that said, the story of Gwenda, Wilfric, and Annett was fresh and I was honestly and refreshingly surprised by how their story worked out at the end. Gwenda really was a great character and one of my favorites.

I'm not sure if I will watch the mini-series or not--I like faithful adaptations of books, and I've heard this one is not faithful. For one thing, it looks like they completely eliminated Philemon as a character.

Monday, September 03, 2018

Travelogue: Saint Malo and Mont Saint Michel

I knew from the minute we started planning our trip to France that I wanted to make sure we went to Mont Saint Michel. It wasn't until I started looking for books to read about France that I remembered how much I loved All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer and looked on the map to see where Saint Malo was. I was overjoyed to discover its proximity to MSM and immediately put it on the itinerary.

From Paris, we took the train to Rennes and then rented a car and drove to Saint Malo where we had lunch, walked on the ramparts and down on the beach, wandered through the rebuilt ancient walled town, watched a game of petang, and found #4 Rue Vauborel, where fictional Marie-Laure lived with Uncle Etienne in All the Light We Cannot See.
Looking up at Saint Malo from the beach at low tide.

Outside the city gate, where the men play petang.
Beautiful beach fringed with rocky islands.

The white door is #4 Rue Vauborel.

From Saint Malo, we drove to Mont Saint Michel, where we spent the night in a hotel right next to the boardwalk that takes you to the island by foot. You can also catch a shuttle--jam packed--but we preferred to walk and take pictures.

We went after dinner, and enjoyed the twilight on the abbey. It really is a storybook place. We didn't spend much time on the rock itself--too many people and it was getting dark, but I loved seeing this beautiful place so much.

We walked back the next morning, to get some pictures in the daylight and gather sand for our sand collection--yes, we have spice jars filled with sand from beaches we have visited over the past 35 years. It's a nice way to remember some of our vacations and is just one of the things we always try to remember to do when we visit a beach.