Rebecca Mascull – The Wild Air

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Hat Trick In Three

With her third novel, the Edwardian set The Wild Air, Rebecca Mascull has done what she did in her two earlier novels – found a way to hook the reader’s heart to that of her central character, so that the reader absolutely cares about their journey, roots for them and, in this case, I was left feeling quite violent towards the prejudice and spite encountered by our quiet, shy, plain protagonist: one with the courage of a lion, hidden beneath the exterior of a mouse.

It is the first decade of the twentieth century. Cordelia (Della) Dobbs is the third daughter of a bitter, retired, theatrical star. Her charismatic father was seriously injured in an automobile accident, and his stage days are over. Della’s older sisters are beauties, one has gone on to success in the theatre, the other has made a good marriage. Her younger brother is favoured and golden. Della is the family mouse within a vibrantly extrovert, flamboyant set. A bit of a disappointment she does not have the pulchritude, the talent, the artistic creativity, the obvious personality, wit or intelligence to shine out in this family where everyone possesses at least one of these gifts.

Della likes quietness. In a family of extroverts where everyone is glittering and shining all together, there is no point in trying to outshine, or be loud enough or flamboyant enough to command attention. Della stays quiet, helpful, useful. But she does have her own talent – practical, kinaesthetic, a listening gift and passion for mechanics : how things work. Unfortunately, the time is not yet ready for female engineers. And, there is something else. Della is fortunate to come under the protective wing of her great-aunt Betty, newly returned from the States to her North East origins. Betty, a plain-speaking, adventurous woman with a similarly ungraceful, unfeminine appearance, had set out, aged 40, with her younger brother, an engineer, to the New World. Betty had married a practical man, and lived happy with him until his death brought her homewards. And Betty was fascinated by the new challenge and daring of flying. She had seen the Wright Brothers. Betty, with her strength, earthiness and willingness to ignore the constructs of graceful, eye-fluttering femininity, instead, to find her own ways towards being a strong person, a strong female person, becomes a mentor and encourager, helping Della to find her own ‘star’. Della is in love with the idea of flying. And female aviatrixes, though rare, are there to be aspirational role models

Hélène Dutrieu, aviatrix, 1911

I have to admit that my surrender to Della was not as ‘upon the instant’ as it had been to her earlier ‘sisters’. Feisty Adeliza Golding, from Mascull’s first book, The Visitors, and the wonderfully intelligent scientist, Dawnay Price, from The Song Of The Sea Maid, eccentric, flamboyant personalities both, had snaffled my interest in their stories from the off.

So, courageous for Mascull to explore this far quieter girl and woman, this introvert. Della proves, though, to be ‘still waters run deep’ She is the person in the corner of the room you don’t notice at a party, the mousy one, until by chance you discover this overlooked one has a wealth of story to tell, and a life of more strangeness and fascination than you could dream of.

One of the many facets of Mascull’s writing, which I admire hugely, is her heart and her kindness. There is tenderness here, a kind of respect for the integrity of her invented characters. She is not someone who seems to force her characters into some structure and shape. More, a sense of the author’s creation revealing themselves. Della, true to her quieter nature, takes time also to reveal herself to the reader – but she is absolutely authentic, both in her quietness and reticence, and in where she soars (literally!) when she discovers where her true North lies.

Lanoe Hawker’s (First World War flying ace) No 1611 Bristol Scout 

I read, a year or so ago, a fictionalised biography of another aviatrix, Beryl Markham. What disturbed me about that book, was that the author had to some extent played fast and loose with the facts of Markham’s life, for her ‘faction’. Something which leaves me with a kind of distaste. It is, I think, another mark of Mascull’s integrity that though she might take specific achievements and stories from the history of real people as a starting point or inspiration for her fictions, she does not mangle the authenticity of real lives for her fiction. Della is not Amelia Earhart, Amy Johnson or any other ‘real’ aviatrix, bent into Mascull’s story. Della is Mascull’s genesis, but she grows into her own shape. Something magical happens when an author so clearly ‘listens’ to the arisingness of their creation.

If you want your heroes to be full of ‘flashing eyes, floating hair’ and mesmerise you with their magnetic charisma, Della may not do, but my advice would be, stay patient and wait for her to find herself, to reveal who she is, as she discovers that for herself.

Now, I will not deny that there were some aspects that I struggled with. The book has a prologue, dated 1918, but the sequential story begins in 1909, with Della in her mid-teens so, clearly the First War is going to be a major factor. I will not reveal spoilers of course, but there are sequences of some letters, written by a couple of major characters in the book, which had my disbelief unsuspended, and thinking ‘surely………..this could not have got past the censors’ Mascull is, however, meticulous in research and, for the benefit of the interested reader tells us what is true, and where she might have stretched truth into invention. I was quite startled to discover that whilst of course censors would always do their work on anything which might reveal position, military details etc, there were letters which did get home where soldiers did reveal their fear, grief, and despair to loved ones. Although most letters were much more ‘chipper’ than the writers felt, in order to avoid alarming their loved ones, some were far more honest, and escaped censoring.

The beautiful, elegant, Blackburn Monoplane

My other challenge is that The Wild Air is much more ‘Romantic Historical’ than Mascull’s first two books, and romance is more central to the trajectory of the story. One of the genre shelves I never visit in my local library is ‘Romance’ though of course relationships, including romantic relationships, tend to be a crucial part of many if not most of the books I love. There is a very pure, whole relationship which is a central one. Perhaps it is a mark of a certain cynicism in me that felt a little like ‘Mills and Boon’ about that, and I am more comfortable reading relationships which have a dysfunctionality. I needed to lay that cynicism aside, Mascull, as said earlier, is an honest writer, and allows her characters their honesty too. I had been more comfortable with the more intellectual, greater thinking complexity of Adeliza and Dawnay, which inevitably gave a certain – tangle – to their relationships. The central driving relationship in this book is where there is a great expressed emotional honesty happening, and perhaps this leads to a clearer trajectory and clearer mutuality. The conflicts here are conflicts caused externally, not internal conflicts. And, I guess war itself creates a kind of ‘cut to the chase’ intensity.

Mascull is a wonderful crafter of language itself. Now, curiously, I found myself underlining less ‘soaring prose’ in this book than I had in her other two. And, reflecting on this, I think this was also the expression of an authenticity in her writing – Adeliza and Dawnay were both highly expressive characters of brilliance, wit, flamboyance, so of course they are going to express themselves in stunning fashion. Della, as noted is a quiet person. She speaks far more plainly, less elliptically, less in metaphor. So, of course, even though Mascull is ‘third person’ narration, the think through will be through that quieter, more plainly speaking persona :

Della talked aloud to herself. She did that when it was marvellous and she revelled in the complete wonder of flying, the secret joy of it. Or when it was bad. When the mist came down or the wind got up something terrible and she was fighting the weather in order to come back alive

Adeliza and Dawnay would, I’m sure have expressed the above in fizzing expression, I would have been underlining passages of beauty all through. Della does not have that voice. Again, I come back to thinking about Mascull, who, here, does not astound the reader with her own beautiful, poetic, expressive voice – because it would not be Della’s.

Authenticity.

So, having thought through what I mainly loved, and what (and why) I struggled with, I can only raise my 4 ½ stars to 5. Mascull has done it again.

I had one slightly strange thought, an elemental one, as I read this : Mascull’s first creation, Adeliza, found her passion in earth – deaf-blind, it is initially through engagement with what grows – and through ether, the spirit, intangible world. Dawnay connects through water, for Della, that earthed, practical soul, the growth and destiny is airborne. What next……..I do hope not an arsonist!

I was extremely happy to receive an arc, via the publishers, Hodder and Stoughton, shortly before Christmas. A fantastic start to my 2017 reading year

However………as the book will be published on May 4th, I have held back publication of my review till towards the end of April. In fact, this week marks a blog tour of Rebecca Mascull’s book, and I am eagerly looking forward to other bloggers’ impressions. Mascull’s writing always presents possibilities for interested and passionate reader engagement.

I shall be searching out other reviews and they should appear as clickable links in the ‘Catching My Beady Eye’ widget, on the right hand margin

The Wild Air Amazon UK
The Wild Air Amazon USA

(Alas, I have discovered that ‘other’blogging platforms’ don’t easily transfer over to the Post I Like Widget, so you will have to find your way to other reviews yourselves, from the addresses given above!)

John Marzillier – To Hell and Back

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A wise, thoughtful, compassionate and skillful book about PTSD revealed through the words of those who have experienced this.

It’s funny how synchronicity works. Because I read Noel Hawley’s highly recommended Before The Fall, which I highly recommend, and which features a small boy who suffers a profound traumatic event, and clearly would be diagnosed with PTSD, and because I have a professional interest in the subject, I was reminded that John Marzillier, a British clinical psychologist and later, psychotherapist had written a book on the subject.

I had been moved and beautifully taught much in another book by him, The Gossamer Thread, where he explored his wide journey of development as a practitioner, and the deep exploration, refining, and ambiguity in human relationships that happen throughout all our lives, within and without any kind of formal therapeutic setting, simply because human beings are complex, and so each and every encounter between self and other is fraught with – an endless possibility.

Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry: Promoting the charity Heads Together to open up discussion of mental health issues

So, I started to read the in some ways, more geared towards the practitioner, slightly more left brain, slightly less poetical/metaphorical To Hell and Back: Personal Experiences of Trauma and How We Recover and Move on. And during my reading and reflecting period, mental health, particularly linked to the experience of dealing with psychological trauma, suddenly became positive news, due to Prince Harry, and also Prince William, speaking openly about the deep, hidden effects caused by their mother’s death. Public figures speaking out in such a way, honestly, – particularly public figures who are, not being rude, part of the Establishment rather than famous for flashier, sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll lifestyles, not to mention ‘reality TV’ famous only for being famous ‘stars’, will be listened to more seriously.

Expression of emotion is more common, and I would say, generally a good thing, with the exception of the artificial stimulation of emotion in reality TV shows!

But, he also cautions against those who assume it always IS the right approach to bare the suffering soul:

Is avoiding talking about feelings always wrong? I do not think that one can or should make such a categorical statement. So much depends on the context and the person, not to mention their relationships with family and close friends and on timing

Focusing on a wide range of traumatic single events – Marzillier in this book is exploring the kind of ‘out of a moderately clear blue sky’ unexpected and traumatic event, rather than, say the trauma of repeated brutal events from early childhood – the author looks both at the unpredictable horrors caused by acts of deliberate chosen malevolence, and the impersonal ‘being in the wrong place at the wrong time’ of major accidents like train crashes due to mechanical failures. Marzillier was, for many years, employed by Thames Valley Police, working with those who have to deal with traumatic events, which arise out of the nature of their work – police, firefighters, army personnel, ambulance personnel. The professionals have to maintain a distance from their own natural ‘alert! Danger! I am under threat! autonomic nervous system response of flight, fight, freeze or dissociation which is our physiological survival response. The fact that they are trained to do this, and have techniques to use, cannot ever completely over-ride that ancient animal response, and this kind of ‘trauma is my 9-5, day in-day out worker’ may well find health problems which arise out of the continual overriding of the normal response to danger – get out of here!

How people feel and behave once they are out of danger and the traumatic event is over is a product of the intensity of the experience itself, the nature of the person and the context – that is, what their life is after the event

As in his previous book, what most blazes out, necessarily and importantly, is Marzillier’s artistry, his compassion, his flexibility and his open-ness to meet each individual he interviews for this book, making space for a joint exploration of their stories. Time and again he cautions against the single fix-it approach to PTSD – and, indeed, to the single, fashionable diagnosis of the condition. There may be other mental and emotional health issues experienced by someone who has been in a ‘traumatic’ situation, and other approaches, other diagnoses may need to be made. Don’t jump to a PTSD conclusion, he cautions.

It is a mistake to sweep all post-trauma psychological reactions into one simple category, or to assume that if someone shows PTSD symptoms then nothing needs to be done but treat the person’s PTSD

At the heart of this book, is the often stated central idea that whatever ‘the diagnosis’ says, that it is a unique individual with all their individual personality, history, belief systems and social networks who is receiving the diagnosis, and there CAN be no ‘one way’ of treatment. As in Gossamer Thread, Marzillier stresses it is the relationship between practitioner/clinician and patient/client which actually matters MORE than any ‘specific’ method. Sure, the practitioner must have relevant skills which can work in this field, and preferably, the flexibility and skill to acknowledge that ‘their’ skillset may not be the right one for THIS client at this point. Marzillier even acknowledges that treatment approaches which lie outside his particular belief system and training, DO work for some people, – with the right practitioner. He is extremely open-minded, whilst being at the same time, a scientist by training.

This book has a lot, highly relevant, to say to both the clinical psychologist and the ‘energy worker’ working in this field.

It is a marvellous book, serious, analytical, warm, open minded and hearted – and, always important, beautifully written, and authentic – he has allowed the individual voices of the many people he interviewed in this book – those who had experienced events, and been diagnosed with PTSD – to recount their stories, and the different treatments and outcomes. These are not, in the main, ‘his clients or former clients’ . They are people who chose to respond to a general request made ‘public’ when he was planning on writing a book on this subject.

To Hell and Back Amazon UK
To Hell and Back Amazon USA

Aside

Announcing a blog tour – Rebecca Mascull – The Wild Air

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Rebecca Mascull, an author I much admire, has her third novel out early next month. And, to whet your appetites, there will be a blog tour (me too!)

I shall be eagerly reading other reviews, interviews and so on, and will certainly be featuring them on my Posts I Like widget, but these are the blogs and these are the dates:

Rebecca writes literary historical novels with strong female characters. This one is about an aviatrix, and set prior to, and encompassing, the First World War. She always researches meticulously, so just when you might think ‘surely THIS couldn’t have happened at that time, you will find yourself surprised and educated.  The Wild Air has a much more introverted, central character than the ones from her first two novels, but she is as interesting, layered, unique and entrancing as ‘The Visitors’ Adeliza Golding and Song of the Sea Maid’s Dawnay Price.

Noah Hawley – Before the Fall

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A rich, nuggetty slice of thoughtful thrillery : sensation seeking society in the dock

Noah Hawley does far more than craft a page-turning thriller. He is a writer who makes the reader think about the ethics of the society we live in, how it might be, to inhabit the lives of his creations, and, what choices WE might make, in helping to create the ethics of our world.

I first found him with the troubling The Good Father, a novel written from the perspective of a loving father whose son carries out an assassination on a respected presidential hopeful.

So, when offered Before The Fall, as a digital ARC, I was interested BECAUSE the author was Hawley, and thought the novel itself would be rather more interesting than the blurb suggested . Any book with any kind of sensationalist story, might be written purely as a ratchet tension, or, might ratchet, and have more about it. And, of course, Hawley being Hawley, it does.

The CEO of a populist news channel, who promotes, rather, edgy conspiracy driven, whip up feelings programmes, which are not necessarily blazing with the light of truth, is travelling back from Martha’s Vineyard to New York, with his family, in a commissioned private plane. He is the kind of man who warrants 24 hour private protection. Also on the plane is another member of the superpowerful, superwealthy, from the financial makers and shakers of society, wheeling and dealing, skating close to the edges of the law, and not always holding the moral line. In fact, possibly off centre a lot. On board also, is someone quite different. An artist, possibly a good one, a man with a bit of a bad boy personal past, someone who appeared to show more promise than he ever realised, but, now, on the verge of having found his vision again.

Inexplicably 18 minutes into the flight, the plane plunges off radar and crashes into the ocean. Even more seemingly improbably, two survive; Scott Burroughs, the artist, and the CEO’s youngest child, 4 year old JJ. That survival is almost impossible to credit or imagine, and happens because Burroughs, influenced when a small child by the media star figure of Jack LaLanne, had taken to ‘you can do anything if you really put the work in’ challenging swimming. With busted shoulder, in fog, wreckage and darkness, he takes the heroic path, hearing the child crying out somewhere near him in the ocean and gets the two of them to shore, several miles away.

Jack LaLanne – a role model from simpler times

The high profiles, power and wealth of David Bateman, the TV man, and Ben Kipling, finance supremo, suggest that the crash may have been more than ordinary mechanical failure. So contrasting investigative teams are drawn in. One, searching purely for evidence about aircraft and its safety, the other, part of an investigation into motive, and lawbreaking, not to mention, terrorism.

In these days, conspiracy theories are always of far more interest than rational explanations. Scandal, we all know, sells. So there are also far scummier motivations at work. Bateman’s populist channel has a rabble-rousing, fake-news peddling, soaring ratings presenter, Bill Milligan. So…….whilst some news outlets present more sober, as factual-as-the-can-be-till-we-know-more accounts of what happened, and are pretty sure that Scott Burroughs is a good, old-fashioned hero, others have more of an ear out for the whisper of conspiracy.

Burroughs is by nature a private man, and unwilling anyway to become the fodder of a feeding frenzy of ‘how did it feel?’ ‘how did manage to do that?’ interest, however benevolently curious. This, in part, feeds Milligan’s natural tendency to hone in on any jugular going – invented or not  – blood-letting, sleaze, slime gets massive ratings. Some journalists exploit our seamier desires.

Stylistically, Hawley gives us the inside stories, the in the head viewpoints, of all who were on the aircraft, passengers and crew, all involved in the investigation, and others drawn into the fallout of tragedy.

This is thriller – why did this happen, is there a hidden agenda beyond the obvious – which is wonderfully page-turning, but, all through, it also makes the reader think. How responsible are we, when we consume sleaze stories, for the continuation of sleaze? There are other topics thrown in for good measure, often little more than asides, Hawley casts pearls, and we must hope we are not swine! A classy, thought provoking thriller.

Before the Fall Amazon UK
Before the Fall Amazon USA

Mandy Aftel – Fragrant – The Secret Life of Scent

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Synaesthetic descriptions of perfumed delight

I am filled with admiration for Mandy Aftel’s writing about perfumery. Although a beautiful book to handle and read in ‘real’ form, with its thicker than normal, creamy coloured paper, beautiful, often archaic line drawings, and shiny, alluring woodcut/embossed type red cover, this is not a coffee table book. Rather, I would say Aftel is inviting you into imaginative, creative journeys of your own, those line drawings rather stirring the senses, connecting the reader to an old, but living history, in a way which artfully arranged, sumptuous colour photos of perfume bottles and ingredients could never do.

Aftel shows herself to have style and she shows herself to have substance.

Originally, Mandy Aftel, a highly respected American Artisan perfumer, was a psychotherapist, and what really appeals to me in her fascinating books is the reverse of the pile em high, whack em out ephemeral approach to instaperfume fashion. What insinuates from her books is relationship, a kind of development and connection which comes from the fact that she works with natural materials.

Fragrant, divided into 6 chapters, 5 of which place a particular plant and the fragrant material it produces, centre stage is an invitation to journey in time and in space with the material itself, and those who have tended it, prized it, grown it, harvested it, worked with it, transported it, thought about it and worn it.

There is something very special about a perfume from natural ingredients only. Firstly, it can never be standardised, and for some of us, that is a major part of its allure. The plant an essential oil or absolute may have been extracted from will have been a living, responsive entity. A batch of essential oil bought from this supplier, this year, from this place, will be somewhat different from the batch bought from the same supplier, from the same grower, last year, as the plant will be producing subtly varying chemistry, in response to this year’s changed growing conditions.

We might expect sumptious perfumes to have some of this

Aftel’s book invites reflection. Her major star playing aromatics, each of which indicates different facets about our relationship with aromatics, are Cinnamon (the once, highly exotic, call to adventure and the spice trade) Mint (home, the familiar, the cottage garden, the everyday – home) Frankincense, (the search to transcend, to interconnect, to find spirit) Ambergris (the frankly weird, a vomited up exudate from sperm whales, acted on by wind, water wave, sun to, if the finder is lucky, turn to monetary gold) and finally, Jasmine (the gorgeous, the provocative, the sensuous delight) Around these star players are others, and, also instructions to encourage the fragrantly curious to experiment, to source, to make your own.

£7000 worth of beachcombed dried whale vomit is a bit more surprising!

A bibliography invites further fragrant journeys, too

I also recommend her Essence and Alchemy which I reviewed last year

Oh lucky Statesiders, Aftel runs courses. She also will design you a bespoke perfume, but it must be done face to face – she leads you snuffling through her treasure chest of aromatics. She does also retail her existing perfume range, at reasonable prices (unlike the bespokes, which of course are a unique creation for a single user) Alas, I would have loved to purchase small samples of her existing perfumes, but shipping costs to the UK are savage. Not to mention our Brexited weak and wibbly pound

Go explore her website

Fragrant Amazon UK
Fragrant Amazon USA

Josephine Tey – The Daughter of Time

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Making the past sing a relevant song

It has been a real delight to read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time again, as part of Kaggsy’s bookish rambling’s ‘1951 club’ I came across this first in my teens and it was one of those books which stayed with me, as one of my favourite books in the genre ‘Crime Fiction’ Probably because it wasn’t about fictional crime at all (but more, later) – I had a kind of squeam about loving descriptions of bludgeonings and hackings – but was about a historical mystery – so it might be, (it is!) educational as well as entertaining

Tey, a jolly good writer of mysteries and detection, fascinated by psychology, and not dwelling overmuch in bloody gore, uses the crime fiction genre to deconstruct a historical villain – or, at least, one who has come down to us as villain – Richard III. The one who had the innocent lamb sons of his brother, Edward IV, brutally done to death in the Tower. The vile and hunchbacked monster so memorably portrayed by Laurence Olivier in Shakespeare’s play of the same name:

Now is the win-ter of our dis-con-tent
Made glorious sum-mer by this son of York

There continues a soliloquy full of great self-loathing, bitterness and grimness, giving the psychology in a nutshell which will let the audience know the man is a monster and will be prepared for the most heinous of misdeeds

………………………………………………..I
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on my own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determin-ed to prove a villain.

Earliest surviving portrait, circa 1520, copy of a previous

Shakespeare, of course, our wonderful Shakespeare, was living in Tudor times, Specifically, Elizabethan. Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII, bluff King Hal, wife murderer, son of Henry VIIth, first Tudor, the one who had killed the vile Richard in 1485 ‘ ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse……..’ at the battle of Bosworth. Henry VII, saviour we are told, ended the ruination of The Wars of The Roses, uniting the Yorkists (of whose number Richard was) and the Lancastrians (of whom Henry was a distant claimant to be king) by marrying the lambkin princes’ sister Elizabeth. Hurrah, rescuing us all from the wicked Uncle Richard, who had murdered his nephews.

Except – Shakespeare takes his history from Holinshed, who takes his history from the sainted Sir Thomas More. Who lived through these times…….except, he was 5 when Richard came to the throne, and 8 when he died. Thomas More was a Tudor made man. And history, as we know, is written by the victors.

Interestingly the Shakespeare ‘I am a nasty piece of work’ opening soliloquy suggests prematurity

                                               sent before my time Into this breathing world

yet the equal and opposite ‘man was a monster’ myth was that his mother, Cecily Neville has been pregnant with him for 2 years and he was born with a full head of black hair and a mouth full of teeth!

Re-reading this marvellously entertainingly presented history lesson this time, forcefully struck me by its topicality. Tey does not just look at the creation of ‘false news’ in Richard’s time – or, to be more honest, in Henry’s time, but scattered through these pages is evidence of a lot more ‘false news’ some of it twentieth century, and always produced for political/power capital

She uses a great device here – her detective, Inspector Alan Grant, of Scotland Yard, is laid up in bed, flat on his back – for weeks – in hospital, following a severely broken leg, falling through a trap-door, chasing a villain.

This inevitably made me laugh a little wryly. This book was published in 1951. The NHS would have been very young. And perhaps Inspector Grant was quite unusual and maybe of some means. Laid up for weeks in hospital? In a private room? How times have probably changed. I doubt most Inspectors or most anyone would either find private insurance schemes keeping them in bed in a single room for some weeks. Okay, medicine has also moved on and perhaps a badly broken leg is otherwise more speedily mended

Alan Grant does, however, move amongst the cultured great and good, as a good friend is a celebrity West End actress, much admired, who visits him in hospital. Seeking to relieve his grumpy boredom, and knowing his interest in faces, she picks up a job lot of historical portrait photos from another good chum who works fairly high-up at the V + A. One of the portraits is of Richard, and Grant becomes fascinated by the mismatch between the historical monster and his face (mind you, the best known portrait was also painted around 100 years after his death!)

Tey slides in the historical information as Grant investigates (with a tame American researcher who looks like a woolly lamb) in a very easy to assimilate fashion, by the introduction of memorable well drawn secondary characters, including the hospital staff, with whom Grant can be ‘undry’

And the reader (well this one) becomes as eager to unravel a historical mystery as Grant.

Of course, it turns out that the theory Tey is proposing is not (and was not) a new one, at the time of her writing, but she probably did a lot to begin to rescue Richard’s reputation, because she was a popular crime fiction writer.

There have been, since, other historical writers – Alison Weir for one, – who challenge the conclusions Tey makes, many of which came from a 1906 book by Clements Markham.

I wonder how many people became fascinated by history, due to an early exposure to Tey’s book.

The writer herself was born Elizabeth Mackintosh and died in 1952 She had two pen names, Josephine Tey, as here, and as the playwright Gordon Daviot

This book has achieved enduring popularity, voted number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list compiled by the British Crime Writers’ Association, in 1990, and, in a 1995 American Poll of The Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time list compiled by the Mystery Writers of America it held the 4th position

The recent discovery of the skeleton buried under a Leicester car park, identified as Richard’s from mitochondrial DNA analysis comparison with a sample analysed from that of a known descendant ,  shows that Richard was not a hunchback (probable Tudor paint-the-monster invention). He did have scoliosis, a fairly common twisting of the spine away from a perfect perpendicular, but this would not (given the degree of it) been visible from observation of the clothed person

I can see how this book would particularly appeal to late teens and twenties readers, who often have a strong sense of the wrongs of injustice, as the whole search for ‘the truth’ by Grant, and his woolly lamb American researcher Brent Carradine, is ‘un-dry’ precisely because of the passionate intensity to right a wrong.

The Daughter of Time Amazon UK
The Daughter of Time Amazon USA

Elizabeth Kostova – The Shadow Land

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Putting away childish tales of dark mythology: Twentieth Century History has darker shadows

the-shadow-landOnce I had let go of my expectations and the still resonant allure of Kostova’s first novel, The Historian, I surrendered totally to a tale far darker, and far more needing-to-be-told, a warning note echoing beyond the pages of fiction

I started this, given the setting, and the publisher blurb : “From the #1 bestselling author of The Historian comes an engrossing novel that spans the past and the present and unearths the dark secrets of Bulgaria, a beautiful and haunted country” with an erroneous assumption that those ‘dark secrets’ would be, like The Historian, some of the ones from myth and long ago times. Particularly as, deliberately or not, there are a few hints and reminders which might indicate that we could be in Undead territory. Instead, what unfolds is something far more serious, far more potent, far more relevant, reminding us that tales of myth, magic and legend may perhaps be curious and safe entertainment, fantasy horrors, protecting us from the real horrors which we visit on each other in the name of ideology

Set in the first decade of this century, Alexandra Boyd, a young American woman with the desire to be a writer, and with a tragedy in her own past, arrives in Bulgaria, a country with a personal resonance from her childhood, in order to take up a teaching/study assignment.

Boyd has an accidental tangle with a charismatic older man and his two elderly companions, on her first arrival. In seeking to help the elderly couple, clearly in some difficulty, get a taxi, and help the three to load their various bags into the taxi, Boyd finds to her horror that she seems to have mixed up one of their bags, with her own. In a strange country, without knowing the language, she does not quite know what to do, how to find the threesome, how best to get the missing luggage back to them. Although clearly a kindly young woman, she is also mesmerised by the English speaking man accompanying the elderly couple, so this fires her desire to find the trio and return the missing item, one which is unusual, and highly significant.

He was a very good man who thought he was a very bad man. That is a -difficult combination…..Sometimes – sometimes we know a person who is a very bad man but who thinks he is a good man. Maybe that is even more bad. Even worse. Worse, because the bad man, who thinks he is good, thinks that he can do anything to anybody

Boyd engages a waiting taxi driver, a rather mysterious one, who not only speaks English, but is curiously willing to help her………….

Sofia and Vitosha Mountain

                           Sofia and Vitosha Mountain

And thus unfolds a mystery, where nothing is going to be quite what it seems (including this reader’s assumptions about ‘Bulgaria’s dark secrets’ The twentieth century, unfortunately, is full of dark secrets, most around politics, systems, ideologies and regimes: the pursuit of power and the lengths some will go to achieve it.

I have often thought that the terrible thing in communism was not just that we turned against each other. It was that we turned away from each other

Having started this in the hope of some kind of intelligent, beautifully written page turner about mythic, medieval history, and a modern woman on a search for a legendary, imaginative past, to help distract me from the present, I found instead something which made me wonder more about a future I hope we are not travelling towards, with various unprincipled, ferociously egotistic men occupying political power at this time.

I think young people now don’t know much about those times, or don’t understand – they think it’s always been as it is now, the mobile phones and friends on the Internet and lots of people going to other countries to work

I found, for sure, an intelligent, beautifully written page turner about all too real history: the shadow of the last war, the shadow of the communist bloc, and some of those who moved into power (and where from) after the Berlin wall came down.

There is a lot in here which recounts that horrific history, as Kostova pursues a tale which is at times in two times – the early fifties, and the first decade of the twentyfirst century. It is excellently done, and even though the story takes a little while to get its real momentum going, it is quietly gripping from the start – and then relentlessly gripping. There are some real surprises too. Nor is the story unremittingly dark. As ever, human heart, the kindness within, and the various redemptive paths humankind take to try and walk away from our shadows, is a kind of compass to true North. And art is one of those needles for true North – music, visual art, literature, poetry especially – a search for transcendence and life of the spirit.kostovaelizabeth

And, in the end, I think Kostova has here, written something more powerful.

The traditional music of Bulgaria is not an integral part of this book, but I can’t resist a chance to include it. An extraordinary tradition, suffused with sadness, laced with aliveness

I received this as an ARC from the publisher, via NetGalley. And it is published on April 11th

The Shadow Land Amazon UK
The Shadow Land Amazon USA

Arvo Pärt – Passio

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Humility, surrender, transcendence

Arvo Pärt’s transcendent music is always a deep experience, demanding attention and engagement from the listener. And whilst the musical lines may seem simple, they are not simplistic, and leave nowhere for musician or singer to hide. Without fidelity and surrender, his music can seem like some kind of technical exercise. Which is very very far from what it is.

Being lucky enough to attend a recent concert performance of Passio, sent me back to listen to The Hilliard Ensemble rendition, conductor Paul Hillier. This is a long piece, and not one for our InstaGratification Hummable Tunes culture. It is not, in any way, a ‘background piece’ and unfolds itself through its single, 70 minute, unbroken movement. How can ‘The Passion’ be properly realised, glimmeringly felt, if the journey is not undertaken, and ‘snapshot moments’ only are listened to on the hoof?

This music in its purity and careful threading and weaving, requires an extraordinary precision and control to hold the length, flow and placement of the close, dissonant harmonies.

From the crushing, almost overwhelmingly heavy opening of the piece, hopeless, doom laden, arises beautiful, single threads of music and voices, offering, surely some tenderness, some way out of despair, despite suffering. The bass, solo lines of Jesus are steadfast and firm, and musically give a kind of foundation for the other voices, and musical lines to relate to. To sorrowfully, tenderly, and in the end – not quite triumphally, but with the possibility of achieving something hopeful, out of pain, out of despair, soar. The end both breaks, and releases, the heart.

This is indeed a fabulous rendition. Though the experience, of course, of a live performance – The Façade Ensemble, conductor Benedict Collins Rice, offers an intensity that solitary attentiveness to a recording, can never do

This particular version may no longer be easily available as a new CD, though market place (used) copies are available or download on MP3. And of course, though the technical quality might be somewhat flawed, you can at least hear it on You Tube

The Hilliard Ensemble, alas, disbanded three years ago. Oh that I had ever heard them deliver this live!Paul Hillier was a founder member of The Hilliards and, later of Theatre of Voices. Hilliard was named for the Elizabethan miniaturist, I believe, rather than for Hillier, though perhaps the connection suggested itself

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Carol Dyhouse – Heartthrobs

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Sardonic, sneering, wealthy, and wearing immaculate linen. Preferably ruffled.

Carol Dyhouse’s Heartthrobs, A History of Women and Desire, looking at the possibly changing faces of masculine desirability, as expressed in literature, film and pop culture is interesting, though I’m not certain it is really saying anything particularly new. She certainly backs up what she chooses to say by reference to much other material. Heartthrobs is 190 pages, plus a full 50 pages of cited references plus 7 of index.

Tracing the changing views of sexy, desirable men, from the earliest of novels (whether written by men, or particularly, women) we are shown that, whether in Richardson’s Pamela, the first novel, Austen’s novels, (especially Pride and Prejudice, with Darcy, the pinnacle of desirability) or Bronte’s, what set female hearts a flutter was a dominant, dominating, often ‘sardonic’ (a favourite adjective) on the verge of cruel, man, ultimately to be tamed, reformed in some way by the virtuous love of a good woman. Love tames the beast into marriage. And, rescuing him from being merely bestial, was of course, wealth. Easy to see why, in a time when a woman’s ability to make wealth for herself was lacking. So it is a little depressing to see how little has changed….she reminds the reader of a more than on the verge of cruel man in that runaway viral success, 50 Shades of Grey. What of course stopped the – I can’t bring myself to name him hero – of that, from merely being a thug, was – (sighs) wealth and fine linen denoting wealth, rather than grubby grease stained overalls.

Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky, throbbing

Others, in films, followed the trend, from Valentino to Rhett Butler. I found it interesting, and, depressing too, as explained with Valentino (The Sheik) though his Arabian mien is exotic, and in part gives his allure, it was necessary that the character turned out to have Caucasian ancestry – there was, surely, an inherent racism in this.

Later sections in the book look at sexual desire in early teens and pre-teens, and examines the pretty boy/boy band phenomenon – David Cassidy is particularly focused on – the allure for his young fans his unthreatening, androgynous, not quite developed sexuality. It’s the other end of the spectrum from the adult female’s object of desire who masters.

Unknown man wearing a fine linen shirt. Not many ruffles though.

There are some amusing anecdotes – I particularly enjoyed the revelation of the potency of Austen’s Darcy – perhaps not unconnected with Colin Firth’s wet shirt, but, of course, P+P was an enduring literary romance before THAT BBC adaptation – as evidenced by the following quote :

scientists working on pheromones in mice discovered a protein in the urine of the male mouse which was irresistible to females. They named it after Jane Austen’s character.’Darcin’. There are many ways in which Darcy has proved a money spinner

I received this from Amazon Vine UK, as a review copy. The text also has some great black and white illustrations showing the changing appearance of ‘throbs’ (and melting women) though these are done as text page pictures, rather than photos. There are some wonderful illustrations from ‘Romance Magazines/stories from early in the twentieth century, and pin-ups of the nineteenth century – portraits of Nelson and Wellington (!).

It is available as wood book and digital download in the UK, but Stateside, though available on Kindle does not get published in hard copy till next month

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Colin Dexter – Last Bus to Woodstock

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The first Morse and Lewis vehicle: Nothing to do with Joni Mitchell!

I have never read any of this series, and only ever caught one or two episodes of the TV series (though I might now watch as comparison, at some point), so it was interesting to come purely to the book. Where I found things to enjoy, and some things, not so much

The not so much can be encapsulated in a following quote. The crime to be unravelled is the rape and murder of a young woman, whose body is discovered in a car park. Inspector Morse is leading the investigation, and at one point, trying to disentangle events and clarify the identity of the murderer says to Sergeant Lewis:

Raping isn’t easy they tell me if the young lady isn’t too willing

Now I have no idea, given that this is the first in the series, whether this reflects the author’s belief at the time of writing (initially published in 1975), police thinking at the time, or Morse’s own erroneous belief, and whether this is something which will further develop. The statement is presented really without comment on it.

One of the things I did like very much was the absence of much gratuitous and violent sexual detail. Whilst I don’t think that a statement as above would get by without some character challenging or commenting on that statement, or authorial distance from it being obvious, something negative which has happened in intervening years in crime fiction is a lurid, titillating approach to sex and violence being wreaked upon women, the serial killer on the loose fiction genre. Graphic description seems commonplace, and is constantly ratchetted up. Dexter focuses here far less on indulging a kind of voyeuristic prurience, and far more on the more mainstream reasons why someone might be driven to murder.

Something else I liked enormously, is of course that this is indeed a novel of relationship and character, as much as police procedural, and it is easy to see why this did indeed make for an ongoing series of books, and of course, that TV series. Here is book 1 is already a wonderfully layered relationship getting going between Morse and Lewis, between someone who seems absolutely settled as a moral touchstone, and someone who perhaps struggles more with the challenges of what it means to be human, and in relationship with others.

And, (hurrah) shot through the grim business of dealing with crime on a daily basis, is of course the necessary leaven on humour. Sometimes this is given by characters, who have their own flashes of humour, and sometimes it is Dexter himself:

..studio 2 in Walton Street was presenting a double sexploitation bill whose titles were calculated to titillate even the most jaded appetite. The first, 20.0-3.05 p.m. was Danish Blue (not, judging from the mounds of female flesh that burst their bounds in the stills outside, a film about the manufacturing of cheese)

not to mention the following little gem:

the police car parked itself, with no objection from porters, orderlies or traffic wardens, on a broad stretch of concrete marked ‘Ambulances Only’. A policeman’s parking lot was sometimes not an unhappy one

Such lightly thrown wordplay as the last is likely to see me wanting to go further with this series. Yes, there is some slightly clunky writing, particularly in dialogue (as I think my first quote also shows) but The Last Bus to Woodstock kept me hooked and interested.

However……it is immediately obvious that there are remarkable differences between book and TV adaptation. Not least of which is the age differential between the two central characters. Morse is first introduced to us as a lightly built, dark-haired man. Various other descriptors suggest a younger man, not to mention one who wears a degree of testosterone on his sleeves!

Last Bus to Woodstock Amazon UK
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