Saturday, 24 December 2016

Stories For Christmas by Alison Uttley

This collection of twelve fantastical stories is my current selection for Christmas reading.  My copy is a vintage Puffin edition from 1977, with beautiful cover art by Gavin Rowe. It is an utterly charming and cosy book where unexpected, magical and beautiful things happen for Christmas; and kindness abounds. Trees can think and talk, dolls come to life and make festive preparations, and animals carry on and prepare for the festivities as if they were humans.  It is one of the loveliest Christmas books I've read, and one of the sweetest books I've ever encountered.  Even though the stories were originally intended for younger readers, they are so delightful that people of any age should read this, to bring back a touch of simple childhood innocence and unlimited imagination.  Merry Christmas!

'Blazing log fires, mince pies, red holly berries and the peal of church bells ringing out over snow-covered fields:  the twelve stories in this collection capture all the warmth and fun of Christmas as celebrated in the traditional country way that Alison Uttley knew and loved when she was a child.'

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Woeful World of Wuthering Heights

I saw a very interesting blog about Emily Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights' today  and it brought back my feelings when reading this story about eight years ago. It's a great book, but not one I enjoyed, it was more an experience of getting pulled in and absorbed by its strange, dark, moody, tragic, passionate, and dramatic world.   It haunted me continually during the week I read it, even encroaching into my dreams. If I'd had a wild, windy moor to forlornly wander onto (donning a flowing cape), I would have done so.

 "My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath...I am Heathcliff - he's always, always in my my own being".

"And what was it that had suggested the tremendous tumult...Merely, the branch of a fir-tree that touched my lattice as the blast wailed by, and rattled its dry cones against the panes!... This time I remembered I was lying in the oak closet and I heard distinctly the gusty wind, and the driving of the snow; I heard, also, the fir-bough repeat its teasing sound, and ascribed it to the right cause:  but it annoyed me so much, that I resolved to silence it, if possible; and I thought, I rose and endeavoured to unhasp the casement...'I must stop it, nevertheless!' I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch:  instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand!  The intense horror of nightmare came over me; I tried to draw back my arm, but, the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, Let me in-let me in!"

Charlotte Bronte wrote that: "Wuthering Heights was hewn in a wild workshop, with simple tools, out of homely materials. The statuary found a granite block on a solitary moor...with time and labour the crag took human shape, and there it stands colossal".



Wednesday, 7 September 2016

The Intriguing Bookish Beginning of 'Postern of Fate' by Agatha Christie

'Postern of Fate' by Agatha Christie, from 1973, is not considered one of her best stories.  It is one of her last books, and the last one with Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, who are getting on in years by this time. In fact, the writing is rather poor at the start of the book, and one wonders if she intentionally used such poor dialogue and excessive repetitiveness to express a decrease in mental faculties for characters no longer young?   Or was she sadly not writing as well as before?  Who knows?  Despite that,  I've always liked this book and have read it several times; not sure if I can even explain why, but there is an atmosphere to it that appeals to me. 

In the beginning of the story, the Beresfords had just moved into an old house in the country, or rather a village (a theme that always appeals), and the adventure begins gently with attempts to sort through and arrange masses of books.  Along with their own books, Tommy and Tuppence also acquired many old books from the previous owners, and ones that had apparently been in the house for many years before that.  

Now this is my favourite part:  Whilst going through and trying to organise all those books, Tuppence gets consumed with browsing through and reminiscing about wonderful books she'd read in childhood.  A wonderful array of tantalizing titles are mentioned:

Mrs. Thomas Beresford replaced The Cuckoo Clock, by Mrs. Molesworth, choosing a vacant place on the third shelf from the bottom.  The Mrs. Molesworths were congregated here together.  Tuppence drew out The Tapestry Room and held it thoughtfully in her fingers.  Or she might read Four Winds Farm.

She removed  some more books.  Three-quarters of an hour passed with her absorbed first in Alice Through the Looking-Glass, then with Charlotte Yonge's Unknown to History.  Her hands lingered over the fat shabbiness of The Daisy Chain.

Albert mounted on a chair and banging each book in turn to dislodge such dust as it had managed to gather on it, handed things down.  Tuppence received them with a good deal of rapture.
"Oh, fancy!  All these.  I really have forgotten a lot of these.  Oh, here's The Amulet and here's The Psamayad (Psammead).  Here's The New Treasure Seekers.  Oh, I love all those.  No, don't put them on shelves yet, Albert.  I think I'll have to read them first.  Well, I mean, one or two of them first, perhaps.  Now, what's this one?  Let me see.  The Red Cockade.  Oh yes, that was one of the historical ones.  That was very exciting.  And there's Under the Red Robe, too.  Lots of Stanley Weyman.  Lots and lots.  Of course I used to read those when I was about ten or eleven... The Prisoner of Zenda.  One's first introduction, really, to the romantic novel.  The romance of Princess Flavia.  The King of Ruritania.  Rudolph Rassendyll, some name like that, whom one dreamt of at night."

Albert handed down another selection.   (Then mention is made of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Catriona, and The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson).

"The Black Arrow.  I declare!  The Black Arrow!  Now that's one of the first books really I ever got hold of and read...Now let me think...The Black Arrow.  Yes, of course, it was that picture on the wall with eyes-real eyes-looking through the eyes of the picture.  It was splendid.  So frightening, just that....It was all about-oh yes, the cat and dog?  No.  The cat, the rat and Lovell, the dog.  Rule all England under the hog..."  She sat down in the chair, took The Black Arrow, opened the pages and engrossed herself.  "Oh dear," she said, "how wonderful this is.  I've really forgotten it quite enough to enjoy reading it all over again.  It was so exciting." 

'The Black Arrow' is a great book indeed, and in the midst of reading it, Tuppence finds a mysterious code and message within the pages, and thus begins the mystery story. 

Friday, 8 July 2016

The Ghost of Down Hill by Edgar Wallace

This is a rather rare edition of this story, which I found for next to nothing in a secondhand book shop many years ago.  Even more unusual is that it still had the dust jacket, though in a somewhat fragile state. Here is the rather spooky passage that is illustrated in the book jacket art:

'The Ghost of Down Hill' by Edgar Wallace, 1929:

 "She undressed and sat in her kimono by the open window looking over the garden. It was the third quarter of the moon and it was rising as she looked out upon that most wonderful of landscapes. The snowy expanse of the Downs lay in blue shadow and the moonlight flooded the broad white Weald with an uncanny radiance. She sighed happily, switched off the light and snuggled into bed. The strangeness of the room and , perhaps, the queer smell which all new furniture has, prevented her sleeping as soundly as she expected. 

 She turned from side to side, dozing fitfully, and then she heard the faint sound of a foot on the gravel path outside. From the position of the patch of moonlight on the floor she knew it must be very late and wondered if her uncle was in the habit of taking midnight strolls on such a freezing night. Slipping out of bed she pulled on her dressing-gown, walked to the window, and looked out. And then her blood froze, and her knees gave under her, for there in the middle of the garden path, standing out against the snowy background, was a figure in the sombre habit of a monk! The cowl was drawn over his head and the face was invisible.

It stood there motionless, its hands concealed in its wide sleeves, its head bent as in thought. Then slowly the head turned and the moonlight fell upon the bony face, the hollow sockets of its eyes, the white gleam of its fleshless teeth.
For a moment she stared, paralysed, incapable of sound or movement; and then she found her voice, and with a shrill scream collapsed on the floor in a dead faint".

Friday, 29 January 2016

The Poets On Winter- George Mackay Brown

Looking through some books, there was a bookmark on this little piece by the late Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown, from 1987:

The Poets On Winter:
'As the the day lengthens the caald strengthens', the old folk used to say, drawing on a great hoard of folk memory. It's true enough. Looking back over many years, January seems always to be the month to be feared, with claws and teeth of ice. It is the month when Robert Burns was born- "Twas then a blast o' Janwar' win' .../ Blew hansel in on Robin'... There is a dark rich magic in this time of year that Burns loved and exploited to the full. It's impossible to imagine his greatest poem, 'Tam o' Shanter', in a summer setting: a storm, with darkness, was essential.
His cantata, 'The Jolly Beggars', is a winter-time extravaganza. He weaves his magic about a winter-evicted mouse. 'The Cottar's Saturday Night'-that pious pastoral- falls in winter-time, when hearts and hearth-stone burn more brightly. Many of his lyrics too, are stoked to winter ardour- 'Oh, wert thou in the cold blast...' Does not the whole world sing 'Auld Lang Syne' at New Year? - though nearly always they get the words wrong.

It may be that high summer is too obviously 'practical' -with abundance of flowers, birdsong, fleeces, honey, sunshine - and poets like a thin soil to work in, so that the beauties of art can vie with the overflowing riches of nature.
The coldness and cruelty of nature is in one of Keats's greatest poems, 'The Eve of Saint Agnes'. He makes a marvellous distillation from the bitter wind, the shivering sheep, the frozen breath of the bedesman that was 'like pious incense from a censer old'.
Possibly the joy of winter for artists is the knowledge that the seed is lying under the snow, with all of summer's abundance locked in it. The waiting and the longing are more wonderful that the consumation.
'Twelfth Night'- that is, January the sixth- Shakespeare called one of the happiest of his plays. Another he titled 'The Winter's Tale': a title to enchant any audience, because it is at the time of darkness and snow that people draw in to the fireside to listen to the old men's stories. Even nowadays, I suppose, TV has more viewers than on lingering rose-scented evenings.
George Mackay Brown.

Paintings one and three by John Arthur Malcolm Aldridge; middle painting by James McIntosh Patrick, 'Winter In Angus'.