Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday Poetry - A E Housman

Something a little cheerier than last week although there's still melancholy in this lovely poem about an old man looking back on his life. Another poem set to music by George Butterworth & sung here by Bryn Terfel.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now   
Is hung with bloom along the bough,   
And stands about the woodland ride   
Wearing white for Eastertide.   

Now, of my threescore years and ten,           
Twenty will not come again,   
And take from seventy springs a score,   
It only leaves me fifty more.   

And since to look at things in bloom   
Fifty springs are little room,           
About the woodlands I will go   
To see the cherry hung with snow.  

Friday, September 19, 2014

Christine Poulson's Invisible at a great price

Amazon US has the Kindle edition of Christine Poulson's thriller, Invisible, for just 95c US at the moment.
Click on the title link for my review. It's one of the best thrillers I've read this year, highly recommended.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Lifelong Passion : Nicholas & Alexandra : their own story - ed Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko

This book has been on my shelves for many years. I've dipped into it before but never read it all through. After reading Helen Rappaport's wonderful Four Sisters earlier this year, I wanted to read more about the Romanovs & this book was perfect. It's a selection of the letters, diaries & memoirs of Nicholas, Alexandra, other family members, servants & other observers to the events of Nicholas's reign.

The tragic story of the last Tsar & his family is well-known. As I was reading A Lifelong Passion, I was struck by just how early on in Nicholas's reign the portents of disaster began. The personalities of Nicholas & Alexandra & the way they reacted to circumstances determined the course of their lives. The book begins with an account of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Known as the Tsar-Liberator because he liberated the serfs, Alexander was succeeded by his son, Alexander III, who became one of the most reactionary & autocratic of Tsars in reaction to what he saw as the failure of his father's liberal ideals. Alexander III dominated his son, Nicholas, who led an idle life in the Army & society.

At a family wedding, Nicholas met Alix of Hesse, a princess of a minor German royal house & a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Alix's mother had died when she was young & Victoria had virtually brought up Alix & her sisters. Alix had been a happy child but the deaths of her mother & two of her siblings changed her personality & she grew up a serious, melancholy girl. She was also very religious & the great stumbling block to her love for Nicholas was religion. Alix was unwilling to convert to Russian Orthodoxy & it took years to overcome this resistance. Alix's sister Ella had married one of Nicholas's uncles, Serge, & her influence was crucial in the engagement eventually taking place. Alix became a passionate convert to Orthodoxy &, as tragedy consumed her personal life, she became more & more religious which led to an estrangement from Russian society & her dependence on mystics such as Rasputin.

Alexander III died suddenly in 1894 at the age of only 49. Nicholas had no training for his destined role & his personality was not suited to playing a dominant role. Nicholas also had several very domineering uncles who saw him as a weak personality who needed bolstering. He reacted with polite attention which gave the impression that he agreed with the last person he spoke to but which often left people feeling that he had deceived them. Alix, on the other hand, was stubborn & strong-willed, always pushing Nicky to impose his will on his Ministers & be a strong Tsar for the Russian people. This was a disastrous combination. The saving grace from a personal point of view was their great love for each other. This never wavered from their earliest days together until the end & is expressed in passionate terms in their letters & diaries in this book.

Their marriage began in the tragic circumstances of Alexander III's death. Alix was summoned to Livadia to be present at the Tsar's deathbed & she & Nicky were married just weeks later & the superstitious Russians said that their new Tsarina had come to them behind a coffin. From that moment, nothing seemed to go right. The coronation was marred by the tragedy of the stampede at Khodinka Meadow, when hundreds were killed as they tried to get hold of souvenirs. The new Tsar went to a reception that night which gave a bad impression. Alix was shy & uncertain in society, in contrast to her mother-in-law, Maria Feodorovna, & the mistakes she made in the early days were never forgotten or forgiven. Alix's religious fervor was also wondered & laughed at by sophisticated Russian society.

Four daughters were born over the next six years, each one loved by their parents but the rest of the family despaired over the lack of a male heir. Alix's desire for a son led her to consult quacks & religious mystics. When the longed for son, Alexei, was born in 1904, he suffered from haemophilia. Alexei's illness dominated Alix's life from that moment & led to her reliance on Rasputin, who seemed to be able to calm the boy when he was ill. The family also isolated themselves at Tsarskoe Selo, preserving their happy family life but distancing themselves from the rest of the family, society & the people.

Politically Russia was also in revolutionary mood. The Bloody Sunday massacre in 1905 & the Russo-Japanese War led to demands for democracy but Nicholas was reluctant to grant any power to the people. Bolstered by Alix, he stubbornly vowed to uphold the autocracy of his ancestors. Russia's lack of preparedness for WWI led to enormous losses on the battlefield & Nicholas's decision to revolution in 1917 led to Nicholas's abdication, imprisonment with his family at Tsarskoe Selo, then Siberia & death in Ekaterinburg in 1918. Whether Nicholas could have done anything to avert the disasters of his reign if he had been a different man or if he had married a different woman, is a question that is impossible to answer. there are so many What Ifs in the story of the last Romanovs which is why it's so interesting to read these firsthand accounts.

It's so interesting to read how concerned Nicky's family were about the isolation of the Royal Family. Right from the very beginning of his reign, there was concern that Alix was avoiding her duties to society, but as the family grew & especially after Alexei was born, the desire to be completely private & especially not to allow anyone outside the immediate family to know of Alexei's illness, became more obvious. Nicky's sisters, Olga & Xenia, write in their letters & memoirs of their concern at the Tsar's isolation. The wider Romanov family were bewildered & concerned. Many of them grew to resent Alix & blame her for the increasing discontent in Russia, including her own sister, Ella, from whom she was increasingly estranged.

The most interesting sections of the book are the Diaries of Konstantin Konstantinovich, known as KR. KR was a cousin of Nicky's, the grandson of Tsar Nicholas I. He was a writer, poet & translator; he translated Hamlet into Russian. He was a devoted husband & father of nine children but he was also bisexual which caused him great anguish. It also left him open to blackmail & he struggled with this although there was no open scandal. KR was one of the few Romanovs who were close to Nicky & Alix right up until his death in 1915. By then, it was too late to save the dynasty. Alix was virtually running the country when Nicky was at the Front & her letters to him are full of exhortations to be strong & save the throne for Alexei. Her letters become more & more unbalanced & it's hard to imagine how Nicky must have felt when receiving yet another letter full of advice about ministerial appointments from his wife with total reference to Rasputin. The eyewitness accounts of Rasputin's murder, & the murders of members of the Imperial family are also fascinating.The most poignant diary entries are from Alexei in captivity in Tobolsk as he writes day after day, "Everything the same." "The same as yesterday".

A Lifelong Passion is a fascinating book. There's virtually no commentary from the editors, apart from chapter headings & footnotes, so the eyewitness accounts speak for themselves. With the mass of material available to them (the first draft was 2,500 pages long. The published book is 650 pages) the editors had to leave a lot out but they have done an excellent job of making a complex story coherent & allowing as many diverse voices as possible to be heard. The Memoirs may have the benefit of hindsight & self-justification (especially in the case of Felix Yusupov, one of Rasputin's murderers), but the letters & diaries are so immediate that the well-known story becomes new once more.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

TBR 999 & 1,000

Here they are, nos 999 & 1,000 on my tbr shelves. Very appropriately, they're two recent books from Greyladies, Parson's Nine by Noel Streatfeild & Gin and Murder by Josephine Pullein-Thompson.

And for my next challenge? Well, according to Library Thing, I have 2,775 books. How long would it take for me to round that up to 3,000? Maybe I should just calm down & read a few of the great unread before I buy any more...

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Mary Stewart Reading Week - This Rough Magic

I'm so pleased that Anbolyn's Mary Stewart Reading Week gave me the incentive to reread This Rough Magic. I read all Mary Stewart's novels as a teenager in the 1970s & I bought several of the Hodder reprints a few years ago but have only read a couple of them. I was on holidays from work last week - which was meant to be relaxing but didn't turn out that way - so a trip to Corfu, even if it was only in my imagination, was just what I needed.

Lucy Waring is an actress whose career has hit a bit of a lull. She's happy to swap dreary London & the demise of the play she was in, for a holiday with her sister, Phyllida, on Corfu. Phyllida is married to a rich Italian banker whose family own not only the Castello dei Fiori, but also two smaller villas nearby. Phyllida & Lucy are staying at the Villa Forli while the other, Villa Rotha, is rented to Godfrey Manning, a writer & photographer. Lucy is intrigued to discover that the Castello is home to Sir Julian Gale, one of the most famous actors of his generation. Sir Julian had suffered some kind of breakdown after the deaths of his wife & daughter in a car crash & had become a recluse. Sir Julian's son, Max, is staying at the Castello while working on a film score but Lucy doesn't expect to see very much of them as their privacy is fiercely guarded by their gardener, Adonis, known as Adoni, who lives up to his name in looks.

Sir Julian has been visiting Corfu for many years & one of his most cherished theories is that the island is the site of Shakespeare's Tempest. He is godfather to Spiro & Miranda, the twin children of the Castello's housekeeper, Maria. According to Phyllida, the relationship may be even closer &, even though Spiro is supposed to be named after the patron saint of Corfu, St Spiridion, Phyllida is sure that the reference to Prospero is significant. While Miranda helps her mother at Villa Forli, Spiro has been employed to work for Godfrey Manning. As well as working on Manning's boat, he also models for photographs with a dolphin he's tamed. Lucy encounters the dolphin on one of her swims when someone starts taking potshots at it & she dives in to drive it out to sea. She also meets Max Gale on this occasion & is unimpressed by his manners.

On one of Godfrey's night sailing trips to take photos, Spiro falls overboard & is presumed drowned. Soon after, a fisherman suspected of smuggling goods to communist Albania just across the ocean, is also drowned. On the night of his death, Lucy had seen this man,Yanni, on his way up to the Castello & she suspects Max of some involvement in the smuggling, especially given his suspicious behaviour when Yanni's body is found. By this time, she has met Sir Julian & been entranced by his stories of the theatre & his theories about the Tempest. Max has been watchful of his father & slightly suspicious of Lucy, making her wonder why he doesn't encourage visitors. Her increasing attraction to him is just another complication. Godfrey Manning is attractive, intelligent & very attentive to Lucy but could he have other motives for being on Corfu? Lucy becomes involved in the lives of all these people & will risk her own life to uncover the truth.

This Rough Magic had just the right combination of romance, suspense & action all set in a gorgeous location. The lush descriptions of the Castello's gardens, the beaches & the surrounding countryside were so evocative.

After the dappled dimness of the wood, it took some moments before one could do more than blink at the dazzle of colour. Straight ahead of me an arras of wisteria hung fully fifteen feet, and below it there were roses. Somewhere to one side was a thicket of purple judas-trees, and apple-blossom glinting with the wings of working bees. Arum lilies grew in a damp corner, and some other lily with petals like gold parchment, transparent in the light. And everywhere, roses. ... I must have stood stock still for some minutes, looking about me, dizzied with the scent and the sunlight. I had forgotten roses could smell like that.

Lucy has found her way into the Castello's gardens & Sir Julian is about to greet her with a quotation from the Tempest. Lucy's encounters with the dolphin in the bay are also almost mystical. She & Max save the dolphin when it has beached itself, she swims with it & it appears at a crucial moment when Lucy is in danger. It all seems part of the magical quality of the island with its legends & religious parades, a simpler side of island life to be contrasted with the deadly serious business of evil treachery that also has its place. The last third of the book is almost unbearably tense & I sat up late one night to finish the book because I couldn't resist reading just a little more. Lucy is a resourceful heroine & although there's not much doubt where her heart lies, her ability to stay out of trouble & to stay alive is more dubious. What acting talent she has comes in very handy before the adventure ends.

I'm not sure that This Rough Magic fits too many categories in Leaves and Pages wonderful Gothic Romance primer here but I just wanted to point any Gothic Romance fans to her blog anyway. I'm in awe of the amount of reading & reviewing that Leaves and Pages does & her blog is eclectic, funny & full of great recommendations of the kind of books I enjoy reading. In the post I've linked to, she reviews Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting as well as Madeleine Brent's Tregaron's Daughter & Georgette Heyer's Cousin Kate, rating all three according to her own taste as well as the Gothic Mystery criteria. Mary Stewart comes out on top with 10/10. Very appropriate for Mary Stewart Reading Week. Copies of This Rough Magic, as well as several other Mary Stewart titles are available from Anglophile Books.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sunday Poetry - A E Housman

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I'll be featuring Housman's A Shropshire Lad here for the next few weeks. Even though the poems were published in 1896, for me, many of them are inescapably connected to WWI. I think it's because several of the poems were set to music by George Butterworth, who was killed in 1916. I recently listened to a radio documentary about some of the composers involved in the War which reminded me of these poems. I've also become addicted to BBC Radio's drama series, Home Front, which is set in Folkestone during WWI & is ambitiously planned to run for the next four years, with a 15 min episode every weekday. I've been catching up with the omnibus episodes, thanks to Darleen at Cosy Books, & I'm completely addicted!

The subject matter of some of the poems is very melancholic as well, almost prophetic, as in one of my favourites, The Lads in Their Hundreds. The song setting by Butterworth is just beautiful &, of course, no one can sing it like Bryn Terfel.

The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair,
There's men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold,
The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there,
And there with the rest are the lads that will never be old.

There's chaps from the town and the field and the till and the cart,
And many to count are the stalwart, and many the brave,
And many the handsome of face and the handsome of heart,
And few that will carry their looks or their truth to the grave.

I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell
The fortunate fellows that now you can never discern;
And then one could talk with them friendly and wish them farewell
And watch them depart on the way that they will not return.

But now you may stare as you like and there's nothing to scan;
And brushing your elbow unguessed-at and not to be told
They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Folio Society splurge

You'd think Phoebe didn't want me to get at those books, wouldn't you?! Well, this was one battle of wills she didn't win.

I'm rushing towards my goal of 1,000 books on the tbr shelves with a vengeance lately. I was tempted by the Folio Society special offer for their new titles & bought these three gorgeous editions. I've always wanted to read William of Malmesbury's Deeds of the English Kings, which was written in the 12th century & tells the story of English history from the coming of the Romans to the reign of Henry I. This is the 1998 translation for OUP but with the usual attention to detail & gorgeous illustrations of Folio editions.

I already own a copy of Desmond Seward's biography of Richard III, first published in the 1980s. The subtitle says it all really : England's Black Legend. Although I'm a member of the Richard III Society, I've always been interested in different interpretations of Richard's life & reputation & Seward has updated the book twice - in 1997 & again this year after the discoveries in Leicester. I'm looking forward to reading it again.

After reading Pushkin's poetry over the last few months, I couldn't resist this volume of his stories, including his most famous, The Queen of Spades.

Another incentive for this little purchase was the inclusion of a free copy (yes, it was free!) of this beautiful edition of A E Housman's A Shropshire Lad. Apart from the poetry, this edition includes the woodcuts by Agnes Miller Parker that were used in the 1924 edition.

I love woodcuts & these are just lovely. Here are a couple of examples. There are full page examples like these as well as little vignettes. One of the joys of the early Persephone Quarterly magazines was the inclusion of woodcuts by artists like Claire Leighton, Gwen Raverat & Tirzah Garwood. This book is so lovely that Sunday Poetry will be featuring Housman for the next little while.

I've also bought a couple of secondhand Folio editions. When I book my car in for a service, I often hop on the train & go to Camberwell, a suburb with a lovely Art Deco cinema (the Rivoli) & an equally lovely secondhand bookshop, Sainsburys Books. I saw a very sweet movie, Begin Again, with Keira Knightley & Mark Ruffalo, had some lunch & browsed around Sainsburys. I've bought some lovely Folio editions there &I wasn't surprised to find two more to add to my collection.

The woodcuts by Peter Reddick were the attraction of this edition of Thomas Hardy's Desperate Remedies.

Also, the lovely endpapers with a map of Wessex. This was Hardy's first published novel & is a bit of an anomaly as it has definite elements of the sensation novel. I've never read it & look forward to seeing what Hardy does with a plot that sounds more Woman in White than Mayor of Casterbridge.

Then, there was the Chevalier de Johnstone's Memoir of the 'Forty-Five. Despite his title, the Chevalier was a Scot who rallied to the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie. I couldn't resist the lovely binding of this copy which is based on an original binding of the period.