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Gone to London to see the Queen!

The Heart of Midlothian

by Sir Walter Scott

‘On the day when the unhappy Porteous was expected to suffer the sentence of the law, the place of execution, extensive as it is, was crowded almost to suffocation.’

Edinburgh 1737: Captain John Porteous, King’s officer, is confined in the Tolbooth prison for firing on a crowd at a demonstration. Sentenced by the court to hang for his crime, he receives a royal pardon and is awaiting release when a vengeful crowd storm the prison, set fire to the outer door, drag Porteous out and lynch him. Taking advantage of their opportunity, several other prisoners flee the gaol. One who does not is Effie Deans, a young woman charged with child murder. Effie is quite innocent of any crime but Scots law being what it was, in the absence of testimony (and of the newborn infant) to the contrary, there is a presumption of guilt, and Effie too faces the death penalty.

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Jeanie Deans, Effie’s sister and heroine of The Heart of Midlothian is required to give evidence. Unable to square the giving of false testimony with her conscience, even to save Effie’s life, she is unable to prevent a guilty verdict. Resolved however to save Effie at all costs, Jeanie embarks on a journey to London to beg the King and Queen for a pardon. She borrows money from Laird Dumbiedikes, one of her admirers, and with a letter of introduction to the Duke of Argyll from Reuben Butler, her “intended”, sets out from Edinburgh on foot. In Lincolnshire, she falls in with the villainous Meg Murdockson and her mentally disturbed daughter Madge, whom we learn are somehow involved in the mystery surrounding Effie and her child.

Jeanie is rescued from Madge’s clutches and, in what seems a remarkable coincidence, finds herself in the house of George Staunton, her sister’s seducer, the man hunted in Scotland, though under a different name, for leading the Porteous riot. With the help of Staunton’s father, she travels in greater comfort to London, where her case is taken up by Argyll and she gets to meet Queen Caroline (wife of George II). Her mission accomplished, Jeanie returns to Scotland under Argyll’s protection.

Jeanie’s marriage and new life with Butler, what happens to Staunton and Effie after her release. and the resolution to the mystery surrounding their missing child all take up the last quarter of the novel.

‘… the sermon pronounced on this occasion had the good fortune to please even the critical David Deans, though it was only an hour and a quarter long, which David termed a short allowance of spiritual provender.’

Walter Scott is not everyone’s cup of tea. He does “go on a bit.” He often meanders from his plotline into non-essential historical anecdote and diverts the modern reader with what seems too much like moral preaching. Whether he is truly preaching or simply entertaining us with his dry Scots wit is not always clear. Sometimes, I fear it is both. The Heart of Midlothian has undoubtedly an overt moral message, and we can take it or leave it as we choose.

Published in 1818, more than fifty years after the story ends, the novel deals with events – many of them true history – that happened before the author was born. However, Scott would have known and conversed with men and women to whom the Porteous riots were a childhood (perhaps even an adult) memory. He understood the rather bleak Presbyterian morality of the age and as a solicitor himself, he knew the law. And both Presbyterianism and law are important and essental elements in The Heart of Midlothian, as are the aforesaid rigid morality, rough justice and indomitable female courage. Jeanie Deans is in her own way as feisty a heroine as any in 21st century literature, more so perhaps as women in 1737 were not expected (or usually allowed) to behave in such a way.

A word of warning: The Heart of Midlothian is a slow read; about 90% of the dialogue (at a guess) is written in the old Scots language, reflecting both place and time of the setting. Without the glossary, some of it is unintelligible to a modern English reader (even to one like myself with a Scottish upbringing). But if we allow for that, and for Scott’s over-descriptive narrative, his diversions and his pseudo-preaching, the The Heart of Midlothian is a cracking good story and without doubt one of the author’s best.

***

 

 

The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse

The-Taxidermists-Daughter-Kate-Mosse“…. Connie lined up the scalpel and cut. At first, a gentle shifting, nothing more. Then the tip of the blade pierced the skin, and the point slipped in.”

Kate Mosse returns to her native Chichester for the setting of her new novel, The Taxidermist’s Daughter.

The year is 1912, a time of mackintoshes, umbrellas, hansom cabs and lots of cigarette smoke. Connie Gifford is twenty-two years old and suffers from retrograde amnesia as the result of an accident when she was twelve. Crowley Gifford, her father, has become a habitual drunkard after losing his museum of taxidermy following a court case, and they now live together in an isolated house in the village of Fishbourne, a mile or so from Chichester. At the beginning of the novel, Connie is in the village churchyard on St Mark’s Eve at the celebration of an ancient festival. She notices several men who are not villagers and who seem to be out of place at such a gathering. She also feels she is being watched by a mysterious woman in a blue woollen coat. And when a body turns up in the stream beside her home wearing the same coat, Connie is pitched into a tale of terrible wrong and macabre retribution. Her memories begin to return – memories of the accident, of being nursed back to health, and of a childhood friend called Cassie.

“I removed his heart first, red and still beating, still pumping. Watching it slow, stutter and die. Next his lungs and his stomach …”

Connie’s father has gone missing after a bout of heavy drinking and she teams up with Harry Woolston, a would-be artist, whose doctor father has also disappeared. As she gradually recollects snatches of her past, Connie begins to realise there is much more to the disappearances and to the death of the young woman than was at first apparent. Moreover, the events surrounding her accident were more sinister than her father always led her to believe.

The Taxidermist’s Daughter is not a novel for anyone with a weak stomach. It is a page-turner of a thriller which, for me, called to mind the title of another story – What Lies Beneath – in this case beneath the surface of a typical charming English village. Kate Mosse gives her story a gothic feel – a deserted cottage, lonely marshes, an ice house containing old secrets, and plenty of gore and death, human as well as animal. There is also a maleficent secret society and more than one character with a talent for cutting and stuffing. Mosse adds to the suspense by interspersing the narrative with quotations from an 1820 work on taxidermy. She also gives the floor to the murderer – yes, there is one (more than one in fact) – in the form of a diary, cunningly avoiding mention of his or her identity. To reveal more would risk spoiling the plot for new readers, so I shall stop there, except to mention that there is a nail-biting finish on a flooded marsh and wind-swepped sea wall in Sussex.

Suffice to say that birds play an important role. The Corvidae Club! Remember your schooldays, your English grammar lessons and all those collective nouns you were forced to recite: a colony of jackdaws; a tiding of magpies; a parliament of rooks; a MURDER of crows ……..

“Who killed Cock Robin?  I, said the Sparrow, with my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin!”

Kate Mosse admits in her acknowledgements that Fishbourne has never flooded and that the sea wall (not even built in 1912) has never given way. Some of the places featured in the novel do not exist, and there is no record of gruesome murders in the locality in 1912. Yet, after reading The Taxidermist’s Daughter with its dark, gothic atmosphere, one might almost believe that the events described really took place.

Going Dutch

The Miniaturist

by Jessie Burton

theminiaturistjessieburton

“The funeral is supposed to be a quiet affair, for the deceased had no friends. But words are water in Amsterdam, they flood your ears and set the rot, and the church’s east corner is crowded.”

My daughter gave me The Miniaturist as a Christmas present and when I began reading I had no idea what to expect. It is one of those novels which you struggle at the outset to place in any single category of fiction. Set in Amsterdam in 1686/7, it is certainly a historical novel. It is a mystery too, with hints of fantasy, but it also has the feel of literary fiction. Jessie Burton writes in the present tense, which does not always work and which some readers still consider experimental and affected, even arrogant.

It works here. The immediacy of the tense makes Amsterdam seem more wintry, its watery landscaspe bleaker, the contrast between rich and poor starker. The uncanny reflections of the real world in the tiny creations of the miniaturist, the dogma-driven prejudices of the masses, the horrors of seventeenth century justice and the occasional uncomfortable reminder of the inequality of the sexes all put the reader right in the centre of the action.

Petronella (Nella) Oortman arrives at the house of her rich merchant husband Johannes Brandt to be met by his sharp-tongued sister Marin. Johannes is away from home. The rest of the household comprises the maidservant Cornelia, the black African Otto and two dogs. Meantime, a large consignment of sugar belonging to Frans and Agnes Meermans sits unsold and deteriorating in Johannes’ warehouse.

When he does return from a foreign trip, Johannes is distant with his new wife. However, he presents her with a dolls house replica of his home which Nella immediately begins to fill with miniature furniture and figures. When the miniaturist sends pieces that she did not order, and continually does so, Nella  is at first annoyed then curious. There is something unnatural about the way in which the tiny figures are predictive of future events as if their creator had a crystal-ball view of the Brandts’ business and personal life.

A tiny spoiled loaf of sugar, representing the consignment that is beginning to rot in the warehouse; the tiny dog with a flack of blood on its head; the miniature of a woman with swollen belly; the replica of the English boy with a stab wound; the empty parakeet cage; are these accidental flaws, lucky guesses or products of some devilish foreknowledge? Nella has to find out, but the miniaturist remains hidden, unreachable behind the walls of the house in Kalverstraat ‘at the sign of the sun’.

“This is not a small baby … Nella thinks of the little cradle in the cabinet house and a shiver runs up her body. How did the miniaturist know about this?”

As the predictions of the miniaturist become more sinister, the household approaches a crisis, one that neither money – nor love – will be able to avert. And as we reach the climax of the plot, the question posed by the first two sentences of the prologue comes back to haunt us. Just whose funeral are we attending?

The Miniaturist is an unusual, suspenseful story of love and hate, of prejudice and injustice. The relationships are not always what they seem. And in the open ending, there is a crumb of hope that out of tragedy and loss may come something good and lasting. Burton knows how to use words to create atmosphere; she is good at surprises. I enjoyed the book and might read it again soon to pick up nuances of style and character missed on the first reading.

Banks Don’t Change!

A Dangerous Fortune

by Ken Follett

Banks and bankers are in the news a lot. Usually it’s bad news: the directors and presidents get obscene bonuses; they manipulate the tax system; they crash and leave millions of people out of pocket. Rarely do the newspapers carry stories about the  honest bankers and their shareholders – the employees who work pretty hard for a modest salary, the shareholders who expect a little bit of income when the bank does really well in the markets.

I’ll get off the political soapbox now! I’ve just finished reading a novel about banks and bankers, so that short paragraph was by way of introduction to my review. Mr Follett kindly sent a copy of the book to me because I had bought the hardback version of his latest novel  Edge of Eternity -see https://bookheathen.wordpress.com/2014/11/20/the-day-the-earth-stood-still.

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A Dangerous Fortune is set during the second half of the nineteenth century and features an English banking family called the Pilasters. The story begins with a mysterious drowning at the boys’ public school attended by Edward and Hugh Pilaster, who are first cousins. Hugh is the poor relation, his father having broken with his relatives to set up on his own before going bust in a recession and committing suicide.

As the novel progresses and the characters develop, it becomes clear that Hugh is the one with a real talent for banking while Edward is something of a wastrel, under the influence of his domineering mother, Augusta, and his sinister South American friend, Micky Miranda. Augusta is ambitious both for herself and for her son and continually devises schemes to bring Hugh down. Micky is at the beck and call of his gangster – and would-be president – father, Papa Carlos, who needs money for guns to start a revolution.

A second group of characters are represented by the Robinson family, reduced to poverty as a result of the Pilaster bankrupcy. When their father loses his job, Maisie Robinson earns a living as a trick rider while Danny, her brother, emigrates to America. When Hugh falls in love with Maisie, Augusta finally sees the opportunity to rid herself of Hugh for good.

Several murders and several marriages later, the truth of that school tragedy finally emerges and [so it seems] the various heros and villains get their just desserts.

A Dangerous Fortune as a historical novel does not have the scope of Follett’s Century Trilogy but already one can see in it an embryo Fall of Giants. The author is not afraid to address social, religious or sexual issues. Here, he deals with anti-semitism, prostitution and social class in ways that do not detract from the thriller/mystery element of his work. I’ve said in other reviews how much I like Follett’s writing and this novel was no exception. I don’t always agree with his political stance but that does not prevent my enjoying the journey.

****

 

An Appetite For Wonder

The Making of a Scientist

by Richard Dawkins

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Professor Dawkins is one of the few dedicated scientists who can write about the most complex subject and make it both interesting and comprehensible. In An Appetite For Wonder, the first part of his intended two-part autobiography, we do not have to worry too much about the comprehension and can concentrate on the interesting bits. Born in Nairobi, Dawkins spent a large part of his childhood in East Africa before moving finally to England in 1949. Considering his well publicised views about religion (publicised to the detriment of his scientific writing!), it came as a surprise (or perhaps not!) to learn that his paternal ancestry includes seven generations of Anglican vicars.

After a few years at ‘preparatory’ school – [American friends may well ask, as does Dawkins himself, what such schools prepare you for] – he was enrolled at Oundle Public School in Northamptonshire. [American friends read ‘Boys’ Private School’]. Now, I know Oundle quite well, not so much the school as the town, because I live close by, and was fascinated by his description of his life there in the 1950s. His account is laced with dry humour concerning long abolished practices such as fagging, – [a peculiar English public school custom] – being examined intimately by the school matron and having baths in water already soiled by fourteen other members of the school rugby team. Things are very different now; for several years now, Oundle has admitted girls, so I guess customs HAD to change.

From Oundle, Dawkins went to Oxford University, where he read [studied or majored in] Zoology, while learning to programme computers, which he is remarkably good at doing. After his marriage in 1967 to Marian Stamp, also a research scientist, he took up an offer of an assistant professorship at UCAL Berkeley, where he seems to have become an active anti-Vietnam War campaigner. The couple returned to Oxford in 1969 to work on various research projects. Then , in 1973, Dawkins began work on his first book The Selfish Gene, which was published in 1976.

Professor Dawkins is not a modest man. He is proud of his achievements, and this comes over in his writing. However, he is not a boastful man either and is equally ready to admit his mistakes and regrets. Although he argues with passion, his reputation as a ‘militant’ is ill-deserved, even – it seems to me anyway – in the religious debate. I have heard him speak and he is always polite and respectful to his audience and argues his case with reason and logic. Perhaps it is – as is often the case with people of strong opinions – he attracts fanatics, who latch onto a few remarks as total justification for their more extreme views.

An Appetite For Wonder is worth reading for a picture of a man very much in the public eye, often for the wrong reasons, and for a nostagic and often humourous glimpse of academia in the days before personal computers.

*****

In the Fortress of the Assassins

First Love

Today, I’m posting another extract from my novel The Tiger and the Cauldron 

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Two figures detached themselves from the shadows of the lower terrace and climbed the steps towards him.
‘Hassan.’ It was Sayyid’s voice. ‘The Captain has commanded me to relieve you.’
‘An hour, no more, Sayyid,’ said Doquz who accompanied him. She too wore a horse blanket round her shoulders. ‘Another should take your place. It’s too cold for extended watches when we have fifty able to undertake the duty. Come with me,’ she said to Hassan. She led him down the steps and across the courtyard, stopping and bending down to rub her hands together by one of the dying fires. ‘You are in need of some warmth.’ She unsheathed her scimitar and hooked it through the handle of a kettle that lay in the embers. Then, taking him by the arm, she drew him into the shelter of one of the rooms, which was empty save for a burning candle and yet another blanket that had been laid as a bed. There she set down the kettle. She took off her helmet and gave it to him. With the blanket edge protecting her hand she lifted the kettle again and poured its contents into the helmet.
‘Drink,’ she ordered.
Hassan raised the helmet to his lips. The aroma of warm wine mixed with spices drifted into his nostrils and he sipped the liquid gratefully. His chill abated.
‘That was good,’ he said.
‘In the Zagros winter, it was a most welcome beverage,’ said she. ‘Who would have thought it would prove equally so in the Alburz summer? In the fortress of Alamut?’
She drank what remained of the wine, threw the helmet aside and sat down on the horse blanket. She undraped the one that covered her shoulders, loosened her corslet and extended both her arms towards him. The candle flickered.
Hassan knelt and took her hands in his. ‘Doquz …’
She pulled him down beside her. ‘I cannot pretend you were the first, Hassan,’ she said. ‘Does that trouble you?’
‘That, no. It troubles me only that I could not please you.’
‘Then I was the first for you, as I thought. Truly you did not bed your Luciana?’
‘Not my Luciana!’ Hassan felt his cheeks burn, but if she had not guessed the whole truth he was not now going to confess it. ‘I could not love her as she wished.’
‘Yet with me you were gentleness itself.’
‘I beg you do not tease me.’
‘I do not tease, Hassan. You are young, but there is more to manhood than most men learn in a lifetime. With you …’ She did not finish the sentence but reached up and kissed him full on the mouth.
Hassan allowed his lips to linger on hers before breaking free to pose the question that had haunted him since Maragha.
‘Then I did not displease you?’
‘How could you think that? My life had become so grim and, before that night, I had not thought to find such love again.’ She paused to kiss him once more, this time fiercely, her mouth open and her tongue seeking his. When it seemed to Hassan that neither could any longer draw breath, she released him. Her lips found the lobe of his ear. ‘No, indeed, it was more, Hassan,’ she whispered. ‘The other was a childish fancy. I know that now. It excited and thrilled, but did not satisfy.’
Once more Hassan was gripped by a fever of excitement. He felt he ought to respond in some way but found he could not speak without stumbling over the words.
‘The last few nights,’ he began. ‘… when we camped in the hills … I would have come to you. I wanted to come to you … when you cried out in your sleep. Yet you sent me away …’
‘It would not have been proper. You must know that.’
She bit the lobe of his ear, very gently, and encircled his neck with her arm – the left – and only then did Hassan notice she no longer wore the bandage.
‘I know.’
‘Then let us lie together now while we have the time, my Hassan,’ said Doquz. She pulled him even closer, then down beside her on the blanket. The ground beneath his elbow was hard but he scarcely noticed.
‘My breasts are warm,’ she breathed. ‘Feel my heart; ‘tis beating so fast. Come to me again. In case there are soon to be no more tomorrows for us, I want to know your love one more time.’

The Cuckoo’s Calling

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I knew before I even opened this book that the author, Robert Galbraith, was actually JK Rowling of Harry Potter fame. I think everyone knew that, almost from the day it was published. My hesitation and delay before reading it stemmed from my disappointment with The Casual Vacancy. That just wasn’t my thing at all.  See https://bookheathen.wordpress.com/2014/08/25/its-not-harry-potter/

The Cuckoo’s Calling is quite a different sort of novel, a detective story featuring a PI who steps out of the pages like the bomb that took off part of his leg. Cormoran Strike is ex British army, over-weight, broke and has been dumped by his girl friend. He is also the illegitimate son of a famous rock star.

The mystery, and the first case for a while that’s likely to help Strike with his debts, concerns the death of a celebrity model called Lula Landry, who has apparently committed suicide by jumping from the balcony of her luxury appartment. Lula, we learn early on, was adopted, and it is her brother John Bristow, also adopted, who engages Strike to find out the truth. Assisted by his temporary “secretary”, Robin, Strike embarks on his search for evidence that Lula was murdered, and to find the killer. His investigation takes us on a tour of London, from the fashionable West End to the colourful world of designers, models, film producers and pop stars, and into the less glamourous lives of wannabees.

Strike is a cerebral detective, Robin an efficient and intuitive assistant. The other players we meet in the course of the novel are brash, self-opinionated, camp, frivolous, sad or just plain funny. Lula, whom we never meet except as a dead body, is described as having a ‘drive towards self-destruction, a tendency which seemed to have revealed itself first in early adolescence, when her adoptive father … dropped dead from a heart attack. Lula had subsequently run away from two schools, and been expelled from a third, all of them expensive private establishments.’

Among the possible suspects for the crime is designer Guy Some, whose face ‘contrasted strangely with his taut, lean body, for it abounded in exaggerated curves: the eyes exophthalmic so that they appeared fishlike, looking out of the sides of his head.’ Another is model Ciara Porter who, ‘attenuated and angular, with milk-white skin, hair almost as fair, and pale blue eyes set very wide apart … stretched out her endless legs, in platform shoes that were tied with long silver threads up her calves, and lit a Marlborough Light.’

Then there’s film producer Freddie Bestigui – ‘… tiny eyes between pouches of flesh, black moles sprinkled over the swarthy skin’ and Lula’s mother, cancer-ridden Lady Bristow, whose ‘death was an almost palpable presence in the room, as though it stood waiting patiently, politely, behind the curtains.’

Ms Rowling has an eye for detail, a flair for characterisation and a wonderful bizarre sense of humour which, I think, is best demonstrated in this kind of story. I enjoyed reading The Cuckoo’s Calling and will quite happily read the next book in the Galbraith series when I get the opportunity. Strike, who seems rather sad at the beginning, improves as we get to know him better. Another book and we might actually get to admire him.

******

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