Mount TBR 2013 Final Checkpoint

Mount TBRTime for the final Mount TBR post.  Bev asks: 

1. Tell us how many miles you made it up your mountain (# of books read). If you’ve planted your flag on the peak, then tell us and celebrate (and wave!).  

I was aiming to reach Mount Ararat (48 books from my own bookshelves), but I didn’t get there. I read 34, just two books short of Mt Vancouver, which is 8 more TBRs than I read last year, so an improvement!

These are the books I read:

  1. The Case of the Curious Bride by Erle Stanley Gardner
  2. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
  3. Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie
  4. Small Kindnesses by Fiona Robyn
  5. The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien
  6. The Distant Hours by Kate Morton
  7. Daughters of Fire by Barbara Erskine
  8. Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo by Julia Stuart
  9. The Lewis Man by Peter May
  10. The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris
  11. The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland
  12. Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter by Ruth Rendell
  13. Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens
  14. Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier
  15. Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh
  16. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
  17. The Case of the Howling Dog by Erle Stanley Gardner
  18. The Red Coffin by Sam Eastland
  19. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  20. Third Girl (Poirot) by Agatha Christie
  21. Agatha Christie at Home by Hilary Macaskill
  22. The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge
  23. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  24. The Death Maze by Ariana Franklin
  25. Relics of the Dead by Ariana Franklin
  26. Not the End of the World by Christopher Brookmyre
  27. A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie
  28. Mrs Harris Goes to Moscow by Paul Gallico
  29. Julius by Daphne du Maurier
  30. N or M? by Agatha Christie
  31. St Mawr by D H Lawrence
  32. The Rendezvous and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier
  33. Stowaway to Mars by John Wyndham
  34. On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin

2. My Life According to Mount TBR: Using the titles of the books you read this year, please associate each statement with a book read on your journey up the Mountain. 

This was quite difficult – I couldn’t fit titles to all the questions from the books I read!

Are you male or female?:  Third Girl
Describe yourself: I’m one of The Daughters of Fire
Describe where you currently live:  On the Black Hill
If you could go anywhere where would you go?: to see Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo
Your favorite form of transportation: Stowaway to Mars (not really!!)
What’s the weather like?:  
Favorite time of day?: The Distant Hours
Your relationships: Cat among the Pigeons (no, not at all!!)
You fear:  The Owl Killers
What is the best advice you have to give?:  it’s Not the End of the World
If you could change your name, you would change it to: I wouldn’t want to change it to any of the names in the book titles
My soul’s present condition: 

Thanks, Bev for hosting and for your encouragement this year to climb mountains – I’m looking forward to climbing more mountains next year.

On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin

On The Black Hill (Vintage classics) by€¦

Synopsis (from the Vintage Books website):

On the Black Hill is an elegantly written tale of identical twin brothers who grow up on a farm in rural Wales and never leave home. They till the rough soil and sleep in the same bed, touched only occasionally by the advances of the 20th century. In depicting the lives of Benjamin and Lewis and their interactions with their small local community Chatwin comments movingly on the larger questions of human experience. 

The book was awarded the 1982 James Tait Black Memorial Prize and Whitbread First Novel of the Year Award.

I quoted the opening paragraphs in a Book Beginnings post back in 2011, when I first bought this book, but I think it’s worth repeating them here as they are typical of the style of the book:

For forty-two years, Lewis and Benjamin Jones slept side by side, in their parents’ bed, at their farm which was known as €˜The Vision’.

The bedstead, an oak four-poster, came from their mother’s home at Bryn-Draenog when she married in 1899. Its faded cretonne hangings, printed with a design of larkspur and roses shut out the mosquitoes of summer, and the draughts in winter. Calloused heels had worn holes in the linen sheets, and parts of the patchwork quilt had frayed. Under the goose-feather mattress, there was a second mattress, of horsehair, and this had sunk into two troughs, leaving a ridge between the sleepers. (page (9)

I love this book with its rich descriptions of both the landscape and the characters on the border between England and Wales. It follows the lives of identical twins, Lewis and Benjamin Jones on a farm, barely touched by the 20th century, a period of over 80 years. They are inseparable, Benjamin in particular suffering whenever they are apart. Their lives are hard, lonely, brutal at times, but full of love for their mother and the land they farm.

Most of all I love they way Chatwin brings the characters to life, not just Lewis and Benjamin, but all the other personalities, some eccentric, some comic and some tragic. His attention to detail is remarkable – at no time does it seem excessive, or intrusive but all the little minutiae of daily life are essential to the book. At the same time Chatwin highlights questions of love, religion, death and above all relationships. It is most definitely not a book to race through to find out what happens, although I did want to know, but one to savour – and one to re-read.

Stowaway to Mars by John Wyndham

Stowaway to Mars by John Wyndham writing as John Beynon, was first published in 1936 as Planet Plane (Newnes Limited, London), then serialised in the periodical The Passing Show as Stowaway to Mars, where it was described as:

an epic serial of the greatest exploration of all … by the man who writes half a century ahead of all the others.

It is set in 1981 when an international prize of £1,000,000 was being offered to the first man to complete an interplanetary journey. Dale Curtance, a British millionaire adventurer takes up the challenge and builds a rocket, the Gloria Mundi. With his crew of four men he blasts off from Salisbury Plain, his destination the planet Mars. Once free of the Earth’s atmosphere they discover a stowaway, a woman, Joan Shirning, the daughter of a professor! She has a strange tale to tell of a machine that her father found, which they believe came from Mars. Having landed on Mars they encounter what appears to be a planet occupied by ‘intelligent self-contained machines’. They claim Mars to be part of the British Commonwealth of Nations, a claim later disputed by the Russians when a second rocket lands.

My copy was published in 1972, with a foreword  stating how right John Beynon was in anticipating the international rivalry for the space race.

Stowaway

Stowaway to Mars is a novel of its time, the male crew members discuss what should be done with their stowaway – they can’t just chuck her overboard, as they would a man! They have a condescending attitude to women thinking that her ‘highest duty is motherhood’. She can be creative, concentrate on producing children rather than machines, because women :

simply have not got the imagination to see the machines as we see them, but they have the power to be jealous of them. … There is nothing good they can say for it. It’s noisy, it’s dirty, it’s ugly, it stinks: and anyway it’s only a jumble of metal bits – what can be really interesting in that? (page 98)

There is a lot of discussion about The Machine and its relationship with Humanity, what it means and what use is made of it. Man’s survival depends on his adaptability and must be willing to break with the past. The reason to venture into space is thought to be to make us wiser, to seek knowledge. Wyndham refers to earlier science fiction writers, such as J J Astor’s Journey in Other Worlds, written in 1894 where he states that ‘the future glory of the human race lies in the exploration of at least the Solar System.’ And Dale and his companions speculate about what they will find on Mars:

It’ll be amusing … to see which of the story-tellers was nearest the truth. Wells, with his jelly-like creatures, Weinbaum, with his queer birds, Burroughs, with his menageries of curiosities, or Stapleton, with his intelligent clouds? And of the theorists, too. Lowell, who started the canal irrigation notion, Lutyen, who said that the conditions are just, but only just, sufficient for life to exist at all. (page 67)

Even though this book is so obviously dated and contains quite lengthy sections theorising about machines, and the existence of life on other planets, I did enjoy it immensely. I really liked the descriptions of Mars, including its history and the reason for the construction of the canals, and the interplay between the characters, although some of them are only sketchily drawn and I couldn’t distinguish between them very easily.

The book ends on an intriguing note, referring to a subsequent tale. To say more would spoil the ending, at least it would have done for me. I don’t think Wyndham actually wrote a sequel, although there is a short story, Sleepers of Mars which deals with the Russians left  stranded on Mars.

John Wyndham’s (1903 – 1969) full name was John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, and he wrote under several different pseudonyms – John Beynon, John Beynon Harris,  Wyndham Parkes, Lucas Parkes and Johnson Harris.

I’ve had this book for a few years, so it qualifies for Bev’s Mount TBR Challenge and it is the second book I’ve read for Carl’s Science Fiction Experience. It was a really good read and it has got me so interested in finding out more about the history of science fiction itself!

The Rendezvous and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

When I finished reading The Rendezvous and Other Stories I had absolutely no hesitation in giving it 5 stars – I loved it. This is most unusual for me as generally I’m not too keen on short stories because they often leave me feeling dissatisfied, thinking they are lacking in substance or characterisation. Not so with this book, even though some of the endings were predictable and some of the stories are very short I think they all worked well!

Daphne du Maurier wrote some of these stories before she wrote her first novel (The Loving Spirit, 1931), when she under 23, and the rest between 1937 and 1947, when she was a well established writer. The earlier stories are shorter than the later ones as they were written for magazines

There are 14 stories:

  • No Motive ~ this begins with the suicide of an apparently happy woman expecting her first child. Her husband desperate to discover what could have caused her to take her own life and that of their unborn child employs a private detective to investigate. What he discovers is just so sad and tragic.
  • Panic ~ This is one of the shorter stories about a casual love affair that ends in death and the panic that ensued.
  • The Supreme Artist ~ Another shorter story of an aging actor trying to fight off the years.
  • Adieu Sagesse ~ I loved this one about a hen-pecked husband who plans to escape his tedious life and have an adventure.
  • Fairy Tale ~ A gambler and his long-suffering wife face destitution – unless he wins the lottery!
  • The Rendezvous ~ Now this story really caught my imagination. It’s the story of an ageing writer, who meets a fan of his books whilst on a trip to Switzerland to lecture about his work. As in some of Du Maurier’s books this is about an unequal relationship and the exploitation of one of the partners. It is vividly written, the sense of disappointment, the misunderstandings and subsequent let down is brilliant.
  • La Sainte-Vierge ~ A very short and predictable story about a naive young wife.
  • Leading Lady ~ a beautiful actress manipulates the men around her.
  • Escort ~ Another of the really good stories, full of atmosphere set in set in World War II on board a merchant ship as it sails across the North Sea. Just what is the ship that offers to escort it as a submarine threatens  – and who is its captain?
  • The Lover ~ More sexual manipulation, this time by a young man.
  • The Closing Door ~ A young man is told of his terminal illness and the devastating effect it will have on his life.
  • Indiscretion ~ An amusing tale of what happens when you say something without knowing the consequences – a bit signalled but still enjoyable.
  • Angels and Archangels ~ A bitter and cynical look at religion and hypocrisy.
  • Split Second ~ A brilliant story to finish the book – about a woman who leaves her highly organised house for a walk and finds everything has changed when she returns.

This is one of a set of Du Maurier’s books that I bought at least seven years ago. It was well worth the wait! I still have one more of the set to read – I’ll Never Be Young Again, her second novel.  And there are more that I don’t own to enjoy in the future too.

St Mawr by D H Lawrence

I liked  St Mawr even though there is so much philosophising and repetition (why use a word just once when you can repeat it three times) that the story is rather swamped. It’s a short novel (147 pages in my copy), first published in 1925, set in the English countryside and then in America, on a ranch in the Rocky Mountains.

This is the story of Mrs Witt, an American, Lou her daughter and Rico, her daughter’s artist husband and the influence of the stallion St Mawr on their lives. Initially desperately in love with each other Lou and Rico react badly on each other and being together makes them ill – they sap each other’s vitality.

As soon as Lou sees St Mawr she knows she just has to buy him:

She laid her hand on his side and gently stroked him. Then she stroked his shoulder, and then the hard, tense arch of his neck. And she was startled to feel the vivid heat of his life come through to her, through the lacquer of red-gold gloss. So slippery with vivid hot life.

In St Mawr Lou finds the vitality that is lacking in Rico. St Mawr represents to her freedom, and wildness as well as masculinity. He cannot be tamed. Bored with life Lou goes to America with her mother, Phoenix, her mother’s Mexican-Indian servant, St Mawr and his groom Lewis. There too she is bored; she leaves St Mawr and Lewis behind and travels to the Rocky Mountains of New Mexico with her mother and Phoenix. Here she comes across a tumbledown ranch, Las Chivas, that she immediately loves, aligning herself to the wild spirit that she says wants her. (The ranch is based on Lawrence’ s Lobo Ranch (later called Kiowa) at Questa, seventeen miles fro Taos, where Lawrence wrote the novel.)

This a richly written story, with beautiful descriptions of the landscape and the characters, full of symbolism and Lawrence’s views on male/female relationships, life and death, and the power of nature. I think I may need to re-read it to understand it better.

Julius by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was one of the first adult books that I remember reading and it has remained a favourite ever since I first read it. It led me on to read more of her books and in my teens and twenties I read and re-read Jamaica Inn, Frenchman’s Creek, The Scapegoat, Mary Anne and The King’s General. They were the type of books that I loved.

Later on I discovered that she had written many more books and I’ve gradually been reading them, but, with perhaps the exception of My Cousin Rachel, they have not had the same magic quality that had kept me enthralled in the past. So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I began reading Julius, her third book written when she was twenty-six. It may lack that magic quality of her later books, but it is still compelling and disturbing reading, rich in detail and characterisation.

Julius (originally published in 1933 as The Progress of Julius) is the life story of a ruthless man, driven by his lust for power, and his dedication to getting ‘something for nothing’. It’s a chilling tale about a man whose love for his daughter brings about his ruin.

But that is jumping ahead in the story. It begins with his birth in Paris in 1860. Julius Levy grows up in a peasant family in a village on the banks of the Seine and caught up in the Franco-Prussian War, he escapes to Algeria, where he learns to swindle and manipulate. He moves on to London, all the time scheming and making money, getting richer, regardless of who he hurt, or indeed of whose death he caused as he built up his empire of cafés and married Rachel, the daughter of a diamond merchant.

It’s a dramatic story covering the years 1860 -1932, as the old century ended and the new one began:

Now came the close of the century and the death of the Queen followed by peace in South Africa, and these things also served as a milestone in the life of Julius Lévy. They marked the end of an era  showing him the path to greater prosperity than he had as yet achieved. It was the beginning of a new age – the age of progress and speed and efficiency that he had long foreseen and the dawn of mechanism in all things, electricity, motor-cars and soon flying-machines in the air. The spirit abroad was one he understood, the demon of restlessness unsatisfied stretching hungry fingers to the skies in a superhuman effort to conquer insatiable hunger, a spirit of rapacity and greed and excitement burning like a living flame. (page 195)

Julius is half-Jewish and the book veers on anti-Semitism, indeed in later years Daphne du Maurier considered excising those elements from the novel. But that would have meant the novel would have lacked depth as it is his Jewishness that lifts him from being a complete monster. As a mixed-up, lonely child he found in the temple that he was among his own people, and the music took hold of his heart, giving him peace. It is his tragedy that he lost that peace and struggled throughout the rest of his life trying to re-capture it.

His love for his daughter, Gabriel overwhelms him, but it is a possessive, suffocating love that leads him to extremes. His inability to love without the need to possess and control is shown early on in the book when forced to leave home and unable to take his cat he ties a stone around her neck and throws her in the Seine, rather than leave her to fend for herself or for someone else to take care of her. That made me shudder, but it is little compared to how he treated people.

I’ve read that Du Maurier based the character of Julius on that of her father, Gerald, that the possessiveness, the emotional demands and the sentiments Julius expresses were Gerald’s, and the words Gabriel speaks were her own thoughts. (Daphne du Maurier by Margaret Forster page 84)

At times melodramatic, this is a powerful novel, of a deprived, starving child who sold rats on the streets of Paris, and who dragged himself up from poverty and obscurity to become a man of  wealth and status and a cold-blooded sadist and murderer. I wrote about the beginning  of the book in an earlier post, describing how as a baby he was reaching for things beyond his grasp. The book ends as it began with Julius still reaching for the clouds:

He cried to them and they did not come. They passed away from him as though they had never been, indifferent and aloof, like wreaths of smoke they were carried away by the wind, born of nothing, dissolving into nothing, a momentary breath that vanished in the air. (page 308)

A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie

A Murder is Announced was first published in 1950. My copy is in a collection of four Miss Marple stories – A Miss Marple Quartet. I particularly like this cover, showing Joan Hickson as Miss Marple.

Synopsis from Amazon:

The villagers of Chipping Cleghorn, including Jane Marple, are agog with curiosity over an advertisement in the local gazette which reads: €˜A murder is announced and will take place on Friday October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m.’

A childish practical joke? Or a hoax intended to scare poor Letitia Blacklock? Unable to resist the mysterious invitation, a crowd begins to gather at Little Paddocks at the appointed time when, without warning, the lights go out€¦

Of course it isn’t a practical joke and someone is murdered. But the mystery is to identify the victim – it’s not as straight forward as it first appears and there are plenty of red herrings. I vaguely remembered seeing the TV version (with Joan Hickson, perfect as Miss Marple) years ago and although I couldn’t remember who did it knew that I had to pay close attention to the detail of where people were sitting or standing in the room at the Little Paddocks when the lights went out. But even though I read it very carefully I was still baffled. It all hinges on family relationships and details of the characters’ identities which are so skilfully hidden that I was kept guessing until very near the end.

It’s not without flaws, some of the characters are a bit sketchy, and some of the novel borders on farce, with Miss Marple imitating a dead person’s voice whilst hiding in a broom cupboard and Mitzi, the highly strung and paranoid cook, a refugee from Germany, screaming like a siren and insisting that the police will take her away and torture her. Still, I wish her recipe for the chocolate cake ‘Delicious Death’ had been revealed.

What I really like about A Murder is Announced is the picture it paints of life in post-war Britain, showing how society was in the process of change. Miss Marple is her usual brilliant self, now seeming very old with ‘snow white hair and a pink crinkled face and very soft innocent blue eyes’, chattering and fluttering, but still as sharp and observant as ever. As she explains the world has changed since the war when everyone knew who everybody was. But now people come and settle in a village and all you know of them is what they say of themselves – you don’t know who they really are! And so, she compares them to the people she does know, people in her village of St Mary Mead, which helps to throw light on the mystery. It’s a layered mystery involving past illness, identities, and questions of inheritance.