The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge

 I was absolutely fascinated by The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge, a novel about Captain Scott’s last Antarctic Expedition. It’s narrated by Captain Robert Falcon Scott and the other four men who died in the Antarctic having reached the South Pole – Petty Officer Edgar (Taff) Evans in June 1910; Dr Edward (Uncle Bill) Wilson, July 1910; Captain Scott: The Owner (Con), March 1911; Lt Henry Robertson (Birdie) Bowers, July 1911; and Capt Lawrence Edward (Titus) Oates, March 1912.

It’s fascinating not just as an account of the expedition, but also because it gets inside each man’s mind, it seemed to me, vividly describing the events as they progressed to the South Pole and the terrible conditions they had to endure. Beryl Bainbridge’s imagination and research combined make this a dramatic heroic story and an emotional roller-coaster set in the beautiful but deadly dangerous frozen landscape of the Antarctic.

Each character is distinctly drawn, each one revealing his thoughts, fears and hopes and the interaction between them reveals their personality clashes and friendships. The prejudices and class distinctions of the period come through strongly. The setting is superb – I could see the landscape and feel the dangers.

I finished reading this book nearly two weeks ago and apart from their final days one other episode stands out in my mind and that is the journey to the Emperor Penguin rookery at Cape Crozier undertaken by Wilson, zoologist Cherry-Garrard (Cherry) and Bowers. This section is narrated by Bowers. The journey was nearly seventy miles – Bowers described it:

I never thought the Owner would let us go, not with the Polar trek only three months off, but somehow Bill managed to talk him round. To reach the rookery where temperatures often register 100 degrees of frost, it’s necessary to scramble down cliffs exposed to blizzards sweeping ferociously across hundreds of miles of open snow plain. And all this in the dark! Exciting stuff, what? (page 133)

It took them far longer than they had anticipated and they endured dreadful conditions; at times they were ‘half delirious with exhaustion‘ and had ‘frost-bitten fingers bulging like plums.’ But Bowers thought:

It may be that the purpose of the worst journey in the world had been to collect eggs which might prove a scientific theory, but we’d unravelled a far greater mystery on the way – the missing link between God and man is brotherly love. (page 158)

Scott comes over as a sympathetic character, complicated, introspective and at times indecisive, and impatient at others. He is concerned that Amundsen will beat them to the Pole and is able to talk over his feelings with Wilson:

He understands me well enough to know that my continual harping on Amundsen’s  chances of beating us to the Pole isn’t down to self-interest, or a longing for glory, simply a desire to reach, in an endless process of addition and subtraction, a kind of mathematical peace. One hundred dogs, none of them presumably having fallen down a crevasse, must surely equal formidable odds.

It’s ironic that the same situation should be happening to me all over again. It’s barely three years since Shackleton sneaked off and nearly pipped me to the post. There again, I’d made no secret of my intentions. I’m not stupid enough to think of the Pole as mine, but I do detest underhandedness. (pages 116 – 117)

At times I had to remind myself that I was reading a novel, but then again there were passages where I had to remind myself that these events really did take place as they seemed so fantastical. Beryl Bainbridge has written a most remarkable book, full of facts seamlessly woven into the narrative, and full of emotion and feeling. It is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Reading The Birthday Boys has made me keen to read other books about the Polar expeditions and as I wrote in this post I have South with Scott and Race to The End to look forward to reading.

Note: The Birthday Boys fits into these Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, Mount TBR Challenge and What’s In a Name Challenge (book with a celebration in the title).

The English Spy by Donald Smith

I’d gone to my local library to collect Road to Referendum by Iain Macwhirter, a book I’d reserved after I read about on FictionFan’s blog, and was browsing the shelves when this book, The English Spy caught my eye. Road to Referendum is about the run up to the Independence Referendum to take place in Scotland in September 2014. It also has chapters on Scottish history leading up to the present day as background.  So, it was quite a coincidence finding The English Spy as this is a novel about the build up to the political Union of England and Scotland in 1707 – the Union that Independence for Scotland would break.

My knowledge of the Act of Union in 1707 was limited to just the fact that by that union Scotland and England, together with Ireland and Wales, became the United Kingdom and I thought it was to settle the successor to Queen Anne who was childless and ill. Of course, it was much more complicated than that and The English Spy tells the story of how Daniel Defoe, at that time still known as Daniel Foe, was sent to Scotland under secret instructions from the English government to persuade the Scots to give up their independence. It’s a fascinating story of intrigue and backstabbing amongst the members of the Scottish parliament!

The narration moves between multiple viewpoints, mainly in the first person and some in the third person of various characters, some obviously historical figures and others possibly(?) fictional ones. There are Foe’s own account, letters between Isobel Rankin, his landlady in Edinburgh and her friend Nellie in Glasgow, the journal of Lord Glamis and a third person narrative of Robert Harley, the first Earl of Oxford. There are several other characters who pop in and out of the story – Lady O’Kelly and Aeneas Murray amongst others. This is a story about spies and the struggle between various factions for power and once I had got the characters sorted in my mind I was swept along with the intrigue and dangers of the times, keen to see how the Union came about.

The English Spy is a mix of fact and fiction but A Warning to the Reader at the beginning of the book clarifies that Daniel Defoe had indeed been sent to Scotland and was required to provide London with ‘clandestine reports on affairs in the north’. The Scottish Government was led by the Marquis of Queensberry who favoured union with England and the Duke of Hamilton was opposed to the union. Donald Smith warns:

Yet why did Scotland surrender its hard won and long cherished independence? The historians remain divided. What is offered here is fiction, yet as Defoe himself shows, the truths or apparent deceits of fiction may be uncomfortably closer to home.

Now, over 300 years later the question of independence for Scotland is still in question!

Dr Donald Smith is a founding member of the Scottish Storytelling Forum and of Edinburgh’s Guid Crack Club, and he is currently Director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre at The Netherbow.  He has written, directed or produced over fifty plays and is a founding director of the National Theatre of Scotland.

Now to read what Road to Referendum has to offer.

Silver: Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion

I first read Treasure Island as a child. It’s a book that has remained in my memory as a great adventure story, so I was interested to see that Andrew Motion (poet laureate of the UK from 1999- 2009, now professor of creative writing at the University of London and fellow of the Royal Society) had written a sequel: Silver: Return to Treasure Island. I was intrigued and when the publishers offered me a copy to read and review I immediately accepted it.

Silver

Description from the back cover:

Silver is the rip-roaring sequel to the greatest adventure ever told: Treasure Island. Almost forty years following the events of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver have seemingly put their maritime adventures to rest. Jim has settled on the English coast with his son Jim, and Silver has returned to rural England with his daughter Natty. While their escapades may have ended, for Jim and Natty the adventure is only just beginning. One night, Natty approaches young Jim with a proposition: return to Treasure Island and find the remaining treasure that their fathers left behind. As they set sail in their fathers’ footsteps, Jim and Natty cannot imagine what awaits them. Murderous pirates, long-held grudges, noxious greed, and wily deception lurk wickedly in the high seas, and disembarking onto Treasure Island only proves more perilous. Their search for buried treasure leaves every last wit tested and ounce of courage spent. And the adventure doesn’t end there, since they still have to make their way home…

My view:

The book, narrated by young Jim Hawkins has a good beginning. I was immediately captivated by Jim’s encounter with Natty and his subsequent meeting with her father, Long John Silver, now a disintegrating body, emaciated, blind, shrunken and shrivelled but still raging with anger with a core of steel. As I had imagined a book by Motion would be, it’s beautifully written, and the scenes came to life as I read. The scenes at the beginning, on the island and in the final scenes are powerful and for me are the book’s greatest strength.

There is a lot packed into its pages, with plenty of references to Stevenson’s Treasure Island, so much so that part way through Silver I decided I had to re-read Treasure Island (so for me Silver really was a return to Treasure Island!). But this is not just a story about pirates, or the search for the silver that was left behind, it’s also a story about the island itself, about what happened to the three pirates marooned there for forty years and about the horrors of slavery and savagery.

On the whole I enjoyed Silver, but at times its pace slows, almost to a standstill and not just when the voyage on the Nightingale comes to a dead calm and the crew subside into a lethargy for several weeks, but also during some passages on the island which seemed to last an eternity – I felt I was languishing in the doldrums. There were times when I began to tire of the book, but it does pick up, with danger and death during a terrific storm.

One little touch amused me – one of the crew is a certain Mr Stevenson – ‘a Scotsman and a wisp of a fellow, whose place was generally in the crow’s nest, where he acted as our lookout.’ (page 115)

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (4 April 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099552655
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099552659
  • Source: review copy
  • My Rating: 3/5

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

 I often find with well-known books that all the world seems to love that they don’t live up to the hype, but To Kill a Mockingbird certainly does! It’s a wonderful book!

It was first published in 1960 and is set in the Deep South of  America in the 1930s. To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated by Scout (Jean Louise Finch) as she looks back as an adult to the Depression, the years when with her older brother, Jem, and their friend, Dill, she witnessed the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white girl. Scout’s father, Atticus, a lawyer defends Tom. It’s also the story of Boo Radley, their neighbour, a man who is never seen, who is said to only come out at night. The children are scared of him, people said he was ‘a malevolent phantom‘, but their curiosity makes them fascinated by the idea of getting him to come out.

It’s the story seen through the eyes of a child, but narrated by an adult. And it’s told as a series of episodes in the fictional town of Maycomb, revealing the hypocrisy, prejudice and social injustice of the times. I was immediately drawn into Scout’s world, seeing Maycomb and its inhabitants through her eyes.

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the court-house sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then; a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft tea-cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum. (page 5)

Scout is a feisty character, always prepared to stand up for what she thinks is right, but Atticus, who also stands for justice and the moral and ethical ideal, has to reign her in sometimes. The book is full of strong characters and for me the outstanding scenes are those when Atticus sat reading outside the jail to stop the lynch mob attacking Tom and the trial itself at the court-house. It is all so vivid I believed I was right there with them.

There is so much to think about reading this book and I could write page after page! But here are a few quotations that particularly struck me:

‘First of all,’ he [Atticus] said, ‘if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view -‘

‘Sir?’

‘- until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’ (page 33)

and

 Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

… Mockingbirds don’t do one thing, but make music for us to enjoy. they don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. (pages 99 – 100)

and

‘People in their right minds never take pride in their talents,’ said Miss Maudie. (page 109)

and

People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for … (page 192)

On equality:

We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe – some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others – some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men.

But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal – there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is the court. (page 226)

The sticking point, however, is that a court is no better than the people sitting on the jury …

Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier

I really enjoyed reading Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier. It’s been sitting unread for several years on the to-be read shelves and I’ve been meaning to read it for ages after reading her earlier book, Girl with a Pearl Earring. I should have got round to it sooner.

It begins:

I woke this morning with a stranger in my bed. The head of blond hair beside me was decidedly not my husband’s. I did not know whether to be shocked or amused.

Well, I thought, here’s a novel way to begin the new century.

It is 1901, the day after Queen Victoria’s death and the ‘I’ in this opening is Kitty Coleman, one of several narrators in this novel set in Edwardian England.

Synopsis from Tracy Chevalier’s website:

Two families visit neighboring graves in a fashionable London cemetery. One is decorated with a sentimental angel, the other an elaborate urn. The Waterhouses revere the late Queen and cling to Victorian traditions; the Colemans look forward to a more modern society. To their mutual distaste, the families are inextricably linked when their daughters become friends behind the tombstones. And worse, befriend the gravedigger’s son.

As the girls grow up and the new century finds its feet, as cars replace horses and electricity outshines gas lighting, Britain emerges from the shadows of oppressive Victorian values to a golden Edwardian summer. It is then that the beautiful, frustrated Mrs Coleman makes a bid for greater personal freedom, with disastrous consequences, and the lives of the Colemans and the Waterhouses are changed forever.

A poignant tale of two families brought reluctantly together, Falling Angels is an intimate story of childhood friendships, sexual awakening and human frailty. Yet its epic sweep takes in the changing of a nation, the fight for women’s suffrage and the questioning of steadfast beliefs.

My view:

This book covers the years from 1901 – 1908 when the world was on the cusp of change just before the outbreak of the First World War, and I found myself wondering what my grandmothers, who would have been much the same age as Kitty Coleman and Gertrude Waterhouse, had thought about it all. What would they have thought about the suffragettes for example? I suspect it would have been similar to one of the characters, Jenny Whitby, the Colemans’ maid servant, as they too were domestic servants. Jenny is horrified when she listens to the suffragettes, whilst she served them with scones at Kitty Coleman’s ‘At Home’:

What I heard made me want to spit. They talked about helping women but it turns out they are choosy about who exactly gets the help. They ain’t fighting for my vote – only for women who own property or went to university. (pages 227 – 228)

Maybe my great aunt who never married and became a matron at a public school would have had more sympathy and agreed with the suffragettes that all women would not get the vote all at once and they had to start somewhere. These are the early years of the suffragette movement culminating in the book in June 1908 with the Women’s March in Hyde Park to demand Votes for Women.

The change between Victorian and Edwardian England was a gradual one, as attitudes to life and death were transformed and the middle-class Colemans and the Waterhouses reflect these changing attitudes with the Colemans looking forward to the modern era, whilst the Waterhouses still value the Victorian traditions. I was interested in the discussion about cremation/burial, with Kitty favouring cremation  in opposition to her mother-in-law as they visited the columbarium (a place for keeping cinerary remains, ie ashes) that had recently been opened at the cemetery. Their discussion with Mr Jackson, the superintendent of the cemetery was a theological one in which he ends the discussion of how God could reunite the body and soul if the body has been burnt by saying:

Surely there is no difference between the decomposed remains of a buried body and the ashes of a burned one. … I would simply say that God is capable of all things, and nothing we do with our remains will stop Him if he wishes to reunite our souls with our bodies. (pages 37 – 38)

I liked the multiple first person narrator structure of the book, giving an all round view of events and the characters’ views and thoughts. It was easy to distinguish between them all, the two daughters, Maude Coleman and Lavinia Waterhouse in particular are very well depicted. The setting too is so well described that I could imagine myself wandering round the cemetery with all its gothic symbology, and see the suffragettes’ march with their banners ‘Deeds not Words’ and hear their cries of ‘Votes for Women’.

It’s an easy to read book that still manages to contain depth both of characterisation and of themes – family relationships, in particular that of mother and daughter, attitudes towards death and mourning, the change in social codes, the perils of being an unmarried mother and the beginnings of the women’s movement. I was fascinated by it!

This page on Tracy Chevalier’s website lists her books – I have one more of hers – The Lady and the Unicorn, I mustn’t wait too long before I read it!

Although I didn’t read this to take part in any challenges I realise that it fits in with several I’ve signed up to do – the Mount TBR Challenge, the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the What’s in a Name Challenge (in the category of book with the word ‘down’ or an equivalent in the title).

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

I knew absolutely nothing about Barnaby Rudge: a Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty before I started to read it. It’s not a book that I’ve seen dramatised. But whilst reading (very slowly) Claire Tomalin’s biography, Charles Dickens A Life I came across the following information. In May 1836, the year that Dickens, then 24, married Catherine Hogarth on 2 April, he agreed he would write a three volume novel, called Gabriel Vardon by November. But by November he was trying to withdraw from the agreement, due to his commitments in writing Pickwick and Sketches by  Boz. He began writing Gabriel Vardon in 1839 and it was only in February 1841 that its serialisation began. By then he had renamed it as Barnaby Rudge.

It’s a murder mystery as well as a historical novel, mainly concerning the events surrounding the Gordon Riots of 1780. The Riots began in protest to the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, which granted Roman Catholics exemption from taking the religious oath when joining the British Armed Forces and granted them a few liberties, previously denied to them. Led by Lord George Gordon the protests quickly turned violent, Parliament was invaded and Newgate prison was burned to the ground. I was rather surprised that Tomalin gave away most of the plot in describing Barnaby Rudge and gave away the identity of the murderer. I don’t intend to do the same as it spoilt the mystery for me.

Barnaby Rudge begins in 1775, five years before the riots as a group of customers in the Maypole Inn in the village of Chigwell, on the borders of Epping Forest and about 112 miles from London, recollect the murder of Reuben Haredale, the owner of The Warren, 22 years earlier to the day. His steward, a Mr Rudge was found months later, stabbed to death.The murderer had never been discovered. Reuben’s brother Geoffrey had lived at The Warren with his niece, Emma ever since.

From then on the book becomes much more complicated with many characters and sub-plots. There is the love story of Emma, a Catholic and Edward Chester, the son of Sir John Chester, a Protestant and opponent of her uncle, who is dead against their marriage. Also crossed in love are Joe Willet, whose father John Willet is the landlord of the Maypole and the captivating Dolly Varden whose father Gabriel Vardon is a locksmith. Barnaby Rudge is a simple young man, living with his mother. His pet raven, Grip goes everywhere with him. He’s a most amazing bird who can mimic voices and seems to have more wits about him than Barnaby. Grip is based on Dickens’s own ravens, one of whom was also called Grip. (Edgar Allen Poe was inspired by Dickens’s portrait to write his poem The Raven).

It’s a long book and in parts loses its impetus, but picks up when Dickens jumps five years forward into the Riots and I was taken aback by his vivid and dramatic descriptions of the violence and horror:

If Bedlam gates had been flung wide open, there would not have issued forth such maniacs as the frenzy of that night had made. … There were men who cast their lighted torches in the air, and suffered them to fall upon their hands and faces, blistering the skin with deep unseemly burns. There were men who rushed up to the fire, and paddled in it with their hands as if in water; and others who were restrained by force from plunging in, to gratify their deadly longing. On the skull of one drunken lad – not twenty, by his looks – who lay upon the ground with a bottle to his mouth, the lead from the roof came streaming down in a shower of liquid fire, white hot; melting his head like wax.

And then there is the attack on Newgate prison, the release of the prisoners and finally the scene as the mob set fire to the prison, scenes that rival the storming of the Bastille in A Tale of Two Cities.

By the end of the novel the murderer is revealed and all the plot strands are completed. There are a number of themes running through the novel – the relationship between fathers and sons, the position of authority, justice and the question of punishment for crime, and religious conflict. Dickens paints a picture of London, the dirt and poverty, the terrible condition of the roads, the perils of footpads and highwaymen which is in contrast to the countryside that still at that period surrounded London making it a cleaner, purer place to live in. There are detailed descriptions of the old inn, the Maypole and Vardon’s house and shop with their individual irregularities and strangeness.

And alongside all this are the characters, the restless innocent that is Barnaby, his over-protective and distracted mother, the melodramatic servant Miggs, the pure evil of Hugh, an idle servant at the Maypole who becomes one of the leaders of the riots, and Mr Dennis, the hangman to name but a few.

It wasn’t such a success as some of Dickens’s other novels but I think that that is not a fair reflection of its qualities. It’s almost a book of two parts and the dramatic second half, to my mind, more than makes up for the slow beginning which I had to read slowly and carefully. The portrayal of Barnaby Rudge is also masterly – a sympathetic but totally unsentimental characterisation of his ‘madness’ and his underlying common sense.

Barnaby Rudge was number 6 in the Classics Club Spin, which is the reason I’ve been reading it this June, rather than later.  I’ve had the book on my Kindle since March 2013, so not as long as some of my to-be-read books, so it also counts towards the Mount TBR Reading Challenge and the Historical Fiction Challenge too. There are numerous editions of Barnaby Rudge and each one gives different page numbers, depending, I suppose on the format and font size. The Kindle edition estimates its length at 845 pages, so it also counts towards the Tea and Books Challenge.

The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland

I can’t remember how I first came across Karen Maitland‘s books, but after I’d read Company of Liars I was hooked and bought The Owl Killers, a tale of witchcraft and pagan superstition set in 1321.

Karen Maitland has written four medieval thrillers, Company of Liars, The Owl Killers, The Gallows Curse, and Falcons of Fire and Ice, with The Vanishing Witch to be published later this year. She also writes joint medieval crime novels with a group of historical authors known as the Medieval Murderers.

I was going to summarise the novel but I think this description on Fantastic Fiction does it very well:

‘The Owl Killers’ is a novel of an embattled village and a group of courageous women who are set on a collision course – in an unforgettable storm of secrets, lust, and rage.

England, 1321. The tiny village of Ulewic teeters between survival and destruction, faith and doubt, God and demons. For shadowing the villagers’ lives are men cloaked in masks and secrecy, ruling with violence, intimidation, and terrifying fiery rites: the Owl Masters.

But another force is touching Ulewic – a newly formed community built and served only by women. Called a beguinage, it is a safe harbor of service and faith in defiance of the all-powerful Church.

Behind the walls of this sanctuary, women have gathered from all walks of life: a skilled physician, a towering former prostitute, a cook, a local convert. But life in Ulewic is growing more dangerous with each passing day. The women are the subject of rumors, envy, scorn, and fury, until the daughter of Ulewic’s most powerful man is cast out of her home and accepted into the beguinage – and battle lines are drawn.

Into this drama are swept innocents and conspirators: a parish priest trying to save himself from his own sins.a village teenager, pregnant and terrified,a woman once on the verge of sainthood, now cast out of the Church … With Ulewic ravaged by flood and disease, and with villagers driven by fear, a secret inside the beguinage will draw the desperate and the depraved – until masks are dropped, faith is tested – and every lie is exposed.’

My View:

The Owl KillersA long, historical novel well founded in its time and place; the historical detail is easily absorbed within the story, without feeling intrusive. There is a glossary of medieval terms and words at the end of the book which also helps to flesh out the detail. The story does indeed come alive through the descriptions of the physical and emotional lives of the characters in the small isolated community where the villagers have interbred – a sign of their belonging is their webbed fingers. Superstition, fear and belief in the supernatural rule their lives.

The novel is told through five narrators, which means there is a rounded picture of events, portraying the characters through their own eyes and also showing how they appear to others. I thought that was particularly well done, illustrating the tensions and misunderstandings between the characters.

The suspense builds as the tension increases, and I began to wonder if all the narrators were to be trusted. Fear of the ‘outsider’ is prevalent, the struggle for power dominates and the outsider is seen as the cause for events, such as floods, famine and disease, outside the villagers’ control. Religious and pagan beliefs clash, and the equality between men and women is challenged.

I found The Owl Killers a compelling story, at the same time down to earth and grounded in reality, yet mystical and mysterious and tragic as it explores the struggle to survive and the battleground between the old pagan beliefs and Christianity.