Seven White Gates by Malcolm Saville

Once more I’m behind with writing reviews – I blame it on the season! So to catch up I’m going to write some shortish posts with just a few thoughts on the books I’ve been reading.

Seven White Gates by Malcolm Saville is the second in his Lone Pine series. I first read some of his books when I was a child, but none of this series. But even so this was a nostalgic read for me and I would have really loved it if I’d read it years ago. It was first published in 1944. The Lone Pine books are about a group of children who formed a secret society in wartime Shropshire.

I particularly like the setting of Seven White Gates, in Shropshire not far from the border with Wales, an area rich in folklore and legend. It begins at the beginning of the Easter holidays, when Peter (Petronella) Stirling, who is fifteen, discovers that she cannot spend them at home with her father at Hatchholt, as he has to go away. Instead she is to stay with her unknown aunt and uncle, near Barton Beach, whose farm is under the Stiperstones mountain crested by the Devil’s Chair. The Stiperstones range lies within the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and is now on my wishlist of places to visit and the Devil’s Chair is really there:

The Devil’s Chair – Photo from Wikimedia Commons

She invites the other members of the Lone Pine club, David Morton, aged sixteen and his younger brother and sister, the annoying twins, Dickie and Mary, who are nine to stay at the farm with her. She meets a family of gypsies and makes a new friend, Jenny at Barton Beach, who all tell her the terrifying legends about the Stiperstones and the Devil’s Chair. Reuben warns her:

Remember, Petronella, our friend, never to be seen near the Stiperstones on the longest night of the year, for then all the ghosts in Shropshire and all the counties beyond meet on the summit – right on and around the Chair they meet – to choose their king … And any who venture out on that night and see the ghosts of all the years dead from hereabouts are stricken with fear and often do not live the year … (page 31)

What follows is an exciting adventure story. Peter’s Uncle Micah is a strange character, a forbidding. gloomy, unhappy man missing his son Charles who had left home some years earlier. It’s fast paced and full of danger for Peter and her friends as they explore the Stiperstones and its secrets.

The book is illustrated with full page black and white drawings and a plan of Seven Gates, which I found very useful in following the action!

Seven Gates plan

Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende

I picked up Portrait in Sepia up in a bookshop four years ago. As I knew nothing about it or the author it joined the other to-be-read books until just recently.

The opening pages of this historical novel grabbed my attention, about Aurora del Valle’s birth in 1880 in San Francisco in the Chinese quarter and referring to family secrets:

I have come to know the details of my birth rather late in life, but it would have been worse not to discover them at all, they could have been lost forever in the cracks and crannies of oblivion. There are so many secrets in my family that I may never have time to unveil them all: truth is short-lived, watered down by torrents of rain. (page 3)

Portrait in Sepia is part of a trilogy, with The House of the Spirits and Daughter of Fortune, and maybe it would have helped if I’d read the other two books, but I thought there was plenty of background history to the characters and I had no problem in following the story and distinguishing the characters.

Summary from the back cover:

After her mother dies in childbirth, Aurora del Valle is raised by her grandmother in San Francisco, but despite growing up in this rich and privileged environment, Aurora is unhappy. Haunted by terrible nightmares and the inexplicable absence of many of her childhood memories, and finding herself alone at the end of a love affair, she decides to travel to Chile to discover what it was, exactly, all those years ago, that had such a devastating effect on her young life. 

Aurora is the narrator and this the story of her family and after giving details of her birth, Aurora goes back to 1862 beginning her story with details about her grandparents. This is not a book you read quickly as there is a lot of detail, a lot of 19th century history of Chile, its mix of nationalities, politics and wars – at first I felt I was drowning in detail, but once I settled into the rhythm of the writing I began to appreciate Allende’s style. It takes you right into the characters, seeing them through Aurora’s eyes – her Chinese grandfather, Tao Chi’en, her uncle Severo and her two grandmothers, Paulina and Eliza, who both play a large role in her life. And there are many other colourful characters and momentous events in this book.

It’s a book about love, loss, identity, betrayal and about family relationships. It’s a portrayal of the strengths and weaknesses of the characters and their struggle to survive. Aurora tells her family’s story through looking at photographs, snapshots in time, through her own disjointed, incomplete and vague memories of her childhood and through conversations with her family members. Whilst she was still very young her two grandmothers decided her future, thinking that time would erase the memory of the traumatic events she had seen, never realising that the scenes would live forever in her nightmares.

Portrait in Sepia explores the nature of memory, how each moment of our lives is so transitory and how the past becomes confused as we try to recapture the moments we’ve lived through. Through photographs we can keep memories alive. As Aurora discovered:

Every instant disappears in a breath and immediately becomes the past; reality is ephemeral and changing, pure longing. With these photographs and pages I keep memories alive; they are my grasp on a truth that is fleeting , but truth none the less; they prove that these events happened and that these people passed through my destiny. Thanks to them I can revive my mother who died at my birth, my stalwart grandmothers, and my wise Chinese grandfather, my poor father, and other links in the long chain of my family, all of mixed and ardent blood. (pages 303-4)

Reading a book like this inevitably leads me on to yet more books, because now I want to read the other two books in the trilogy.

Looking Ahead

I rarely plan ahead which books I’m going to read, but as it’s 1 December tomorrow and not much reading time left in the year I thought I’d concentrate on reading from my to-be-read shelves. These are the books I think I’ll read:

Dec bks 2014

From the bottom up they are:

  • I’m currently reading Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende and finding it a bit of a struggle – mainly because the font is quite small and it’s difficult to see except in bright lighting – not good for reading in bed. This is historical fiction, a family epic set at the end of the nineteenth century in Chile and San Francisco.  Isabel Allende is a new-to-me author.
  • The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor, according to the book jacket this is a study in self-deception of a young newly married woman who believes she is ‘the soul of kindness’ and yet she wrecks everyone’s life she comes in contact with. I’ve not read any of Elizabeth Taylor’s books before (the author, not the actress).
  • An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge – set in 1950 this is also historical fiction. A Liverpool repertory theatre company are rehearsing its Christmas production of Peter Pan. The story centres around Stella, the assistant stage manager. I’ve enjoyed the Beryl Bainbridge books I’ve read so far, so I’m hoping this one is just as good.
  • And finally crime fiction, an Agatha Christie book because I haven’t read one of hers for a while. This is Hallowe’en Party, with Poirot and Ariadne Oliver in search of the killer of Joyce, a boastful thirteen-year-old found drowned in an apple-bobbing tub.

It remains to be seen if these are the books I’ll read in December!

Service of All the Dead by Colin Dexter

Colin Dexter 001A question on the TV show Pointless about the novels of Colin Dexter reminded me I have a few of his books to read, Service of All the Dead being one of them – and it was one of the pointless answers too! So that gave me the push to read it.  My copy is a secondhand book €“ an Omnibus containing  The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn as well as Service of All the Dead.

It really is one of the most puzzling crime fiction books I’ve read – if not the most puzzling! CI Morse sums it up himself:

There are some extremely odd points in this case, Lewis – or rather there were – each of them in itself suggestive but also puzzling. They puzzled all of us, and perhaps still do to some extent, because by the time we’d finished we’d got no less than five bodies on our hands and we were never in a position to learn what any of the five could have told us. (page 295)

Morse was on holiday, bored and at a loose end, when, stepping off a bus near St Frideswide’s Church in Oxford, he saw a notice advertising a jumble sale at the church – it seemed to him pre-ordained that he should enter the church. This set in motion his fascination with the death of the churchwarden, killed in the church the previous year and his subsequent discovery of the deaths of four more people. His interest is enhanced by the attraction he feels for Ruth Rawlinson, who cleans the church.

Aided by Sergeant Lewis, he digs into the history of the churchwarden, the vicar and members of the church and uncovers an intricate web of lies and deceit. Morse acts on instinct and consequently both Lewis and myself were in the dark for a great part of this book. He proposes several motives for the murders and alternate scenarios of what had happened before untangling the complex mess. There are plenty of red herrings and twists and turns.

Even though I was lost in the plot I found the book compelling reading – it’s a superbly constructed puzzle. This is certainly not a police procedural in the normal sense – there is little account of forensic evidence for example. It is strong on character and on place. The scene of the murders is St Frideswide’s, a fictional church, possibly based a couple of Oxford churches, St Michael-by-the-North-Gate with a Saxon tower and St Mary Magdalen and it is there in the tower that Morse suffers from his great fear of heights.

Service of All the Dead was first published in 1979. I suppose I must have seen the TV version of this book, as I watched all the episodes and this one was shown in 1987 – I don’t remember it! Inevitably as I read it I could see John Thaw as Morse and Kevin Whately as Lewis.

Blue Heaven by C J Box

There are lots of things I like about reading e-books, but I’ve found that my Kindle has become a Black Hole – it sucks in books and once they are in there they may never see the light of day again. I don’t even know how many books are lost in there. It’s so easy to download books and just forget they are there. With print books they’re always around sitting on the shelves and even if they are in boxes they take up space and are visible. Not so on an e-reader, the books are invisible.

So it was with Blue Heaven by C J Box – it has sat in my Kindle for nearly three years an unread and indeed a forgotten book. And here is where my liking for reading challenges came into its own, because I was looking for a book with ‘blue’ in its title for Bev’s Color Coded Challenge and up popped Blue Heaven.

I loved it and will certainly look out for more books by C J Box.

The action takes place over four days in North Idaho one spring. It’s a story about two children, Annie and William who decide to go fishing without telling their mother, Monica, and witness a murder in the woods. One of the killers sees them and they run for their lives.

It’s set in a farming community which is changing as people move into the area – specifically retired police officers, about 200 hundred of them, which is where the book title comes from, as according to Fiona Pritzle, the mail lady and local gossip, ‘They call North Idaho ‘Blue Heaven at the LAPD ‘. So when Monica reports her children missing it’s natural for the ex-policemen to volunteer to search for them and as the local sheriff is new to the job, they soon take over the investigation.

Annie and William meanwhile have discovered that not everyone is who they seem to be and it’s not safe even to call home. Until they met Jess Rawlins, an old rancher, a lonely divorcee who is in financial difficulty and struggling to keep his ranch going.

This is really a straightforward story of kids on the run but just to complicate things a little there is a newcomer, Eduardo Villatoro, another retired police officer from California, who arrives in town trying to trace the money stolen from a Santa Anita racetrack several years earlier when a young guard was killed.

It all melds together in a fast paced chase to save Annie and William, the tension maintained until the end. There are several things that kept me gripped as I read Blue Heaven. It’s one of those books that I find myself thinking about when I’m not reading it and keen to get back to it. First of all it’s written in a style that appeals to me – straightforward storytelling, with good descriptions of locality and characters, secondly characters that are both likeable and downright nasty, but not caricatures, and finally the ending was what I hoped, and also dreaded it would be.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 731 KB
  • Print Length: 353 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0312365705
  • Publisher: Corvus (1 July 2010)
  • Source: I bought it

Challenges: Color Coded Challenge, Mount TBR Challenge and My Kind of Mystery Challenge.

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This is the first Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson mystery, published in 1887. A Study in Scarlet is a novel in two parts. The first, narrated by Dr John Watson, begins in 1881 with Watson on nine months convalescent leave from the army, having been shot in his shoulder whilst in Afghanistan, followed by an attack of enteric fever. As a result he was weak and emaciated – ‘as thin as a lather and as brown as a nut.‘ He was looking for lodgings when he met a friend who introduced him to an acquaintance who was working in the chemical laboratory at the hospital – Sherlock Holmes, who he described as ‘a little too scientific for my tastes – it approaches to cold-bloodedness. … He appears to have a passion for definite and exact knowledge.’ 

They get on immediately and take a suite of rooms in 221B Baker Street, after Holmes astounded Watson by deducing that Watson had served in Afghanistan. Holmes describes his occupation as a ‘consulting detective‘ solving crimes for both private individuals and the police, using his intuition, observation and the rules of deduction. Tobias Gregson and Lestrade both Scotland Yard detectives regularly ask Holmes for his help.

Very soon they are involved in investigating the murder of Enoch J Drebber, an American found dead in the front room of an empty house at 3 Lauriston Gardens, off the Brixton Road,  with the word “RACHE” scrawled in blood on the wall beside the body.

A Study in Scarlet is a superb story introducing Conan Doyle’s characters – Holmes reminds Watson of

… a pure-blooded well-trained foxhound as it dashes backwards and forwards through the covert, whining in its eagerness, until it comes across the lost scent.

Holmes is his brilliant best, leaving the police officers behind as he discovers the killer. And there then follows a flashback, narrated in the third person, to Part II The Country of the Saints to America in 1847, specifically to a Mormon community, explaining the events that led up to to the murder, where John Ferrier and his adopted daughter Lucy are first rescued from death in the desert and then subjected to the community’s rules, specifically with regard to Lucy’s marriage. At first I just wanted to get back to the murder inquiry and find out how Holmes discovered the murderer’s identity, but soon I was engrossed in the American story. Eventually the two parts come together in Chapter VI as Watson resumes the narrative and  Holmes reveals how he solved the problem by reasoning backwards and from a ‘few very ordinary deductions‘ was able to catch the criminal within three days.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, written in a straightforward style with enough description to visualise both Victorian London and the American Wild West. I’d watched the TV version A Study in Pink in the Sherlock series, which although very different in some respects is surprisingly faithful to the book in others. I like both versions.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh in 1859 and died in 1930. He studied medicine at Edinburgh University, becoming the surgeon’s clerk to Professor Joseph Bell said to be the model for Sherlock Holmes’ methods of deduction. He gave up being a doctor with his success as an author and became involved in many causes – including divorce law reform, a channel tunnel, and inflatable life jackets. He was instrumental in the introduction of the Court of Criminal Appeal and was a volunteer physician in the Boer War. Later in life he became a convert to spiritualism.

See Fantastic Fiction for a list of works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Challenges: Read Scotland 2014, the Colour Coded Challenge, Mount TBR 2014 and My Kind of Mystery.

In Our Time edited by Melvyn Bragg

I began reading In Our Time, A Companion to the Radio 4 series back in August and I’ve been reading short sections on most days since then, finally finishing it this morning. It is long book and I didn’t want to read it quickly.

Melvyn Bragg has selected episodes on a wide variety of subjects encompassing the history of ideas – philosophy, physics, history, religion, literature and science. This book contains transcripts of 26 programmes, a selection from hundreds of programmes broadcast over eleven years. The benefit of having it in book form means that it’s easy to pause, think, or re-read to make sure I was understanding the subject as much as possible.

The programmes are listed on the back cover – Darwin was covered by four programmes:

In Our Time P1010233

With such a wide range of subjects it’s not so surprising that I found some more interesting than others, but I was surprised that some that didn’t appeal from the titles were actually fascinating and I now know more about black holes and antimatter than before – how much I can remember is another matter! I’m not alone in this, as Bragg said in the Afterword, his:

… only regret is that in the more testing subject areas he finds that his memory after the programme will not retain some or even much of what made the programme intriguing. (pages 573-4)

But it’s there in print, so I can refresh my memory at any time! I liked the fact that these are transcripts, not formal lectures, so that it comes across as conversations between experts with Bragg, every now and then asking the questions that someone like me, not knowing much about the subject, would want to ask. An ideal book for an eclectic reader!

It’s not easy to pick out highlights as there are so many that fascinated me. As Halloween is approaching I’m remembering the chapter on ‘Witchcraft’, but others as diverse as ‘Tea’, ‘Socrates’ and the four ‘Darwin’ programmes also stand out. And where else could you go from ‘Agincourt’ to ‘Plate Tectonics’?

In Our Time is broadcast each Thursday at 9am on BBC Radio 4. This week’s episode was ‘Rudyard Kipling’. This and all the other programmes are available as downloads.

  • Hardcover: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (17 Sep 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0340977507
  • ISBN-13: 978-0340977507
  • Source: my own copy