My Valentine’s Recommendation : A romance with a dark heart

Image : Pixabay

Valentine’s Day is around the corner – well, around the corner and long the corridor a bit, but definitely within spitting distance – and that being the case, I’ll be absent from Word Shamble for a few days.

Now, I know many of you are cynical about the event, trussing a 3rd century Roman saint to selling chocolates and jewellery and overpriced flowers, pressurising lovers into expensive purchases to prove the depth of something as ephemeral as love.

You have a right to feel cynical. The heart shaped balloons and cutesy ‘wuv woo’ bears and cards, the way manufacturers package seemingly unrelated items in red just to sell them to men desperate to get themselves out of trouble … It’s capitalism run riot and it ain’t pretty.

May I suggest an alternative to this unpleasantness?

Those who’ve followed this blog a while will already know my attachment to certain books – every reader has them, those tomes that burrow into your psyche, often at a young age, and squat in your brains like benevolent worms, raising their heads and twitching their tales every now and then to make their presence felt.

For me, Precious Bane by Mary Webb is one such book.

Set in the Shropshire of the early nineteenth century, it focuses on Prue Sarn, cursed with a ‘precious bane’ (a hare lip) that seems to rule her out of marriage, out of happiness, that shapes her life, her personality and her destiny.

Yes, it’s terrifically romantic and melodramatic – there are love spinnings and sin eaters and wise men. There’s a fair amount of yearning, of chaste glances between Prue and the gentle, magnificently named weaver Kester Woodseaves.

There’s darkness too. Unfathomable lakes, moody landscapes, curses, folk magic, pain, humiliation, betrayal, death – lots of death.

But aside from the fabulous prose, here’s a wonderful thing about the book. Prue is not Disney Cinderella beautiful. She is outshone by her best friend, seen as ugly and shunned. But she is brave and loyal and decent and all of that makes her shine through as a character, means that she’s no wishy-washy heroine who gets a fit of the vapours when spoken to unkindly. She works the fields – she drives a sodding plough, for heaven’s sake – and even though she suffers greatly, she is nothing like a victim.

So, here’s my recommendation.

Leave the chocolates, leave the flowers (okay, buy the flowers – I am a florist after all!), leave the teddy bears (no, really LEAVE the bears) and buy a copy of Precious Bane instead.

It’s one of the few truly romantic novels I’ve ever read.

And if you doubt the quality of Webb’s writing because you’ve never heard of her, take a look here to see why The Guardian newspaper’s Eloise Millar thinks she’s better than Thomas Hardy.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. See you on the other side.

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Books in the Blood 17: why reading the paperback is better than revering the hardback

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

When I was a kid, the way we kept books in our house reflected our attitudes to reading.

My mum had a shelf in the kitchen-diner, jostling with well-thumbed Catherine Cookson and Georgette Heyer novels and factual history books with tatty dust covers. The books were close to the table, well-used, accessible. My mum did – and still does – read incessantly, so she always needed something absorbing to hand, even if she was in the middle of making a white sauce or slicing a gammon joint at the time. Books were an everyday essential to be consumed along with the gammon and white sauce.

I don’t remember having a bookshelf of my own and as I caught the reading bug from my mum and like her always had a book ‘on the go’, I suspect I ‘shelved’ mine on the floor. To say my bedroom was untidy would be to seriously underestimate the health and safety – and hygiene – implications. Imagine the contents of every chest of drawers, wardrobe and toy cupboard in a nine year old’s bedroom – the pink denim flares, the Sindy dolls, the Teddy bears … the amputated limbs and severed heads of Sindys and bears. Now imagine all of that tipped on the floor and mixed with orange squash, crushed Bourbons, mouldy tea cups and Toffo wrappers, with the vague whiff of stale socks and you’ll be getting somewhere close to the ‘experience’ that was my room.

The tragedy is, of course, that when I eventually did clean and tidy this biohazard, I probably killed a cure to some exotic disease along the way. Cleanliness: potentially disastrous for the future of mankind.

My dad treated books in a much less cavalier fashion.

His education had not been the best. It’s not that he wasn’t intelligent, but I suspect he had undiagnosed dyslexia and as he was at school in the 1950s when dyslexic kids were usually filed under ‘slow and lazy’ he was never given the option of Further or Higher Education – manual work was his destiny.

I think because of this, dad put reading and education on a pedestal. He saw them as gateways to a better life, a kinder, easier life. Maybe that’s why he collected serious books – nothing lightweight, nothing ‘fun’, always educational, informative or worthy.

The books I remember most clearly were the complete works of Charles Dickens. Green leather bound with gold lettering on the spines, they sat in a row on the shelf, a little out of place on the plasticised hardboard – too perfect to be touched.

I remember him telling me how wonderful Dickens was. How Oliver Twist’s Fagin could charm and cheat and Bill Sikes would terrify, and the murder of Nancy would leave you breathless, sleepless, drenched in the poor girl’s blood. How for every Quilp, Wackford Squeers and Uriah Heep that emerges to blight the lives of our heroes, there’ll be a Peggotty, Joe Gargery or Mr Brownlow to help them.

He clearly loved the books, but I was nine or ten at the time and more into reading The Beano or finding my lost Misty comics than slipping onto a nineteenth century idiom. It was too challenging for me – to boring.

I never read a single one of those bright shiny tomes. They stayed on the shelf, remaining relics to gaze on, rather than worlds to experience.

The Works of Charles Dickens have become Books in the Blood not through my dad’s copies, but through ones I bought myself years later. Mine were only cheap paperbacks – not a scrap of green leather or gold leaf anywhere. But the words were the same – those amazing characters, old London brought to life – and that was what mattered.

Books in the Blood #16: Why crime pays – medieval style

A funky, chunky monk. Image: Pixabay

A funky, chunky monk.
Image: Pixabay

Policemen are everywhere, aren’t they?

I mean, not in real life, obviously. Bobbies on the beat went the way of Marathon bars and the not-so-smiley smilodon fatalis (what they called a Sabre Toothed Tiger when I was small).

What I mean is, the one place you’ll always find a copper or many coppers (what is the collective noun for policemen? A morose? A renegade? A doughnut?) is on the nearest screen. Film and TV have built season after season, year after year on Peelers and their careers. From Dragnet and Fabian of the Yard through to countless CSIs and the wonderful True Detective, the police drama is the pillar on which viewing is built.

As far as film and programme makers are concerned, crime really does pay.

Of course, crime in the creative arts did not originate on the screen, but in the leathery embrace of books. Edgar Allan Poe – yes, that cheerful rogue  – is credited with creating the first fictional detective, Dupin in The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Later came Sherlock Holmes (though of course not actually a policeman) and from there, the genre went from strength to strength.

Now, I confess, I don’t read many crime novels. My most recent, back in the summer, were The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin, and The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson though I bought both largely on the grounds of their historical settings (1930s New Orleans and an 18th century debtors’ prison) rather than the fact they featured mangled corpses. And the Axeman features a young Louis Armstrong playing amateur detective, so how could I resist?

For me, the problem with a lot of crime fiction is the gore. I don’t mind the odd death littering my fiction, the odd imagined corpse to step over. But I don’t really like exuberant death scenarios constructed by hyper intelligent, over educated multiple killers, who spend their time finding excuses to cut people up rather than turning their intelligence to something useful such as finding out why socks disappear inside washing machines and why politicians lose all ethics the moment they’re elected.

Because of this, ‘cosy crime’ has always been an attractive sub-genre for me, focussing on the detectives and their characters rather than a dozen interesting ways to flay the human torso.

Enter today’s Books in the Blood offering,

The Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters.

I read a lot of these when I was a teen and loved them.

The books are set in a monastery in medieval Shrewsbury – a town on the English / Welsh border – and one of the big draws is Cadfael himself. A kindly Welshman, he came late to the religious life, having been a soldier, sailor, lover and amateur student of herbalism. His skills with medicines are superlative, he has a romantic streak in him a mile wide, a profound sense of justice and a seaman’s rolling gait.

He has his own garden, where he grows plants for his many remedies and a herbarium, chockablock with sticky bottles and leaky animal skin flasks and bunches of aromatic herbs drying from the beams – a place I was often happy to imagine myself.

The stories are set during the Anarchy – a 12th century English civil war when the crown was disputed by King Stephen and his cousin the Empress Matilda. Peters throws a good dose of real history into the mix, so the books are filled with sieges and battles. Violence is never far away.

In truth, the Cadfael character is a bit too modern to be of his time.

He studied with Arab scholars – no racist then. He loves and respects women. His sense of justice is twentieth century, not medieval – no ducking stools and trial by ordeal for Cadfael, but fair judgements by honest men. He’s practical and devoid of superstition, save the religious beliefs you’d expect from a Benedictine monk – pretty rare I’d imagine, in an age when sin was thought to cause illness and dog-headed men supposedly inhabited the far flung reaches of the world.

I confess, I found Peters’ habit of shoehorning a pair of star-crossed young lovers into every story a little wearing after a few books, but it’s a small complaint really.

I loved the tales for their setting, their atmosphere and for the salty old seadog Cadfael. Finer company you will not find this side of the 12th century.

Books in the Blood #15: When fiction kills your childhood

Should've gone to Specsavers Image: Pixabay

Should’ve gone to Specsavers
Image: Pixabay

Imagine…

You reach the end of the book you’re reading, you close the cover. For the last few chapters, you were racing to the end, wanting, needing to know what happened to the characters you’ve come to care for. Yet, a still small voice niggling in a dark corner of your brain told you to hold back, slow down, that this was a truly great book and you might not read anything as good for years in the future – perhaps ever.

But all things end and so does the book. And you’re devastated. Because it was so good, so powerful, you know it’s changed you a little, and the world doesn’t look quite the same anymore. The book haunts you for days, weeks, the characters returning time and again, demanding to be remembered and it takes a while until you’re able to read another book again with the same enthusiasm, because nothing – nothing – can compare. Everything is a pale shell, a hollow, fruitless waste of paper compared to that book.

Ever felt this way? Oh, please tell me you have, because this is what reading and literature are all about.

Now, we know not all books can be like this. If they were, none of us would ever go to work or cook dinner, or eat because we’d all be huddled under our duvets, curled up on the sofa or tucked up in the airing cupboard (look, you gotta get your peace and quiet where you can),  devouring yarn after yarn until we starved, became bankrupt and had our houses repossessed, until mankind wasted away into its own imagination and left the earth for the next dominant race – probably telepathic ants. Riding cockroaches. Who keep aphids as pets.

Anyhow, be grateful there aren’t too many brilliant books out there, that shops contain their fair share of mediocrity or humanity would come to an end much sooner than its current expiry date, whenever that is. Yes, a rare reason to thank Jeffrey Archer.

So in your life you’ll read your fair share of stinkers. After a few years of independent reading, and learning from early mistakes, we all become a little more cautious, a bit selective in our habits. Hopefully when you’re a few decades into your lifetime of readership, you’ll have narrowed down what you like, what you don’t and you’ll get better at filtering out most of the thoroughly dreadful. Many books you read will be ‘good’ – many more will be ‘okay’.

But you won’t read too many that fulfil the criteria at the start of this post. How many do you reckon? Maybe five? A handful more? Tell me you’ve had that feeling more than ten times, and I know you’re pulling my leg. Or deluded. Or really easily pleased, and if you fall into the latter category, do stay in touch for when I publish my own books.*

One of the few novels that hit me in this way was this week’s Book in the Blood,

1984 by George Orwell.

Now, it may be that I read it just at the right age. I was about twenty I think, not long hooked up with my old man – still very smitten. We were living in one of the many unsavoury flats we rented as a young couple, though I’m not sure if it was ‘the one some numpty tried to burn down’, or ‘the one with the bipolar neighbour upstairs who was convinced gates had electric currents flowing through them and accused my dear father-in-law of murdering his best friend’.**  

I was young, in love and despite our neighbour’s best efforts, hopeful for the future. I think I still thought ‘everything will be alright in the end’ and shook my head at the news wondering why all the people of the Middle East and Ireland just couldn’t just share a pot of tea, have a jolly good chat and put their differences behind them.

Then I read this book and finished it feeling totally devastated.

According to Orwell, I’d been misled all my life – love could not conquer all. In fact, love could bring you nothing but pain and horror and Room 101. Governments could warp and crush the individual at a whim, could destroy the strongest love as easily as putting a rat in a cage.

I don’t blame the book for disabusing me of my romantic ideals – I think life does a pretty good job of doing that to us all in the end anyway. But it shook me for a while and in its way was more of a rite of passage for me than my first drink in a pub or my first kiss.

Orwell set me on my real journey from being a child to becoming an adult, with the heavy weight of knowledge that entails.


Which book made you feel this way? Did 1984 leave you cold or shake your world?


*Clearly a huge joke. I’m “marvellous – a must read every time” Lynn’s Mum.

** These, of course, being the episodes of Friends written by an overworked script writer suffering from a very nasty caffeine overdose.

Books in the Blood #14 : Why do fictional heroines have to be beautiful to be loved?

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

Now, so far my Books in the Blood have been on the populist side, or at least books many of you will have read. Some of this is due to my featuring so many school set books – To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Anne Frank, Shakespeare plays, Lord of the Flies.

Clearly the curriculum developers know what they’re doing. It’s not meant as an insult when I describe some of these choices as the literary equivalent of a parasitic bug that’s burrowed into your brain – once it’s got its hooks in, it won’t detach.

But with BITB #14 – or Bitby 14 as I’ve suddenly decided to call it – the book choice is one that many of you won’t have heard of, by an author who died almost ninety years ago and I’m suspect is largely unknown.

Now, just as a preamble, I must explain there’s a big part of me that’s always despised romantic fiction.

Before you legions of ladies (and let’s face it, it’ll be mostly ladies) rise up and bludgeon me to death with your nearest weapon – a pair of Manolo Blahnik stilettos, say, or a passing Pomeranian – I admit that (as you can deduce from my sniffy comment) I have a twisted view of the genre.

You see, when I was growing up, the only examples I’d heard of were Barbara Cartland and Miles and Boon and the covers of M & Ball hazily painted swooning females and towering Milk Tray men – were enough to put me off. Remember, I loved mystery and adventure stories most and would soon embark on years of little else but Dean Koontz and Stephen King novels. I was beyond heaving bosoms and being swept up in manly arms.

Then came the BBC adaptation* of Mary Webb’s

PRECIOUS BANE,

with the towering Janet McTeer (literally towering, as she stands at just over 6 feet) in the role of Prue Sarn.

Prue’s my kind of heroine. You see, I’m always mildly irritated by attractive leading ladies. You know the ones – they’re feisty with tousled hair and an untamed beauty and men tend to fight over them at the drop of a tricorn hat.

This seems to me an inherently flawed starting point. Most of us – even in a kind light with a little Vaseline softening the lens – can’t be described in such terms. Most of us are lucky enough to be okay looking, neither drop dead gorgeous nor ‘cover her face’ ugly. But even if we are conventionally unattractive, should it naturally follow that we’re undeserving of love? No, of course it shouldn’t.

So why are many romantic heroes and heroines so stunning? Surely, that alienates the majority of readers, demonstrating to the young and single that the only way any of us will receive passionate, breath taking love is by having a new nose / boobs / chin / cheekbones and industrial strength liposuction.

I adored Prue because she starts the story on the aesthetic back foot. You see, she’s born with a harelip (we’d more generously call it a cleft palate these days) which gives her an unmistakable facial deformity. Not only that, she’s unlucky enough to have been born into a rural society during the nineteenth century, so because of her lip, she’s believed to be cursed and possibly a witch.

Prue’s probably a little retiring for modern tastes – she does have to be rescued by a man at one point – but as the book was first published in 1924, this is hardly surprising. She’s cowed, bullied and put upon by family and friends alike – the assumption being that a ‘hareshot’ girl will never get a lover, and as she can work as hard as most men, she may as well be used as free labour on her brother’s farm.

But Prue is kind hearted, intelligent and brave in her way and she wins her man not by looks alone – but by being a lovely girl. As I was a lumpy, lonely singleton living in a thatched cottage in the broad expanse of the Suffolk countryside when I first encountered this story, you can imagine how it appealed to me.

Along with the romance, there’s a lot of death, a whiff of the supernatural, plenty of superstition and a beautiful snapshot of a lost, rural Shropshire, filled with ‘sineaters’, a wizard called Beguildy and a brooding countryside of meres and mists that is both protector and death bringer to the inhabitants.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read Precious Bane and old cynic that I am, it still weaves a spell over me now.

‘Saddle your dreams before you ride’em.’


*With apologies, this is the only clip I could find for the BBC adaptation – skip through and you’ll find Janet. I gather it’s not available on DVD either. As Sarn Mere, it is lost in the mists.

Books in the Blood # 13: How to make teenagers love Shakespeare

Sandals? In Scotland? The man was clearly deranged. Image: Pixabay

Sandals? In Scotland? The man was clearly deranged.
Image: Pixabay

There’s no more attractive sight than seeing a man in costume. Well, certain costumes. Not clown ones with massive feet and red noses and the whole scary white make up thing.

I was thinking more along the lines of historical costume. There were just certain periods in history when fashion got it right so far as accentuating the finer points of the male form goes.

A while back my husband went to a big work do. As the party was fancy dress and the theme Pirates, the staff were able to hire clothing from a stage costumiers and my husband came home with a beautiful 18th century style frock coat, complete with brass buttons and braid and breeches to match. And a tricorn hat. To say he looked dashing was rather an understatement. I tried to persuade him to hire it for an extra few days over the weekend, but he demured. Coward.

It’s not just 18th century costume either.

Anyone remember Blackadder? Course you do. Remember Rowan Atkinson’s transformation between series’ one and two? He went from a snivelling dweeb with a bowl haircut and an outrageous selection of positively aggressive codpieces in the first series to an Elizabethan gallant, all trimmed beard, black doublet and hose and pearl drop earring in the second.

Now, I’m sure no one would ever class Rowan Atkinson as a heart throb. One of Britain’s greatest comedy actors? Yes. Sexy? No. Not until he was strung into that black velvet. Or is that just me? (No – it’s definitely my mother as well.)  

Which kind of brings me to this week’s Books in the Blood:

SHAKESPEARE PLAYS.

I loved Shakespeare at school – eventually.

But you see, people start the study of Shakespeare all wrong.

We’re introduced during those turbulent, troublesome teenage years, when your body’s like a chemistry set, a frightening jumble of hormones shaken together in all the right quantities to produce mental instability on a cosmic scale. And the way schools ease us into the works of the greatest British writer, with his themes of social climbing, cross dressing, regicide, suicide and murder, murder, murder is by showing us the text first.

Clearly, I get this. As a lover of words I know that what makes Shakespeare great, what makes him endure through four centuries and presumably into the distant future for as long as man exists, are his use of words, his prose and poetry, the way he describes the human condition.

I get this. But I’m not sure most teenagers do.

What teenagers get is difficult (occasionally impenetrable) language, loaded with Classical, mythological and medieval references they don’t recognise and jokes that just aren’t. They and their classmates have to take on roles, to read the text in class and if there’s anything less romantic than a self-conscious fourteen-year-old stumbling through

If I profane with my unworthiest hand

This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

while his mates are laughing and lobbing spit balls at him, I don’t know what is.

But I have a radical solution.

Before teachers hand out text books, before teen eyes settle on a single letter of the great man’s work, before the kids have had the chance to feel bamboozled, flummoxed, lightminded or just plain bored by the Bard experience …

TAKE THEM TO A LIVE PERFORMANCE FIRST

Shakespeare wrote plays. Plays which were meant to be performed and watched and gasped at and laughed through. They were NOT meant to be read and analysed, line by line, couplet by couplet, in one hour chunks in enclosed, dusty classrooms with the lure of sunshine and break time taunting you through the window.

Let them feel that adrenalin rush of a live performance. Preferably take them to see a tragedy, because all that intrigue, sex and violence that accompanies Macbeth, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet tick every box in the teen brain stem. Let them hear swords clash, see the actors stumble and spit their lines and argue and kiss.

The students won’t understand every line. They will miss some of the references. But they might just leave the theatre with an initial good impression of Shakespeare. Then at least when they do look at the texts they might remember that sword fight, that kiss. The text might make more sense and they might realise Shakespeare isn’t boring.

And as they plough through iambic pentameter, they might remember the dashing hero in the doublet and hose too.


Every time I discuss Shakespeare I share alink with Desperately Seeking Cymbeline – and today will be no exception.

Lord of the Flies : Books in the Blood # 12

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

The Romans believed that human beings were not born properly formed, that they need shaping to enable them to grow into decent citizens. This is why they beat their children as a matter of course – how on earth were you supposed to breed effective conquerors and Empire builders if you didn’t punch all the softness out during the formative years?

In the Middle Ages, people thought bear cubs were born as a formless lump and the reason their parents licked them so much was that they had to be pushed into the right shape – imagine a blob of furry modelling clay and you’ve got the idea. Hence the expression ‘licked into shape’.

‘Where are you going with this?’ I hear you cry, and by the way I do wish you wouldn’t do that – it’s like having a virtual Greek Chorus following me across the webby-sphere. Stick with me – a point will be made.

I can see where these ancient thinkers were coming from. Maybe not with the bears, but to be fair they probably just made that up – I’m sure you could count the number of Medieval thinkers who got close to a bear cub and lived on one hand. Not one of their hands, of course, because presumably they’d come away without digits to do any counting on. But I digress.

But the Romans had a point, because human’s are born only partly formed. We lack in experience and knowledge, of course, as anyone who’s ever watched a toddler try and do almost anything can testify. They fall over,  bump into furniture, burst into tears seemingly without reason, burble nonsense then start throwing things when you can’t understand them … They are my Uncle Stan after a Payday Friday visit to the Squint and Spyglass pub.

And emotionally, small children are bit … Odd. This may be controversial (and completely unproven), but it seems  to me children are born without empathy – it’s something they learn with experience. Ever seen a toddler fall and hurt itself whilst surrounded by other toddlers? The rest of the crowd carry on pushing building bricks up their noses and eating the contents of the sandpit.  I’m not really suggesting that we’re all born sociopaths and that it’s only with experience and example that we learn to care for others … Or am I?

Which brings me onto today’s Books in the Blood,

Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

Now, this is another Secondary School set book that many of you will have read. I already know from previous conversations online that some of you  REALLY didn’t like this book. And who can blame you? To be honest, I’d be a little worried for anyone who read this book time and time again. If this is your go-to book when you’re feeling low, when you want to snuggle up in your onesy, a big mug of Horlicks in hand … You should be wearing that rather fetching jacket with the fastenings at the back – you know the one with the long sleeves and the buckle motif.

This is a book to admire, but is it one to love?

It’s very well written – remember the scene on the beach at night, the description of the light on the waves, of the bright fish swimming around a body?

But the bodies, of course are one of the problems. Because Golding creates a world devoid of adults, stuffed with young boys and once they’ve shrugged of any semblance of civilisation, they revert to that primal state the Romans were so worried about. The world the boys create is nasty and brutish, where there’s no room for the soft, the sensitive or the weak. It’s an unjust world where those with a sense of decency won’t survive long. (I can hear you students of history shouting ‘But that’s what Roman society was all about.’ A discussion for another time, friends).

I suppose it’s many people’s first introduction to dystopian fiction and there’s little out there that’s more dystopian. Have you heard anyone criticise the plots of The Hunger Games and other YA books for being too violent for the young, as if this is a recent phenomenon, a symptom of the modern era’s degradation? Just remind them of this book and the fact it was school that made us read it.

I remember finding it creepy, disturbing, genuinely depressing, making me want to flee back to the reassuring comforts of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. If this was what ‘adult reading’ was all about, give me the Beano.

I’ve said this before on Word Shamble, remember Golding taught at a boys’ school – if anyone knew about how heartless children can be, it was him.

A sobering thought.