The Glass Books Trilogy – an awfully fun adventure!

The Glass Books Trilogy by G W Dahlquist

Bantam in the USA, reputedly paid début novelist Dahlquist an advance of $2,000,000 for the first two installments in this series. Although the first was well received, apparently they lost shedloads of money on the deal. Penguin, the books’ publisher in the UK, also published the first volume with a big fanfare.

Initially it was only available on subscription, in ten limited edition weekly installments – the covers of which got darker in hue as the story progressed. The last one arrived just in time for Christmas together with a special sheet of wrapping paper. A standard hardback followed, but no prizes for guessing that I discovered it in time to get the installments! (See below).

The third volume is just out in hardback, and I’ve been immersing myself in it and its companions this summer. Having read the first when it came out, I just reminded myself of the names and places of it and how it ended. The three together total over 1900 pages of tremendous adventure and fun.

So what are the books all about?

I shall attempt to concentrate on themes and character rather than give too much of the plot away. One note before I start, despite the assertion that you can read the volumes out of order (there is a too short synopsis at the beginning of the third), you should only read them in the published order, especially to experience the adventure as our heroine Miss Celeste Temple does…

The era is Victorian, the location is an unnamed city – much like London, but in a continental sort of way – a bit Dutch, Danish, Germanic too. The story opens at the Boniface Hotel where a young plantation heiress, Miss Temple, is recently arrived pending her marriage to Roger Bascombe. When the engagement is ended with no reason given, Celeste feels the need to investigate, and ere long she gets herself into a bad crowd of debauched aristos which the boring Roger had been drawn into, known as the Cabal.

At a masked ball at Harschmort House, the home of the Cabal’s millionaire backer, Lord Vandaarif, Celeste meets the other key characters – both good and bad who play a huge part in her future. There’s the sensitive military doctor Abelard Svenson, personal physician to the Prince of Macklenburg and Cardinal Chang, a killer for hire with a natty fashion habit – and they’re the good guys!  The villains are even more colourful – we meet the Comte d’Orkancz – a classic mad scientist firmly in the steampunk mode, and the Contessa di Lacquer-Sforza, a raven-haired, lusty Venetian who is playing the Cabal at their own game; here Celeste meets the Contessa for the first time…

Miss Temple turned to see the woman in red, from Roger’s car. She no longer wore her fur-collared cloak, but she still had the lacquered cigarette holder in her hand, and her bright eyes, gazing fixedly at Miss Temple through the red leather mask, quite belied their jewelled tears. Miss Temple turned, but could not speak. The woman was astonishingly lovely – tall, strong, shapely, her powdered skin gleaming above the meager confines of the scarlet dress. Her hair was black and arranged in curls that cascaded across her bare shoulders. Miss Temple inhaled and nearly swooned from the sweet smell of frangipani flowers. She closed her mouth, swallowed, and saw the woman smile.

The Comte has invented a new drug using mineral indigo clay – something Macklenburg has in abundance. This is used to make blue glass, a means to enslave and brainwash by putting people through a alchemical Process, or via blue glass cards, which can store memories and hypnotise anyone who views them and by which you can drain memories and then someone else can experience them, and once viewed, never forgotten.

The blue glass cards are very useful to the Cabal – programmed with erotic memories, users can have an orgy in their own heads. The effects can be lasting in a receptive mind, which horrifies the prim Miss Temple when she is subjected to a card containing some of the Contessa’s erotic adventures, which adds a certain frisson to the procedures!

The Cabal are out to overthrow the existing regime, using the corrupting influence of the blue glass process and the books, sowing chaos everywhere. Celeste finds herself linking up with Svenson and Chang to stop them – three against many. Their lives changed forever, the trio embark on an adventure, which will put their lives at risk countless times and take them to the limit of their physical being.

If the first volume is about the discovery of the Cabal and their plans, the second takes them out into the wider world with the trio individually searching for the key glass book, the third finally brings them together again.

Celeste, Chang and Svenson take it in turns to tell the story. All three volumes could have done with some editing, but they certainly are pageturners – once started, I had to finish. The sheer amount of action on each page is dizzying, be it fighting, spying, scheming, and not forgetting a lot of racy moments! The plot is totally convoluted, and the cast of supporting characters so huge, that you are always in danger of totally of losing where you are. Frankly, it doesn’t matter – as long as you believe that Miss Temple, Chang and Svenson are always doing the right thing.

My favourite characters were Chang and the naughty Contessa, visualising the dandy assassin Chang as Gary Oldman, (surely a great casting suggestion). While I couldn’t see a particular actress as the resourceful Contessa, she is definitely in the mould of ‘the woman‘ from the Sherlock Holmes mystery A Scandal in Bohemia – Irene Adler.

I think I enjoyed the first book the most for its mix of sheer inventiveness and heady action. The second was naturally perhaps rather transitory but certainly darker, setting up the grand finish in volume three, for as in Harry Potter, the Dark Lord of the Cabal must be defeated.  The epilogue also leaves some intriguing possibilities open for further adventures.

If you’re tempted to embark on this journey, do start at the beginning. If you enjoy The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, you’ll likely get on with its sequels.  If you do, I hope you’ll find it as much fun as I did.

Vol 1 (8.5/10), Vol 2 (7/10), Vol 3 (8/10)

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I bought the first two, and got the third from the publisher – thank you.
To explore further at Amazon UK, please click below:
The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters – Penguin pbk 2006, 784 pages
The Dark Volume – Penguin pbk 2009, 528 pages
The Chemickal Marriage – pub July 2012, Viking Hardback, 528 pages

You shall go to the ball …

Invitation To The Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann

Florence at Miss Darcy’s Library is hosting a week of reading Rosamund Lehmann. She is another of those authors from the middle decades of the twentieth century that I’ve been meaning to read for ages – and luckily I had one of her books on my shelf.

Invitation to the Waltz, her third novel, was published in 1932.  Set in the 1920s, it is the story of Olivia Curtis’s first dance. Written in three parts: the lead up to the dance and getting her dress, the day of the dance and getting ready, then the dance itself.

It all starts on Olivia Curtis’s seventeenth birthday.  Her older sister Kate has come to wake her up, and Olivia is reluctant to get out of bed …

Another five minutes, thought Olivia, and shut her eyes. Not to fall asleep again; but to go back as it were and do the thing gradually – detach oneself softly, float up serenely from the clinging delectable fringes. Oh, heavenly sleep! Why must one cast it from one, all unprepared, unwilling? Caught out again by Kate in the very act! You’re not trying, you could wake up if you wanted to: that was their attitude. And regularly one began the day convicted of inferiority, of a sluggish voluptuous nature, seriously lacking in willpower. After I’m married I shall stay in bed as long as I want to. Girls often marry at my age. Seventeen today.

The novel is full of Olivia’s internal monologues. She discusses everything withself, analysing, trying to understand her observations, but she’s also a romantic and wants to believe the best of everyone and everything.  Today, she’d much rather stay in bed, than do breakfast with the family and be the centre of attention.

To go to one’s first dance, one needs a dress.  Luckily one’s mother gave one a bolt of flame-coloured silk for one’s birthday. Mother would have preferred a paler colour, but Kate persuaded her. So Olivia takes the cloth to the young Miss Robinson to have it made up.  Poor Miss Robinson has been left on the shelf – her family is too respectable for her to marry a farmer, and after the war, there is no-one else, so she makes dresses.

All week, anticipation builds towards the dance.  Some relief comes when mother’s godson Reginald is able join them to partner the girls. He turns out to be a bit of an odd fish, planning to take holy orders.  Neither girl thinks he will be the man for them.

Time to get ready: bathing, primping, hair-styling, and finally – the dress …

‘It simply doesn’t fit anywhere…’ The words burst from her chokingly. ‘It’s the most ghastly – It’s no good. I won’t go looking like a freak. I must simply rip it off and burn it and not go to the dance, that’s all.’ She clutched wildly at the bodice, as if to wrench it from her.
Kate cried suddenly:
‘You’ve got it on back to front!’
Olivia’s hands dropped.
‘Have I?’ she said meekly.
‘You would.’ With the asperity of relief Kate seized and reversed her hurriedly, plunged her once more through the armholes. ‘Now let’s see you. Hm. It drops at the back now, of course.’
Olivia turned away from the glass while Kate hooked, tweaked, patted her into shape.It was a comfort to look into space for a little while before having to face once more the now irrevocable and perhaps scarcely improved image.

Diaster averted, it’s off to the dance, in the longest part of the novel.

Arriving at the Spencer’s mansion, Kate is soon away dancing – her card filling up. Olivia is content to observe, but can’t be a wallflower all evening, being introduced to a wide assortment of partners and conversations – from an old gentleman with lovely hair, to a young man blinded in the war, a poet up from Oxford who refuses to dance, but also a boy she remembered from a childhood party. Olivia watches everything with a sort of wide-eyed innocence, and is unfailingly polite to all her partners and interlocutors, wishing she had some of the poise and confidence that the Spencer children and others in the hunting set have.

Such an evening is bound to have its highs and lows – the same must still be true for today’s teenagers going to their first dance or proper party.  I well remember my first visit to a dance hall – the famous Mecca Blue Orchid Ballroom in Purley – I can’t say it was a big success!

Lehmann captures the workings of Olivia’s teenage brain so well, contrasting with the more knowing Kate. The class divides between the various tiers are equally well drawn – from the aristocratic Spencers to the middle class Curtises down to Miss Robinson and beyond.  I did hope that as the Bingleys are to the Bennetts in Austen’s P&P, that there may be hope for Olivia and Kate …

We’ll find out the answers to that in the 1936 sequel Lehmann wrote, The Weather in the Streets, which continues Olivia’s story ten years later. I’m now very keen to read that, as Invitation to the Waltz was a totally charming book, I loved it. (8.5/10)

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I did a bookswap for my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Invitation To The Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann, Virago Paperback
The Weather In The Streets by Rosamond Lehmann, Virago Paperback

Scenes from a humorist’s life …

Our book group is having a short story July, concentrating on two authors renowned for their wit: Saki and Thurber.  I’m working my way through Saki, so I’ll deal with him in another post; here I’ll talk about my first experience of reading James Thurber.

My Life and Hard Timesby James Thurber

James Thurber (1894-1961), was one of America’s foremost cartoonists and humorists, most of his work being published for the New Yorker, and then collected into books.

My Life and Hard Times, which was published in 1933, is the closest thing to a memoir that he wrote.  A short selection of autobiographical stories from his youth, about growing up in the Thurber household in Columbus, Ohio, together with his unique cartoons.  In my edition, the eighty-odd pages of memoir, is sandwiched by an introduction, which puts the book into context, a Preface by Thurber himself, and at the end, Notes by Thurber, an Afterword praising the book’s brevity and jewel-like quality, and finally a brief biography of the man.

I enjoyed Thurber’s preface very much, in which he muses self-deprecatingly about reaching the age of forty and the nature of his type of writing …

I have known writers reaching this dangerous and tricky age to phone their homes from their offices, or their offices from their homes, ask for themselves in a low tone, and then, having fortunately discovered that they were “out,” to collapse in hard-breathing relief. This is particularly true of writers of light pieces running from a thousand to tow thousand words.

The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats. Afraid of losing themselves in the larger flight of the two-volume novel, or even the one-volume novel, they stick to short accounts of their misadventures because they never get so deep into them but that they feel they can get out. This type of writing is not a joyous form of self-expression but the manifestation of a twitchiness at once cosmic and mundane. Authors of such pieces have, nobody knows why, a genius for getting into minor difficulties: they walk into the wrong apartments, they drink furniture polish for stomach bitters, they drive their cars into the prize tulip beds of haughty neighbours, they playfully slap gangsters, mistaking them for old school friends. To call such persons “humorists,” a loose-fitting and ugly word, is to miss the nature of their dilemma and the dilemma of their nature. The little wheels of their invention are set in motion by the damp hand of melancholy.

That made me chuckle.  So, on to the stories themselves of which there are just nine. Each has an evocative title, the three stand-out ones being: The Night the Bed Fell, The Day the Dam Broke, and The Night the Ghost Got In.

Most of the stories share an escalating sense of farce, which reels in more and more characters before reaching a critical mass, exploding, and then everyone wonders what had actually happened.

In The Night the Bed Fell, the Thurbers have visitors staying, including Aunt Melissa who was paranoid about burglars, and each night kept a pile of shoes outside her bedroom to throw at them (left).  Odd noises lead to waking up and silly things happening – if I told you more, you wouldn’t need to read the story.

The Day the Dam Broke is like a game of Chinese whispers where a message gets passed on wrongly.  The Night the Ghost Got In is, in a way, and even sillier version of the first involving things that go bump in the night.

Some readers think these comic vignettes are the funniest things ever. I’m afraid I remain to be convinced. I found the tales just mildly amusing, although I loved his preface. The stories, although full of slapstick, are gentle; I’m certainly used to more robust humour.

Then the cartoons. There are very few smiling faces, nearly every person is in profile, and many look very cross indeed. The captions are very matter of fact. However, if you google ‘Thurber cartoons’, there are loads of funny taglines to other drawings, you can buy greetings cards with them on.

I’d like to reserve judgement until I’ve read more Thurber – some of his columns and stories from the New Yorker perhaps, and definitely The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, (which I’d always mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain, but that’s probably Danny Kaye’s fault!).  It’ll be interesting to see what the rest of our book group think.

Have you read Thurber?
What do you think of his cartoon style?
What other humorist’s writing would you recommend?

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
My Life and Hard Timesby James Thurber

Incoming …

Abingdon Fire Station held a book sale yesterday – there were literally thousands of books there and masses of bargains to be had. Given that it was just a couple of minutes walk, I went twice! The money raised goes to the Firefighters Charity.

When I first moved to Abingdon, the Fire Station Book Sale was an annual event, but then it stopped.  Now it’s back, and speaking to one of the firemen, they hope to make it an annual event again.

Kids also got a chance to clamber on the fire engines, and play fireman with a hose.  Brave souls could also don a harness and go up in the Simon Snorkell and get an aerial view of the town.  Naturally, the books were the bigger draw for me …
…and didn’t I do well for £14?! (They should charge more next time).  There are 32 books above, and yes it includes five Jilly Coopers – for times when I need a guilty pleasure type of read.  There are also two Muriel Sparks, HE Bates (Darling Buds), Miss Read, some vintage SF, Penelope Lively, Flann O’Brien, Amin Malouf, one of Michael Dibdin’s non-Zen novels, Susan Hill, assorted other crime, thrillers and adventure novels, plus Charles Saatchi, and a lovely 1949 King Penguin at the front on the history of handwriting.

It brings it all back …

I’ve waxed lyrical about my favourite musicals before – Oliver! in particular. It still is, I think, but the musical that lead me into a rockier direction was Jesus Christ Superstar. I’ve been sparked off to post about it because, belatedly, I’ve started watching Superstar – Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s current TV search for a singer to play Jesus in new production of JCS – arriving at an arena near you (if you’re lucky) this autumn. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to see the arena tour, but if it goes into the West End later, I might indulge…

It will have to be very special to beat my coach trip to London with the Girl Guides to see the original stage show in the early 1970s though. That was such an experience. I remember crying my heart out during the Crucifixion, I remember the simple staging with scaffolding and a light up chequer-board stage which bits of rose up and down as needed. We may even have seen Paul Nicholas (the original West End Jesus), but I’m not sure if that was the case.

Shortly after seeing the show, I’d acquired the sheet music and libretto, and I started to hammer it out on the piano; my favourite song ‘I only want to say’ sung by Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane being written in B flat minor was no obstacle to me!  I became near word perfect, and to this day sit me in front of the 1973 film version and I’ll sing the whole way through, with not too many errors and omissions.

Later, I discovered that JCS had its origins in a studio album which came out in 1970. I borrowed the double vinyl lp from Croydon Record Library (!) and taped it.  This album featured many rock musicians of the day, Chris Spedding on guitar for instance, and Murray Head was Judas.  But I was blown away by the sublime Ian Gillan, the lead vocalist for Deep Purple. Wow! What a pair of lungs, capable of such power, yet also tenderness, and his singing has an edge or grit to it that I find lacking in today’s contenders so far. Mind, they haven’t had to sing the big song from the actual musical for our consideration to demonstrate whether they can do it yet.

Of course the new production, which apparently will be a proper rock one (hooray!), will have its superstars for the arena tour.  Tim Minchin will be Judas, I feel his voice may be a little thin for the heavy opening number; Mel C, aka Sporty Spice, will make a fine Mary Magdalene; but Chris Moyles as Herod?  Not sure what to think there!

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew the show was on TV, but as it wasn’t on one of my usual channels, I missed the first few shows. Are there any other JCS fans out there?

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Jesus Christ Superstar – original studio album, remastered
Jesus Christ Superstar [DVD] starring the rather gorgeous Ted Neely as Jesus.

My Brother, a Torch Bearer

I’ve just got back to Gaskell Towers from Sevenoaks in Kent, whereupon my family all descended to cheer on my brother Mike Thorn who had his ‘Moment to Shine’ this lunchtime as a Torch Bearer.

This morning there was much debate, as none of us knew Sevenoaks well, if at all, about where to park, which resulted in my daughter and I arriving ridiculously early to bag space in a nearby sideroad. But that gave us nearly two hours to get into the spirit.  We walked the route of his section at the top of the town near the hospital (320yds so we were told), and the rest of the family joined us at the bus-stop where we’d been told the handover was happening, along with loads of his work colleagues and other friends.

Initially there was a lot of hanging around. Mike’s work colleagues from British Airways gave out lots of boom stick balloons – an opportunity to ‘Fly the flag’! We chatted to the stewards and found out he was being handed over to by a twelve year old called Georgia.  I also found out that the point at which one flame lights the other is called the ‘kissing point’ – sweet!

Mike was nominated by British Airways, where he works at Heathrow, for his addiction to marathon running, and through that fund raising for various charities, and charitable good works locally to his home. He’s a Rotarian too, and will shortly be a District Governor; some of his Rotary Colleagues were also there to cheer him on.

Then things started happening … policemen on motorcycles came down, followed by various coaches, a car with Wenlock the mascot, then some sponsor’s lorries.  

Then we realised that we’d not seen Mike yet!  We were all waiting at the official handover point that we’d been told, but it turned out that they decided to do it further up the road so the young girl before didn’t have to carry the heavy torch so far.  So several of us ran as fast as we could (that meant a slow jog for me!) up the road, to get the all important pictures…

Well done little brother!

We’re all very proud of you.

Art, Love and War

Waiting for Robert Capa by Susanna Fortes, trans from the Spanish by Adriana V Lopez

This novel is a fictionalised account of the true story of Gerda Taro and Robert Capa, two of the foremost photojournalists who reported on the Spanish Civil War.

The story begins in Paris though, when young Jewish German refugee Gerta meets handsome Hungarian photographer André. There is an instant strong bond between them, he starts to teach Gerta photography, and she becomes his assistant and manager, but it will take some time for them to become lovers.  Gerta takes everything very seriously…

The way you look at things is also how you think about and confront life. More than anything, she wanted to learn and to change. It was the perfect opportunity to do so, the moment when everything was about to happen, in which life’s course could still alter itself. Many months later, just before daybreak in another country, beneath the rattling of machine guns in minus-five-degree weather, she would remember that initial moment when happiness was going out to hunt and not killing the bird.

Their circle in Paris was full of big names including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Man Ray and Matisse. It was difficult to get work amongst all this competition. One day Gerda had an inspiration – she invented a new persona for André and the elusive American photographer Robert Capa was born.  Gerta also changed her name, to make it sound less Jewish and she became Gerda Taro.

Capa began to get photo-journalism assignments, and when the Spanish Civil War came, they both went out to Barcelona in 1936 and got stuck in. Gerda was just 26.  Capa gained international fame for his photo The Falling Soldier, capturing that moment as a man gets hit in the head.  They lived for adventure and were sometimes reckless in getting the shot, Gerda’s photos also being credited to the bogus Robert Capa.

Their relationship was no less intense. Once they fell in love, it was total and they didn’t need anyone else. Gerda refused Robert’s proposal though, needing space and to find her own way. She discussed this with her friend Ruth, back in Paris …

“The reality is I’ve never been able to choose. I didn’t choose what happened in Leipzig, I didn’t choose to come to Paris, I didn’t choose to abandon my family, my brothers, I didn’t choose to fall in love. Nor did I choose to become a photographer. I chose nothing. Whatever came my way, I dealt with it as I could.” She got up and began playing with an amber bead, tossing it between her hands. “My script was always written by others.”

Gerda struck out on her own, but she still loved Robert, and in the style of true star-crossed lovers their relationship ends tragically.

This is very much a novel of two contrasting halves, or rather locations.  Gerta & André /Gerda & Robert in Paris as part of the intellectual left-leaning café society, and then Gerda & Robert in Spain at the sharp end. I loved both – the burgeoning love story and the obsession with work in a field that once experienced, would never make normal life seem the same again.

Gerta and André are an irrestistible couple.  She, the blonde, cool and detached German, he, the passionate and dark Gypsy.  I’d heard of the name Robert Capa, possibly in connection with the Magnum Agency, which he co-founded with Cartier-Bresson and others, but knew nothing about the man – the couple, and shockingly little about the Spanish Civil War other than that Hemingway and George Orwell had gone out there.

Fortes writes beguilingly about the Paris salons and the growing romance, and yes,   I was relieved when they finally got it together. Their love scenes, although passionate are handled with some delicacy. This contrasts with the harder edge given to the war scenes in which the author manages to portray the horrors and the confusion clearly.

The Author’s Note at the end makes clear where fiction begins and ends – all the war scenes are documented.  The inspiration was a photo published in 2008, after three boxes of unedited photos were discovered.  The photo is of Gerda in bed wearing Capa’s pyjamas and captured Fortes’s imagination, and she resolved to tell their story.

Recently, I read another wartime historical ‘novel’ – HHhH by Laurent Binet, which was a totally frustrating read.  Waiting for Robert Capa is a conventional narrative, but has an immediacy and a freshness that the other lacked for me.  Although I did need to read a little background on the Spanish Civil War to make sense of the factions involved, you cannot read this story without being inspired to look at some of Capa’s wonderful photos.  Guess which I preferred?!   (9/10)

Spanish Lit Month is being hosted by Stu at Winston’s Dad

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My copy was sent by the publisher, thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

Waiting for Robert Capa by Susanna Fortes, Harper pbk, 201 pages.

The Demise of “The Word”

I’ve written several times before about my reading habits of magazines and comics, most notably here. I used to be a real mag junkie, subscribing to around twenty monthlies at the height of my addiction. These days, apart from a couple of literary quarterlies, the only one I still subscribe to is The Word.

I’ve read Word, as it was first called, from issue one (left), subscribed from issue 3, and looked forward each month to it plopping onto the doormat.

I was really shocked when the announcement came at the end of June, that the mag was folding, and that issue 114 (below) of The Word, as it became, would be the last.

Always more than just a music mag, Word also included all areas of popular culture – films, TV, and even gave pages of space to books each month.  Longer in depth articles combine with short ones, reviews, regular columns, and the always hilarious Worst … and Best pages each month.

The Word’s demographic was essentially anyone who grew up with Q magazine, graduated to Mojo, and then started looking for something else, away from the big corporate publications.  That something was The Word – an independent magazine developed by the team who started Q and Mojo – David Hepworth (who blogs here), and edited by Mark Ellen, whom many of you will know from The Old Grey Whistle Test.  The calibre of the writing has always been wonderful and Hepworth, Ellen and co with their long experience in the music industry have wonderful contacts.  Regular columns from Andrew Collins (who blogs here), Rob Fitzpatrick et al have always been a joy to read.  The free CD which was brought in several years ago has always delighted too – concentrating on less well-known artists.

The last issue arrived while I was on holiday, and I’ve devoured since. It is as wonderfully eclectic as usual – what other magazine would juxtapose an in-depth interview with Robert Smith of the Cure, with a shorter piece on book cover designing with David Pearson (who designed the Penguin Great Ideas series amongst others).

I shall miss The Word.  I loved its mix of subject matter; I don’t feel the need to read dedicated music and film mags any more these days – The Word fitted the bill perfectly for me.

If you’ve never read it – Get it while you still can! 

A week in Wales – and luckily not so wet.

Just in case you’ve been wondering where I’ve been…  well my daughter and I went off for a week based in Pwllheli in Snowdonia at the base of the Llyn Peninsula, (which is the sticky out bit below the Isle of Anglesey), and most importantly – in front of the mountains and thus not in the rain shadow! This meant that although our day in and around Llanberis (where we caught the train up Snowdon) was damp, and our last day was drizzly all day, the rest of the week was dry and even sunny in parts!

We were quite busy, visiting: three castles (Beaumaris, Caernarvon, and Harlech which was up a totally scary 20% hill – I was so relieved to reach the top – and then discover the less steep road – blessed satnav!!!); we went up Snowdon on the steam train and as we arrived at the summit in fog, the sun finally came out; we went to the village with the longest placename in Europe – Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch; and various places with animals – cuddly, and aquatic … but the highlights for me were:

First, our visit to Portmerion.

Portmerion is famously celebrated for being the location for the cult series The Prisoner made in 1969, which was the brainchild of its star Patrick McGoohan (left). Of course you can buy souvenirs in the shops there.

The Italianate village was the life’s work of William Clough Ellis who built it between 1925 and 1975, influenced by a love of the Mediterranean and Portofino in particular.  It’s bright and colourful with wonderful vistas and picturesque surprises around every corner. Many of the buildings are now gift shops, galleries and cafes, and there is a posh hotel at the bottom of the hill. You can, however, rent the cottages if your pockets are deep – from £1100 pw for a sleeps 3 in high season.

Another highlight was going out in a rib speedboat in the Menai Straits separating Anglesey from the mainland, and hanging on for dear life while Christian, our captain, executed high-speed donut and figure of eight turns alongside the stunning Menai Bridge.

The last geeky highlight for me was an underground tour inside Electric Mountain – the Dinorweg Hydroelectric power station at Llanberis.

This is a feat of civil engineering on such a grand scale. There are miles of roadway inside the mountain and the multi-storey turbine hall itself could hold St Paul’s Cathedral. The power station can provide on demand hydroelectric power to the grid within seconds of everyone switching their kettles on. The water in the lake at the top of the mountain powers the innovative turbines and piles out into the reservoir at the bottom. At night, they reverse the turbines and it’s pumped back up to the top, ready for the next time its needed. It actually costs more to pump the water back than to generate the power, but the speed of opening the valves to start generating is vital to the grid when demand peaks, so it’s worth it.  Fascinating!

I didn’t have a very successful week of reading though, managing just a couple of hundred pages.  All that fresh air, combined with the early and late trains arriving at the train station which was too close to the house we rented, not knowing they’d be there when we booked, meant I was too tired to read much.

I did naturally search for bookshops in Pwllheli …  The first view that meets you outside Pwllheli station is a big boarded up store – but next to it with a black hoarding was a bookshop, Books, Maps, etc – which was closed – all week.  Then on the High Street was The Book Zone which was closed down.  Finally we found a third – The Book Seller (bottom) with its yellow window covering. It was shut! But did open eventually – so I bought a book.  I found a fourth open Welsh Language bookshop too later.

Pwllheli was very much a fish & chips sort of town, although we finally discovered a decent Italian restaurant. An amusement arcade with 2p penny falls is always a bonus too, and we did quite well, making £2.50 in tuppences last all week. We had a good week, apart from the trains, and still have all the touristy bits of Northern Snowdonia to visit another time.

Now I have the rest of the summer to get on track with some serious reading.  What are your plans?

Medieval Iceland – a place of cod wars even then…

On the Cold Coastsby Vilborg Davidsdottir, trans Alda Sigmundsdottir

At the heart of this novel is the tale of Ragna, a young Icelandic woman from a family with property in Greenland which she will inherit. Still a young teenager, yet betrothed to Thorkell, Ragna becomes unmarriageable when she becomes pregnant by an English sailor who is shipwrecked on their shores. Disgraced, she manages to make a life for herself and her son and is luckily taken on by the new English Bishop Craxton as housekeeper, a role that gives her as much respect as she she can ever now expect. However Thorkell returns, now an ordained priest, and is immediately attracted to Ragna again. Can a relationship work between a priest, who should be celibate but has already sired bastard children, and an excommunicated woman?

His intensity frightened her. It also enraptured her.
“Promise that you will never betray me, Ragna,” said Thorkell one night at the beginning of the month of Goa, in early spring, when they met in the small back room. For a full week they had not been alone together, as he had been away on business with John Craxton. Before she knew it, he had brandished a knife and cut his palm, his bloodied hand reaching out for hers. Hesitantly she extended her right hand, and he used the knife again. Her blood swelled from the wound, and she merged her blood with his, promising him loyalty unto death in this ancient manner. A few drops fell on the floor between them.
“Now you are mine in the pagan manner,” he said and smiled, the priest, with fire in his eyes that made her burn, inside and out.

So, that’s the love interest got out of the way. What was more interesting in this novel were the other themes behind the central romance.

At the turn of the century the Black Death had killed nearly half of the population, and left Iceland a very poor country, reliant on the stockfish (wind-dried cod) trade. Iceland was divided into two political factions – the nationalists, led by the Icelandic Archbishop are loyal to the old regime, as Iceland was owned by Norway and Denmark at this time.  Those at Holar, who are governed by the new English Bishop appointed by the Pope, are happy to ply an illegal trade with England, ruled by Henry V at this time of 1420. The English rule the trading though setting the prices which makes for an uneasy relationship.

Thorkell, who has political aims of his own, manages to get promoted to being Bishop of a parish who wouldn’t submit to Holar, deposing the sitting Bishop who remained loyal to the Norwegian King.  These priests and their people are not afraid of taking up arms, and when some English sailors in Iceland by permission of the see at Holar start to do some raping and pillaging, the scene is set for conflict.

Ragna gets caught between the two sides – her responsible role at Holar working for the Bishop, and her passion for Thorkell, the randy priest.  All along she is seen as a commodity, initially destined to end up being owned by a man one way or another, even though she will be an heiress. Men are not subjected to the same standards as women by the church, and Thorkell can easily get away with his behaviour.

I really enjoyed this historical novel, especially the cut and thrust of the episcopal politics in 15th century Iceland. Ragna has some spark to her, and the will-she-won’t-she relationship with Thorkell contrasts with the big picture. Some of the romance and dialogue may be slightly cheesy, but you kept rooting for Ragna throughout.

If you liked The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, you’ll probably enjoy On the Cold Coasts, (which is much shorter too!).  (8/10)

It is the first book I’ve read from Amazon Crossing – Amazon.com’s latest publishing venture of books in translation from around the world.

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My copy was supplied by Amazon Vine for review. To explore further on Amazon.co.uk, please click below:
On the Cold Coastsby Vilborg Davidsdottir, pub Amazon Crossing, Mar 2012, paperback 207pp.
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett