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#1944club – A Guest Post about a book I love

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(As is becoming a regular thing, OH (or Mr. Kaggsy, if you prefer) has offered up a guest post for the #1944club, and this time he’s writing about a book from a series beloved of us both – The Island of Adventure by Enid Blyton! Both OH and I read Enid Blyton rabidly in our youth (albeit at different times and in slightly different eras owing to the fact he’s a bit older than me….) and the ‘Adventure’ series is the one I’m most often drawn back to. ‘Island’ came out in 1944 so here from OH are his thoughts and memories about one of Blyton’s finest!)

“The Island of Adventure” was published in 1944, roughly in the middle of a four decade output from Enid Blyton. The tale of intrepid youngsters introduced the “Adventure” octad, never going out of print. The “Island” hardback from Macmillan – renamed “Mystery Island” in the United States – retained the original dust wrapper and front board design until 1966. The book featured some forty, animated pen and ink illustrations by Stuart Tresilian, making it a captivating mixture of story and comic. This was a major part of why I enjoyed having the book read to me as a child, interrupting the bedtime reader’s flow with demands to show me each accompanying picture.

In the “Island” story, friends and siblings Philip, Dinah, Lucy-Ann and Jack (and his talking parrot Kiki – with other pets and small wild animals along the way) are spending their summer holiday at Craggy-Tops, an old clifftop mansion on the coast. Waves crash below the part-ruined house, while mist obscures the view out to sea. Situated at a desolate spot, the abode has no power, relies on a well for water and oil lamps during darkness. Mysterious lights are seen across the water on the nearby Isle of Gloom and when later the children are taught to sail, they are able to reach the outcrop in a small boat. Soon an abandoned copper mine and connected undersea tunnels are being investigated by the foursome.

Various distinctive adult characters and villains help forge a spirited tale of riddles, risky encounters, being trapped underground, plus the required daring rescues. Old maps, tight spots, narrow escapes and explosions precede the foiling of some criminals and the receiving of a reward by the children for helping with a police operation.

“Island” was among more than 750 other Blyton publications, the author having been born in 1897 and departing in 1968. As one of the most successful children’s storytellers of the last century, her books have continued posthumously in print, amounting to well over half a billion copies. Following the first outing of the kids in the “Adventure” series, I acquired more of the titles, all boasting colourful dust jackets, luring young readers to savour exploring alongside the juvenile protagonists. I would at high points in the story plead for one more chapter to be read by my mother, or hers, only to be cruelly reminded that I had school the next day and needed to go to sleep.

At the time of the opening “Adventure” series novel, World War II was drawing to a close and the population of the planet was half what it is today. The next five were “Castle” (1946), “Valley (1947), “Sea (1948), “Mountain” (1949) and “Ship” (1950). However, the popularity of the books led to the addition of two more, in the form of “Circus (1952) and finally “River” (1955), written by Blyton in just few days. The first editions have become sought after and expensive, while her works have reportedly been banned from more public libraries than those of any other author.

The following seven “Adventure” series first edition colourful hardbacks dust wrappers

I enjoyed Blyton’s other “Secret Seven” and “Famous Five” stories, along with the “Faraway Tree” fantasies, which were read to us in junior school. The author’s works were also highly popular with all ages of young readers, especially her “Noddy” tales and “Sunny Stories” periodicals. The Enid Blyton Society maintains a detailed online treasury of the author’s novels, poems and collections, reflecting the growth of the writer’s literary empire, involving producing many new books in each year, along with numerous magazine and newspaper contributions.

There has been criticism of the author’s writing, deeming it not challenging enough, or presenting unsuitable themes. Indeed, the language has in recent years been updated, names changed and characters made more politically correct, less ‘racist’ even. That said, my own offspring enjoyed the hilarity of having Fanny and Dick in the “Faraway” stories, accompanied by other unwitting double entendres.

My look at the opening “Adventure” story is meant more as a remembrance than a review. This reader, or listener, at a time when his age was still in single figures, experienced the fun and excitement which Blyton had intended, immersing her readers in the escapades of her fictional but relatable players, from almost 75 years ago.

I look at my cherished hardback from the past, unable to recapture the thrill it once gave me, although knowing that long ago it did. As the character Philip concludes at the end of the book: “That’s the best part of an adventure – when it’s all happening. I think it’s a great pity that it’s all over.” Amen to that.

(Thanks to OH for pitching in with his thoughts on a #1944club book! Thinking back on the ‘Adventure’ series, I reckon my favourite was ‘Valley’ which had a weird post-War plot. Maybe I’ll have to dig it out at some point soon….)

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#1944club – opening the week with a classic Maigret

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Inspector Cadaver by Simenon
Translated by William Hobson

I’ve often remarked (either here or to myself) that you can’t go wrong with a Maigret; I’ve read a number of them for our various Clubs, and because Simenon was such a prolific author, there’s usually one of his most famous creation’s escapades available for reading, whatever the year we pick! 1944 is no exception, and there were numerous short stories and novels to choose from; however, I ended up with one which I came across on one of my trips to London over the summer – “Inspector Cadaver”.

I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the new covers…

I was particularly pleased to come across it in Skoob, because it’s the first of the new Penguin translations I’ve read; I’ve been keen to find out what they’re like and also how I got on the with translation. The latter was just fine, and the story intriguing – it turned out to be a bit of a slow burner that suddenly took off for me mid-read and I ended up being absolutely gripped.

“Cadaver…” finds Detective Chief Inspector Maigret somewhat out of his comfort zone again (Simenon *did* seem to like to do that to his character…) Our sleuth is comfortably established and well-known in Paris; however, the examining magistrate, Brejon, has asked a favour of Maigret and sent the latter out into the country, to Saint-Aubin-les-Marais. Brejon’s brother-in-law is in trouble: a local youth was found dead on the train tracks but the country gossips have got to work, implying that the death was not accidental and that Naud (the brother-in-law) is implicated. Brejon hopes that Maigret can help sort things out, but that may not be so easy…

For a start, Maigret has no official status. Then there is the attitude of the locals, who close ranks against the interloper and seem to have no intention of helping him find the truth. And there is the titular Inspector Cadaver… His actual name is Cavre, and he and Maigret know each of old, from a time when Cavre was drummed out of the force. What is Cavre doing in Saint Aubin? Who employs him and why does he always seem to be a step ahead of Maigret? What are the Naud family hiding, in particular the daughter? And will Maigret ever find the solution?

It was so easy being Maigret. You had a whole apparatus of the most sophisticated kind at your disposal. And you only had to casually drop your own name for people to be so dazzled they would bend over backwards to be agreeable to you. Whereas here he was such an unknown that, despite all the articles about him, all the photographs of him in the papers, Etienne Naud had marched up to Justin Cavre at the station.

Well, of course, he does get to the truth, and in his particularly distinctive way, though not without a lot of grumpiness and poking into secrets and annoying people – pretty much his modus operandi, really. What was noticeable to me, as someone who’s read quite a lot of Maigret now, is the detective’s ambivalence. He often sides with the poorer people he meets with, the victims of society who are often sacrificed for the sake of the rich. Yet he finds himself seduced by the rich lifestyle, finding it hard to shake off the inbred respect he feels as the son of a poor family. But Maigret being Maigret will never entirely let the rich off the hook, despite having sympathy for some of them. In this story he dispenses his own kind of justice and fate takes a hand at the end too, leaving you with the feeling that what goes around comes around, and that a certain kind of person will always gravitate towards their own kind.

Via Wikimedia Commons – By Jac. de Nijs / Anefo (Nationaal Archief) [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

As always, it’s a joy watching Maigret going through his detecting process; appearing to bumble around but actually having a very definite purpose. His encounters with Cavre are pointed and amusing, and seeing him finally getting the better of his ex-colleague is marvellous. Reading this, I realised how much I felt that the recent adaptations for TV with Rowan Atkinson got it wrong. The bits I watched were glossy and melodramatic, and that solidity of Maigret, his almost impenetrable character, seemed to elude Atkinson…

Plot-wise, I did get a major strand about two-thirds of the way in, which kind of revealed the whole reason for what had happened. That wasn’t a problem, as it was still a delight to watch the whole facade built up by the Naud family unravel under Maigret’s investigation, and Simenon’s ability to capture the tensions and atmospheres around the family was impressive. Very satisfying!

So my first read for the #1944Club was a good one. I rarely find myself disappointed with a Maigret, but I don’t always remember to pick one up. The Club reads are a great excuse to revisit favourites, and I often return to crime – in fact, I might well be heading to a rather wonderful re-read later in the week. Watch this space… 😉

The #1944Club launches!

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Yes, it’s that time of the year again! Those of you who’ve been following for a while will be aware that I co-host a biannual reading week with Simon at Stuck in a Book. He came up with the fun idea of focusing our reading on a particular year, and we’ve done six so far with people joining in on their blogs, social media etc. We got as far as the 1970s before deciding to go for a random year earlier in the 20th century, and 1944 came out of the hat!

It’s a year that has a lot of potential for interest; World War 2 was of course still underway, and so it might be thought that publishing would have been limited. Also there could be a tendency for books to focus very much on what was happening in the world, or conversely provide escapism. And works published in parts of the world away from Europe could be less affected by those world events.

A quick look at the big books from the year throws up some intriguing titles. There’s “The Razor’s Edge” by W. Somerset Maugham (which I’m sure I have somewhere); Christianna Brand‘s atmospheric “Green for Danger” was a classic crime novel which captured the tension of the times; Margery Sharp‘s “Cluny Brown” made her debut; and of course Agatha Christie was as prolific as ever with no less than three works (one of which was under her pen-name of Mary Westmacott). In fact, crime fiction features strongly on lists of books from 1944, and maybe the format, with a crime being committed and all being put to rights at the end, was something that appealed to readers in times of conflict.

In fact, there are a number of Persephones which were published in 1944 (which I found out thanks to Simon’s excellent post about them!) and I’ve read one and own another. I *would* like to read the Mollie Panter-Downes stories, as I loved her “One Fine Day”, but I don’t know if time will be on my side…

I have a few books in mind for this week, as well as a guest post, and it will be fascinating to see what works people choose to read and write about. As usual, I’ll have a dedicated page on the blog where I’ll gather up as many links to everyone’s 1944 posts as I can – so don’t forget to leave a comment so I know what you’ve said and where it is! Simon will no doubt be having a post that does the same and so between us we can hopefully make sure everyone is featured.

So do feel free to join in with the #1944Club – there are some interesting and varied books to be read from that year, and I’m looking forward to everyone’s thoughts!

The dilemmas of bibliophiles through the ages… @BL_Publishing @shedworking

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Shelf Life by Alex Johnson

British Library Publishing have been rather spoiling me recently with unexpected review books; “The Pocket Detective” was an unexpected treat, and another perfect-for-me volume popped through the letter box recently in the form of “Shelf Life”. An anthology of writings about books and reading collected and annotated by Alex Johnson, it contains some real gems from a dazzling array of illustrious writers.

If you love books, you most likely also love books about books, and so this is going to be an essential collection for you. It not only covers the reasons for reading, the pleasures and benefits it brings, and the dangers of not reading enough, but also spreads its net wider. So we consider the problems of physically housing a library (a subject familiar to all bibliophiles); the dangers of letting children near your treasured volumes; and, lawks a-mercy, the difficulty of destroying them (excuse me while I have an attack of vapours….) Although I jest a little; I know that charity shops have been swamped by donations of vast amounts of unwanted “50 Shades…” books, so J.C. Squire does maybe have a point…

It isn’t all flippancy though; the rather grumpy Schopenhauer discusses the psychological implications of random, trivial reading (he’s obviously not a fan of chick-lit then, nor of Hegel it seems from his comments here…) He also urges caution in reading too much and not allowing yourself time to think about the book just read, encouraging giving yourself the mental space to assimilate the reading. Theodore Roosevelt warns against swamping one’s soul in the sea of vapidity which overwhelms him who reads only “the last new books”. And the book also includes what might perhaps the most famous essay on books, Walter Benjamin‘s “Unpacking My Library”, which I’d read before and which never fails to delight.

By Michael D Beckwith [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

One of the most absorbing of the essays is that of Gladstone (the famous British PM) who discusses the issues surrounding the construction of your personal library, and the vagaries of cataloguing, wrestling with the eternal problem facing the bibliophile of how and where to categorise and shelf those pesky volumes – proving that nothing changes in the world of books! Intriguingly, while I was reading this particular part of the book, I invested half an hour in a somewhat lightweight but occasionally diverting little series on BBC2, “Monkman and Seagull’s Genius Guide To Britain“; in a strange case of serendipity, during the episode I watched the brainy pair visited Gladstone’s personal library which I’d just read about, and it was lovely to actually see the place. It’s housed in a building which also offers hotel rooms, so that you can stay overnight and look at the books – heaven! 🙂

Needless to say, “Shelf Life” is packed to the gills with gems and I could have quoted half of it. However, I’ll share a few of my favourite lines with you:

Charles Lamb on the condition of library books: How they speak of the thousand thumbs, that have turned over their pages with delight!

Theodore Roosevelt on how a reader’s choice of book may reflect their state of mind: If he does not care for Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Sebastopol, and The Cossacks he misses much; but if he cares for The Kreutzer Sonata he had better make up his mind that for pathological reasons he will be wise thereafter to avoid Tolstoy entirely. Tolstoy is an interesting and stimulating writer, but an exceedingly unsafe moral adviser.

Gladstone on the importance of classic works: Books require no eulogy from me; none could be permitted me, when they already drawn their testimonials from Cicero and Macaulay. But books are the voices of the dead. They are a main instrument of communion with the vast human procession of the other world. They are the allies of the thought of man… In a room well filled with them, no one has felt or can feel solitary.

“Shelf Life” is a real delight of a book. Johnson, who has a number of blogs (including a very interesting looking one all about bookshelves!), clearly knows his stuff and the selection of essays here is wonderfully varied, entertaining and fascinating. I mentioned the dreaded C-word recently when I blogged about “The Pocket Detective” and I fear that “Shelf Life” is another essential potential gift for the book lover in your life. And, hey – it will add to your pile of books about books so that you’ll have the perfect solution to one aspect of shelving your books by having to give them a dedicated space of their own! 🙂

The background to a seminal myth @BodPublishing #frankenstein

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The Making of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Daisy Hay

Although 2018 is being touted as the centenary of the end of the First World War, this year also sees a very notable bicentenary – that of the publication of Mary Shelley’s seminal work of Gothic literature, “Frankenstein”, which was of course first published in 1818. There have been a number of new publications to mark that anniversary, but Bodleian Library Publishing have rather taken the prize, in my view, with a beautifully produced and thought-provoking volume which takes a look at the genesis of Shelley’s great work.

Mary Shelley, of course, came from literary stock: her mother was the great feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and her father was author William Godwin. Tragically, Mary junior’s mother died after giving birth to her, an event which informed the daughter’s life and work. And indeed, Mary Shelley’s life was anything but tranquil and dull, being punctuated by regular drama and tragedy. The loss of her children by miscarriage or death and the drowning of her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, informed her life and work; she was indeed a remarkably strong woman to survive such blows.

Daisy Hay’s excellent book takes a look at the forces that formed the Frankenstein myth, and pivotal to that is the fact that it is a mythology of birth; a weird sort of birth, at that, with a creature constructed rather than born naturally, but still it is a birth. Hay’s five chapters focus on different angles of that genesis, taking in Time, People, Place, Paper and Relic to delve into what caused Shelley to write her book. Certainly, the context is vital to understanding why “Frankenstein” is what it is, and Hay does a wonderful job of placing Mary Shelley firmly into her landscape, with the events of the first French Revolution still fresh in people’s minds; as well as showing the maelstrom of scientific experimentation and discovery that was taking place.

“Frankenstein” in its turn constructs an allegory for the French Revolution in which first the potential and then the vainglorious corruption of Revolutionary ambition is laid bare. The novel reacts too to the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution, and to its unlooked-for impact on labouring communities.

The people in Mary’s life were of course important to the development of the book. Being surrounded by Percy, Lord Byron, John Polidori et al, in creative and atmospheric settings, is going to stimulate the brain. It’s clear from Hay’s writing here that it was a complex interaction of external forces (world events, inventions, science) and internal (family) dynamics which formed the final story. She also clearly delineates the effects of childbearing and loss on the narrative, and it’s hardly surprising that Shelley ended up creating a birth myth like no other.

Hay takes things further by exploring the manuscripts left behind; not only of “Frankenstein” itself, but letters, diaries and works of art, all of which tell their own story, adding to the greater tale. Poignantly, we also see images of the relics Mary kept during her life: locks of hair from Shelley and their son, as well as her own; Shelley’s watch and seals; and his pen. These bring home the reality of what she lost, and although she lived on to produce more work, she felt more in touch with the past than the future, leaving her legacy to be taken care of by her loving daughter-in-law, Jane Shelley.

“Making….” is of course a beautifully produced book, lavishly stuffed with colour pictures on glossy paper, which I’ve come to expect from Bodleian. Many of the striking images are drawn from the Bodleian Library’s extensive collections and they enhance the narrative wonderfully, bringing Mary and the story of her creation to life. However, the narrative itself is fascinating and erudite, and I found it really enhanced my understanding of the achievements of the book as well as its meaning. I read “Frankenstein” back in the day, as well as Stoker’s “Dracula” and was struck by just how powerful and damn good the books were. Up until that time I’d known them through Hollywood cliché; well, the book is always better and that was certainly the case with these too. The excitement and suspense, as well as the exploration of ideas, with which these books were filled was miles away from Karloff and co.

Mary Shelley was a fascinating, inspiring woman, and her work left an immense, influential and lasting legacy. As Hay reminds us, the word ‘Frankenstein’ is in common currency, used for everything from Cold War symbolism to GM crops. The mainstream popular imagery surrounding her most famous book doesn’t do it justice, and “Making..” has made me not only keen to reread “Frankenstein” but also to explore Shelley’s life and work further; fortunately, as you can see from the image above, I have just the books on my shelves to do that…

(Review copy kindly supplied by Bodleian Library Publishing, for which many thanks)

#1944club – one week and counting… :)

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Just a little reminder that in a week’s time, Simon at Stuck in a Book and I will be launching the #1944club! As with our previous reading weeks, we’ll be encouraging you all to read, explore, share and write about books from a particular years, and 1944 is the one in question.

Things kick off on Monday 15th October, and I have to confess that I’ve already started reading up in advance of the launch (I think Simon has too!) It’s an intriguing year, and I can’t wait to hear about what everyone’s reading. So do join in and share your #1944club reads – either here or at Simon’s blog. It should be great fun! 🙂

Christmas comes early to the Ramblings! @BL_Publishing #BLCC #thepocketdetective

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Normally I’m one of those people who get a bit scratchy about the rampant commercialism in the shops, and the fact that Christmas items start sneaking onto the shelves as early as September; however, an unexpected arrival at the Ramblings courtesy of the wonderful peeps at British Library Publishing set me thinking about festive gifts, and I have to say it will be the ideal thing for anyone who loves Golden Age crime!

This is it – “The Pocket Detective”, compiled by Kate Jackson:

And great fun it is too! I was in the BL earlier in the year with my BFF J.; we’re both fans of the Crime Classics and were investigating the shop while visiting the place, and I’m pretty sure there was a poster up advertising this little book. It wasn’t available yet, but I imagine is being launched for the Christmas market, for which it’s of course perfect. It’s a fairly safe bet that fans of GA crime are also going to like puzzles (as the latter is a major element of the genre) and “The Pocket Detective” is stuffed with them.

There are crosswords; word searches; cross out the word; odd ones out; missing vowels; really, every kind of word-based puzzle you could imagine. Those would be treat enough, but the book goes a little further with a section about 30 pages long featuring colour visual puzzles. These are drawn from the wonderful cover images of the Crime Classics which have been tweaked or distorted so you have to spot the differences or identify which book the image is from. Great fun!

Although the focus is naturally on the books the BL publish, the riddles aren’t restricted to just those. In fact, they cover all manner of classic crime, and I was pleased to find that I sailed through several of the Agatha Christie-themed tests! (Well – I have been reading her work since I was about 12!) Sayers is there too, as well as the newly rediscovered names from the Crime Classics, and it’s fun to pit yourself against the compiler’s ingenious conundrums. Jackson blogs about classic crime fiction at Cross Examining Crime, and she obviously knowns her stuff!

Obviously, “The Pocket Detective” is the perfect gift; either for the reader of crime in your life, or just yourself! I can imagine that it would be the ideal thing to occupy yourself with while everyone else is sleeping off Christmas lunch – or in fact at any other time of the day. It’s ideal as the darker nights draw in, and I can see it keeping me very busy (and distracting me from actual reading) over forthcoming weeks. Do yourself a favour – add it to your Christmas wishlist… 😉

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