Review: Condemned: The Transported Men, Women and Children Who Built Britan’s Empire by Graham Seal

My thanks to Yale University Press, London and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.

Condemned is an account, as its subtitle pretty much reveals, of the men, women and children who were ‘transported’ in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries (also of ‘migrant’ children sent ostensibly for better opportunities in life even in the 20th century) to different parts of the British Empire–mostly to the colonies, from the Americas to Bermuda, the Straits to Africa, Australia and the Andamans. The transports were not merely convicts or criminals (including juveniles) but also indentured servants, dissidents, political prisoners, indigenous people who revolted, and victims of kidnapping. The author puts together a fairly detailed picture of the system, and more so of the lives of the transports. For this he has relied on letters and documents, mostly first-hand accounts of their experiences, but also official records. Seal’s well-researched account is of course of the cruelties and ruthlessness of the system which many hundreds of thousands had to endure but more so of the people themselves—some who found no escape but also many daring and enterprising people who not only survived the system, but found their way around it, and even prospered.  

Transportation was relied on initially by the British to reduce the pressure on the country’s prisons and also to rid themselves of unwanted elements. After suffering what was almost always an unendurable journey (hundreds shoved below deck, mostly in chains, little food and water, no place to even lie down—resulting in disease and/or death for many), the transports found themselves, depending on the place where they were sent, either ‘sold’ to masters under whom they would serve their terms as slaves or indentured servants or having to serve out their sentences through hard labour enforced by those in charge of the colony/settlement. Purposes and the nature of work varied; while in the American colonies, the transports were ‘sold’ as labour and servants, in Australia they were used to build the colony.  A lucky few (at least of those sent to America) who had the means could buy their way out of having to serve, and lead a tolerable, even happy existence so long as they stayed away from England for the duration of their transportation. Among these was one of my favourite instances in the book–Henry Justice a well-to-do barrister, convicted for the theft of sixty rare volumes from the Cambridge University Library, who used his wealth to buy his freedom and ended his life surrounded by an extensive library!

For the others, the period of their service was hard, in many cases brutal—from being denied proper food and clothing to being subjected to floggings and other punishments for the most minor of offences, the worst instances being in some Australian penal colonies. One can’t but shudder reading or thinking about it, and yet thousands underwent this and many survived to tell their tale. There were some who didn’t have as bad a time if their ‘masters’ or the governors in charge happened to be kinder hearted, but most had to.

There were escape attempts of course, and mutinies on board ships—some succeeded but most escapees and mutineers were recovered and either sent to the gallows or in most cases re-transported to serve out the rest of (and perhaps, added) their sentences. For some, conditions were so insufferable, that they either committed crimes so as to be hung or even killed one another only to escape their fate. But many survived the brutality for years like Thomas Brooks, who after several failed escape attempts and twenty-seven years as a slave during which he bore floggings and punishments untold, managed to live on to old age and spend his last few years in relative contentment. Deviant soldier Michael Keane bore many thousands of lashes over the years, frequently delivered (though he did serve in battles and was injured as well), but emerged unbroken in spirit. Some others simply served their time, and went on to build lives for themselves in the places they were sent to.

While the system and its effects were unspeakably cruel, there were many who thrived in it as well—and I am not speaking here only of the traders who profited by transportation or the ‘spirits’ who kidnapped victims (children and adults) for this same purpose for there were many colourful characters in Seal’s accounts who made the best of their situation. There were conmen and women among the transports; among these was Mary Carleton who married men and disappeared with their wealth, using her silver tongue to gain at least one acquittal. Another such, Sarah Wilson convinced many a South Carolinan that she was Queen Charlotte (George III’s wife)’s sister; and even after she was found out, she managed to escape and lead a fairly respectable life. Another Sarah, Sarah Bird, in Australia was no con but an entrepreneur who set up the first legal pub in Australia (and whose daughter went on to be the first female press proprietor), and who despite a bad marriage ended her life in prosperity.

Some of the transports were the real-life inspirations behind many a literary character, like John Coad, an otherwise god-fearing man who had the misfortune to be part of the Monmouth revolution (to replace James II) and who eventually found his way back home (after serving with a kinder master); Coad inspired Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood, while Moll King, flamboyant and notorious was the real ‘Moll Flanders’; Dickens’ Artful Dodger too may have had a real-life parallel in Samuel Holmes (transported to Australia in 1836).

Some colonies like the Bermudas saw criminal activities continue to thrive while others had rumoured secret gangs/societies (complete with gruesome rituals). Many of the transports (political prisoners among them) even inspired ballads and poems, some surviving centuries after and thousands of miles away from the places they lived or served in.

This was a very readable account of one of the many cruel practices of the Empire; while the injustices and brutalities that the transports had to suffer make one wonder again at not only the system but at the people who implemented it in practice, the many colourful characters who made the best of it made for very interesting reading as well. For me the book also busted many myths that I had in my mind—including the extent of cruelty that the transports had to endure. An interesting and informative read, which I thought was made all the more fascinating by the stories of some of the victims and perpetrators of the system.

Review: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

My thanks to Pan MacMillan and NetGalley for a review copy of this one.

A book with ghosts in the plot may not be my usual fare but what interested me in this one was its setting—Malaysia. I don’t think I’ve read anything set there before, which made me pretty keen to pick this one up.

We meet Jessamyn Teoh or Jess, who has been brought up in the States and has recently graduated from Harvard (and is yet to find a job). Her parents have decided to move back to Malaysia and start afresh after having coped with her father’s cancer and other difficulties. In Malaysia, her father has secured a job with her uncle (Kok Teng)’s company and the family is also temporarily living with him and her aunt (father’s sister) Kor Kor, while things settle down a bit and they can afford their own place. Jess hasn’t had much contact with her mother’s family barring her uncle Ah Ku whom she remembers borrowing money from her mother. While Jess loves her family, she also has secrets from them, specifically her girlfriend, who is now in Singapore, something she feels they will never understand or approve of.

Before Jess and her mother travel to Penang (her father having gone on ahead and started work), she begins to hear strange voices in her head which she dismisses but when in Malaysia, she begins to hear them again. Before long, she finds that the voice isn’t of her own imagination (or the impact of stress) but of her grandmother (mother’s mother) Ah Ma, who had passed on a year earlier. She learns as we go on that Ah Ma was a medium to the resentful goddess Black Water Sister during her life, and now Ah Ku is medium at the temple. Businessman Ng Chee Hin’s company is developing a property which will affect the land the temple is on (in fact he is trying all to throw them out), and Ah Ma wants to stop him before she moves on. And she has decided it is Jess who can help her do this…

When Jess agrees, she doesn’t quite realise what she is letting herself in for. While Jess thinks she will simply be doing what Ah Ma asks her to, Ah Ma has her own plans. To add to her troubles, the goddess herself seems to want something from her. Alongside Jess must keep up the pretence of trying to find a job (something which from being her priority has become a thing she can’t devote time to any more), and dealing with her personal life. We go along with Jess as she is immersed into a world of ghosts, spirits, and gods, modern-day greed, and also family secrets and stories.

This was so different from anything I’ve ever read before; I’ve read gothic books with ghostly presences of course, also some stories featuring ghosts but none where our central character is one who can communicate with (well may be some of those from Eva Ibbotson) and even shares her body with a ghost. So it was certainly interesting as a concept, and also done really smoothly (in the sense that one doesn’t feel a disconnect with the events that are unfolding, or any of them hard to accept as ‘real’).

I enjoyed seeing how the author explores the cultural relevance of gods, spirits and ghosts in Malaysia—it is a vital part of life for all communities there. It was interesting seeing how even immigrant workers from different cultures show respect to and even appease local deities, Jess’ own relatives who are Christian use their religion to protect themselves against their ill-effects but at no time are they disbelieving, and even the enemy, the greedy businessman Ng Chee Hin, who may be ruthless as far as building his empire is concerned, does not remain unaffected. [But the book doesn’t take us to explore the place itself as much—we do go round Penang, but the places itself are those associated with the deity.]

The characters themselves have interesting and strong stories—each has issues they are facing and must face, and problems they need to resolve apart from the gods and ghosts. Through these stories and the characters’ interrelationships we get more of an insight into the local culture, family relationships, customs, celebrations (the atmosphere surrounding Chinese New Year, for instance), and belief systems. This for me also made the book quite rich.

Jess’ parents have lived in America, seen success of a sort but have had to return and depend on their relatives which puts them in a difficult position. For Jess herself, both cultures (her adopted American culture as well as life back ‘home’ in Penang) are equally alien, but she tries to fit in while also grappling with her personal problems of finding a job and mending her relationship with her girlfriend which is strained. I don’t really know how I felt about her: I felt for her at times because of all that she has to go through but at others, I also found her a little annoying. Ah Ma is good fun but she has a lot of secrets and isn’t above deception which makes one not quite like her as much as one would have wanted.

Overall I found this a very enjoyable read with an interesting plot and setting and a story that holds one’s attention (though there were some aspects that I didn’t enjoy as much, like a scene where Jess much face some thugs, even though she does connect with the goddess in a new way there). A solid four star read for me.

Review: Still Life by Sarah Winman

My thanks to NetGalley and Fourth Estate for a review copy of this one.

Still Life is a heart-warming novel about art, Italy, and really, about life and its many colours. The book opens towards the end of the Second World War, when art historian (and perhaps, spy?) Evelyn Skinner, in her sixties, meets young soldier Ulysses Temper and his superior Captain Darnley in Florence; they form an instant bond, and Evelyn ends up passing on to Ulysses, her love for Florence, and art. The war ends and Ulysses heads back to England where he takes up a job in a pub run by his old friend Col and bonds with pianist Pete, and his father’s old chum (now his), Cressy. Here he also runs into Peg whom he had married before the war but who now has a child with an American soldier she had fallen in love with. Life is moving along (ups and downs) when Ulysses receives an unexpected inheritance and ends up moving to Florence with a motley crew—Peg’s daughter Alys or Kid, Cressy, and the pub’s blue parrot, Claude. Here they attempt to build a new life, one in which poetry and art become a matter of course. There they form new bonds with new friends (particularly, the solicitor Massimo) and their neighbours, but old friends back in England are neither forgotten no far away, for Pete, Col, and in her own way Peg remain part of their lives with visits, constant contact, but much more so by being there, when needed. Alongside we also keep meeting Evelyn Skinner and keeping up with developments in her life. The lives of Evelyn and Ulysses and their friends criss-cross and intertwine, as we follow them from the 1940s through to the 1970s.

Honestly speaking, when I started this book, I found it really hard to get into for nearly the first 20 per cent or so, but then once Ulysses, Kid, Cressy and Claude began to travel to Italy (perhaps a little before that), something changed and I began to be drawn in. Before I knew it, I was in a completely opposite position from not being into the book at all to being completely invested in all the characters, their stories—eager to know how things would turn out for each of them.

The book deals with so many things, art, philosophy, life—its ups and downs, friendships, relationships, love, loss—a whole gamut of topics and a whole gamut of emotions—perhaps a range of those also captured on canvas or in sculptures, but certainly ones we see play out every day. But what stands out ultimately is how important love and support are in life—not romantic love but love of friends, those whom one can bond with, those that stand by you unconditionally, unquestioningly, those who have always got your back. Ulysses and his friends—all of them—have just that and that is heart-warming to see.

I enjoyed Winman’s writing for the most part (this was my first time reading her), her descriptions of Florence (If you love the city, I think you’ll enjoy this all the more), the humour she manages to weave into the writing and plot, and also her story-telling. At times, it was very raw, very visceral which I am not sure how I felt about (may be not entirely comfortable).

My favourite part of the book though were the characters themselves—pretty much all of them are in some way or other eccentric, some of their motivations (particularly, Peg, I thought) don’t make sense and yet, you end up loving them all—main or supporting—each has a distinct personality and voice, each has their flaws, each makes mistakes, but you end up rooting for them all (with the exception of Ted, but then). (I did want to write more about them, but I feel that would end up turning into an essay.)

And speaking of characters, how can one not write about Claude, the Shakespeare quoting parrot (see cover image)—whether or not he was Shakespeare reborn, he is a loveable bird and a hero in his own right—I wont say how, but read the book to see.

I wish I could write something intelligent about the discussion of art in the book, because there was that too, but honestly with the state of mind I was in, I didn’t really take all of it in. But I did enjoy the discussion of women’s role in the renaissance as subjects and as artists (there were the rare women painters but sadly lost or hidden in the dominant histories).

And being a story of Englishmen (and women) in Italy, this would feel incomplete without Forster and Baedeker, so of course we have them too, Evelyn having ‘met’ him when she made her very first visit in her youth. I won’t tell you what happens but reading the book left me wanting to reread both A Room with a View and The Portrait of a Lady (James is mentioned too).

From a not so great start (though even that made sense later), this turned out to be a lovely, warm, read, full of hope, and about all that is good about human beings. Well worth a read. 4.25 stars from me!

Lines which resonated with me: So, time heals. Mostly. Sometimes carelessly. And in unsuspecting moments, the pain catches and reminds one of all that’s been missing. The fulcrum of what might have been. But then it passes. Winter moves into spring and swallows return.

One thing that irked me (and this may well be because it was a proof copy):  Mrs Kaur cooking Dal Makhana (should be Dal makhani, that i.e., buttery dal—a dish; not dal makhana (dal with foxnuts/lotus seeds—not a dish).

Review: The Goldsmith and the Master Thief by Tonke Dragt

My thanks to Pushkin Press and NetGalley for a review copy of this one.

A few years ago, I chanced upon the Dutch film version of The Letter for the King by children’s author, Tonke Dragt (with subtitles) and soon after found the English translation of the book on NetGalley, both of which I ended up enjoying very much. So of course when I spotted this, another Dragt title in translation on NetGalley I had to jump at the chance.

The Goldsmith and the Master Thief is Dragt’s first novel published originally in 1961. The translation is by Laura Watkinson, who also translated The Letter for the King.

This is the story of twins Lorenzo and Jiacomo, born to a cobbler and his wife in the city of Bainu, the capital of the country of Babina. The boys are identical as two drops of water but their personalities are completely different. In interesting circumstances surrounding their birth, they each grow up with a pigeon, a cat, and a dog—though it is mostly the dogs that accompany them on their adventures. Laurenzo and Jiacomo have a happy childhood playing about and when the time comes to start school, have a bit of fun tricking the monks there. But then tragedy strikes as they lose their parents, and they must make their own way in the world. Their ties with each other being strong, they do not wish to part but are soon made to realise that they will have to in order to find work that suits each. They separate promising to meet again in a year. Lorenzo goes on to meet and train with Master Philippo, a famous goldsmith, for he always wished to make something. But, Jiacomo can’t really make up his mind what he wants to be. He runs into Jannos who turns out to be a thief and trains Jiacomo in his trade. Jiacomo goes on to be very good indeed but he certainly does not want to be a thief. But agreeing to take up one task for his master, he sets off. He accomplishes his task using his intelligence and skill but still ends up in a fair bit of trouble, from which only Laurenzo can rescue him. Thus begin a series of adventures, which take the brothers to different places and involve them in little mysteries and troubles, some putting them in danger and others simply requiring them to pit their wits against others.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one (in fact I was wishing I had read this as I child because I know I would have found it a great deal of fun back then as well). Set in a fantasy kingdom (though with no magic or magical elements as such), the twins have a range of adventures from school-pranks to theft, solving riddles to the mystery of a haunted inn, involving themselves in politics to falling in love. And their adventures don’t just keep them in Bainu/Babina, they travel for work (Laurenzo receives various commissions) and for fun, by land and by sea. While each story is complete in itself, the collection ties together well as a book too.

What I enjoyed most about the stories was how the fact that Laurenzo and Jaicomo are twins plays a role in each of them—whether it is to rescue each other from a tight corner, or teach two warring factions a lesson or catch a ‘ghost’—it is their identical appearance that helps them and ends up baffling more than one opponent.

I loved the brothers (both very likeable—even Jiacomo who seems to spend much of his time doing nothing in contrast to the hard-working Lorenzo) and their relationship; as twins, they are expectedly tied deeply to each other and are always there to support and help the other. Sometimes, by circumstance, at others more actively looking for the other when they are apart, they are always there for the other. There is a brief falling out however, but not an unexpected one, and it is resolved fairly soon.

This was a fun and entertaining read, which I enjoyed very very much.

Shelf Control #140: The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

Wednesday, the 19th of May, and time once again for Shelf Control! Shelf Control is a weekly feature hosted by Lisa at Bookshelf Fantasies, and celebrates the books waiting to be read on your TBR piles/mountains. To participate, all you do is pick a book from your TBR pile, and write a post about it–what its about, why you want to read it, when you got it, and such. If you participate, don’t forget to link back to Lisa’s page, and do also leave your links in the comments below as I’d love to check out your picks!

Today, my pick is a book I’ve been wanting to read for a long long time but am yet to get to, The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett. As soon as the name is mentioned, the first images that pop into one’s mind are from the series of films starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, most of which I’ve seen and enjoyed. Unlike the series of films, for which Hammett wrote some of the screenplays, the book is the only one to feature Nick and Nora Charles.

Born in 1894, Samuel Dashiell Hammett served as an operative for Pinkerton between 1915 and 1922, and also served in the army. He was first published in a magazine in 1922, and went on to create memorable characters like Continental Op, Sam Spade, and Nick and Nora Charles.

In The Thin Man, first published in 1934, we meet Nick and Nora Charles, a rich and glamorous couple who travel to New York (from San Francisco) towards the end of the prohibition in 1932. Nick, a former private detective, gave up his career on his marriage to Nora, a wealthy socialite, and spends much of his time drinking. Unlike in the later films, in the book, Nick and Nora have no children but do have a female schnauzer named Asta. Against his will, Nick is drawn into investigating a murder–the secretary of an eccentric scientist is murdered while the scientist himself, Clyde Wynant, is missing. Everyone from the Wynant family to the police want Nick to solve the matter. Along the way we are also treated to Nick and Nora’s banter.

From reviews and what I’ve read of the book, I do know that it is much darker than the film itself, and is also said to focus more on the case than other aspects–a murder mystery with some comic aspects thrown in rather than the other way around, which was how the film could be described. I wonder if Nick and Nora are as attractive in the books as in the film? It was interesting to learn from the description that Asta in the book is a very different dog than in the movies but am sure ‘she’ (I guess no Mrs Asta here, ha ha) will be great fun as always.

Have you read this one? How did it compare to the movies? Did you prefer the book, the movies, or did you think both were fun in their own way? Looking forward to your thoughts!

Cover image from Goodreads (here), book description from Wikipedia (here)

Lisa’s pick this week is Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill, a sci-fi thriller where AI has taken over the world (here)

Adventures of Our Own Making: A Morning Dream by Eleanor Farjeon #poetry

Imaginary friends, cops and robbers, make believe—as children, our games, whether with friends or on our own, relied so much on our imaginations (do they as much these days, one wonders, with phones, tablets, and gadgets the chief sources of play and entertainment?) In literature too, Alice’s adventure in wonderland or for that matter through the looking glass, or Dorothy’s trip to Oz (at least in the film version) were made out to be stuff of our character’s imaginations (rather extravagant ones, indeed). A less elaborate scenario, but also of the realm of the imagination is William Brown’s plans in one of the books (I can’t at the moment remember which) to explore a lane in his own village (which only his mother encourages, for who indeed has ever explored the lane before?). One of the stories I recently read, from Daphne du Maurier’s collection, The Breaking Point, also explores a child’s fascination with a pool in the woods, which she imagines has magic (this is one with much darker tones, though).  Whether it is letting our imaginations flow based on the books we have read or things we have seen or heard of, our dreams let us transport ourselves to different places, battle dragons or meet fairies, but no matter what or where, they do bring a little magic into mundane daily life.

The Cheshire Cat by John Tenniel, via wikimedia commons,

Eleanor Farjeon paints a pleasant picture of one such piece of a child’s imagination, a rather simple one, sparked off by the image the child sees when she wakes up one morning, in her poem A Morning Dream. This short—three stanza—poem describes the scene a child wakes up to (every morning) and how she transforms this into something different with her imagination. (The poem incidentally doesn’t tell us whether the child is a boy or girl but the accompanying illustration in the book I have it in has a little girl so that who I ‘imagined’.)

Photograph of a painting by Eldred Clark Johnson., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The child wakes up in bed each morning ‘Underneath a skylight… staring up through the window panes’. The view is dim and dingy because of the rain but there is a wavy tree, a greeny branch, beyond which is the blue sky. Observing this scene, the wind perhaps blowing, the child instantly transports herself into a world of her imagining. Now she is no long simply a child in bed looking through her skylight, but on the wreck of a long-forgotten ship, ‘Drowned at the bottom of the sea’. She imagines herself ‘some mariner long-dead’, the sky transformed into green and blue waters flowing above her, the leafy branches (blowing in the wind) transformed to living weeds, and leaves to floating fish. While sparrows too, ‘swim’ in the air.

Via wikimedia commons, Amgauna, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This is a simple poem merely describing a scene a little child wakes up to, but what I loved about it is how it shows us the transformation of an ordinary everyday scene into the stuff of dreams and magic—one literally sees the ordinary change into the extraordinary, magic perhaps being easier to achieve than one would think.  Waking up in the cabin of a wrecked ship, watching the sea flow by over you, the weeds flapping, ‘fish’ swimming is surely a far more exciting way to start the day than simply in one’s bed, don’t you think?

Reading this also left me wondering about childhood today; is imagination lost somewhere amidst phones and computers and TVs with their loud sounds and images? And with them, is the magic it brought into life lost too?

Once again, I couldn’t find the poem anywhere online to link so am typing it out:  

Underneath a skylight I

In my bed o’mornings lie,

Staring up through window-panes,

Made dim by unremembered rains

And always see above my face

A wavy tree in dingy space

Beyond the greeny branch up there

Flows the deep and clear blue air

So that I almost seem to be

Drowned at the bottom of the sea

Within the cabin of a ship

Wrecked on a long-forgotten trip

And I who lie so still abed

Might be some mariner long-dead

While green and blue above me flow,

And living weeds wave to and fro,

And withered leaves like fishes skim

The streams of air where sparrows swim.

--Eleanor Farjeon (source: Silver Bells, vol. IV)

Eleanor Farjeon (1881–1965) was an English author of children’s stories and plays, poems, biography, history and also satire. (More on wikipedia here)

Review: The Breaking Point by Daphne du Maurier #DDMreadingweek

Having read only novels by Daphne du Maurier so far, I was keen to explore some of her short stories, and Daphne du Maurier Reading Week hosted by Ali at Heavenali (find links to all the posts here), seemed the perfect time to do it, so for the second of my two reads for this week (the first was a reread of My Cousin Rachel, review here), I picked The Breaking Point, a collection first published in 1959. This is a collection of eight stories, most with darker themes (with the exception of one I think), and most also with a bit of a twist. We meet a range of characters, from a child to a hunter to royalty, and also do some travelling, from Venice to Greece to even a Ruritanian kingdom.

The first story, The Alibi is about James Fenton, an ordinary salaried man, out on a Sunday afternoon walk with his wife when something in him snaps. Suddenly disgusted with the world around him, he comes up with a sinister plan—to randomly murder someone. He picks a shabby home in a shabby neighbourhood, where the caretaker is a young woman with a child, and leases a room there in the guise of an artist seeking a quiet space to work. When he arrives there with his art supplies, he begins to find that he is actually enjoying the process of painting. In this story, like in My Cousin Rachel, which I just revisited, I felt du Maurier like a puppet master played with us as well, getting us to see certain things, and then throwing in a twist, and then a further one which we don’t see coming at all. This was a really enjoyable one for me.

The Blue Lenses is probably my favourite, and also the most unnerving in the book, where it isn’t perhaps only the main character who is wondering what game is being played with her, but us as well. We have Marda West in hospital for an eye surgery which is supposed to return her vision to her; there is to be a fitting of temporary blue lenses followed by permanent ones. She is full of hope and excited to see her husband again but also all the nurses and doctors who have been attending her. But when she opens her eyes after her surgery she is greeted not by the sight of people but of various animals—each person she sets her eyes on is one, a cow, a dog, a snake, and an ape. No matter where she looks. Is this just her mind playing games with her or is there a deeper conspiracy involved? Another one with a twist (perhaps not as much of a surprise as in the first story, but one nonetheless), and one which would make a fairly fun Halloween read.

Next was Ganymede, where our narrator who usually spends his vacation with his sister and her family, finds himself heading to Venice for his sister cannot have him down this year. There, after dinner one evening, he sees and is immediately smitten by a young waiter, whom he begins to refer to as Ganymede. He begins to return every evening, and tries to help when he learns the young man wants to work in England. But soon he becomes embroiled with the young man’s not so savoury uncle as well. In this one, we are pretty much told right at the start (and would have probably guessed even if we weren’t) that this will only lead to doom, but what we don’t see coming is the little twist du Maurier throws in at the end. While I enjoyed the surprise at the end, I was a little uncomfortable with this one because of the age of the young man.

The next story, The Pool is that of a thirteen-year old girl, Deborah who is spending her summer with her younger brother Roger at their grandparents. She likes spending time in the garden but more so near a pool in the woods (‘The woods were made for secrecy.’) to which she has been making offerings—like her prized ‘lucky’ pencil. Trying to give her brother other games to play, she gets away and is drawn more and more by the pool’s magic, and the dark images it seems to throw up. While the themes here of a secret space, and loss are dark, I didn’t somehow enjoy this one as much as the previous ones because from those, I was expecting a story on very different lines than this one turned out. Perhaps if I read it separately, it would fare far better.

The Archduchess, the next story was also very different from the initial stories. Set in a Ruritanian kingdom, Ronda, where is found (or was found) a spring with water that would give one eternal youth. This is a magical kingdom where people are content and happy, traditions are followed and life goes on. But then a couple of people, one discontented and another greedy begin to stir up trouble, and the idyll is lost forever. While this may have been set in a fictional space, its exploration of the seeds of discontent media could (and does) stir up was very well done. No twists or surprises here, but still a very good story.

The lightest story in the book was The Menace, the story of Barry Jean, an English-born Hollywood star, popular, well loved, who has lived life just as dictated by his wife May and his staff, is suddenly found wanting when the ‘feelies’ require him to show certain emotion on a gadget which he fails to do. His wife and friends try to right things but the solution it seems lies somewhere else altogether. This one was very different from anything I’ve read and really also from all the other stories in the book, and it certainly brought a smile to my face.

In The Chamois, we meet Stephen who is obsessed with hunting a chamois to such an extent that he cancels his holiday plans and rushes off with his wife to the Pindus in Greece where chamois have been sighted. Narrated by his wife, who is unhappy in their relationship but accompanies him all the same, we travel with them to Greece where they have a rat-faced cook and creepy goatherd for company. Then guided by the goatherd who makes our narrator uncomfortable, they set off. This story was a touch confusing for me, for while I followed the bits about the changes this trip brings to their understanding of each other and their relationship, I was a little unsure about the actual hunt, and its outcome. Also being a story about hunting I wasn’t able to enjoy it as I would other themes.   

The book closes with another differently dark story, The Lordly Ones where a mute boy Ben is misunderstood by his parents, who seem to have little idea how to bring him up or look after him and subject him to verbal and physical abuse. When the family moves from Exeter to the moors, he little understands where and why they are going. Once there, another bit of misunderstanding of what (or who) the moors are leads him to come across another family which he finds very different from his own. While Ben finds some comfort in them, it is sadly not one that can last.

Exploring a range of themes, from murder and conspiracy to politics, from love and breakups to loss and absence of love, this turned out to be a (mostly) enjoyable collection of stories, some playing with one’s mind, and others with one’s emotions.

Shelf Control #139: The Emerald City of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Wednesday, the 12th of May, and time for Shelf Control once again! Shelf Control is a weekly feature hosted by Lisa at Bookshelf Fantasies, and celebrates the books waiting to be read on your TBR piles/mountains. To participate, all you do is pick a book from your TBR pile, and write a post about it–what its about, why you want to read it, when you got it, and such. If you participate, don’t forget to link back to Lisa’s page, and do also leave your links in the comments below as I’d love to check out your picks as well!

This week my pick is as you can see a children’s book, and, more specifically, one of the Oz books, The Emerald City of Oz by L. Frank Baum. The Emerald City of Oz is the sixth of the Oz books; the series has twenty-nine books of which 14 were written by Baum.

When I was a child I had read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz which I loved very much, and reread a few times as well. But I had no idea then, and indeed, for a long time, that there were other books in the series. As a child I had also seen an animated series on Oz which wasn’t the original Dorothy story but an adaptation of The Marvelous Land of Oz, with Tip (later Ozma) and Pumpkinhead’s adventures but still didn’t know about the books. Only much later I found that there was an entire series, and found The Marvelous Land of Oz in a second-hand shop, which turned out great fun. Then I decided to try some of the others as well, one of which is this one.

The Emerald City of Oz, first published in 1910, is the sixth of the Oz books. In this Dorothy often speaks of her adventures in Oz to her Uncle Henry and Aunty Em but is disbelieved. When she finds that her uncle and aunt are in trouble because of some debt they incurred as a consequence of the tornado, she decides to take the two to Oz. Here Uncle Henry and Auntie Em meet her friends including the cowardly Lion. Dorothy and her family, accompanied by the Wizard and other friends go on a tour of Oz in a carriage drawn by the wooden sawhorse, and encounter an array of characters from living kitchen utensils, to civilized bunnies, and anthropomorphic jigsaw puzzles. Of course, the Tin Woodman and the Scarecrow are there too!

The Oz books (at least the ones I’ve read so far) have been great fun. I love Baum’s imaginative lands like that of the people made of china, and his characters, wicked and good–from the munchkins to the witches (They almost remind me of Enid Blyton’s magical books like the Faraway Tree). From its description itself, with Dorothy and her family taking a journey through Oz and meeting an assortment of interesting characters, one can be sure that there will be lots of fun adventures. There is also a bit of danger in store, for the Nome king whom Dorothy had defeated earlier is planning revenge. I am also very interested in seeing how Uncle Henry and Auntie Em react when they find that Oz is ‘real’ and all that Dorothy has been telling them is true!

Have you read this one? How did you find it? Do you like the Oz books? Which ones have you read and which are your favourites? Looking forward to your thoughts and recommendations!

Lisa’s pick this week is The Last Human by Zack Jordan, described as an ‘oddball space-opera’ (here).

Book description from Wikipedia (here); and cover image from Goodreads (here)

Review: My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier #DDMreadingweek

This is the first of my (hopefully) two reads for Daphne du Maurier reading week between 10 and 16 May 2021, hosted by Ali at Heavenali (details here and here). A story of suspicion, jealousy, love, infatuation and murder, set in du Maurier’s beloved Cornwall.

My Cousin Rachel (1952) is narrated in the voice of Philip Ashley—Philip, 24 when the book opens, is an orphan and has been brought up by his older cousin Ambrose who has taken the place of his parents and has never let him feel their absence. Ambrose is a confirmed bachelor and has raised Philip in a house with no women (after he sent the nanny packing when Philip was 3). While Philip has studied at Harrow and been trained for and can manage Ambrose’s estate (to which he is the heir), he has in most ways led a very sheltered existence. The only people he interacts with other than the tenants are his godfather, Nick Kendall and his daughter Louise, and the vicar Mr Pascoe and his family.

We learn as the narrative starts that Ambrose has not been in the best of health over the past few years and has been advised to travel abroad each winter which he has been doing, visiting different parts of the continent and bringing back new trees and plants which are his interest. But this year, on his travels to Italy, he runs into the Contessa Sangalletti or Cousin Rachel (a sort of relation of the family), who shares his interest in gardens. Before long, Ambrose has fallen in love with Rachel and married her (we learn all this through letters Philip receives). Instead of returning with his bride, Ambrose stays on in Florence to take care of some business for his bride, and then his letters start to become infrequent. Then suddenly, after Philip receives some mysterious and uncharacteristic letters from Ambrose, Ambrose dies.

Given the circumstances, Philip who has already been jealous of Ambrose being taken away from him, and anxious over the changes that might occur (which others are ever ready to point out) is angry and suspects that Rachel is responsible for what has happened to Ambrose—all sorts of images of her are formed in his mind, none particularly pleasant. But then Rachel herself arrives in Cornwall, and Philip is left dumbfounded for she is nothing like he has been visualising. He is almost instantly captivated and soon refuses to listen to anything against her, whether it comes from his godfather/guardian Nick Kendall who warns him of Rachel’s extravagance nor Ambrose’s own words in letters later recovered. Even Louise Kendall’s voice falls on deaf ears. But then, events take another surprising turn.

This was a book that captured me from the very start (and kept me hooked all through). The opening chapter itself, where Philip aged seven walking with Ambrose witnesses a rather grotesque sight sends shivers down one’s spine, and in an eerie way, sets the tone for the theme that is always at the back of one’s mind—murder (whether or not it happened, that is).

Philip’s naivety stands out to us all throughout, for like a sulky child, he is quick to be jealous of Ambrose’s decision to be married, to (perhaps, justifiably) be suspicious of Rachel, and then again to take an almost 180 degree turn as he falls into her spell. While in matters of business he may be efficient, in relationships and judging people, he is not only immature but also headstrong, acting without thinking, and listening to no one. Though one must say that even the other characters (Louise for instance) seem to give contradictory opinions at times. 

As we read on, the suspense keeps building up, and one keeps wondering what secrets will be revealed, and what will unfold (despite it being a reread, I didn’t remember the exact sequence of events). The Cornish landscape may be plays less of a role than in some of her other books though it is very much there—the house itself, and the walks they take, and so on.  

As Rachel has Philip entranced (or as we think, entrapped) and doing her every bidding, du Maurier has us entirely convinced that Rachel is indeed manipulating him to get what she wants, and believing that we are spectators to what will certainly be Philip’s downfall. In fact, she gets us to become quite smug as we watch events unfold and Philip make one stupid mistake after another playing right into Rachel’s hands. And then she stumps us once again, leaving us pretty much like Philip is left as the end.

Was Rachel really evil or was it simply Philip’s overactive imagination?