The Lighthouse – P.D.James

Having begun the year with Poe, I have come to the conclusion that he is best appreciated in small doses, and inbetween other reads.

This is partly because, while I was doing the mini-spring-clean which has provided me with an office, I picked a book off the shelf, as you do when you’re cleaning (or is that just me?), and that was the end of the cleaning. I was supposed to be doing the rest of the flat. I only did the office…

The book, well, that was The Lighthouse by P.D.James. I have no idea how I came by it, but apparently I did, and it was the book which leapt out at me.

Now, I like murder mysteries, but I have a hard time these days finding the sort I want to read: I’m not so keen on the fast-paced, conspiracy-theory-heavy thrillers, or those that provide every possible detail to prove the writer knows his/her police procedure; but I like Commander Adam Dalgliesh, and I like James’ writing. It is evident, but not in-your-face that she knows her stuff (and given her working life before writing, she probably ought to).

The Lighthouse is set on a fictional island off the Cornish coast. The sort of mystery with a limited suspect-pool and the murderer can’t get away, but everyone’s cooped up with him/her, so s/he’s likely to get desperate as the detective gets closer to the answer. This particular island is run as a very exclusive get-away for the over-stressed professionals, and they pay for the island’s privacy. And then one dies.

Dalgliesh is a sensible, robust sort of detective. If he lacks the eccentric flair I normally like in my detectives, there is a comforting solidity about him. Having found a much earlier James, from the ’70s, I’ve come to the conclusion that Dalgliesh must be a sort of Peter Pan character, since The Lighthouse is from 2005, but then, I haven’t read all the others to know what happens in his life between then and now, and nor do I know even his approximate age in either novel.

It is my intention to begin a P.D.James collection, and no higher praise can I give to an author.

Mists of Time: The Viking Age

As a reader, the most important part of any novel is the story. A character or two for whom I can feel some sort of emotion (other than complete loathing) comes a close second in the list of priorities for choosing what to read.

As a writer, that story and those characters can come from anywhere.

I tend to find History to be full of both. There have been many, excellent, stories over the centuries. Leastways, I think so, and given the number of historical novels, apparently so do quite a few others. Anyway, as a step along my path, rather than just reading history and occasionally making notes in one of my many notebooks, I’m going to start sharing some of those stories here.

But first, I shall explain a little about the Viking Age. I’ve been doing that quite a bit recently – part of explaining my CV and background as a Viking Studies graduate.

The Viking Age is a very specific period. It is usually taken to begin with the attack on Lindisfarne at the end of the 8th Century, in 793, and the normal end-date of the period is 1066, with the Battle of Stamford Bridge and the death of the Last Viking, Harald Hardrada, at the hands of the last Anglo-Saxon King of England Harold Godwinson (well, OK, his army). Harold didn’t last much longer, dying at Hastings a few weeks later, leaving England in the hands of William of Normandy.

Actually, the Viking Age lasted a bit longer in the peripheries – in Scotland and Ireland – and had long since ended in mainland Europe and Byzantium.

After a bloody Ninth Century, Charles the Simple of France signed a treaty with Rollo the Viking in 911, offering him land in northern France in return for protection from other Vikings. Rollo said thanks, and proceeded to spread his wings a bit further along the French coast, with the Duchy of Normandy being established a couple of generations later, under Richard the Fearless (942-996).

In Byzantium, Vikings went from occasional raiders to Imperial guards, when Basil II formed the Varangians in 988. He decided he couldn’t trust his own people and recruited from the Northmen. Before he became King of Norway, Harald Hardrada was a very successful leader in the Varangian Guards.

To go ‘a-viking’ was something of a rite of passage for young male Scandinavians. Norwegians and Danes tended to west, towards the British Isles and mainland Europe; Swedes went east, down the rivers of eastern Europe towards Byzantium. Along the way, they also helped to establish Kiev and Russia – they were known as the Rus.

And that’s it briefly. I’ve glossed over it, and not talked much about Ireland and Scotland, but there will be more details when I’m talking about more specific people and not simply being brief.

Lost for Words: Fire-Flaught

The internet is a many-coloured thing, with lots of wonderful resources. Is there anything more useful than knowledge at one’s fingertips?

I like knowing things. Nothing specific, just things. Lots of things. Random things. Obscure things. Details.

But of all the resources the internet has to offer me, one of my very favourites is the OED Online. For those who don’t know the OED – basically, I like reading a dictionary. But not just any dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary.

The reason I like the OED so much is that it doesn’t just tell me what a word means. It tells me how the word joined the English language and how long ago. It tells me who has used the word, and when, and in what context. It tells me the history of the word, and its spelling variations.

And I am incredibly grateful that my (several) library cards grant me free access to this wonderful resource. Sadly, at about 26 volumes and around £1K, I cannot afford the space or money for the paper copy, much as I would love one. And yes, I collect library cards. One day I would like to have joined every public library service in the UK (a bit ambitious the way governments like to close them, but I can dream).

Anyway, the reason I mention all this is because I thought it would be fun to share words. I like words and languages (although I’m not generally very good at speaking them).

My chosen word today is the noun  Fire-Flaught, which is a flash of lightning in the Scottish/N. English dialect. Apparently it was used interchangeably with fire-slaught by some authors, which is the older of the two, but that is now rare (interestingly, though, the most recent citation the OED has of it is 1999, whereas fire-flaught was most recently used in 1996).

The origins of fire-flaught seem distinctly Germanic, with fire having many cognates in the dead languages of the Dutch and North German tribes, and flaught  probably having roots in the Old English and Norse words for ‘flaying’.

I quite like the image of a lightning bolt as flaying the earth with fire.

Which words do you like?

Time to Read

One unfortunate side-effect of growing up seems to be reduced time available for the simple pleasure of reading. Too many other things competing for time and attention, including an increased appreciation for sleep.

Reading’s one of those hobbies I once read was a bad one to write on CVs – something to do with it being a solitary activity which doesn’t really show such good qualities as teamwork and sociability. On the other hand, it does show your ability to read. Being literate is quite a useful thing, after all.

DSCN1805

But back to the time-issue.  I remember when I was in my final year of primary school, my teacher questioned whether I really had begun and finished Pride & Prejudice in one day. Well, evening, really. She’d set me a reading challenge of about thirty new books, which I completed in a month, and P&P was one of the books I’d chosen. Most of the books I read were similarly “grown-up”. I read one a night. Aged eleven.

Quite simply, I was awake until after midnight most nights, sucked into new worlds, unable to sleep the story was over. Sleeping wasn’t nearly as important.

These days, though, I can just about manage a short story or a chapter before I fall asleep. It’s a very sad state of affairs. I also tend to be fussier than I was. If something doesn’t grab me in the first chapter or so, I put it down.

Limited time means limited patience. Fortunately for Poe, short stories are rarely long enough to bore, it’ll just take me far longer than I would like to finish the collection.

 

Looking Forward

In order to look forward, you need to take a second to look back. To see where you are and how you got there, and where to go next.

The end of one year and the beginning of the next is a good time to take that pause.

Me, apparently I took the whole of December as a pause for this blog. I still haven’t quite decided what’s going to happen to it for 2016, and nor have I any resolutions to help me, except simply to write more.

And to read more. Starting with Edgar Allen Poe, since I was gifted a lovely edition of his complete works for Christmas. I’ve been meaning to read him for a while, one of a long list of authors whose works I feel I ought to read. My only experience of Poe is The Tell-Tale Heart, read in school. I don’t remember all that much – it was a long time ago.

So my New Year begins with Poe and my notebooks. Hopefully I’ll work out what happens with the blog this year in between the two.

In the mean time, Happy New Year, and may your 2016 be all you hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quick Novels

‘Anyone can write a novel, given six weeks, pen, paper, and no telephone or wife.’

Evelyn Waugh

With the first week of NaNoWriMo behind us, I thought a quick round-up of some famous novels written in under six might help to encourage all those whose pens have stilled for various reason.

First up, Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, written in six weeks while convalescing for a war-injury in the spring of 1944. I really enjoyed Brideshead. I like the language and the imagery, I like the way it deals with Catholicism (Waugh was a Catholic), and I like the bittersweet ending.

A childhood favourite, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was written in just three weeks. I always liked Jo – I think there’s something about the name in fiction whereby she has to be feisty and a writer (Jo in The Chalet School, anyone?) – and Beth’s near-death was always emotional, no matter how many times I read it.

For people who think mysteries are all about obsessive plotting, A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes story, was also written in just three weeks, while Arthur Conan Doyle ran a medical practice.

And Robert Louis Stephenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in about two weeks. I found that one strange. I don’t remember it being particularly horrifying, perhaps because of already sort-of knowing the story.

To be fair, none of these are particularly long books, all quite reasonable lengths but not door-stoppers, but I do think that Evelyn Waugh has a point about the lack of distractions. Would be nice not to have to worry about the Real World and such pesky things as bills and so on. Would make it much easier to write a novel.

Earthly Delights – Kerry Greenwood

When you prefer Golden Age detective fiction (by which I mean anything of the Christie/Sayers era of about 1900-1960), it can be tricky to find good, contemporary such novels. So many seem to think that what readers really want is a thriller, in the style of James Patterson, all fast-paced and action-movie-like.

And maybe that’s true of a lot of readers. But if the story in front of me is so very action-movie-like, I do much prefer to watch it. It doesn’t need to be a cosy Poiret-style detective novel for me to like it. Just slower, with chapters longer than three pages of wide-spaced words.
So I was quite pleased with Earthly Delights, by Kerry Greenwood, creator of Miss Phryne Fisher.
Set in Melbourne, which I will admit to not knowing, except through Miss Fisher, and I’m not sure that 20s Melbourne is the same as modern Melbourne.
Earthly Delights follows Corinna Chapman, a baker who finds a junkie in the alley behind her shop one morning and a letter accusing her of being a scarlet woman pushed through the letter-box, as she tries to work out what’s going on. Especially when her neighbour Mistress Dread also receives such a letter. Mistress Dread does not take kindly to this accusation.
I like the characters, Mistress Dread in particular, and the cats which patrol the bakery to keep out any rodents.
If you like Miss Fisher, give Corinna a try.