Literary tourism: Fowey

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Fowey is most famous for its links to Daphne du Maurier, but it actually has a history of attracting authors to its salty shores. The writer with probably the longest history in Fowey is Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, or Q, who moved to Fowey in 1891 and lived there until his death in 1944. He loved the town so much he called his daughter Foy. Seriously. I’ve never read any of his books but I do now have one in my TBR. Sort of. When he died he left an unfinished manuscript called Castle Dor, a retelling of the Cornish myth Tristan and Isolde. Years later, Daphne du Maurier completed it, at the request of Q’s daughter Foy who had become her good friend.

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The white sea-mists of early summer turn the hill to fantasy

TheKingsGeneralThe King’s General
by Daphne du Maurier

I picked this book to read while on holiday in Fowey. Du Maurier wrote this historical novel while living at Menabilly, and loosely based it on the house’s occupants during the English Civil War. In her author’s note she calls it a “blend of fact and fiction” – as far as I can tell, the names of people and outcomes of battles are correct, their personalities and feelings about each other are presumably invented.

It’s a slightly uneven novel, weaving a questionable romance into what is otherwise a fascinating mix of characters and events. The narrator is Honor, who structures her story around the Grenviles, a pair of siblings who came into her life when she was a young child. Richard Grenvile is dashing but pretty much a bastard. For the first part of the book he doesn’t even come across as the roguish antihero he later becomes, he’s just nasty and it’s a little hard to see how Honor could, as she does, fall in love with him. Then again, she’s very young and nice girls falling for bad boys is a classic trope for a reason, right?

Richard’s sister Gartred Grenvile is similarly beautiful and treats people like dirt. She is an interesting baddie, always acting out of self-interest rather than any inherent evil. This puts her at times in an uneven truce with Honor, while at others they are clear enemies.

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The numbness didn’t happen all at once

monsters-daughterThe Monster’s Daughter
by Michelle Pretorius

My knowledge of the history of South Africa is a little sketchy, or at least it was before reading this book. But it’s so much more than a historical novel. This is genre-bending fare, combining crime, science fiction, social and political history – and it works.

The book opens with the discovery of a murder in a small town called Unie in 2010. The head of the police investigation, Sergeant Johannes Mathebe, is a straight player and he’s not getting on well with his recently appointed assistant Constable Alet Berg. She drinks, she swears and she resents being in this small town – a punishment for having an affair with one of the senior officers during her training.

The next chapter opens in 1901, in the midst of the Boer War. British troops are clearing out the Dutch farms, taking the people they find – mostly women and children – to concentration camps. A young woman called Anna is picked out from the Bloemfontein camp for something else, something worse, something that will echo through the next 109 years in its awfulness.

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Literary tourism: Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall

Fowey harbour

Fowey has a lot of things going for it but let’s face it, the main reason I wanted to go there was for its links to Daphne du Maurier, one of my favourite authors. Fowey is a very pretty small town and cargo port on the south coast of Cornwall, on the estuary where the River Fowey meets the English Channel. Its centre two or three streets are packed with tourists and it has far more bars and restaurants than its own small population could support. Its steep hills afford most of the town excellent views of the water, which is always full of boats. Across the other side of the estuary you can see the villages of Polruan and Boddinick, reachable by regular ferry services from Fowey.

Ferryside

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You see nothing but what you’re looking for

summer bookThe Summer Book
by Tove Jansson
translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal

This Scandinavian modern classic isn’t well known over here. I forget which book blogger alerted me to its existence but whoever you are, thank you! It is a thoroughly lovely book.

It’s the story of young Sophia (her age is never given exactly) and her grandmother over the course of a few summers spent at their family home on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. The events are mostly small, such as Sophia’s first camping experience or going “gathering”. (Note: I’m not sure if the quotes I’ve chosen convey this, but I did find the writing style took some getting used to. It feels a little simplistic, as if a child is being addressed. But once used to it I enjoyed this style.)

“Gathering is peculiar, because you see nothing but what you’re looking for. If you’re picking raspberries, you see only what’s red, and if you’re looking for bones you see only the white. No matter where you go, the only thing you see is bones…Sophia and Grandmother carried everything they found to the magic forest. They would usually go at sundown. They decorated the ground under the trees with bone arabesques like ideographs, and when they finished their patterns they would sit for a while and talk.”

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Holiday bookses

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While in Cornwall this past week, I read two books and bought five, plus I talked Tim into buying another three that I kinda want to read too (all our purchases are pictured above). I don’t really do book bans, and any vague notions of one that I do have are always suspended while on holiday, but five books in a week feels like a lot. Then again, we found some lovely bookshops, and I always want to support great bookshops.

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July 2016 reading round-up

This has been an okay month for reading, a bad month for review-writing. But in my defence we’ve been on holiday and that’s definitely a time for reading without thinking too hard about analysis. I do have some thoughts running around my brain that I will at some point turn into reviews when time allows. I also bought quite a lot of books while we were away, which I’ll share pics of soon.

For now I have about a thousand holiday photos to scan through for highlights and half a dozen loads of laundry to wash. Ah, that coming home from holiday feeling! I have a few posts planned about our recent holiday but for now I’ll tease with this photo. There will be many more to come.

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How was your July?

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Languages are different for a reason

alif the unseenAlif the Unseen
by G Willow Wilson

I was eager to read more G Willow Wilson after discovering her writing in the Ms Marvel comics. This is a lovely easy read that deals with some pretty deep complex issues but manages to never feel like an “issues” novel. Which is a clever balancing act. It’s probably the fantasy elements that help keep it light and fun. Mostly.

The story follows Alif, a young man in an unnamed Arab Emirate who works as a “grey hat” – a skilled hacker who helps paying customers to remain hidden online. He keeps a vigilant watch for the state’s top internet security expert “the Hand” but is widely acknowledged to be the best and therefore safest from arrest. He is also conducting a secret affair with Intisar – secret because although they are both Muslim, their social classes are very different and neither set of parents would approve. But Alif is a romantic and assumes they will somehow find a way.

When the book opens, Alif (which is his screen name, not his given name) has not heard from Intisar (ditto) for two weeks and is trying not to worry about the possible reasons. Then the Hand manages to break most of the way through his computer’s encryption and he is suddenly at real risk of arrest. Friends help him out but there comes a point when he needs more than friendship – he needs another kind of aid entirely.

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The past was hard, cruel and especially inimical to women

angela carter fairy talesAngela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales

I started reading this book on 31 December and finished it this week. It’s not the smallest book, but 450 pages doesn’t usually take me several months. Especially not when it comes from one of the 20th century’s greatest authors, Angela Carter. So what gives?

Well, two things. One: this is a collection of more than 100 short stories, and I do like to spread out short stories by reading one or two per sitting, even when the shortest are less than a page long. Two: perhaps more pertinently, these stories were collected and curated by Carter, not written or even edited by her. So while they share her taste in the weird and feminist, they do not exhibit her writing skill – more noticeably so in some cases than others.

Carter spent many years collecting these stories for what was originally two separate books published by Virago. She sought translations into English, ideally transcriptions from oral storytellers, from all over the world and the result is truly the most international collection I have ever read. For example, the final chapter’s stories are labelled as: Yiddish; Norwegian; Africa: Bondes; USA; Africa: Hausa; Chinese; Surinamese.

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