Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper

This week Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings are hosting another of their club events, where bloggers read and write about books published in a chosen year. This time the year is 1965 and as usual I found a wide variety of books to choose from, as well as a few that I’d already read. Over Sea, Under Stone, the first book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence was published in 1965 and as I’ve wanted to read that series for a long time this seemed the perfect opportunity to begin.

I did wonder whether I might have read this book when I was younger and forgotten about it, but as soon as I started to read I knew I couldn’t have done as it didn’t seem familiar at all. The story begins with three children – Simon, Jane and Barney – arriving in Trewissick, a small fishing village in Cornwall where they will be spending the summer holidays with their parents and Great Uncle Merry. The children have fun exploring the large house the family are renting, particularly when they move some furniture and discover a secret door leading into a dusty hidden room.

Up to this point, I thought the book had a feeling of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe about it, but the plot soon goes in a very different direction when the children find an ancient manuscript inside the hidden room. The manuscript includes a drawing of what appears to be the Trewissick coastline and some text which they are unable to translate, apart from a possible reference to King Arthur and his knights. Could it be a treasure map – and if so, what sort of treasure is it leading them to?

On sharing their news with Great Uncle Merry, the children learn the true significance of the map they have found and set off to follow the clues it contains. But it seems that other people have also been looking for the map and will stop at nothing to get hold of it and discover its secrets for themselves.

Over Sea, Under Stone is described as a children’s novel, but I think it is one of those books that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. It did often remind me of the Enid Blyton adventure stories I loved as a child, but this book feels darker than anything Blyton wrote. The villains are quite sinister and there were several points in the novel when I was genuinely worried about the children! It doesn’t help that our young heroes and heroine make some stupid decisions and choose the wrong people to trust – but they are children, after all! I liked the way Susan Cooper gives each of them his or her own strengths and weaknesses and their own chance to shine and play a part in solving the mystery.

The Cornish coastline is beautifully described and although the village of Trewissick is fictional, it felt very real to me and I wasn’t surprised to learn later that Susan Cooper based it on Mevagissey, a real fishing port in Cornwall. The coast, with its rocks and caves, beaches, cliffs and bays, is an integral part of the story and not just a pretty setting!

This is a great book and I do regret not reading it as a child, as I’m sure I would have loved it then. I will definitely be continuing with the rest of the series, although I’m aware that the other books are a bit different and have a stronger fantasy element.

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I will have another 1965 read to tell you about later in the week, but for now here are some other 1965 books I have previously reviewed on my blog:

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart

Stoner by John Williams

The Flight of the Falcon by Daphne du Maurier

Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore

One of the reading challenges I have been participating in during 2018 is the What’s in a Name? challenge which involves reading books with certain words in the title. Having reached November with only four of the six required books completed, it was looking unlikely that I would be able to finish the challenge, but I’m pleased to say that I have managed to squeeze the final two books into my December reading – starting with this one, Zennor in Darkness (a book with a title that begins with Z).

Published in 1993, Zennor in Darkness was Helen Dunmore’s first novel. I had high hopes for it, as I’ve enjoyed some of her others, particularly Exposure and Birdcage Walk. Unfortunately, although there were things that I liked about this one, I was slightly disappointed with it, even more so because most people who have read it seem to have loved it and I’m sorry that I couldn’t love it too.

The novel is set in 1917 in Zennor, a village on the coast of Cornwall where the author DH Lawrence lives for a while during the First World War. Hoping to find some peace and quiet away from the controversy caused by the recent publication of his novel, The Rainbow, Lawrence and his wife Frieda have decided to rent a cottage in Zennor where they can wait for the war to end and for a time when he may be able to resume his writing career. But even as Lawrence gets to know the local farming families and discovers the charms of rural life, he finds himself the centre of controversy yet again – this time because of Frieda, who happens to be German. The villagers view Frieda with suspicion, disapproving of her red stockings and her German songs, and convinced that she and Lawrence are sending signals to the U-boats lurking off the Cornish coast:

‘All the same though, there are things not right up there. They say they’ve put different coloured curtains up. In the same window.’
‘Why, whatever would they want to do that for?’
‘In the window looking over the sea.’
‘You mean -‘

One person who doesn’t care about the gossip and who is happy to befriend the Lawrences anyway is Clare Coyne, a young woman who lives with her widowed father. Clare is a talented artist and is helping to illustrate a new book her father is writing on botany; she is also in love with her cousin, John William Treveal, who is home on leave from the trenches before starting his training as an officer. The rest of the family are unaware of Clare’s feelings for John William, so she keeps her fears and worries for him to herself, hoping that as he has survived this long, he will continue to survive and will come back to her when the war is over.

The novel is partly about Clare’s relationship with DH Lawrence and partly about her love for John William, but I felt that the two elements of the story didn’t work together very well and could have formed the basis of two separate books. I found the central love story by far the most engaging and interesting aspect of the novel, while the inclusion of Lawrence added very little for me. I couldn’t help making comparisons with Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud, a very similar story about the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, where I thought the blending of real historical characters and fictional ones was more successful.

I did love the portrayal of life in a small village during the war, touching on topics such as shell shock, desertion and the effects of war not only on those who are fighting in it but on the loved ones they leave behind. The writing is certainly beautiful – both poetic and insightful, with some lovely descriptions – but books written in third person present tense are often a problem for me and that was the case here as I found it distracting and emotionally distancing. I think the writing style is what prevented me from enjoying this book as much as I’d hoped to. Not a favourite by Helen Dunmore, then, but I will continue to read her books and will hope for better luck next time.

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I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a Merry Christmas! I’ll be back soon with my books of the year, my December Commonplace Book and maybe another review or two before New Year.

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

It would have been Margaret Kennedy’s birthday today and she is the next author to be featured in Jane’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. Having only read three Margaret Kennedy novels – The Constant Nymph, Lucy Carmichael and Troy Chimneys – I still have a lot of her books to choose from, but I decided on The Feast for this year’s Margaret Kennedy Day as I’ve seen several people name it as a favourite. Now that I’ve read it myself I can understand why!

The Feast was published in 1950 and is set three years earlier, in the summer of 1947. The novel follows a week in the lives of a group of guests who are staying at Pendizack Hotel on the coast of Cornwall. The week will end in tragedy when part of the cliff collapses on the hotel, killing everyone inside. This is not a spoiler because the book opens with a prologue in which we see the Reverend Bott attempting to write a sermon in memory of the dead. We also know that there will be some survivors – but the identities of those who will live and those who will die won’t be revealed until the end of the book.

The hotel is owned by the Siddals, although it’s Mrs Siddal who does all the work while her lazy husband does nothing at all and their three sons, now adults, make their own plans for the future. The housekeeper, Mrs Ellis, is a bitter, resentful woman who spends most of her time gossiping about other people, so the Siddals are relying more and more on the maid, Nancibel, a friendly, kind-hearted local girl.

The guests are a varied and not particularly pleasant group of people. They include Sir Henry Gifford, his selfish wife and their four children (three of whom are adopted); Mrs Cove, a cold and heartless woman who has very little affection for her three neglected daughters; the Paleys, a couple whose marriage has been strained since the loss of their child several years earlier; bad-tempered, overbearing Canon Wraxton and his long-suffering daughter Evangeline; Anna Lechene, an unscrupulous, irresponsible writer who is working on a new book about the Brontës, and her chauffeur, a handsome young man called Bruce who tells lies to make himself sound more interesting.

I was aware before I started the book that Margaret Kennedy had based the personalities of some of her characters on the Seven Deadly Sins and this added an extra layer of interest as I matched up different characters with different sins as I read. There are some obvious villains in the novel – Mrs Cove, Lady Gifford and Canon Wraxton are particularly nasty – but others have a mixture of good and bad qualities. I knew which characters I wanted to survive and which I didn’t, but life is not always fair and people don’t always get what they deserve, so there was still an element of suspense as the story moved towards its tragic conclusion.

I loved following the lives of the Siddals, their guests and their servants. Bearing in mind that the whole story takes place over the course of just seven days, there’s an impressive amount of character development with people making life-changing decisions, searching for happiness and taking control of their own futures. With over twenty characters all playing important roles in the novel, some authors would have struggled to make each man, woman and child different and memorable, but Margaret Kennedy succeeds and the result is a really enjoyable and absorbing read. It’s probably my favourite of her books so far – although I did love Troy Chimneys as well!

Penmarric by Susan Howatch (re-read)

A long time ago (before I started blogging, anyway, which feels like a lifetime ago!) I picked up Susan Howatch’s 1971 novel Penmarric at the library. I knew nothing about it but, as soon as I started to read, I was drawn into a wonderfully compelling story which begins in 19th century Cornwall and is linked in a unique way to a much older story. I went on to read two of her other novels, Cashelmara and The Wheel of Fortune, which I also loved, and I’ve been thinking for a while now that I would like to read all three again.

Penmarric is divided into five sections, each narrated by a different character, beginning in 1890 with Mark Castallack. Mark’s mother, Maud, has spent her whole life working towards one goal: regaining Penmarric, the family estate which her father left to her cousin Giles rather than herself simply because she was a woman. Maud is determined to see Mark take his rightful place as master of Penmarric and eventually she gets her wish – but this does not bring happiness to any of the Castallacks.

The other four narrators are Mark’s wife, Janna, two of his sons – Philip and Jan-Yves – and one of his illegitimate sons, Adrian. It’s a story which spans six decades, taking us from the Victorian era through the turn of the century to the First and Second World Wars, but in Mark’s little corner of Cornwall a war of a different sort is played out as his marriage with Janna breaks down and his sons turn against each other and then against him.

What makes Penmarric such a great novel and what has made me remember it so vividly over the years, is that the story of the Castallacks mirrors very closely the story of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their sons. We know from history that Henry and Eleanor’s marriage was troubled, that she and their sons rebelled against Henry and that she was sent away from court, so Howatch’s fictional story follows the same outline. If you think of Penmarric as the throne of England, the rest begins to fall into place, and if you’re familiar with the period you’ll be able to identify Henry, Eleanor, Richard I, King John and even the King of France amongst the fictional characters in the book.

Each chapter opens with one or two relevant quotations from historical sources, giving an idea of what will happen in the pages that follow and helping the reader to draw parallels between the characters in the novel and their historical counterparts. The first time I read the book I didn’t have the knowledge I have now, so I didn’t pick up on everything, but this time I could appreciate just how well structured it all is and how cleverly Howatch works even minor episodes from history into the plot. Of course, it’s not essential to know anything at all about Henry and Eleanor before you begin as Penmarric can still be enjoyed as a wonderful family saga in its own right.

Of the five narrators, my favourites are the last two: Philip, the son who, being the closest to Janna, is hurt the most by Mark’s actions and who retreats into a single-minded obsession with reopening the Penmarric tin mine, Sennen Garth; and Jan-Yves, the youngest son and the one who stays loyal to their father – until it really matters. Each section is written in a strong, distinctive voice, each one adding to, complementing and contradicting the one before so that a character who seems particularly unpleasant when seen through the eyes of another becomes more sympathetic once they get a chance to tell their own side of the story.

Penmarric is a dark novel – as I’ve said, none of the characters experience much happiness in their lives and none of them are easy to like – but the plot is completely gripping, even when you’re reading the book for the second time. There are some lovely descriptions of Cornwall too; this is one of those books where the setting is as important as the characters and the plot. Although some of the family members move away and do other things, they are all drawn back again and again to Cornwall and Penmarric.

I really enjoyed my re-read of this book, especially now that I have enough familiarity with medieval history to be able to follow both layers of the story. I will be re-reading Cashelmara very soon and am looking forward to it as I can remember very little about that one.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (re-read)

Sometimes re-reading a favourite book can be a disappointment; perhaps you’ve changed too much as a person since the last time you read it and the story and characters no longer have the appeal they used to have – or maybe it just loses some of its magic because you’ve read other books in the meantime that are similar and better. Luckily, I experienced none of that disappointment when I picked up Rebecca for a re-read recently. I fell in love with it all over again!

For those of you who have not yet read Rebecca, I’ll give a brief summary of the plot – and the first thing I should probably say is that we never actually meet Rebecca herself. She dies a year before the novel opens, although with her bright and vibrant personality she is a very strong presence throughout. Our narrator, in contrast, is a shy and awkward young woman who remains nameless from beginning to end; our only clue is that she has a ‘lovely and unusual’ name and one which is difficult to spell. It is while working as a companion to the overbearing Mrs Van Hopper in Monte Carlo that the narrator meets and falls in love with Rebecca’s widowed husband, Maxim de Winter, who is thought still to be grieving for his wife. The last thing she expects, then, is to receive a proposal of marriage from Maxim and to be whisked off back to England to his house in Cornwall.

Although the narrator is captivated by the magnificence of her new home, Manderley, and its beautiful surroundings, she also feels intimidated and out of place. She knows that Rebecca lived here with Maxim for years and that Rebecca was so much better at everything than she will ever be – something the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, won’t let her forget. It’s not long before the narrator begins to tell herself that her marriage is a mistake…she’s convinced that Maxim still loves Rebecca, but is there more to this situation than meets the eye?

I’m not sure whether this is the third or the fourth time I have read Rebecca, but I do know that it must be at least ten years since I read it last – long enough that I can remember the outline of the plot but not every little detail. Reading it again was a wonderful experience, right from the famous opening line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”. As I’ve said before, du Maurier is one of the most atmospheric writers I’ve ever come across; she makes it so easy to picture every scene in vivid detail. All of her novels are beautifully written, but this one particularly so.

I know a lot of readers find the second Mrs de Winter frustrating, but I have never had a problem with her, probably because when I first read this book as a teenager I was also a shy, sensitive person so I found it easy to understand and sympathise with her. It’s worth remembering that she is only twenty-one, completely alone in the world (to the point where, when she sits down at her new writing desk at Manderley, she can think of no one to write to but Mrs Van Hopper) and has never been taught to manage servants, host a party or do any of the other things that are suddenly required of her. Not everyone can be as confident as Rebecca, after all, and it is the narrator’s sense of inferiority whenever Rebecca is mentioned which drives the plot forward and adds to the feeling of tension and claustrophobia.

I didn’t care for Maxim this time round, though. I know his distant, brooding nature is as important to the plot as his wife’s uncertainty and paranoia – and if they had been different people the story would not have worked – but I thought he could have been much more supportive of her, particularly after (trying not to spoil too much here) the white dress scene. It’s sad that she seems so much more comfortable and at ease with Maxim’s friend, Frank Crawley, than she does with her own husband. On the other hand, I felt slightly more sympathetic towards Mrs Danvers this time; I can see that she’s much more complex than I’d thought on my earlier reads.

Finally, I want to say that this is one of the few cases where I think the film (the 1940 one with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier) is as good as the book. What do you think?

This re-read means that I’m coming to the end of a little project I have been working on over the last few years. In 2009, having previously only read Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, I decided I wanted to read the rest of du Maurier’s novels and I have now read all of them, with the exception of Castle Dor which I’m hoping to read soon (after I’ve read that one I’ll do a round-up post and pick out some of my favourites). I do still have some of her short story collections and most of her non-fiction books to look forward to, though!

This is book 8/20 of my 20 Books of Summer – and also book 99/100 from my Classics Club list.

Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier

frenchmans-creek Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca has been one of my favourite books since I first read it as a teenager, but it’s only relatively recently that I started to explore the rest of her work. Since 2010, I have now read several of her short story collections and one of her non-fiction books, as well as working through almost all of her novels, saving Frenchman’s Creek until near the end (as it sounded like one that I would particularly enjoy and I wanted to have something to look forward to).

Set in the 17th century, Frenchman’s Creek is the story of Dona St Columb who, at the beginning of the novel, is growing disillusioned with her marriage and bored with life in London. To alleviate her boredom, she has been joining her husband Harry and his friends in some increasingly wild escapades, but as the mother of two young children she has started to feel ashamed of her behaviour. Unable to bear it any longer, she decides that what she needs is to spend some time away from her husband and London society – and so she takes the children and heads for Navron, Harry’s estate in Cornwall.

On arriving at the house, Dona is surprised to find that only one servant is present; his name is William, a quiet but perceptive man with whom Dona forms an immediate bond. Despite signs that suggest someone has been sleeping in her bedroom while the house stood empty, she soon begins to feel relaxed and refreshed in the peaceful surroundings of Navron. Her new neighbours, however, seem to be less at ease and it’s not long before Dona hears tales of a French pirate who is said to be terrorising the coast of Cornwall. On a walk through the woods one day, she discovers a ship resting in a creek and suddenly everything makes sense.

The Frenchman (who, you will have guessed, is the owner of the ship), dispels all of Dona’s – and probably the reader’s – preconceived ideas of what a pirate should be. Polite, cultured and intelligent, he couldn’t be more different from Harry and his friends, and it’s no surprise that Dona falls in love with him. I couldn’t quite believe that a man like the Frenchman would have chosen to be a pirate (the reasons he gives for his way of life didn’t seem very convincing) but I thought he was an intriguing character and I enjoyed watching Dona’s relationship with him develop. And yet I didn’t become fully engaged with the story until halfway through, when Dona and the Frenchman embark on an adventure together and the consequences of this threaten to bring their happiness to an end. From this point on, I found the book unputdownable, right through to its poignant ending.

Du Maurier’s writing is beautifully atmospheric and evocative, more so than almost any other author I can think of. The description of Dona’s first walk along the banks of the creek, where it widens into a pool and she comes upon the pirate ship for the first time, is so vivid I could nearly see the scene laid out in front of me. The whole book has a dreamy, almost hypnotic feel. Although we are told once or twice that our hero’s name is Jean-Benoit Aubéry, he is referred to throughout the novel as simply the Frenchman – it’s little things like these which really add to the air of mystery and haziness.

Although I did enjoy this book very much, particularly the second half, it couldn’t quite equal my top four du Mauriers, Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, The Scapegoat and The House on the Strand. I’m planning a re-read of Rebecca soon and then I would like to read Castle Dor, the only du Maurier novel I still haven’t read.

Ross Poldark by Winston Graham

Ross PoldarkI’ve often thought about reading the Poldark novels but there was always some reason why I didn’t; it never felt like the right time to start a twelve volume series or I could only find copies of the later books and not the first one. I had been aware that the BBC were making a new adaptation to be shown this year but I had forgotten about it until seeing a trailer a few weeks ago. That left me with a dilemma as the first episode is being shown on Sunday and obviously I wouldn’t have time to read the whole series by then. But I could at least read the first book and that is what I’ve done.

Ross Poldark is set in 18th century Cornwall (in fact, it is subtitled A Novel of Cornwall 1783-1787). At the beginning of the novel, Ross Poldark returns home from fighting in America to discover that things have changed in his absence. His father has died, leaving his estate, Nampara, to Ross – and Elizabeth, the woman he loves, has just become engaged to his cousin, Francis. With his heart broken, Ross devotes his time to restoring Nampara, which has fallen into disrepair having been left in the hands of the servants, and investigating the possibility of opening a new copper mine.

Life is not easy for Ross – as well as managing his father’s lazy, drunken servants, Jud and Prudie, and dealing with the problems of the tenants and workers who live on the estate, he also has to cope with seeing Francis and Elizabeth together at family gatherings. Then one day, Ross rescues fourteen-year-old Demelza Carne from a brawl at the fair and brings her home to work in his kitchen. With an age difference of ten years, the relationship between Ross and Demelza is at first one of master and servant, but as time goes by a friendship forms and Ross will eventually discover whether or not he is able to love again.

When I began to read Ross Poldark last weekend I thought I might have started it too late to finish by Sunday, but I needn’t have worried; I found it so easy to get into and the story so compelling that it turned out to be a very quick read. I loved the Cornish setting; I won’t comment on the accuracy of the descriptions or the dialect, not being from Cornwall myself, but I thought the overall sense of time and place was very strong. Although they’re quite different stories, the setting and the mining element made me think of another book I enjoyed: Penmarric by Susan Howatch.

As the title character, this is very much Ross Poldark’s story (and Ross is the sort of hero I could immediately like and care about, right from the moment he arrives home to find that the woman to whom he was planning to propose is marrying his cousin) but I found Demelza an even more intriguing character. She changes quite a lot over the four or five years the novel covers and she does slowly grow in confidence, yet never quite shakes off her insecurities and her feeling that the Poldarks are looking down on her because of her background. She is still just in her teens when the novel ends and I’m sure there will be more development to come in the second book. I also liked Verity, Ross’s cousin, and found her personal storyline as interesting as Ross and Demelza’s.

As well as the main characters, there are also lots of memorable secondary characters representing all different levels of society, from the Poldarks and their friends to the farmers and miners who work for them. Quite a lot of time is devoted to the servants Jud and Prudie, and also to one of Ross’s young tenants, Jinny Martin, and two rivals for her love, farm boy Jim Carter and the villainous Reuben Clemmow. Whenever the focus switches to these characters, it provides a diversion from the main plot, sometimes funny, sometimes moving, as well as showing us how Ross handles the problems on his estate and interacts with the people around him.

At the end of this book there are still a lot of unresolved storylines and loose ends and I’m looking forward to continuing the series with the second book, Demelza.