Gerald Durrell: Three Singles to Adventure; Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons

The British naturalist Gerald Durrell is probably best known for his trilogy about his childhood in Corfu (which begins with My Family and Other Animals), but he also wrote a large number of other books, many of them describing his journeys to faraway countries to bring back animals for Britain’s zoos. Thanks to Open Road Media, who are reissuing his books in ebook form, I have had the opportunity to read two of them: Three Singles to Adventure and Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons.

three-singles-to-adventure First published in 1954, Three Singles to Adventure is an account of Durrell’s animal-collecting expedition to British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1950. Using the capital city of Georgetown as a base, Durrell and his two companions, Bob and Ivan, begin their mission by purchasing three tickets to Adventure, a village chosen at random from a map because of its intriguing name. First in Adventure, then in two other locations elsewhere in the country, the three begin to gather specimens of the mammals and birds, reptiles and amphibians, which live in that area of South America. These range from lizards, frogs and anteaters to anacondas, opossums and tree porcupines.

Durrell’s enthusiasm for his work really shines through on every page. His descriptions of the animals and birds he discovers are vivid and detailed, full of wonder, fascination and admiration; he even manages to capture the individual personality of each one. My personal favourites were the two-toed sloth who tries to escape in the middle of the night, the capybara who keeps everyone awake by gnawing on the wires of his cage and a big, lovable curassow bird called Cuthbert who gets under everybody’s feet at the most inconvenient of times!

While Bob was absorbed in the job of disentangling the hammocks from their ropes, Cuthbert cautiously approached across the floor and lay down just behind his feet. During the course of his struggles with a hammock Bob stepped backwards and tripped heavily over the recumbent bird behind him. Cuthbert gave a squawk of alarm and retired to his corner again. When he judged that Bob was once more engrossed, he shuffled forward and laid himself across his shoes. The next thing I knew there was a crash, and Bob fell to the floor together with the hammocks. From underneath the wreckage of mosquito-nets and ropes Cuthbert peered, peeting indignantly.

There’s one funny anecdote after another, many of them involving the hapless Bob, who only came along to paint pictures and finds himself joining Durrell in the most hair-raising of escapades!

As an animal lover myself, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for some of the animals, who clearly weren’t meant to be kept in captivity and were transported in sacks, boxes and cages, but having said that, I could see that Durrell did genuinely care about them and treated them in as humane a manner as he was able given the time and place. He would later become known as a conservationist, founding the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust with his own zoo in Jersey dedicated to helping endangered species.

golden-bats-and-pink-pigeons The second Durrell book I read, Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons, was originally published in 1977 and describes a trip to Mauritius in search of endangered animals to bring back to Durrell’s Jersey Zoo. Accompanied by his assistant John Hartley and secretary Ann Peters, Durrell was hoping to find specimens of the pink pigeon, of which only a few remained, the golden fruit bat of the island of Rodrigues, whose numbers had also dropped, and three types of rare reptile from Round Island, another island near Mauritius. All of these creatures, like the dodo before them, were at risk as a result of habitat change and new predators – cats, dogs, rats etc – which had been introduced to the islands with the arrival of human beings. Durrell’s intention was to take a small number of each animal to be bred in captivity and eventually re-released into the wild.

This is another fascinating read, with some lovely descriptions of the beautiful scenery – including a whole chapter which describes a swim through a coral reef. I didn’t like it quite as much as Three Singles to Adventure, though, which I think was partly because the types of animals and birds featured in this one appealed to me less. It’s not as funny as the other book either, although Durrell still has some amusing stories to tell about his time in Mauritius. I loved the episode where, on the day of their bat-catching expedition, he and his companions arrive at the airport carrying a large quantity of fruit to use as bait (including a large and particularly smelly Jak fruit), only to find that they are over the weight limit for the plane.

Frantically, we discarded all the heavy items of clothing and equipment we could manage without. It made an interesting pile. If there had been any doubts about our sanity before this, they were soon dispelled, for what sane person would discard shirt, socks, shoes and other items of wearing apparel in favour of bananas, mangoes and a Jak fruit that one was conscious of at fifty paces?

I really enjoyed reading these two books! Each of the new editions includes biographical information on Durrell and a selection of family photographs; Three Singles to Adventure also has an index of the animals and birds mentioned in the text. I would highly recommend either or both of these books and am looking forward to reading more of them.

Thanks to the publisher Open Road Media for providing review copies via NetGalley.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

a-gentleman-in-moscowIn 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is brought before a Bolshevik tribunal and found guilty of the crime of being an ‘unrepentant aristocrat’.  Once a recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club and Master of the Hunt, the Count is now considered a Former Person and is sentenced to live out the rest of his days under house arrest in his current place of residence, Moscow’s Metropol Hotel.  Forced to leave his luxury suite and move his possessions to a tiny room in the attic, the Count refuses to let his spirit be broken and decides to make the best of his situation, continuing with his daily routines as far as he is able without leaving the building.

With the help of Nina, a nine-year-old girl in a yellow dress, the Count explores the hidden corridors, rooms and staircases of this magnificent old building, and later he finds some fulfilment in working as a waiter at the hotel’s grandest restaurant, the Boyarsky.  Although it’s never nice to lose one’s freedom, there are certainly worse places to be held prisoner than the Metropol Hotel.  But what truly sustains the Count as the years and decades go by are the friendships he forms with the other hotel employees, guests and visitors.

The Count develops a close bond with Emile and Andrey, the two men who work alongside him in the restaurant, he embarks on a romance with a glamorous actress, comes to value the help and advice of the hotel seamstress, and debates politics, poetry and philosophy with friends old and new.  But the most moving of his relationships, in my opinion, is the one with Sofia, who comes to the Metropol as a child and grows to think of the Count as a father.  The Count is an educated, cultured, intelligent man, but he also has a good imagination and a playful sense of humour and I loved watching as he and Sofia devised their own games to entertain themselves and help pass the time.

Spending most of his adult life under house arrest, the Count is largely insulated from whatever is happening in the outside world, but through the people who pass in and out of his life he is able to keep up with current affairs.  This allows the author to provide the reader with some commentary on Soviet-era Russia and to put the Count’s story into historical context.  The balance between the political and the personal is about right and despite the length of the book, I was never bored.

I had been looking forward to reading A Gentleman in Moscow since seeing it appear on several people’s best-of-year lists at the end of 2016.  Now that I’ve had the chance to read it for myself, I can understand all the praise that has been bestowed on it and although I don’t think I would describe it as an absolute favourite, I did find it a lovely, enjoyable story.  I loved getting to know the Count and I’m sure that if you choose to read this book you’ll love him too.

The Walter Scott Prize longlist 2017

I’ve mentioned before that I am attempting to read all of the books shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction since the prize began in 2010. I am always looking for quality historical fiction and I have found the books nominated for this particular prize to be of a consistently high standard. You can see the progress I’ve made with this project here – Kay of What Me Read has also joined in and if anyone else wants to take part you’re very welcome!

The longlist for this year’s prize has just been announced and includes lots of intriguing titles. I’m not planning on trying to read the entire longlist – I’m waiting until the shortlist is announced – but I might still dip into this list from time to time.

Here are the thirteen books on the 2017 longlist.  As you can see, I’ve only read one so far.

days-without-endA Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Crane Pond by Richard Francis
The Dark Circle by Linda Grant
The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson
The Good People by Hannah Kent
Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith
Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

It doesn’t surprise me that Days Without End is on the list and it wouldn’t surprise me if it ends up as the winner. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the other Sebastian Barry books I’ve read, but it’s the sort of book that usually does very well as far as prizes are concerned. I’m delighted to see The Good People on the list as I read it recently and loved it (review coming soon) and also Golden Hill, which I just started reading yesterday.

Of the rest, I was already interested in reading The Gustav Sonata and The Essex Serpent, but I know little or nothing about most of the others.

Have you read any of the books on this year’s longlist? Which ones do you think deserve to be on the shortlist?

For the first time this year, the Walter Scott Prize Academy has also put together an additional list of twenty recommended novels. I won’t post the complete list here (you can see it on the Walter Scott Prize website) but I’m pleased to see mentions of Orphans of the Carnival and The Ashes of London, as well as several other novels I’ve read or am interested in. Lots of great ideas for future reading there!

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.

Jane Shore: The Merry Mistress

jane-shore Elizabeth Shore, known as Jane, was a mistress of King Edward IV of England and said to be “merry in company, ready and quick of answer”. She often appears in fiction set during the Wars of the Roses as a minor character – depending on the book, either as a bad influence or a comfort to Edward in his declining health, and a possible conspirator against his brother, Richard III – but several novels have also been written specifically about Jane. I have read two recently and am combining my reviews into one post.

The first of the two books is an old one, written in the 19th century by Mary Bennett, a truly ‘forgotten’ author if ever there was one. She’s so forgotten that I’ve struggled to find any biographical information at all about her (the Database of Victorian Fiction has a paragraph) and can’t even find a definite publication date for Jane Shore – I think it could have been 1869. It seems that Bennett had quite a few novels published, though, so she must have had some level of success at the time.

As Jane was a relatively unimportant historical figure, there is still a lot that we don’t know about her today; obviously even less would have been known in Bennett’s day and fewer sources would have been available to her in researching her book.  Bennett refers to Jane as the daughter of Mr Winstead and the wife of Matthew Shore, ‘the goldsmith’,  while most modern novels give Jane’s father’s name as John Lambert and her husband’s as William Shore, not a goldsmith but a mercer.  It’s difficult for me to comment on the historical accuracy of Jane Shore, then, as it depends on which sources the author had to work from – and it could be that what was considered accurate then is not considered accurate now.

Bennett’s Jane is portrayed, in typical Victorian style, as an innocent, virtuous young woman at the mercy of the king, his friend Will Hastings, and several other men who want to steal her away from her father and husband. She is the sort of person who has things happen to her rather than making them happen herself, which means she is not the most interesting of characters to read about. In fact, I didn’t feel that any of the characters in this novel ever came to life on the page or seemed like real people at all.

The book is entertaining in parts – mainly when the action switches to Wales and the story of two fictional characters, Nesta Llewellyn and the musician Leolin – but very tedious in others and certainly wouldn’t be the best introduction to Jane Shore’s life.  Having read it, I understand now why Bennett is a forgotten author!

the-merry-mistressAfter reading the Mary Bennett book, I remembered that I had also received The Merry Mistress by Philip Lindsay from NetGalley a while ago, along with another book of his, The Devil and King John. I had mixed feelings about the King John book so was a bit apprehensive about reading this one. I’m determined to get my NetGalley shelf up to date, though, so I decided to give The Merry Mistress a try anyway.

The first thing to say is that this book couldn’t be more different from the Bennett one! Lindsay’s Jane is a much more forceful personality who decides what she wants out of life and then goes and gets it. I expect the fact that this novel was published more recently – in the 1950s – will have something to do with that. But despite Jane making a point of telling us that she expects no rewards or favours from the king in return for becoming his mistress and that she always does her best to help the poor and needy, I didn’t think she was a particularly likeable or sympathetic character. She uses her beauty to get her own way or to manipulate the men around her and I found her quite a shallow, controlling person.

The story is narrated by Jane herself, beginning as she is forced to walk through the streets of London dressed in her kirtle as public penance for her part in the conspiracy between Will Hastings and the Woodvilles. Jane then looks back on her life, starting with her unhappy marriage to the mercer William Shore and then taking us through her romances with Edward IV, Hastings and Thomas Grey, the Marquess of Dorset. Lindsay ignores other possible facets of Jane’s character to focus almost exclusively on her relationships with the men in her life. I appreciate that Jane was a royal mistress, after all, and not famous for much else, but I still felt that this book needed something more.

Things do become more interesting and more compelling in the final third of the novel, when Edward’s death throws the court and the country into disarray once more after several years of relative stability. However, this is very much Jane’s story, so politics are pushed into the background apart from when they touch directly on Jane’s life. Still, I thought The Merry Mistress was a much better novel than Mary Bennett’s Jane Shore. My personal recommendation, though, would be to skip both of these and read Royal Mistress by Anne Easter Smith instead!

The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola

the-unseeingIt’s Christmas 1836 and Hannah Brown is looking forward to her wedding to James Greenacre. However, the marriage will never take place; instead, Hannah is brutally murdered and in the weeks that follow, the parts of her dismembered body are discovered in various locations around London. Her fiancé, Greenacre, is arrested and found guilty – but although he admits to disposing of the body, he claims that Hannah was already dead when he found her. This makes no difference to the judge and jury and Greenacre is sentenced to hang, along with his mistress, Sarah Gale, who is accused of concealing the murder.

Sarah had been living with Greenacre as his housekeeper before being asked to leave so he could marry Hannah. She insists that she knew nothing about the murder and Greenacre also denies that she had any involvement, but this is not enough to save her. As she sits in a cell in Newgate Prison, Sarah’s only hope is the petition she has submitted asking for clemency. The lawyer appointed by the Home Secretary to look again at Sarah’s case is Edmund Fleetwood, young, idealistic and principled. After speaking to Sarah and hearing her talk about her life, Edmund is convinced that she should be freed, but how can he prove it? And is it possible that he is becoming too emotionally involved in the case to be able to see the facts clearly?

Anna Mazzola’s debut novel, The Unseeing, is based on a true crime; the Edgware Road Murder, as it became known, really did take place and James Greenacre really was found guilty and was sentenced to death. Sarah Gale was also arrested, but I won’t tell you what her eventual fate would be. I didn’t know and that meant I was kept in suspense wondering what would happen to her. It’s important to remember, though, that this is fiction and not everything in the book is taken from historical fact – which could explain why some of the developments towards the end of the novel didn’t completely convince me.

Edmund Fleetwood, who plays such a major role in the novel, is a fictional character and the author has created a fictional story for him running alongside Sarah’s. I thought the two stories worked well together – I did like Edmund and I shared his frustration as Sarah repeatedly refused to provide any information which could have helped her defence – but there were times when I felt I was being distracted from the central plot and I just wanted to get back to Sarah in the Newgate. The portrayal of prison life is one of the novel’s strong points and reminded me of other prison-based historical novels such as Antonia Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea and Sarah Waters’ Affinity.

The most interesting aspect of the book, though, is the exploration of what it meant to be a woman accused of a crime in the 19th century: the unfairness of the law, the way in which evidence against a woman was considered, the possible bias that could arise from a verdict being reached by an all-male jury, and whether the punishments handed out were in proportion to the crime. The fact that many of these women had children – like Sarah’s little boy, George – added another complication. Sarah is lucky enough to have a sister, Rosina, who takes care of George while she is in prison, but what will happen to him if the worst happens and she can never come home?

The Unseeing is an interesting blend of fact and fiction; I did enjoy it, but I felt that there wasn’t enough to make this book stand out from others of its type. I couldn’t quite love it, but I liked it and will be looking out for more from Anna Mazzola.

Thanks to Sourcebooks Landmark for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

east-of-eden You would think that by now I would be a good judge of which books I would be likely to enjoy or not enjoy, wouldn’t you? Well, apparently not. East of Eden has been on my Classics Club list for years now and I’ve been resisting reading it for all this time, convinced that I wouldn’t like it. I’m not sure why I felt that way – maybe because I have memories of reading Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl at school and being unimpressed. Anyway, none of that matters now, because I have finally read East of Eden and loved it!

The novel opens with a description of the Salinas Valley in California. Right from the beginning, I knew I was going to like Steinbeck’s writing in this book.

The Salinas was only a part-time river. The summer sun drove it underground. It was not a fine river at all, but it was the only one we had and so we boasted about it—how dangerous it was in a wet winter and how dry it was in a dry summer. You can boast about anything if it’s all you have. Maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast.

Samuel Hamilton, the grandfather of the narrator (whom we can assume to be Steinbeck himself), is an Irish immigrant who settles in the valley with his wife, Liza, and their nine children towards the end of the 19th century. Over the course of the novel we get to know the various members of the Hamilton family – some better than others – but of much more interest to me was the story of another family: the Trasks.

Originally from New England, Adam Trask was once nearly killed by his jealous half-brother, Charles, who believed that their father loved Adam more. With the Biblical title of the book (inspired by the line from Genesis: “And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the Land of Nod, on the east of Eden”) it’s easy to equate the characters of Charles and Adam with Cain and Abel, especially as they begin with the same letters.

Although the brothers have since been reconciled, when Adam marries he and his new wife, Cathy, move to the Salinas Valley, leaving Charles behind to take care of the family farm. It is here in California that Cathy gives birth to twins Aron and Cal (A and C again) and history seems to be about to repeat itself.

The characters in East of Eden range from the very good – such as Adam and Aron – to the completely evil, like Cathy:

There was a time when a girl like Cathy would have been called possessed by the devil. She would have been exorcised to cast out the evil spirit, and if after many trials that did not work, she would have been burned as a witch for the good of the community. The one thing that may not be forgiven a witch is her ability to distress people, to make them restless and uneasy and even envious.

Between the two extremes, there are characters like Cal, whose natures are more nuanced and ambiguous. The idea at the heart of the novel is that there is the potential for both good and evil in each of us and that it’s up to the individual person to choose what they want to be:

“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—’Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.'”

Like Charles before him, Cal desperately wants some love and attention from his father and is envious of his brother Aron, but being a complex human being, we see him struggling against temptation and trying to do what he knows is right, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

My favourite character, though, is definitely Lee, Adam’s Chinese servant: he’s so wise, so loyal, so patient and uncomplaining. Over the course of the novel he becomes much more than just a servant to the Trask family, helping to raise the children, providing valuable insights and offering advice and friendship.

I found East of Eden a surprisingly compelling read; I honestly hadn’t expected to love it as much as I did or to find myself wanting to turn the pages so quickly. I now feel much more enthusiastic about reading more Steinbeck – not immediately, but soon.