Saturday, November 12, 2016


I Prefer Reading is moving to Wordpress. The new link is here.

I've been thinking about a move for a while as I feel the blog needs freshening up. I've been able to import all my posts from this blog & I'm finding my way around Wordpress at the moment so hopefully it won't be too long before I start posting there.

I was also inspired by Pam at Travellin' Penguin & for much the same reasons - dissatisfaction with Blogger - odd stats, the disappearance of my blog roll & favourite sites etc.

I'm not sure what Lucky & Phoebe think about the move but as long as they're comfortable, fed & attended to, I don't think they'll care one little bit!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Sunday Poetry - Wilfred Owen

With Armistice Day only a few days away, I've been reading my favourite war poets. This is a less familiar poem by Wilfred Owen with the poignant title The Next War. Unfortunately there's always a next war. "The war to end all wars" was a phrase that was nonsense almost as soon as it was coined.

War's a joke for me and you,
While we know such dreams are true.
- Siegfried Sassoon

Out there, we've walked quite friendly up to Death,-
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland,-
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We've sniffed the green thick odour of his breath,-
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn't writhe.
He's spat at us with bullets and he's coughed
Shrapnel. We chorussed when he sang aloft,
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.

Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier's paid to kick against His powers.
We laughed, -knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars: when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death, for lives; not men, for flags.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Deep Water - Christine Poulson

A cure for obesity is the Holy Grail of medical research. Two years after a drug trial that went horribly wrong when a participant died, Calliope Biotech is close to success in the quest for a drug that will cure obesity. When another company claims to have got there first, & takes their claim to court, patent lawyer Daniel Marchmont is employed by Calliope's entrepreneurial director, Lyle Linstrum, to scrutinize the evidence of lab books & trials when the lawyer working on the case, Jennifer Blunt, is killed in a car accident. Daniel's reservations about taking on the enormous workload of the case are complicated by the fact that Jennifer was his ex-wife, who had left him for his best friend. Now happily married to Rachel, they have a daughter, Chloe, who suffers from Diamond-Blackfan anaemia. Rachel is concerned that taking on Jennifer's case in such circumstances will revive painful memories but she's unprepared for the stress that events from the past will place on her marriage. When Daniel discovers that a vital lab book, detailing the experiments undertaken by Honor Masterman & her team, is missing, & questions are raised about Jennifer's professional competence, the car accident begins to look more sinister. When Daniel finds the missing lab book hidden in Jennifer's house, the mystery only deepens as he tries to discover why Jennifer hid the book & what impact its contents will have on the case.

Chloe's condition needs constant treatment - blood transfusions, injections - & the only hope for a cure is either a bone marrow transplant (neither Daniel or Rachel is a match) or the research that consultant paediatrician Paul O'Sullivan & his team are working on. Grant money is fast running out & researcher Katie Flanagan is under pressure to come up with publishable results that will hopefully lead to a cure for Diamond-Blackfan anaemia. Rachel is involved with the charity sponsoring the research &, after meeting her, Katie is very aware of the lives that depend on her work. That's why she's frustrated when her experiments don't seem to be producing the expected results. Katie is also aware of how important this research is for her own career. She can't stagnate at her current level forever. She needs to move on from postdoctoral research in a lab to a lectureship or permanent university post. After the sudden death of her supervisor, she was lucky to be offered a bench in Honor Masterman's lab to be able to complete her research before the grant money ran out.

Professor Honor Masterman has been touted as a future Nobel Laureate & her team, led by Will Orville, are depending on the successful outcome of the patent case; their reputations depend on it. Katie is grateful for a working space but soon becomes aware that there's something wrong at the lab. Working late at night she's aware that there's someone else there, someone who isn't written in the log book. There are also odd accidents - chemicals misplaced, the spread of radioactive contamination. There's also the puzzling non-results of Katie's experiments. A gas explosion that leaves a security guard & lab technician Ian Gladwill in hospital leaves Katie wondering if someone could be deliberately sabotaging the lab. Katie's friendship with Rachel leads to her renting the Marchmont's barge when her flat's lease runs out. She becomes involved in Daniel's case when she's able to help him interpret the crucial lab book & begins investigating, putting herself in considerable danger as reputations & a lot of money are at stake.

Deep Water is a terrific thriller. I enjoyed it as much as Christine Poulson's last novel, Invisible. I really enjoy the way that she combines a tense plot with the very personal stories of her protagonists. Daniel & Rachel's desperate search for a cure for Chloe that leads Rachel to join the board of the charity raising money for research is underpinned by the details of Chloe's ongoing treatment. Their life revolves around Chloe's needs but they're a happy couple until Jennifer's ghost brings back Daniel's memories of their marriage & heightens Rachel's insecurities about her place as Daniel's second wife - was she only second-best? Daniel's reservations about taking on Jennifer's case are complicated not just by personal feelings but the need for his company to keep Lyle Linstrum happy. He can have no idea of the complications that the case will bring to him personally as well as professionally.

I also loved all the detail about scientific research & the constant need to publish, chase grants & funding, the temptation to heighten or even falsify results is ever-present. The atmosphere of the lab, with its strict security & focused researchers, was great but I always love the sense of place that Christine Poulson evokes. The Cambridgeshire Fens, Ely Cathedral & especially the lonely stretch of water where the barge is moored, were so evocative. As a cat lover I also have to mention Orlando, the ginger cat who has several significant scenes in the narrative. Katie Flanagan is a very sympathetic character & I'm pleased that Deep Water is the first in a series featuring Katie. The moral & ethical dilemmas in the story are incredibly knotty & all the characters have to grapple with the human cost of their actions. I always read Christine's books in a great rush & this was no exception.

Lion Fiction kindly sent me a review copy of Deep Water. You can read more about Christine's work at her website here & there are interviews with Christine on Sue Hepworth's blog & at Clothes in Books.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Sunday Poetry - Adelaide Crapsey

As tomorrow is Halloween, I thought I'd look for a poem about ghosts or ghouls or "things that go bump in the night". This poem by Adelaide Crapsey (photo from here), To the Dead in the Graveyard Underneath My Window, starts out spookily enough with the speaker addressing the dead in an irritated voice (the poem is headed Written in a moment of exasperation). Then, we move from the dead in their graves to the speaker lying in her bed, unable to move, told to lie still & be patient when she would rather be outside, walking towards those blue mountains. She refuses to be patient while recognising that she will inevitably soon lie with those quiet sleepers in the graveyard. So, not really a Halloween poem but I think it's a very poignant poem about suffering & the struggle against illness.

Adelaide Crapsey was an American poet who suffered from tuberculosis & died young; she was only 36. None of her work was published in her lifetime but she was admired by Marianne Moore & Carl Sandburg, who wrote a poem about her. She taught at Smith College & wrote a book on verse forms that was also published posthumously.

There are also some great Halloween & Gothic poems at Interesting Literature here.

How can you lie so still? All day I watch
And never a blade of all the green sod moves
To show where restlessly you toss and turn,
And fling a desperate arm or draw up knees
Stiffened and aching from their long disuse;
I watch all night and not one ghost comes forth
To take its freedom of the midnight hour.
Oh, have you no rebellion in your bones?
The very worms must scorn you where you lie,
A pallid mouldering acquiescent folk,
Meek habitants of unresented graves.
Why are you there in your straight row on row
Where I must ever see you from my bed
That in your mere dumb presence iterate
The text so weary in my ears: “Lie still
And rest; be patient and lie still and rest.”
I’ll not be patient! I will not lie still!
There is a brown road runs between the pines,
And further on the purple woodlands lie,
And still beyond blue mountains lift and loom;
And I would walk the road and I would be
Deep in the wooded shade and I would reach
The windy mountain tops that touch the clouds.
My eyes may follow but my feet are held.
Recumbent as you others must I too
Submit? Be mimic of your movelessness
With pillow and counterpane for stone and sod?
And if the many sayings of the wise
Teach of submission I will not submit
But with a spirit all unreconciled
Flash an unquenched defiance to the stars.
Better it is to walk, to run, to dance,
Better it is to laugh and leap and sing,
To know the open skies of dawn and night,
To move untrammeled down the flaming noon,
And I will clamour it through weary days
Keeping the edge of deprivation sharp,
Nor with the pliant speaking on my lips
Of resignation, sister to defeat.
I’ll not be patient. I will not lie still.

And in ironic quietude who is
The despot of our days and lord of dust
Needs but, scarce heeding, wait to drop
Grim casual comment on rebellion’s end;
“Yes, yes... Wilful and petulant but now
As dead and quiet as the others are.”
And this each body and ghost of you hath heard
That in your graves do therefore lie so still.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

O Pioneers! - Willa Cather

John Bergson emigrated from Sweden with his family in the 1870s. They settled in Nebraska where there were many other European migrant communities - German, Bohemian, Norwegian. After several tough years farming on The Divide, struggling against poor crops & bad weather, John is dying. He leaves the direction of the farm's future to his daughter, Alexandra, a capable young woman who has the vision that is lacking in her two brothers, Lou & Oscar. We first see Alexandra in the role that will become familiar - taking charge of a situation. She comforts her youngest brother, Emil, when his kitten is chased up a pole outside the general store & asks her friend, Carl Linstrum, to rescue it. She is calm & sensible, dismissive of the admiration of a passer-by & preoccupied by her father's illness. Lou & Oscar are good workers but unimaginative. They agree with their father's last wish, that Alexandra will run the farm. After John's death, there are several hard years but Alexandra is determined to keep the land they have & she convinces her brothers to take out a mortgage to buy more land when other farmers, including their neighbours the Linstrums, are selling out.

Sixteen years later, Alexandra's determination has paid off. She is the owner of a flourishing farm, employing farmhands & training young Swedish girls as servants. Lou & Oscar are married & settled on their own farms with their families. Alexandra is determined to send Emil to college, although Lou & Oscar, unimaginative as ever, can't see the point. Alexandra's neighbour, Marie Shabata, is an attractive, vivacious young woman who married a handsome man who soon turned surly & unpredictable. Her childhood friendship with Emil has continued & she admires Alexandra's calm efficiency at the head of her household.

Alexandra herself has changed very little. Her figure is fuller and she has more color. She seems sunnier and more vigorous than she did as a young girl. But she still has the same calmness and deliberation of manner, the same clear eyes, and she still wears her hair in two braids wound round her head. It is so curly that fiery ends escape from the braids and make her head look like on of the big double sunflowers that fringe her vegetable garden. Her face is always tanned in summer, for her sunbonnet is oftener on her arm than on her head. But where her collar falls away from her neck, or where her sleeves are pushed back from her wrist, the skin is of such smoothness and whiteness as none but Swedish women ever possess; skin with the freshness of the snow itself.

Alexandra is pleased when Carl Linstrum returns to The Divide after years away. Carl has always cared for her & his visit soothes the loneliness of her life. Lou & Oscar accuse Alexandra of impropriety & think Carl is after Alexandra's money (or, more accurately, their own children's inheritance). This causes a breach between Alexandra & her brothers & Carl leaves to seek his fortune in Alaska without any definite understanding between himself & Alexandra. Emil's love for Marie seems hopeless & he decides to leave as well.

O Pioneers! was Willa Cather's second novel & is considered one of the greatest American regional novels. Cather admired the work of Sarah Orne Jewett (who had encouraged her to write) & her influence is very evident in the glorious descriptions of the natural world & the landscape. Cather grew up in Nebraska &, in the portraits of the farmers & their families, she pays tribute to the women especially that she saw around her. In some ways, O Pioneers! was her true first novel as she later wrote when comparing it to her actual first novel, Alexander's Bridge, about a young engineer & set mostly in London.

... I began to write a book entirely for myself; a story about some Scandinavians and Bohemians who had been neighbors of ours when I lived on a ranch in Nebraska, when I was eight or nine years old. I found it a much more absorbing occupation than writing Alexander's Bridge, a different process altogether. Here there was no arranging or "inventing"; everything was spontaneous and took its own place, right or wrong. This was like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way, on a fine morning when you felt like riding. The other was like riding in a park, with someone not altogether congenial, to whom you had to be talking all the time.
(from My First Novels - There Were Two, The Colophon 1931)

O Pioneers! was unusual (it was published in 1913) as the popular novels of the time were the society or drawing room novels of masters like Edith Wharton & Henry James. Willa Cather's greatest novels & stories are set in Nebraska where she grew up & in New Mexico & other places where she travelled in later life. She was carrying on the tradition of writers like Jewett & Mary Wilkins Freeman in focusing on the lives of rural communities, often immigrant communities. Drawing on her childhood memories & the nostalgic affection she felt for the people & the times is one of the strengths of her work.

Alexandra is such a wonderful character. Calm, sensible, intelligent, she dominates the narrative as she dominates her family. She's like a medieval queen or great heiress, providing for her family, caring for her employees & treating them well but finding herself lonely in her lofty position. She also has her charities, from old Ivar, the strange old man who goes barefoot & has strange visions but has a canny common sense when it comes to farming to old Mrs Lee, Lou's mother-in-law, who looks forward all year to her visit to Alexandra where she can wear her comfortable clothes & tell all the old stories from her homeland that her daughter is too sophisticated to care about. Alexandra's competence leaves her feeling isolated & lonely, with only her old friendship with Carl to comfort her. Even Emil expects her to always be there, never changing, while he sets off to Mexico for adventures or is absorbed in his own thoughts of his hopeless love.  

O Pioneers! is a quiet book about determination & perseverance. The big emotions are there although they are hidden under the hard work & social expectations of a tight-knit community. In that same article for The Colophon, Cather writes,

... I did not in the least expect that other people would see anything in a slow-moving story, without "action". without "humor", without a "hero"; a story concerned entirely with heavy farming people, with cornfields and pasture lands and pig yards - set in Nebraska, of all places!

& was surprised when it was published. After her third novel, The Song of the Lark, Cather found herself going back to the direction of O Pioneers! with My Ántonia. Her best-loved novels are these stories about pioneering immigrant families & strong women like Alexandra Bergson & Ántonia Shimerda. Thank goodness she took that direction rather than any other.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sunday Poetry - John Donne

More John Donne this week. Last week's post has had more hits than most of my posts so I thought I'd see if the same thing happens this week. Maybe I should give up writing book reviews & ramblings & just post a poem every week? But then, I don't write the blog for the statistics, especially as Blogger's stats are notoriously dodgy. I'm just curious about why some posts attract so many hits. Maybe there are a lot of students studying Donne at the moment & they find my blog when they google his name? Who knows?
This is another of the Songs & Sonnets, Love's Growth.

I scarce believe my love to be so pure
   As I had thought it was,
   Because it doth endure
Vicissitude, and season, as the grass;
Methinks I lied all winter, when I swore
My love was infinite, if spring make’ it more.

But if medicine, love, which cures all sorrow
With more, not only be no quintessence,
But mixed of all stuffs paining soul or sense,
And of the sun his working vigor borrow,
Love’s not so pure, and abstract, as they use
To say, which have no mistress but their muse,
But as all else, being elemented too,
Love sometimes would contemplate, sometimes do.

And yet no greater, but more eminent,
   Love by the spring is grown;
   As, in the firmament,
Stars by the sun are not enlarged, but shown,
Gentle love deeds, as blossoms on a bough,
From love’s awakened root do bud out now.

If, as water stirred more circles be
Produced by one, love such additions take,
Those, like so many spheres, but one heaven make,
For they are all concentric unto thee;
And though each spring do add to love new heat,
As princes do in time of action get
New taxes, and remit them not in peace,
No winter shall abate the spring’s increase.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Cold Earth - Ann Cleeves

During Magnus Tait's funeral a landslide sweeps down the hill &, along with headstones & grave markers, destroys a nearby croft. Inspector Jimmy Perez is attending the funeral & decides to take a look at the seemingly abandoned croft. He's surprised to find a woman's body among the debris & even more surprised to discover that the forensic evidence points to murder rather than accidental death. The croft, Tain, had belonged to Minnie Laurenson &, after her death, her American niece had inherited the property. Apart from the occasional holiday let, the croft was empty & the identity of the woman proves hard to track down. The only clue is a letter addressed to Alis & a belt that may be the murder weapon. Local landowners Jane & Kevin Hay were Minnie's closest neighbours but polytunnels & trees obscure their view. Perez calls in Chief Inspector Willow Reeves from Inverness to lead the investigation & the team's first priority is to discover the identity of the victim.

Jimmy & Willow have worked together before & their friendship is tinged with a tentative attraction that both of them recognise but are unwilling to explore. Jimmy is still grieving for his fiancée, Fran, & he's caring for Fran's daughter, Cassie. He returned to Shetland some years before & knows the benefits & disadvantages of a tight-knit community when it comes to a murder investigation. The first clues to the victim's identity point to a happy, attractive woman buying champagne for a special Valentine's Day dinner but then another witness, Simon Agnew, comes forward & describes a visit from the same woman to his counselling drop-in service where she had been distraught & despairing. When the team discovers that the woman was using a false identity & that she had ties to Shetland going back some years, they need to find out who could have stayed in contact with her & what brought her back to the island. A second murder close to the scene of the first complicates the investigation & leads to suspicion & mistrust as the victim's private life is exposed.

The Shetland series is one of my favourites (links to my previous reviews are here). Originally a quartet of novels - Raven Black, White Nights, Red Bones, Blue Lightning - but the success of the quartet led to more Shetland novels - Dead Water, Thin Air & now Cold Earth. The Shetland setting is one of the strengths of the books. A remote, relatively closed community (although less so since the expansion of the oil & gas companies) is a classic setting for mystery novels & Ann Cleeves makes the most of the connections between families that result from living in such close proximity. Jimmy Perez is an enigmatic man who has had enough time away from Shetland to be mistrusted by some but it's also given him perspective which is valuable in his work. In a way Jimmy is the typical loner detective, self-contained & melancholy, but he's a more well-rounded character than the stereotype implies. Sergeant Sandy Wilson, who has lived on Shetland all his life, lacks confidence & looks to Jimmy for reassurance. His familiarity with the people & the place is both an asset & a burden but Jimmy has learnt how to work with Sandy to bring out the best in him.

All the characters are interesting & memorable, no matter how small a part they play in the story, like the observant young cashier at the supermarket who grabs any excuse for a cigarette & a coffee break to talk to Sandy to Rogerson's business partner, Paul Taylor, with his frazzled wife & three small sons. Jane Hay is a recovering alcoholic who is starting to feel restless in her gratitude to her husband for supporting her & worried about her son, Andy, who has dropped out of university & is back home, silent & uncommunicative. Jane's husband, Kevin, works hard but is unsettled by something or someone. Local councilor, solicitor Tom Rogerson seems successful but some of his decisions on the Council have upset locals & his family - wife Mavis & daughter Kathryn, the local schoolteacher - seem unaware of the rumours about his womanising.

I read Cold Earth so fast that, as usual, I had no idea about the identity of the murderer, even as Jimmy & Willow were racing towards the solution. I love a police procedural where all the steps of the investigation are laid out. There are flashes of intuition but most of the work is a hard slog, often frustrating but with enough clues to keep the detectives hoping & the readers reading along at a breakneck pace. I'm assuming that there will be a final novel in this second quartet with Fire in the title & I can't wait!