Friday, 12 January 2018

Christmas Stories by GMB

Christmas Stories by George Mackay Brown (1921 - 1996) was published by The Perpetua Press in 1985 with a limited edition of 150 copies printed which were signed by the author, illustrator and printer.  George Mackay Brown was an Orcadian writer who lived in my hometown of Stromness, the Hamnavoe of his stories.  Stromness is a small town in Orkney,  nestling beneath Brinkies Brae, the hill which provides some shelter for the town.  Although George Mackay Brown rarely left his beloved Orkney, not all his writing was confined to Orkney as this collection demonstrates - the first story is set in Hamnavoe, the next two on an unnamed island and the final one in the Middle East.   
The first story "Haul of Winter Fish" is a magical Christmas story - the fishermen of Hamnavoe have caught no fish during December and the crofters are no better off.  A young boy tells his family he has seen a boat landing three baskets of fish on the pier.  His mother makes a fool of the boy.  However it turns out to be true.  "When the mother opened the door in the morning, upon the jet and crimson of dawn over Scapa, there were three brimming baskets of cod on the pier: enough to feed every house in the village." 
The second story "Christmas visitors" is a very sad tale of an old woman whose fisherman husband, Samuel, had been lost at sea 42 years ago.  However he came to visit her every Christmas except this one.  The story ends, "She is left with silence in the heart of her last winter: until the earth and the sea are one."
The third story "Miss Tait and Tommy and the Carol Singers" is a happier tale describing how Miss Tait changed from being a mean old woman to a friendly, generous one who invites the local children into her house to share exotic fruits and nuts.  
The final story in the collection is entitled "The Christmas Dove" and is set in the Middle East.  This is a version of the Christmas story and a fitting end to this book.  After various adventures the dove reaches a town where he sees the shepherd boy who had helped him.  "The boy stooped in at a dark door, where there was only a glim of light.  Shadowy animals moved about inside.  It was (thought the dove) the poorest house in the town.  A tall shadow, a man, bent over a kneeling shadow that held a bundle in her arms."
The themes Brown deals with in his writing are the universal themes of love, sorrow, loss, faith and poverty.  His language is beautiful and poetic as the following examples demonstrate:-
"And there you stood, sea-taken one, with the piece of torn net in your hand: speechless."
"Now the sun had moved down the sky, and as it touched the horizon a flush engulfed the desert.  Through an air red as wine the dove spied, far below, three travellers with laden camels."

To hear George Mackay Brown reading his poem "The Poet" follow this link to the Poetry Archive
Stromness, Orkney


Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Victorian Reading Challenge 2018

These are the books I am planning to read for the Victorian Reading Challenge organised by Becky's Book Reviews.  I am doing some of the suggested books from the Option C checklist.

A book published between 1851 and 1860 - Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens (1857)

A book published between 1871 and 1880 - Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy (1872)

A book with a place name in the title - Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

A book with a character name in the title - Emma by Jame Austen

A children's book - The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley

A science fiction or fantasy book - 20,000 Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne

The Mistletoe Murder

P D James was often commissioned by newspapers to write short stories and four of the best were  published in 2016 in the book The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories which I chose to read for A Literary Christmas Challenge organised by In The Bookcase.  As P D James died in 2014 it was a pleasure to buy a new book of her work.

I have read most of P D James's crime novels and really enjoyed them.   It is quite difficult to write a good short story as the author has to develop characters and plots in addition to describing the settings but is restricted by the number of words s/he can use.  As P D James states in the preface to this book "The good short story is accordingly difficult to write well, but in this busy age it can provide one of the most satisfactory reading experiences."  I think that this book demonstrates that P D James could write excellent short stories too.

The first story in the book is "The Mistletoe Murder" which is set in a country house at Christmas during the Second World War. The narrator's description of the house immediately creates an atmosphere - "and then the moon moved from behind a cloud and the house was revealed; beauty, symmetry and mystery bathed in a white light."  The narrator is visiting her grandmother for Christmas.  Her cousin has also been invited in addition to another distant relation who is an antiques dealer and is to value her grandmother's coins.  Christmas Day passes quietly with the age old traditions of exchanging presents and eating Christmas lunch.  The next morning the antiques dealer is found dead in the locked library.  The local police believe the murderer had come in through the French windows - however the coins have not been taken. We eventually learn how the murder was committed and why. 

The second story entitled "A Very Commonplace Murder" was much darker than "The Mistletoe Murder".  The final two stories in the book involve a young Adam Dalgleish who features in many of P D James's novels. 

I really enjoyed this book and now plan to read The Lighthouse by P D James as it is sitting on my bookshelf!  I gave the rest of her novels away to a charity shop when I moved house recently.