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Archive for December, 2021

Alistair MacLean was my favourite author during my teens. I continued reading MacLean’s books till my middle twenties, by which time I had read most of his books. After that I continued collecting my favourite books of his, but haven’t read them much. The last time I read a MacLean book was maybe around ten years back. ‘When Eight Bells Toll‘ was my most favourite book of his. Once upon a time, I used to read it often. I thought I’ll read it again.

The book starts with the legendary first page in which the narrator describes a gun called the Peacemaker Colt. The reader is lulled into a false sense of security and before the reader realizes it, MacLean plunges them into the abyss. This first page has often been quoted by thriller writers and taught in creative writing classes on how to write the perfect first page of a thriller. What happens after that – I’m not going to tell you 😊 Anything I reveal about the plot is going to be a spoiler. If you decide to read the book, I want the book to unfold its secrets and reveal its pleasures to you. So, no plot description here 😊

Reading a favourite of our younger years again is like stepping on a landmine. If the book hasn’t aged well, we’ll be disappointed, and it will spoil our earlier pleasant memory of the book. I have so many happy memories of reading ‘When Eight Bells Toll’ that I was worried. What happens if the book hasn’t aged well? What happens if MacLean has said something inappropriate which jars our 21st century sensibilities? I was thinking about this when I started the book. I needn’t have worried. The prose was as beautiful as I remembered it before. MacLean’s sense of humour sizzles in every page. Even when the bad guy is holding our narrator in a deadly grip and is trying to strangle him, our narrator is able to see the funny side of things, and it makes us laugh. I think MacLean’s dry humour is the biggest strength of all his books. There is no nudity, no kissing, no sex, no funny business in the story. If two characters are attracted to each other, they court each other in a courtly fashion through verbal sparring like in a Jane Austen novel. The conversations are fun to read. The descriptions of the sea and ships and nautical things are beautiful, authentic, and educational without being overwhelming. I loved most of the characters in the book. Even one of bad characters is cool. The narrator’s boss is called Uncle Arthur and he is kind of like M from the James Bond novels, but Uncle Arthur is better, much better. I am not a big fan of M, but Uncle Arthur is adorable and I loved him. If there is one complaint I have about the book, it is that the women characters are all depicted as damsels in distress.

I loved reading ‘When Eight Bells Toll’ again. It was vintage MacLean. The first two-thirds of the book was as good or even better than I remember it. I’m glad I read it again. I can say that it is still one of my favourites.

Alistair MacLean was one of the popular thriller writers of the 20th century. He was Scottish. I think it is important to acknowledge that. Many of his stories were set during the Second World War and the Cold War. MacLean served in the Royal Navy during the war, and he used that experience and his knowledge of ships and the sea in his books, which gave a realistic and authentic feel to his stories. I think the height of his fame was between the ’60s and the ’70s when many of his books were adapted into films. The most famous ones were ‘The Guns of Navarone‘, ‘Where Eagles Dare‘ and ‘Force 10 from Navarone‘. MacLean died in the late ’80s, when the Cold War was still on and the popularity of his books has steadily declined since then. It is sad because his books are great entertainment. His publishers have released a new edition of his books recently with Lee Child’s blurb on the cover. I hope that inspires new readers to pick up his books and enjoy them.

I’m sharing below the legendary first pages of the book. Hope you like them.

Have you read ‘When Eight Bells Toll‘? Which is your favourite MacLean book? Do you like thrillers?

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I’ve wanted to read Melissa Ostrom’sThe Beloved Wild‘ for sometime now. I finally got to read it today.

It is around the year 1810. Harriet is a seventeen year old girl. She lives in a farm with her parents and siblings. Life is filled with farming tasks and routines which are beautiful but hardwork and which keep changing across the seasons. Harriet’s favourite sibling is her brother Gideon. They have been best friends since the time they were kids. Harriet’s neighbour Daniel Long courts her, but Harriet is ambivalent about it. This is the situation, when one day Gideon tells her that he is planning to leave the family farm and become a pioneer and buy forest land and try his luck as a farmer there. Harriet is upset with this revelation. Then after giving some thought to it, she decides that she’d like to accompany Gideon. Whether these two are able to proceed with that plan and what happens after that, and the adventures and experiences they have form the rest of the story.

I loved the way the story brings alive life on the farm during the early 1800s. How the tasks are hard and physically tiring, how people manage it in pleasurable ways – all this is beautifully described. While reading the book, we are transported to that era and we feel that we are in the farm with Harriet watching her and her family performing different tasks which keep the farm running. Melissa Ostrom’s research into that period must have been extensive and it shows in the wonderful details that are captured in the book. I loved this part of the book very much.

The second part of the book which describes the life of a pioneer is very interesting, because it is not at all like how it is depicted in a movie. Being a pioneer and going into the forest and making a life there is hard. The document one has might say that one owns 200 acres of land, but cutting down trees and making a clearing, building a house, clearing some land for farming, and trying to sell the farm produce in a far off town is lots of hardwork. Many people might lose their way, get frustrated, get depressed, get drunk. Pioneering is not for the faint-hearted. This book depicts all that very realistically.

I loved most of the major characters. Harriet, our narrator, is cool and sassy, and makes us smile in the way she takes on people. Her friend Rachel is fascinating too. There is one scene in which Harriet and Rachel are picking apples and they start singing songs together and they discover that their singing goes beautifully well together – that was one of my favourite scenes in the book. Daniel Long, who courts Harriet, looks like the American Darcy. But he is nicer. There is a character called Phineas who comes in the second part of the book who is cool and stylish and talkative. The scene in which Phineas is introduced was one of my favourite scenes in the book. Phineas has a sister Marian, who is a totally kick-ass character, whom I loved very much.

Towards the end of the book, Harriet says this –

“How silly I used to be … so anxious to toss aside childhood and move on with life. But I was learning something today, a lesson murky and bitter. Liberating feats, daring adventures — accruing such experiences wasn’t the essence of maturity. In fact, growing older seemed less about getting things and more about losing them, less about realizing dreams and more about feeling wakeful and alone. Maybe adulthood wasn’t really a matter of age at all. Maybe it happened whenever a person at last saw human nature for what it was, for the shape it could take, from the depravity of one to the mettle of another. Well, I supposed I was good and grown now. I still held the image of my girlhood in my mind’s eye but could find no way back into the frame. I didn’t belong in the picture.”

It was beautiful and profound and moved me and also made me sad. It was one of my favourite passages from the book.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Beloved Wild‘ and I was sad to leave Harriet and her friends when the story ended. I wish there is a sequel in which they come back and I can find out what adventures they had later.

Have you read ‘The Beloved Wild‘? What do you think about it?

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I thought It was time to write about my favourite books of the year 😊 Today, it is about short story collections. These are my favourite short story collections from this year.

(1) Fairground Magician by Jelena Lengold – I discovered Jelena Lengold’s books serendipitously this year. Now she is one of my favourite writers. Her short story collection ‘Fairground Magician’ is brilliant. There is a beautiful cat story in it called ‘Wanderings‘, which is one of my favourite cat stories ever. In another story called ‘Nosedive‘ there is a description of domestic intimacy which is one of the most beautiful descriptions I’ve ever read.

(2) Like Water and other stories by Olga Zilberbourg – Olga Zilberbourg writes in both English and Russian which is fascinating. ‘Like Water’ is her English short story collection and it is a beautiful, nuanced depiction of the Russian-American experience. The title story is beautiful and its last passage was one of the most beautiful I’ve read. ‘Sweet Porridge‘ is another beautiful story in which a Russian mother and her American child read a Grimm fairytale together and how their interpretation of the story is totally different.

(3) Death in the Museum of Modern Art by Alma Lazarevska – Alma Lazarevska’s short story collection is slim and has just six stories set during the siege of Sarajevo. Someone said this about her book – “There are books about which one talks and there are books with which one talks—Alma Lazarevska’s book is of the latter kind.” I can’t describe it better.

(4) The Encyclopedia of the Dead by Danilo Kiš – My first Danilo Kiš book. The book is worth reading just for the title story alone. It is about a woman who ends up in a library in the middle of the night and the amazing things she discovers there. A woman in a library who comes face-to-face with infinity – totally Borgesian isn’t it? 😊 How can we resist that?

(5) The Howling Silence by Catherine Lim – Singapore is famous for its ghost stories and haunted houses. Catherine Lim, one of Singapore’s greatest writers, gives us a glimpse into some of those ghost stories and supernatural legends. The stories in the collection are beautiful, subtle, suggestive, realistic. Not the typical kind of ghost story, but much much better and far more entertaining.

(6) Sarajevo Marlboro by Miljenko Jergović – My first Miljenko Jergović book. A beautiful, brilliant collection of short stories set in Sarajevo during the siege. The book has an introduction called ‘Everyday History‘ by Ammiel Alcalay, which is brilliant. Got Jergović’ ‘Kin‘ after I read this.

(7) Mars by Asja Bakić – Asja Bakić’s unusual collection has stories which are a blend of speculative fiction, sci-fi, feminism, eroticism, horror, murder mysrery. In other words, it is fascinating.

(8) Ten Nights Dreaming (and The Cat’s Grave) by Natsume Soseki – My first Natsume Soseki book. There is nothing much to say other than I’m glad I read my first book by the master and this book is fascinating.

(9) The Moment by Nura Bazdulj-Hubijar – Nura Bazdulj-Hubijar was a serendipitous discovery for me. The book is worth reading just for the first story alone, ‘Memento Mori‘, which is a revenge story, which is beautiful, dark, atmospheric, heartbreaking.

Have you read any of these collection? Which are your favourite short story collections this year?

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I read Penelope Lively’sA Stitch in Time‘ a few years back and loved it. I read up a little bit about her and that is how I discovered ‘The Ghost of Thomas Kempe‘.

I want to say something about the author Penelope Lively here. Penelope Lively wrote stories both for children and for grown-ups throughout most of her writing career. Other writers stay on one side of the divide and occasionally experiment on the other side, but Penelope Lively’s backlist on both sides is huge and very impressive. She was a true all-rounder. She won the Carnegie Medal for this book and the Booker Prize for ‘Moon Tiger‘. I think she is the only writer ever to win these two prizes. It gives me goosebumps when I think about that.

Now on to the story.

James moves with his parents and his sister to a new house. Then one day strange things start happening in his room and in the house. Notes start appearing in his room in a strange cursive handwriting in archaic spelling asking James to do one thing or another. When he doesn’t do the requested things, strange things happen inside his room and even a gale blows. His family suspects that James is responsible for all this. The strange secrets which stumble out after that and how James handles the situation is told in the rest of the story.

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe‘ is a ghost story. But it is also a story about memory and imagination and time with some surreal elements. Penelope explores some of these themes related to memory and time and the surreal elements in more detail and in more sophistication in her later acclaimed novel ‘A Stitch in Time‘. The ghost in the novel is a cool, unusual character. I loved the main character James. He is cool and inquisitive and adventurous and made me remember one of my favourite characters Nicholas from the story ‘The Lumber Room‘ by Saki. James becomes friends with an older person called Bert, who is a decorator and a builder, and Bert is a cool person too and was one of my favourite characters from the book. The ending of the story was very beautiful.

I loved ‘The Ghost of Thomas Kempe’. I think ‘A Stitch in Time’ is a more sophisticated book, but ‘The Ghost of Thomas Kempe’ was very enjoyable. I want to read more of Penelope Lively’s books now.

I’m sharing a couple of my favourite passages from the book below. They both made me smile 😊

“James introduced Simon to a game he sometimes played. You walked along quite ordinarily except that you pulled your face into the most extravagant expression you could manage – horror, or fear or joy or anything you fancied. The game was to see how many people noticed. Very few did. You could walk the length of the High Street looking like a zombie and the odds were that no one would bat an eyelid. This, James had worked out to himself, was because as far as most grown-ups were concerned, children were invisible, unless the grown-ups happened to be school-teachers or to have a particular reason for being interested in the child concerned, such as being its parent. For most people, children were something they were so used to seeing around, like lamp-posts or pillar-boxes, that they never really looked at them. Just like dogs pay no attention to people, only to other dogs. Simon was impressed with this theory : he put it to the test, and found it to be true.”

“If you have something important to say there is no point, he’d learned from experience, in saying it during the most active part of the day when people are coming home and getting meals and eating them and whatever you are trying to say gets lost in a commotion of doors opening and shutting and crockery banging and people asking where the newspaper is. He’d tested that out before now : he’d stood in the middle of the kitchen and said, ‘I broke my leg at school today,’ and his mother had turned the hot tap on and put another pile of plates in the sink and said, ‘Yes, dear I’ll see about it tomorrow, dear.’ No, it would be better to wait till later, when the household had subsided a little, come off the boil, so to speak, when his parents would be relaxed and more receptive.”

Have you read ‘The Ghost of Thomas Kempe‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Penelope Lively book? Do you prefer her fiction for children or for grown-ups?

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I’ve wanted to read John Le Carré’sThe Spy Who Came in from the Cold‘ for a long time. Today I finally got around to reading it.

The story told goes like this. We are in the middle of the Cold War era. Alec Leamas is a spy in British intelligence. He runs the operations from West Berlin and builds a spy network in East Berlin. At the beginning of the story, one of his spies tries to move into West Berlin after his cover is blown. But just before he crosses the border, he is shot dead. Leamas is recalled back to London and given a desk job and put to pasture. Things go from bad to worse for him. He gets depressed, he gets drunk, leaves his job, and things go so bad that he is not able to pay his grocery bills. But then some surprising things happen, which I won’t go into, and the book shifts up a gear and the pace of action increases. You need to read the book to find out what happens.

Once upon a time, there was a traditional spy novel. The spy was a cool, stylish handsome guy, who went behind enemy lines, did unbelievable things, was involved in car chases, and boat chases and gun fights in glamorous places like the Bahamas, Paris, Venice, Rome, Hong Kong, and beat the bad guys and won in the end, accompanied by a beautiful woman. This was the stuff of James Bond novels and movies and other similar books. Sometimes the spy was a beautiful woman like the cool characters in ‘Charlie’s Angels‘, or like Sydney in the TV show ‘Alias‘ who did all the cool stuff. And then John Le Carré came along. He was upset with all this glamour. He decided to write spy novels in a different way, describing things closer to how they were in the real world. In his novels, the spy was a fifty or sixty year old guy, who was probably not good looking and who looked like a mid-level bureaucrat, there was less action and more thinking in the story, there were no glamorous women in the story, and there were definitely no car chases and boat chases. In one quick blow he turned the genre upside down and killed all the glamour which was there in spy novels. Unfortunately, his novels got critical acclaim (literary greats like Daphne du Maurier, Graham Greene and J.B.Priestley raved about ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ when it was first published), and though James Bond movies continue to be entertaining and draw crowds even today, Le Carré’s view of how the world of spies worked has prevailed today. It is sad because we all need a little joy and glamour and escapism in our lives, but we are indebted to John Le Carré for showing how spies actually worked. So today, when Saul Berenson says ‘I’m a spy’ in ‘Homeland‘, we laugh at him, because he doesn’t look like a spy, but then we realize that this is how an actual spy looks like – like a regular person, normal and boring. And Saul Berenson looks like this because John Le Carré described spies like this 60 years back.

The story told in this book is very interesting and the first 50 pages are very fascinating. The story told in that part has been borrowed so many times in many movies and TV shows these days, but John Le Carré was probably the first to write that and so this book is pioneering. The ending is very interesting and unusual for a spy novel. I won’t tell you more. John Le Carré’s prose is simple and functional. It is not as beautiful as Alistair MacLean’s gorgeous prose. Not even as beautiful as Ian Fleming’s. But it moves the plot at a good pace and does its job well. Occasionally there is a beautiful passage. I’ve shared some of my favourites below.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold‘. I am glad I read it. This is my second John Le Carré book after ‘Smiley’s People‘. I have one more book of his in my collection called ‘A Perfect Spy‘. I want to read that sometime.

I have my own personal spy story which I want to share. After passing out of college, I wanted to become a spy. Don’t laugh at me 😆 Because this is true. I know I can’t sell water in a desert and a spy’s job was probably beyond me. But I thought a spy’s job was glamorous and I’ll be in car chases in exotic locations shooting bad guys with a Beretta and so I decided to apply. In my place, there was an exam held for wannabe spies and if you are shortlisted after that, there would be an interview. I wrote that exam. I thought I did well in it. But I never got an interview call. Someone who was responsible for the shortlisting must have looked at my application and decided “This guy is no spy”, and put my application into the dustbin. That was the end of my attempt to becoming a spy. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had got in. Would I have enjoyed it? Would I have been successful? Going by the way my subsequent career turned out in different fields, I think I’d have goofed up on the first day at the job, and might have ended up in a prison at an undisclosed location and my organization would have disowned me. Or alternatively, I’d have created an international incident with my goof-up and turned my bosses red-faced with embarrassment that I would have been put out to pasture in a desk job in a remote corner of the office, where I could continue with my blunders with less harmful impact 😆 So I’m glad I didn’t become a spy. Now I can put my feet up and read about how real spies went about it, while dreaming about how glamorous spies went on car chases in exotic locales.

I’m sharing some of my favourite passages from the book below for your reading pleasure.

“He knew what it was then that Liz had given him; the thing that he would have to go back and find if ever he got home to England: it was the caring about little things – the faith in ordinary life; the simplicity that made you break up a bit of bread into a paper bag, walk down to the beach and throw it to the gulls. It was this respect for triviality which he had never been allowed to possess; whether it was bread for the seagulls or love, whatever it was he would go back and find it, he would make Liz find it for him.”

“It is said that men condemned to death are subject to sudden moments of elation; as if, like moths in the fire, their destruction were coincidental with attainment. Following directly upon his decision, Leamas was aware of a comparable sensation; relief, short-lived but consoling, sustained him for a time. It was followed by fear and hunger.”

“A man who lives apart, not to others but alone, is exposed to obvious psychological dangers. In itself, the practice of deception is not particularly exacting; it is a matter of experience, of professional expertise, it is a facility most of us can acquire. But while a confidence trickster, a play-actor or a gambler can return from his performance to the ranks of his admirers, the secret agent enjoys no such relief. For him, deception is first a matter of self-defence. He must protect himself not only from without but from within, and against the most natural of impulses; though he earn a fortune, his role may forbid him the purchase of a razor, though he be erudite, it can befall him to mumble nothing but banalities; though he be an affectionate husband and father, he must under all circumstances withhold himself from those in whom he should naturally confide.”

Have you read ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold‘? Which is your favourite spy novel?

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I went to the beach today, after more than six months. I had to buy something from the store, and I thought why not make it fun by going to the beach 😊 I got some popcorn at the beach and settled down on the sand to watch the waves. The sky was grey and the sea was grey too, but there were a lot of people there, and the energy and excitement was infectious. Young people were playing cricket and other sports, young lovers were taking pictures of each other, moms were taking pictures and videos of their babies, and there was happiness all around. It made me think of the old times, when I used to go to the beach often. It is after all just five minutes walk from my home. I remember the first time I saw the sea at the beach near my home. It was a profound experience. Romain Gary wrote about it beautifully in his memoir ‘Promise at Dawn‘ –

“My first contact with the sea was unforgettable. I had never met anything or anybody, except my mother, who had a more profound effect on me. I am unable to think of the sea as a mere “it” – for me she is the most living, animated, expressive, meaningful, living thing under the sun. I know that she carries the answer to all our questions, if only we could break her coded message, understand what she tries persistently to tell us. Nothing can really happen to me as long as I can let myself fall on some ocean shore. Its salt is like a taste of eternity to my lips. I love it deeply and completely, and it is the only love which gives me peace.”

I felt exactly like that, though I wish I could write as well as Gary.

Today’s visit also made me think of all the beach visits during old times. When my mom was still around and my mom, my dad, my sister and her husband and me used to visit the beach and sit there till late. I remember once sitting there after the sun had set and the moon had risen and the waves started coming closer and closer and at one point, it started getting us wet. We saw with our own eyes that the waves rose high and came closer and closer when the moon rose. Sometimes friends and relatives used to visit and we all used to go to the beach. We were the only people in our circle who lived near the sea, and so we used to get a lot of guests. One of my friends used to visit regularly, but the visits went down across the years and now he has moved to the north east to live near the beautiful Himalayas. Before leaving, he visited one day late in the night. We talked for a while and then he left. I didn’t know it then, but now I realize that he had come to say farewell. Our paths have diverged so much since our younger days and now we live on opposite sides of the country. I don’t think we’ll ever see each other again.

We always think that when we part with friends and loved ones and kind strangers we’ll always meet them again and relive old times and renew our acquaintance. But most of the time, the parting is final. Our paths drift apart never to converge again. These days, thanks to social media, we can keep in touch and share our experiences, though we may never meet again in real life.

Today, my mom is gone, my dad has stopped going to the beach, my sister and me aren’t talking, my friend has moved on and we’ll probably never meet again. The sea though, is still there. It has been there for millions of years, since the time of the dinosaurs, and it will continue to be there, long after I am gone and long after the human race had become extinct. The waves will still be lapping at the shore, the sand will sparkle like gold, and the sunrise and sunset will be incredibly beautiful. There will be no one to see it. If Mother Nature is kind, there will be lions and lionesses and tigers roaming around the beach, frolicking with their adorable cubs.

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The Coral Island‘ by Scottish writer R.M.Ballantyne was one of the first books to come out in the genre, that used to be called ‘juvenile fiction’. These days we call it Young Adult literature. So, this was one of the first ever YA books. It came out in 1858. I read an abridged version of it when I was a kid and I loved it. I always wanted to read the full version. So I was happy to read it today.

The narrator of the book is Ralph Rover. When the story happens, Ralph is a teenager working in a ship. The ship is sailing to the South Seas. There are two other teenagers in the ship, Jack Martin and Peterkin Gay. Ralph becomes close friends with them. When the ship reaches the South Seas, it gets caught in the middle of a storm. Ralph, Jack and Peterkin end up shipwrecked on an island. What happens to them, and the adventures they have, form the rest of the story.

The book can be roughly divided into two parts. The first part shows the three friends in the island, and how they discover new things there, and how they survive there. It is like reading Robinson Crusoe’s story but with three teenagers instead of one grownup man, and instead of it being philosophical, it has new discoveries, adventures and lots of fun. In the second part, there are pirates and cannibals and further adventures. I loved the first part more than the second part. The description of the island and the flora and fauna in the first part was detailed and beautiful. Peterkin Gay was my favourite character in the book – he was talkative and funny and was a bundle of energy and lifted the spirits of his friends with his sense of humour. One of the things I loved about the book was that it gives a description of surfing in the ocean by the South Sea islanders. It was interesting that surfing originated as a sport in these islands before it spread across the world.

Being one of the pioneering books in its genre, we can spot the ways in which ‘The Coral Island‘ might have influenced future adventure books. For example, Jim Hawkins from ‘Treasure Island‘ looks like another version of Ralph Rover. There is a pirate in ‘The Coral Island’ who takes Ralph under his wing, who looks a lot like a combination of the pirate Bill and Long John Silver from ‘Treasure Island’. There is a pirate captain in this book who looks a lot like Wolf Larsen from ‘The Sea Wolf‘. It looks like R.L.Stevenson and Jack London (and maybe others too) were inspired by this book and might have borrowed elements from it.

There is some bad news, though. ‘The Coral Island’ hasn’t aged well, especially the second part of the book. There is a distinct religious tone which seeps into the second part and the caricaturish depictions of the South Sea islanders, mostly as people who are cannibals who eat each other, is laughable and jars our 21st century sensibilities. I think these were probably glossed over in the abridged version that I read as a kid.

For a hundred years, ‘The Coral Island’ was a popular adventure story among kids. Then in 1954, William Golding took the core story from this book and put those teenagers in an island, but instead of them having adventures, he made the story dark and bleak and made them do bad things. He called his book ‘Lord of the Flies‘. Golding’s book became big, it got into recommended reading lists in schools and colleges, and it won Golding the Nobel Prize. ‘The Coral Island’ and its author R.M.Ballantyne slowly faded into the mists of time. Today, except for this book, all of Ballantyne’s books are out-of-print. However, many of them are available as digital copies in Gutenberg.

R.M.Ballantyne was a very prolific writer and wrote more than 80 books, most of which were YA adventure stories like this one, set in different parts of the world. He did his research before writing a book – not like people do today by googling or searching in Wikipedia, but actually going to the places which were featured in the story, living there for a while, and sometimes working there. One can feel that authenticity coming through in ‘The Coral Island’ in his descriptions of the places and of nature. How he managed to do this extensive kind of first-hand research in the 19th century, when travelling was hard, boggles our imagination.

Ballantyne wrote a sequel to ‘The Coral Island’. I remember reading it as a kid. I’m not sure I’ll read it again. But Ballantyne has also written a couple of nonfiction books, one about his experiences in the Hudson Bay and another about his experiences in bookmaking. I want to read them. There is also a novel of his called ‘The Young Fur Traders‘ which I want to read.

Surprisingly for a YA book, ‘The Coral Island’ has some beautiful passages. I’m sharing some of them below for your reading pleasure.

“The morning was exceedingly lovely. It was one of that very still and peaceful sort which made the few noises that we heard seem to be quiet noises (I know no other way of expressing this idea) – noises which, so far from interrupting the universal tranquillity of earth, sea, and sky, rather tended to reveal to us how quiet the world round us really was. Such sounds as I refer to were, the peculiarly melancholy – yet, it seemed to me, cheerful – plaint of sea birds floating on the glassy water or sailing in the sky, also the subdued twittering of little birds among the bushes, the faint ripples on the beach, and the solemn boom of the surf upon the distant coral reef. We felt very glad in our hearts as we walked along the sands side by side. For my part, I felt so deeply overjoyed that I was surprised at my own sensations, and fell into a reverie upon the causes of happiness. I came to the conclusion that a state of profound peace and repose, both in regard to outward objects and within the soul, is the happiest condition in which man can be placed; for although I had many a time been most joyful and happy when engaged in bustling, energetic, active pursuits or amusements, I never found that such joy or satisfaction was so deep or so pleasant to reflect upon as that which I now experienced… My reader must not suppose that I thought all this in the clear and methodical manner in which I have set it down here. These thoughts did indeed pass through my mind, but they did so in a very confused and indefinite manner, for I was young at that time, and not much given to deep reflection. Neither did I consider that the peace whereof I write is not to be found in this world – at least in its perfection…”

“Rest is sweet as well for the body as for the mind. During my long experience, amid the vicissitudes of a chequered life, I have found that periods of profound rest at certain intervals, in addition to the ordinary hours of repose, are necessary to the well being of man. And the nature as well as the period of this rest varies, according to the different temperaments of individuals, and the peculiar circumstances in which they may chance to be placed. To those who work with their minds, bodily labour is rest. To those who labour with the body, deep sleep is rest. To the downcast, weary, and the sorrowful, joy and peace are rest. Nay, further, I think that to the gay, the frivolous, the reckless, when sated with pleasures that cannot last, even sorrow proves to be rest of a kind, although, perchance, it were better that I should call it relief than rest. There is, indeed, but one class of men to whom rest is denied – there is no rest to the wicked.”

Have you read ‘The Coral Island‘? What do you think about it?

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My reading of the English classics continues 😊 One of my friends recommended George and Weedon Grossmith’sThe Diary of a Nobody‘ a few years back. I finally got around to reading it.

At the beginning of the book, the narrator Charles Pooter says this – “Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see – because I do not happen to be a ‘Somebody’ – why my diary should not be interesting. My only regret is that I did not commence it when I was a youth.” Then Charles Pooter starts his diary which he shares with us. It starts at the beginning of April and runs for a little more than a year, till the July of the next year.

In his diary, Pooter describes his everyday experiences – life at home with his wife, the people they interact with often like the grocer, the milkman, and the carpenter, his friends who come visiting, his relationship with his colleagues at work, his grown-up son who is a little eccentric – Pooter describes these and other things. So, it is just a description of everyday life. But ‘The Diary of a Nobody’ was originally published in ‘Punch‘ magazine (that great British institution which closed down in 2002, after being in print for nearly 160 years, because of the vagaries of the market). So, there has to be humour, right? And there is. The humour is not sharp, as a modern reader might expect. The humour is light and gentle, the way it is in the real world. There are funny situations, like in the real world. For example, in one scene, a friend invites the main characters for dinner at his place, but when they turn up, he is not around. In another scene, the main characters go to a party and they are invited to dinner by one of the people there and a few more join them at the table, and after a lovely dinner, all of them except the main character go to the main hall to dance, and when the main character tries to leave, he is presented with a hefty bill, and he discovers that the food is not free 😊 There are funny situations like this described throughout the book, and it is almost as if the authors included actual real experiences and just changed the names of the people involved. Sometimes the humour is based on wordplay and it is fun to read. The humour in the book is different, is old-fashioned, but once we get into it, it is charming and a pleasure to read. Carrie, the narrator’s wife, was my favourite character in the book. She was cool and awesome, kind and loving with a wonderful sense of humour, but ready to fight and not back down when the situation demanded it.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Diary of a Nobody‘. I am glad I read it. I discovered that George Grossmith has also written two volumes of his memoirs. I’d love to read that.

Have you read ‘The Diary of a Nobody‘? What do you think about it?

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When I was a kid I loved adventure novels and I read many of them which were originally published in the second half of the 19th century, books like ‘Treasure Island‘ and ‘The Coral Island‘ and ‘King Solomon’s Mines‘. The one book I missed was ‘Moonfleet‘ by J. Meade Falkner. I’m still a kid at heart, and so I thought I’ll read it now.

John Trenchard lives in Moonfleet village with his aunt. His parents are no more. One day when he is at church with other people from the village, strange noises come from below the ground. The people who had come for the service get scared and leave. The bottom of the church has a vault which is closed. People believe that it is haunted by ghosts. John is curious and goes to investigate. Then one surprising thing happens after another and unexpected secrets are revealed and John Trenchard’s life changes beyond recognition. Or as a modern writer might put it more stylishly – it is the end of life as he knows it. To find out what exactly happened, you have to read the book.

The second paragraph in the first page starts with this line – “My name is John Trenchard, and I was fifteen years of age when this story begins.” I smiled when I read that 😊 There was no beating around the bush here, with long descriptions and vague sentences, trying to make the reader guess the identity of the narrator. It was simple and straightforward, getting the details out of the way at the beginning, so that we can get on with the story. I loved that. I knew then that I was going to like our narrator, the wonderful John Trenchard.

Moonfleet‘ is filled with mystery, adventure, romance, sea voyages, storms, hidden treasure, cursed diamonds, treachery, bad villains. It is entertaining from the beginning till the end. But if we think that it is just filled with exciting adventures and the main characters get the treasure, become rich, get married and live happily everafter, it is not exactly that. I was surprised that the last three chapters defied this convention with the events flowing differently, taking a darker turn. The last chapter was very beautiful and elevated the book to a level beyond a conventional adventure story. I loved it and I’m glad I read it. J. Meade Falkner has written just three novels and one of them ‘The Lost Stradivarius‘ sounds like a fascinating mystery. I want to read that too.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book. It was almost like reading a Wordsworth poem.

“…being well content to see
      the dawn tipping the long cliff-line with gold,
and the night walking in dew across the meadows;
      to watch the spring clothe the beach boughs with green,
or the figs ripen on the southern wall :
      while behind all,
is spread as a curtain the eternal sea,
      ever the same and ever changing.”

Have you read ‘Moonfleet‘? What do you think about it? Do you like adventure classics?

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I was inspired by Kaggsy (from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) to get Robert Gibbings’Sweet Thames Run Softly‘. The title was very beautiful and I couldn’t resist it.

Robert Gibbings decides one day to travel down the Thames by boat and observe his surroundings, enjoy the view, and look at how other denizens who are not humans are living their lives. He wants a flat bottomed boat which is not readily available and so he takes the help of a friend who builds him that boat. Then he takes the boat out to the river, and avoids humans, and lives a calm, serene life for a while. At the end of his journey, he puts down his experiences which results in this book.

Robert Gibbings was a very interesting person. He went to university to study medicine and ended up studying art. He become an engraver and founded the Society of Wood Engravers. He bought a publishing company and published beautiful books which he illustrated with his own exquisite engravings. He also travelled and explored nature and wrote books like this and became one of the first natural history presenters on the BBC.

Sweet Thames Run Softly‘ is a beautiful book. The title is borrowed from this line from the Edmund Spenser poem ‘Prothalamion‘ – “Sweet Themmes! runne softly, till I end my Song.” In the book, in his gentle soft prose, Robert Gibbings describes nature, the trees, the plants, the river, the grass, the insects, the birds, the animals, the frogs, the lizards and all kinds of fascinating beings whom he encounters during his trip down the Thames. In between he takes detours into classics and talks about what Greek and Roman writers thought about a particular topic. There were so many beautiful passages in the book that I couldn’t stop highlighting. The book has a beautiful introduction by Luke Jennings in which he describes the book as – “This is science filtered through an artist’s eye, and the result is wonderfully strange.” Yes, it is wonderfully strange, in a beautiful way 😊 Robert Gibbings undertook this journey down the river just before the Second World War. This book was published in 1940, in the first years of the war, when things were bleak for England and much of the world. The readers of that time loved the book, because they probably thought that the gentle life and beautiful scenes that the book described were probably over and never to be seen and experienced again.

The book is illustrated by Robert Gibbings own engravings and they are exquisite. I’ve shared a few below – please have a look and take pleasure in their beauty.

The edition I read is published by Little Toller Books and they seem to know one or two things about how to make a beautiful book, because this edition is exquisite. I checked their catalogue and it is filled with wonderful books on nature writing – I found W.H.Hudson’sA Shepherd’s Life‘, H.E.Bates‘ ‘Through the Woods‘, a few books by Oliver Rackham, and a biography of J.A.Baker, who wrote the famous, ‘The Peregrine‘. I want to read all the books in their catalogue.

I loved ‘Sweet Thames Run Softly‘. It is one of my favourite books of the year. I’m so happy I discovered it.

I’m sharing some of my favourite passages from the book below.

“During my travels on the river I did not bother much about the time of day. When it was light I woke up, and when it was dark I went to sleep, and when I was hungry I prepared myself some food. And thus I lived as peacefully as any old badger in his earth. I could, of course, have consulted the flowers – the dandelion which opens at five o’clock a.m. and closes at eight o’clock p.m., the white water lily which spreads its petals at seven in the morning and folds them together again at five in the evening, or the marigold whose short day lasts but from nine till three, but I soon learned to ‘feel’ the hour, and when occasionally, out of idle curiosity, I did inquire the time I rarely found that I was more than half an hour out in my surmise. Fog, of course, makes the calculation more difficult, but even mainline trains do not run to schedule in a fog.”

“One of the saddest sights I ever saw in my orchard was at a place where a mown path divides two patches of longer grass. Across this track a field mouse was wont to lead her young, but, one morning, as she did so, a hawk swooped down. It lurched through the trees, fanning out its tail and wings for an instant as it dropped over one of the little ones, and, without interrupting its flight, seized it in its claws and carried it away. I watched to see if the mother would return, but she never appeared again. If I seem to sentimentalise over what must be inevitable it is only because I am so conscious of the wealth of beauty destroyed by every stroke of fate. A fly, exquisite, and in every detail formed beyond the imagination of man, is but a mouthful for a frog. A frog, whose system is so complicated that it can be considered as a prototype of our own construction, is swallowed whole by a duck. A duck is but one meal for a fox, or a human being.”

“I am more and more surprised at man’s presumption in allocating to his own body the prize for beauty. Regarded dispassionately, this ungainly frame of ours must be far down in the aesthetic scale. Why, even our zenith of feminine beauty, the Venus de Milo, is the better for having no arms. And the artist was compelled to drape her legs so that the torso might have a semblance of architectural design. We are, of course, interested in our own construction, and more particularly in that of the opposite sex, but only because our strongest instinct colours every aspect of our existence. If, however, we can for a moment forget that urge and compare ourselves with other forms of life which we see about us we may get a true perspective on the subject. When, for instance, we compare our naked skins with the feathers of the chaffinch or the yellowhammer, ours must seem a poor covering. When we think of the graceful movements of any of the cat tribe, of the speed of even a rabbit or a hare, or of the muscles of the horse or ox, we must realise how inferior we are in agility and strength. Only in brain power are we superior. And to what miserable ends has that superiority been directed!”

“..my friend’s chief obection to my remarks was that without a garden one couldn’t have cut flowers. As he rightly observed, few wild flowers survive for long after they are picked. To this I replied that cut flowers at any time are a barbarism, and that if any one really appreciates a growing flower he cannot get any but the crudest form of satisfaction from seeing a bunch of drooping heads in a vase. No flowers, however carefully or even lovingly they may be arranged, can look as well when cut as they do when growing. If we have a garden there is less need than ever to decapitate the plants in order to enjoy them. The memory of a bed of lupins in full sunlight is far better than the sight of a dozen of them sagging from a glass jug in the glare of an electric lamp. Tulips, which started this discussion, are some of the worst sufferers. God knows, in spite of what I have said, they are my favourite garden flower, but it gives me little pleasure to see them drooping over the edge of a piece of oriental pottery planted on a grand piano, or hanging from a vase on a photo-laden mantelshelf.”

Have you read ‘Sweet Thames Run Softly‘? What do you think about it?

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