THE THIRD WITCH by Rebecca Reisert

26 07 2014

Third Witch coverThis is the story of the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth – who are, it turns out, Nettle, Mad Helga and Gillyflower. Nettle is middle-aged, a herbalist, and blessed with the Sight; and not only that, but on occasion the “Old Ones” speak through her:

Suddenly, […] the room fills with a wave of smell, an odour both sweet and foul, like the stench of a body six days dead. I cover my nose with my hand but the smell is just as strong. I have to fight against gagging. What is happening? I don’t understand it. I look to Nettle and I see that her lips are moving. Then I hear a voice coming out of her mouth, but it is not her voice. It is a voice I have never heard before, a voice that is gnarled and twisted and dry like the root of an ancient oak.

‘You will find what you seek two leagues from Forres.

Mad Helga is the crone of the trio, old, and “as bald as a new-laid egg”. She is also, as her name implies, quite mad (or is that only when the wind blows from the north-north-west?); frequently she speaks in verse (“A drum, a drum, Macbeth doth come”), but when she does so the words she speaks are words of power: they take effect – or at least, come true.

And finally, with them in their hut on the edge of the great forest lives Gillyflower, known as Gilly. She was taken in by them seven years ago when she was – what? seven? – and her home was destroyed and her father killed by Macbeth. Now, “grown up” at fourteen, and, though dressed in rags and living in a hovel, remembering still what her life had once been like (“I had forgotten how free and glorious it feels to fly across the countryside when you’re perched atop a horse”), she seeks to avenge her father and herself: this book is the tale of that revenge.

This is Gilly, the narrator, talking to Mad Helga:

Impatience rises in me like a bloody tide. ‘Should I seek Him out on the battlefield? Or must I go to His castle?’

Mad Helga only chuckles. With one thick fingernail she flicks a bone into its place.

‘You daft old bat,’ I say, ‘speak plainly!’

Mad Helga holds up a tiny bone. The lower part dangles, broken. ‘See what your impatience has wrought? Once broken, never fully mended.’

‘I shall break your bones, old woman, if you do not answer me.’

Mad helga’s eye continues to twinkle. With the dangling end of the bone she draws a faint pattern in the ashes on the hearth.

‘Heed well, Gilly. These curls here, this is our own wood, Birnam.’ Her voice is suddenly as sane as a tax collector’s. ‘For two days you will travel through it. Until midday on the first day, travel due north. Then turn west for a day and a half. Partway through the morning of the third day, you must leave the wood and take to the road that folk call Old Grapius Road. Follow that road through the hills and mountains. ‘Twill not be an easy journey through the mountains, girl, but the road will lead you through the best passes. Finally you will come to a long silver loch. Travel north past its northernmost shore till you come at last to the castle of Inverness, his northern castle, perched high on a ridge above the firth where he can guard against attack from the loch, river or sea.’

I study the map of ashes, tracing its outlines onto my heart and searing its curves into my memory. Finally I look up. ‘Helga, I do not remember much of castles and their ways.How shall I gain admittance to the castle?’

Mad Helga’s hands thrust out suddenly, spilling the bones into the ashes. Her fingers flash about till the map is erased and the bones soiled and buried in the ashes. ‘Tis your revenge, not mine, lass. I neither know nor care whether you be admitted to his  castle or no.’ She begins to rock back and forth, singing, ‘Greymalkin shall not stalk your rest, nor Ulfling seize your – ‘

I close my fingers around her wrists. ‘Stay with me, Mad Helga, just a moment more. Tell me, I beg you, once I gain admittance to the castle, what must I take to bring to you?’

For a long time, Mad Helga is silent. She sits so still that I snake my thumb to the underside of her wrist and press to feel the throb of her pulse to make certain she is still alive.

Then she says, ‘Bring me three pieces of His heart.’        

When you have read it you will know all three of the witches as well as (better than, in most cases) you know your family and friends. In a good, a positive, sense, the play will never be the same again: it adds to the play.

And not only that. It also achieves the rare combination of being both beautifully written, and frequently un-put-downable.

Rebecca Reisert published The Third Witch in 2003, then in 2004 a novel which let us in on the hitherto secret backstory of another mysterious Shakespeare character, Ophelia (Ophelia’s Revenge: I’ll post my review of that tomorrow); then, apparently, nothing. And I can discover no news or bio of her on the internet. I do hope she is well, and still writing, and that we shall have the pleasure of reading her third novel very soon.





CASINO ROYALE by Ian Fleming

23 07 2014

Casino Royale coverI read Casino Royale that night I said I was going to (after reviewing James Bond: The Authorised Biography) but never got round to commenting on it. However, now that I am about to embark on Live and Let Die, and have some time free, here goes.

I won’t tell you the story. You may have read the book once, no doubt long ago, or perhaps seen the film – not Sean Connery, this one was more recent and starred Daniel Craig along with Eva Green, a great favourite of mine since I first saw her as Sibylla in Kingdom of Heaven.

Eva Green in Kingdom of Heaven

And here she is with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale:

Casino Royale

But back to the book! All I want to do in this “review”  is draw attention to a few points that strike me as interesting,

Firstly, we meet “M” and get the whole set-up and a two-page Top Secret document on SMERSH at once. I somehow found this surprising. I’d always imagined that Fleming introduced these things, built up this alternative universe, gradually, but no, he had it all there ready in his head before he ever started.

Secondly, there is a reference at the beginning of the book to one of James Bond’s earlier cases. (remember this is the first Bond book Fleming wrote, and chronologically the first Bond adventure.) I’ll quote the passage. “Head of S” has just emerged from M’s room and is telling “Number Two” who has been chosen for this special mission:

‘One of the Double Os – I guess 007. He’s tough and M thinks there may be trouble with those gunmen of Le Chiffre’s. He must be pretty good with the cards or he wouldn’t have sat in the Casino in Monte Carlo for two months before the war watching that Roumanian team work their stuff with the invisible ink and the dark glasses. He and the Deuxième bowled them out in the end and 007 turned in a million francs he had won at shemmy. Good money in those days.’

Now I already knew all about that case in Monte Carlo, from the Authorised Biography. You can’t imagine how at home that made me feel in Bond’s universe!

Thirdly, his (Bond’s? Fleming’s?) misogyny, sexism, call it what you will. When Bond first hears that his sidekick on this job is to be a woman, he is furious. This pest of a girl … Women were for recreation. On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around. One had to look out for them and take care of them. When she turns out to be the stunning Vesper Lind (think Eva Green) that makes his attitude worse, not better. Then she is abducted by the villain, Le Chiffre, and as Bond races after her in his Bentley, it is just what he had been afraid of. These blithering women who thought they could do a man’s work. Why the hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to the men … For Vesper to fall for an old trick like that and get herself snatched … But we have to remember that this is a man, and surrounded as we are by psychologically emasculated 20th century males, we may need to suspend our modern prejudices along with our disbelief as we read these books. And to be honest about who we would want racing to our rescue in similar circumstances. And in Fleming’s defence (SPOILER COMING) it turns out, ironically, that it is not Vesper who has “fallen for an old trick like that” but Bond himself. The abduction had been a trap Bond raced right into.

Finally, there follow two chapters that constitute perhaps the most horrifying and haunting torture scene in modern literature. It is there in the film but it is toned down. In the book he spends weeks in hospital recovering before he can return to the arms of Vesper. (Yes, she emerged unscathed.) This business of the reader / cinema-goer as voyeur, watching James Bond endure agonies  that only he could, is another key feature of the James Bond product. Perhaps the film world did it best in the very first one when he fell into the hands of the sinister and sadistic Dr No – once again while attempting to save a beautiful girl. James Bond as Knight Errant then. The man you pray will come along when you are chained to a rock and the dragon is approaching – even if he does believe that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. (As you will have guessed by now, I have a feeling he is right.)

Anyway, this evening I have another date with him: Live and Let Die.





THE YELLOW CROSS by René Weis

20 07 2014

The Yellow CrossThe Cathars flourished in the south of France (and in Corsica and the north of Italy) in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. They were a Christian sect, but they were not Roman Catholics. They did not have a heirarchy of priests, bishops and cardinals: their equivalent of the Catholic priest was the Goodman or Perfect. Also (like the later Quakers) they had no sacraments as such, though they did practise the ‘consolamentum’, a ‘laying on of hands’ when a man or woman was ordained a Perfect or was approaching death.

They had little time for the Old Testament: their Scriptures were the four Gospels (they especially revered the Fourth Gospel) and the letters of St Paul. They were, to some extent at least, dualists, distinguishing between this world, the world of the children of darkness, and the Kingdom of God, the world of the children of light. They identified ‘the Prince of this World’ with the Pope of Rome. They seem to have believed in reincarnation, and were in theory against all forms of killing (including war and judicial execution): the Perfects at least were strictly vegetarian, and wandered the countryside in pairs, preaching their gospel.

The ordinary people had only to compare this with the rich, corrupt Roman Church to decide which they preferred.

During the twelfth century, the Cathar Church grew exponentially. Many of the noble families of the Midi (Languedoc) became converts. A clash was inevitable.

In 1209, Pope Innocent III launched the so-called Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars. Languedoc was not at that time officially part of the Kingdom of France; so the Crusade had the enthusiastic support of the King of France, intent on enlarging his kingdom, and of the French nobles from the north, greedy for land. Slowly the Cathars were driven back to their final stronghold, the hilltop fortress of Montségur. Here, after a long seige, they surrendered. Hundreds were burnt.

It was over. But there were survivors in remote villages and (leading a double life) in towns.

This book is about the campaign against the children and grandchildren of those survivors which took place in the closing years of the thirteenth century and the early years of the fourteenth.

It is immensely detailed because their chief persecutors, the Inquisitors Geoffroy d’Ablis and Bernard Gui (yes, him, the one in The Name of the Rose) and Bishop Jacques Fournier (later Pope Benedict XII), kept records of every word given in testimony during the long trials, and these records have been preserved.

It is really quite fascinating. Many of the people lived in mountain villages and knew their way back and forth across the high passes of the Pyrenees – they took their sheep across to Spain for the winter and brought them back in spring (the transhumance) – and we see them eventually set up home in Catalonia when life in France becomes impossible. But even there – thanks to the presence of a traitor, an undercover agent of Fournier’s – the long arm of the Church reaches out and eventually finds most (but not all) of them, including “the last Perfect”, Guillaume Belibaste, who was burnt at the stake by the Archbishop of Narbonne in 1321 .

History at its very best.

And the “yellow star” of the title? Cathars that the Inquisitors considered unimportant were released after questioning or after a term in prison; they were normally ordered to wear a yellow cross on the back and front of their clothes, just as Jews had to wear a yellow star.





JAMES BOND The Authorised Biography

13 07 2014

James Bond biography

The most successful fiction writers create the most plausible alternative universes. Or the most fascinating, or the most horrifiying, or the most desirable. Who would not rather live in Homer’s world of goddesses and heroes than in what was no doubt the nasty, ugly and sordid environment that was reality around the Aegean one millennium or so BC?

I am not here going to allow myself to get distracted into the mind-blowing possibility of the reality of all alternative universes (or as speakers of US English would have it, alternate universes). (That’s not what “alternate” means. It means this one yes, that one no, this one yes, that one no, as in alternate numbers – 1, 3, 5, 7 etc or 2, 4, 6, 8 etc, and AC, alternating electricity. We rang the bell at alternate doors – this one yes, that one no, etc.)

But back to alternative universes.

In James Bond – The Authorised Biography, John Pearson has created an alternative universe in which James Bond really exists; behind the scenes, of course, being a secret agent, but alive and facing all the existential problems that just being alive entails. The book was first published in 1973, when James Bond was in his early fifties, which means he would be in his nineties now, like the other WWII survivors we see at ceremonies such as the ones held recently in Normandy. He was in fact (according to Pearson) born on the 11th of November, 1920 – when both the Sun and the Moon were in Scorpio! (Click here for my take on Moon in Scorpio.)

It would be a spoiler of the worst kind to tell you how the book is organised, how the story is told. Simply take my word for it that it is brilliant (though it does tend to fizzle out a little at the end). And, if you are a James Bond fan – as I am, of the books, and the early Sean Connery films – you will be unable to put it down. Not only will you marvel at the way what Fleming left out and I at least always wondered about, is filled in, but you will read about other James Bond missions that Fleming never mentioned (perhaps never knew about!).

Years ago I read most of the books – they’re still on one of my grandmother’s bookshelves – and now I plan to reread a few, the ones where I now know much more about the background to the story: starting now, as soon as I have posted this, with Casino Royale, which I have not read before. It is not Bond’s first adventure by any means – it is set in 1951, and he had been an agent in the 1930s and throughout WWII – but it was the first to be recorded by Ian Fleming.

So now for an evening with James Bond! Pearson has created a viable alternative universe that I will re-enter any time with pleasure; I much prefer it to ours, the one in which James Bond was nothing more than a figment of Fleming’s imagination.

(Or was he?)





The Power of Concentration and Balance

13 07 2014

Watch this …





WE SPEAK NO TREASON by Rosemary Hawley Jarman

6 07 2014

Treason cover

Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s We Speak No Treason is a romantic novel based on the life of Richard III and his relationship with the original Nut-Brown Maiden, the girl who becomes the mother of his illegitimate daughter, Katherine Plantagenet. I read it long ago, and now I have come across it again, republished as two books: The Flowering Of The Rose, and its sequel White Rose Turned To Blood.

Like Anya Seton’s John of Gaunt, the Richard of Gloucester we meet here is a man of honour. Like John, he is afflicted with an exaggerated sense of loyalty that makes it imposssible for him to seize the throne and order the murder of his dead brother’s child(ren).

Treason1 coverIn The Flowering Of The Rose, we see him first through through the eyes of our heroine who, though the daughter of a knight, is, at twelve, a skivvy at the beck and call of both the nurse and the cook in the household of Lady Elizabeth Grey. [The nurse's] wrinkled eye was upon me and I searched my mind for a task left undone, a duty neglected. I had been beaten once already that day; thus was I standing to watch Dick and Thomas Grey from the window. I could not sit down easily. But a beautiful skivvy, for on May Day in the local village, all men gaze at her, the King’s jester, Patch, just passing through (his master visiting her mistress) falls in love with her, and a wandering minstrel dedicates the ballad he has been working on for months to her: The Nut-Brown Maid. It becomes famous.

She is a Cinderella figure. Her mistress marries King Edward (there is witchcraft involved) and four years later, when she is sixteen, the Maid follows her to London where she meets the King’s young brother, Richard of Gloucester.

I heard Patch’s light step behind me in the passage, and without taking my joyful gaze from the scene below, stretched out my hand, crying:

‘Ah, my friend, remember you this day! When all men called me fair, and the old ballad-maker said I would be a true maid, and fashioned this song for me ere he died! Take my hand and say you have not forgotten!’

And I felt his hand in mine, and we stood together listening to the music until it ended, and I turned with shining face to give him one kiss out of my true pleasure, for after all he was my friend and had shared this moment with me. And the hand which held mine did not belong to a fool, but to the King’s youngest brother, who stood looking down at me with, God be praised, the same look I had seen in the eyes of men that May Day long ago.

For a long time their love affair consumes them both, then they are separated by events of state. And she later bears him a daughter of whom he knows nothing.

In Part Two, the Jester (“Piers, the man, Patch, the fool) continues the story. He has, he tells us, “loved two women in my life”. These two are our Nut-Brown Maiden and Lady Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick the King-maker and, when her father is killed, heir to enormous wealth and lands. Richard wants to marry her, but his brother George of Clarence is against this as the marriage will make Richard much too powerful. Then the girl disappears.

Richard searches for her, apparently heart-broken, but Patch believes him to be interested only in her money, and when by chance he comes across her he does not at first inform Richard.

Now we have a reversal of the Cinderella story, for Anne, the princess, is concealed as a kitchen-maid among folk who have no idea who she is. And Richard, who truly loves her – she was his childhood sweetheart – is still desperately searching for her (the Nut-Brown Maid apparently quite forgotten!)

Eventually, of course, Patch tells him, the girl is saved, they marry, and Richard and Anne live in the north – with Patch, who becomes Richard’s jester. They have a son, Richard’s heir.

Then King Edward dies.

And that is the end of this book (i.e. the first two Parts of We Speak No Treason).

You will want to read on, that is for sure.

And here is a glimpse Rosemary gives us in advance of Henry Tudor, the bad guy of the next book, the contender for the throne whom no one took seriously until it was too late. After all, he had no claim to the throne whatsoever …

His Majesty keeps mastiffs. They lie outside his chamber of a night. Soon after his coronation we had a big baiting at Smithfield: in its way an innovation because instead of a bull, he commanded that a lion should be tried against three of his dogs. When the great tawny beast lay dead, and the curs, all gaping gory wounds, stood panting froth, King Henry ordered a strange conclusion to the sport.

‘Hang them,’ he said in his high Welsh voice. ‘Traitorous dogs shall not rise against a king.’ It took long moments for the big animals to choke on the end of a felon’s halter.

Lovely man.

Treason2 coverLike the first book, White Rose Turned to Blood is divided into two parts (Parts 3 and 4 in the original one-volume novel). The narrator in the first is the Man of Keen Sight, a landless knight and one of Richard’s company, whom we have already met, and in the second we are back with the Nut-Brown Maiden, the twelve-year old we started with at the beginning of the first book, now Richard’s ex-mistress and mother of his bastard daughter, living in a nunnery.

When this volume opens, Richard is dead, and the narrator and his companions are in a cell awaiting execution for “treason” – ie fighting on behalf of the King against the usurper Henry.

I am thirty-three years old, and I have served three reigns and seen the separate and singular manner of their ending. A fourth reign I shall not see, nor would I wish it. There is no King, save the King of Heaven, other than the third Richard. [...] I will close my ears to the hammerings that build my doom and, in love, remember Richard. Then he was Duke of Gloucester, and seventeen. Now he is but ‘the traitor Plantagenet’ and he is dead.

I shall think on the day when, for the first time, he asked: ‘Will you ride with me?’

And so we go back to 1469, when the young knight first met Richard and entered his service, and we follow Richard’s career through again from a quite different perspective.

I love this. It reminds me of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet in its four-dimensional approach, the three different spatial views followed by a view from further on in time. And the way she links the different perspectives is masterly: here, for instance, the narrator tells how he met the Nut-Brown Maiden:

It was at Fotheringhay, and I had gone down into the camp, late, with some message. Everything was steaming with damp summer heat and in the musky darkness i discovered him with a young maid whom he bade me guard through the ranks and deliver to the Duchess of Bedford’s apartments.
Kneeling beside him, I remembered more. I had thought it prudent to offer the damsel my arm, as she struggled through the trailing briars. Her hand on mine was like a small smooth flame. She stopped suddenly when we had gone a few steps and turned to look back.
‘Ah Jesu!’ she whispered. ‘How he shines!’
I fixed my sight upon the pale Duke, bringing him near in the lanternlight. A moth flew round his face and he lifted his hand to brush it away. The maiden smiled, in tears.
‘There is a light … a light,’ she sighed.
‘What then, mistress?’
She had looked up at me from the cavern of her hood.
‘A light about him not of this world,’ she said.
I could see nought but the fen-fires, burning malefically.

What can I say? Read those books. They leave 99% of fiction set in the medieval period quite in the shade.





HEIR TO SEVENWATERS by Juliet Marillier

29 06 2014

Heir to Sevenwaters

This is for those who read and enjoyed Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters trilogy (Daughter of the Forest, Son of the Shadows and Child of the Prophecy) as the books came out and are now wondering whether to buy and read the two sequels.

The first, Heir to Sevenwaters, carries on seamlessly, transporting the reader back into the great forest, that world of Celtic magic and mystery where we once came to feel so at home. This time, the heroine is Clodagh, daughter of Lord Sean of Sevenwaters and his wife Aisling, and granddaughter of Sorcha – yes, that Sorcha. She is the good daughter, the dutiful daughter, who organises the household for her twin sister’s wedding and keeps everything running smoothly while her middle-aged mother goes through a difficult and exhausting pregnancy from which everyone fears she may never recover. But Lord Sean, who has six daughters, desperately wants a son to be his heir. Will this be the son he has awaited so long?

At the risk of spoiling the story, I must tell you that a son is born, but then during Clodagh’s sister’s wedding celebrations he is snatched away and a changeling composed of sticks and stones and feathers left in his place.

Clodagh, who had been minding the baby when it happened, is blamed.

Lord Sean believes the kidnapping was political, the work of his enemies. Clodagh, who knows that the changeling is not mere sticks and stones and feathers, disagrees. Her baby brother, she insists, has been taken to the Otherworld, the home of the Fair Folk, who now in these latter days are not as friendly as once they were, and she must follow him there and rescue him.

In the end, a great adventure. Yes, in the end. During the first third of the book, little happens. We simply follow the day-to-day events and concerns of the family and the visitors who arrive for the wedding, as seen through the eyes of Clodagh. Medieval domestic soap-opera.

Seer of SevenwatersI am not going to write a separate review for the next book, Seer of Sevenwaters, because here the slow start, the tedious first third of the story, becomes a tedious two-thirds and I only kept reading (and skipping chunks) because I was waiting for something – anything! – to happen. Eventually, it did, and I must say I enjoyed the last few chapters, but that is not enough.

 








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