Tuesday, June 16, 2015

"Poldark" Returns to Print and TV

Like many fans, I was introduced to "Poldark" by Masterpiece Theater, which aired the original BBC TV version in the late 1970s. Made me want to read the books as well as visit Cornwall -- and over the the succeeding years I have done both. Much more recently I was able to re-watch the first season of the original series.

Cornish countryside: Review of "Poldark" and "Demelza" by Winston Graham
My photo of the Cornish countryside, taken in the mid-1980s

Re-watching made me want to re-read the books as well, so I dug out my old collection of yellowing paperbacks -- yes, also dating from the late 1970s. To be honest, these days I much prefer reading e-books to paperback books. The contrast is better, and I can adjust the font and size of the print to suit. Much to my disappointment, at time I was looking (about a year and a half ago or so) the Poldark books weren't available in e-book form, and were apparently out of print even as paperbacks -- 2d hand books were selling for pretty steep prices.

Cornish coast: Review of "Poldark" and "Demelza" by Winston Graham
Cornish coast

Fast forward to 2015, and the BBC has remade the books into a new TV series. In the U.S., we'll be able to watch the new "Poldark" on Masterpiece Theater, starting next Sunday, June 21, 2015. In company with the show, special editions of author Graham Winston's first two books in the series, "Poldark" and "Demelza" are being re-released in a number of forms, including (yay!) Kindle e-books.

If you have Kindle Unlimited, you can read "Poldark" for free. If you do, be forewarned that there is a total of 12 books in the series -- all of which have been re-released. Once hooked, you'll be there for the entire investment in books (whether e or paper) and reading time.

Falmouth Harbor: Review of "Poldark" and "Demelza" by Winston Graham
Falmouth harbor
The basic story of the initial books is that Captain Ross Poldark has been away from his home in Cornwall -- fighting for the British Army in the American Revolution. He's been out of touch with family and friends for so long that many presumed him dead. In 1783 he returns home to find his father has died, his property has been neglected into ruin, and the woman he'd planned to marry is engaged to his cousin.

I think these books will appeal to a wide variety of readers. The character of Ross Poldark is dark and impetuous, as well as kindly and fiercely loyal to those who have earned his regard -- in other words, he's a classic romantic hero. Demelza is every bit his match in intelligence and nobility of character, with the added pleasure that we get to watch her grow and bloom over the course of the stories.

As a re-reader, I'm finding myself much more interested in the politics and historical setting than the romantic content. Ross is not alone in wondering what the point was in fighting a lost war against the Colonials' desire for independence from the crown. Ross, however, soon becomes much more concerned with economic and social conditions at home. He sips a drink at a local market fair, and ponders the state of the working people passing by:

For the most part they were weakly, stinking, rachitic, pockmarked, in rags -- far less well found than the farm animals that were being bought and sold. Was it surprising that the upper classes looked on themselves as a race apart? Yet the signs he had seen of a new way of life in America made him impatient of those distinctions.
Tin and copper mining were long time mainstays of Cornwall's economy, but in the post-war period price-fixing by smelting interests had crashed the value of ore. Banking monopolies further worked to concentrate wealth into the hands of a new monied class, undermining the traditional relationships between land/mine owners and working people. It all starts to sound disturbingly familiar.

A miner contracts lung disease as a result of his hazardous work. Unable to work, he resorts to crimes such as poaching and smuggling in order to feed his family. Arrest results in lengthy incarceration, if not transportation to Australia or hanging.

A member of the minor landed gentry, Ross is the owner of a couple of out-of-production mines. With mixed success, Ross takes a leadership role in organizing his peers against the undue influence of big money -- trying to restore the balance that has sustained the area for generations. His efforts have mixed success, while earning him powerful and vindictive enemies.

It's worth remembering that author Winston Graham started writing the series at the end of WWII. "Poldark" and "Demelza" were first published in 1945 and 1946, respectively. One wonders what connections he might have felt between changes and conditions in Britain at the end of that war, as compared to the times he was writing about.

Cornish countryside: Review of "Poldark" and "Demelza" by Winston Graham
Farm in Cornwall

I was able to score review copies of "Poldark" and "Demelza" courtesy of NetGalley; NetGalley asks, but does not require, a review in return for copies of books. The program provides honest feedback for publishers -- that is, there is no expectation that reviews must be positive.


Thursday, June 04, 2015

"Stonehenge" and "The Empty Throne," by Bernard Cornwell

More from my list of books I most wanted to read in 2015:

 "Stonehenge," by Bernard Cornwell

Unlike many of my favorite books by Bernard Cornwall, "Stonehenge" stands alone rather than as part of a series. I've been fortunate enough to visit Stonehenge several times during my life and take notice of how the surroundings of the site keep changing (as do I!), but the stones themselves certainly give a good representation of being eternal.

Stonehenge, book review, "Stonehenge" by Bernard Cornwell

Cornwall employs his usual skill in translating historical and archaeological facts into a vivid reality of the reader's imagination. In the case of Stonehenge, much is known while more remains a mystery.  The detailed historical notes at the end of the novel are informative and made a number of points I was previously unaware of. For example, "henge" is a Saxon word meaning "hanging." So it is thought to refer specifically to the lintels at Stonehenge -- a connecting feature not seen at other sites. Nonetheless the term "henge" has come to mean any circle of standing stones.

Stonehenge, book review, "Stonehenge" by Bernard Cornwell

Stonehenge, book review, "Stonehenge" by Bernard CornwellHe also makes the interesting, and perhaps unverifiable but nonetheless compelling, point that whatever its purpose as an astronomical marker, Stonehenge must have served a larger purpose in the lives of the people who built it in much the same way as later cathedrals do. Most likely the site served as an appropriate location for marking the great events of life: birth, death, marriage etc. as well as seasonal celebrations.

Alignment of structures to capture the sun's rays on specific days was not a new concept when Stonehenge was built. Cornwall cites the example of Newgrange in Ireland. Newgrange is a chambered tomb and temple, best known for being aligned and built such that entrance passage and chamber is illuminated by the winter solstice sun.

"The Empty Throne," by Bernard Cornwell

My name is Uhtred. I am the son of Uhtred, who was the son of Uhtred, and his father was also called Uhtred.
So begins "The Empty Throne," book 8 in Bernard Cornwell's "Saxon Tales" series. Fans of the series will remember that book 1, "The Last Kingdom," begins with the identical lines. But in "The Empty Throne" we realize quickly, and with alarm, that this is not our Uhtred. It is his second son, Uhtred, who has been given this name follow the disinheritance of his older brother for training as a Christian priest.

I won't say more about this shift in narrators, in order to avoid spoilers. What I will do is comment that every time I think this series may be becoming a bit formulaic, my brain is completely sucked into the world and adventures and I don't care about anything else.

BBC America has been tantalizing us with a brief trailer for an upcoming series based on the books, and titled "The Last Kingdom." The ads don't say even what year it will be airing, but I can't wait! There's a bit where a shield wall locks into place that sends shivers up my spine!

Warwick Castle, book review, "The Empty Throne" by Bernard Cornwell
The grassy area in the middle is where Aethelflaed (or Ethelfleda as she is known locally) had the first fortifications built at the site that would later become Warwick Castle

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Reading, Listening, Watching: June 1, 2015

I wanted to try something new on this blog, and record a brief weekly update on my current media consumption. So, here is my first experiment in this vein:

Reading: Edward III: The Perfect King

I was able to get a free (to read) copy of Ian Mortimer's "Edward III: The Perfect King," through a gift subscription to Kindle Unlimited. It's a good and very detailed history of the life of England's King Edward III. Edward III came to the throne at a young age, following the deposition of his father, Edward II, and lived to reign for over 50 years. So there's quite a lot for a biography to cover.

I confess to having gotten a little bogged down in my reading -- not because it's boring, but it is long and a lot of detail even for me. Perhaps most eye-catching is the author's theory that Edward II was not murdered in prison soon after his deposition, or interred in his tomb at Gloucester Cathedral, but rather survived quietly incognito for many years into his son's reign.

Tome of Edward II; review of "Edward III" by Ian Mortimer
Detail of Edward II's tomb in Gloucester Cathedral

Edward II's tomb: review of "Edward III"
Edward II's tomb in Gloucester Cathedral. Is he really buried there?
I'm not sure how widely accepted the idea is, but Mortimer does provide some plausible evidence. At worst, it's interesting food for thought and serves to illustrate that the historic record is not the static body of documentation those of us who aren't historians might presume.

Audible Listening: H is for Hawk

I first heard about Helen MacDonald's "H is for Hawk" in connection with the Wainwright Prize for UK nature and travel writing. "H is for Hawk" was shortlisted, but did not win the 2015 prize. It sounded interesting enough that I remembered it, though more in a filed away sense than a "must read now!" sense. Then I heard the author interviewed on KQED (our local public radio station), and knew I had to have it -- and listen to it in her voice. I've linked the interview here:

Neither nature writing nor memoir are generally among my favorite genres. But there is something unforgettable about this story of a woman in terrible grief from the sudden loss of her father who looks for some kind of relief in bonding with an animal. While many of us would probably look to a dog or a horse, MacDonald, an experienced falconer, chooses to train a goshawk.

Bird of Prey, San Francisco Zoo; Review of "H is for Hawk"
Encountered this pair guarding their kill in the road to barn. He stood off my car for several minutes! I think it's a pair of Peregrine falcons, but please comment if you know.

Bird of Prey, San Francisco Zoo; Review of "H is for Hawk"
A display of birds of prey at San Francisco zoo. Possibly a Peregrine?
Along the way she includes a great deal of biographical information about writer T.H. White, of "The Once and Future King" fame. But the real magic of this book is the quality of the writing. MacDonald is a poet, among her other many talents, and it shows. The language is beautiful, and enhanced by being read aloud in the poet's voice. I think "H is for Hawk" may turn out to be my favorite book of 2015.

I'll refrain from more than a passing whine about the latest series of updates to the Audible App for iPhone. Each of which deleted my audiobooks and lost my places -- a pain in any book, but especially one with long chapters. After deleting and reloading the app and the books, it all seems to be working again. Grrr.

Watching: Penny Dreadful

As an unrepentant fan of classic horror, I love Showtime's "Penny Dreadful." The network provides a concise and accurate description so I don't have to:

 Some of literature's most terrifying characters, including Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, Dorian Gray, and iconic figures from the novel Dracula are lurking in the darkest corners of Victorian London. They are joined by a core of original characters in a complex, frightening new narrative. PENNY DREADFUL is a psychological thriller filled with dark mystery and suspense, where personal demons from the past can be stronger than vampires, evil spirits and immortal beasts.

The wonderful cast features Timothy Dalton, Josh Hartnett, Billy Piper, and the luminous Eva Green as Vanessa Ives. Whether attacked by vampires, pursued by witches, or raving (and possibly possessed by demons) in an insane asylum, she unfailingly retains the poise (and corset) of a proper Victorian lady (who isn't actually proper at all). Indeed, all of the "good" guys in Penny Dreadful have dark secrets and troubled pasts, which can never be entirely buried -- in any sense of the word.

If you're not a Showtime subscriber, check the website for other ways to view. If you're already a fan, don't miss out on Tom Blunt's recaps of each episode of Penny Dreadful, found on Word&Film.