Folklore and Fantasy: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Our lives are shaped by our childhood impressions and experiences, and no one knows or expresses that truth better than Neil Gaiman. The protagonist in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an unnamed, middle aged Englishman, who returns to his rural roots to attend a funeral. On a whim, he drives to the site of his former home, now a housing development where the country roads have been paved over, all except foThe Ocean at the End of the Laner the rustic lane that leads down the hill to the Hempstock farm. Old Mrs. Hempstock sees him arrive, and as they talk, snippets of memory begin to float to the surface. The summer he was seven, he and Hempstock granddaughter Lettie became friends, and he came to realize that there was something timeless about this family. They can see and do things that he can’t quite understand. Perhaps the duck pond, as Lettie insists, really is a sort of ocean. One morning, following a suicide in the neighborhood, a dark power is unleashed, and he and Lettie must embark upon a quest to vanquish something unspeakably evil.

What sounds like a prosaic sort of fairy story when I summarize it is much, much more in the hands of Neil Gaiman, though it does retain the key elements of the classic fairy tale. Mr. Gaiman writes beautifully, making every word count, and he is a master at conveying a genuine sense of the wonders and fears of childhood. His characters, which are few, are memorable and real. The action in Ocean vacillates between idyllic peace and heart stopping terror. Parents cannot always be counted on, and sometimes innocent mistakes bring serious consequences.There are omens (a fish that swallowed a sixpence), symbols (the number 3 is important), archetypes, and magic, but there is also a firm grounding in the ordinary. Emotionally powerful, mesmerizing, and highly recommended.

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The Reburial of King Richard

Whether or not you believe that Richard III is a hero or a villain, it was a great discovery when his bones were discovered under  a parking lot at the site of a long-gone medieval church. Having read quite a bit about Richard, I’ve come down on the side of those who believe that his reputation was systematically vilified by the Tudors. The Guardian.com has posted  some brilliant photos of scenes from the March 22, 2015 procession to escort the coffin of Richard III from the University of Leicester to Leicester Cathedral, where it is currently on view and will be interred on March 25. This is not an official state ceremony, but one sponsored by the city and the Richard III Society. I believe that Richard deserves a king’s funeral and am pleased to see the pageantry that he was denied. May his remains at long last rest in peace.

Canadian-born carpenter Michael Ibsen, left, the King’s 17th great-grandnephew, places a rose on the oak coffin, which he had the honor to build. Photograph: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

 

 

 

Cortege leaves the University. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

 

Members of a re-enactment group await the ceremonial procession at Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre in Leicestershire. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

 

Cadets wheel Richard III’s coffin on to the battefield at Bosworth. Photograph: Eddie Keogh/Reuters

 

A historical re-enactor of the Plantagenet era plays the drums prior to the battlefield gun salute. Photograph: Andrew Cowie/EPA

 

Members of the King’s Guard. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Photograph: Andrew Cowie/EPA

 

White roses, one of Richard’s symbols as a Yorkist, on the bonnet of the hearse carrying Richard III’s coffin as it processes towards Leicester. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

 

Richard III’s coffin processes on a gun carriage through Leicester on its way to the cathedral. Photograph: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

 

White roses lie at the foot of King Richard III’s statue outside the cathedral . His funeral on Thursday is taking place more than 500 years after his death Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

 

Richard III’s coffin is draped in a specially-embroidered pall and adorned with a crown Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

 

The crown which sits atop the coffin inside Leicester Cathedral Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

 

If you’ve had the patience to scroll all the way through, here’s a little reward. Medieval English language specialist Dr. Philip Shaw reads from one of Richard’s own letters, to convey how he would likely have sounded when he spoke. Here’s a link to the audio clip, and here’s one to the text from which Dr. Shaw is reading.  Interesting!

 

 

History News: 3000 Skeletons Unearthed Near Liverpool St. Station

Discovery News reports that construction crews working at the site of a new London Tube station have uncovered thousands of skeletons and more than 10,000 artifacts during excavations. The building site is located within the precincts of the infamous Bedlam “Madhouse”,  where the city’s first municipal cemetery was located and used from the 1560’s to 1738. Among the interments are Great Plague victims, and archaeologists are interested in  studying the bones to learn more about the evolution of the strain that repeatedly struck London. It is expected to take at least a month to complete the disinterments, and plans are to rebury the bones at a cemetery outside city. It is anticipated that a Roman road will also be brought to light. The results of this investigation, once analyzed, promise to provide a fascinating look at life in one of London’s oldest neighborhoods.

It’s a Mystery: Funeral Music, by Morag Joss

Funeral Music

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Funeral Music is the introductory volume to the Sara Selkirk Mysteries. Sara is a world renowned cellist who has lost her will to perform following the sudden death of her husband. But that is not the mystery in Funeral Music. Sara’s well meaning friend and accompanist, James, cajoles her into playing a charity concert at Bath’s famous Pump Room, after which she makes a horrifying discovery. Someone has stabbed to death the museum curator, dumping his corpse into the Roman baths, and Sara is the first to find him. He wasn’t a very popular or principled individual, and there are any number of possible suspects. The investigation falls to Sara’s cello pupil, DCI Andrew Poole. The plot thickens when Andrew falls for her, and when James becomes a suspect.

This is a simple enough plot with enough interest to permit its competition with the setting, the spectacular city of Bath. Each of the main suspects is given his or her own chapters, and it doesn’t become clear who did it until very close to the end. Along the way, a couple of imaginative yet believable alibis liven things up, but one of those alibis proves to be a cover. I was truly surprised when the murderer was finally revealed. Will Sara return to the concert stage? The answer to that question is left a bit unclear.

A genuine mystery, a cast of engaging (and not so engaging) characters, and an appealing protagonist make this book a quick and pleasant way to spend a few evenings.

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It’s a Mystery: The Haunting of Maddy Clare, by Simone St. James

The Haunting of Maddy Clare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

England, in the aftermath of The Great War. Few soldiers who fought in France returned unscathed, and Alastair Gellis and Matthew Ryder are no exceptions. Deeply affected by their experiences in the killing fields of France, they have decided to make a study of death and the afterlife by researching and writing about spirit manifestations. Their current case involves trying to rid the Falmouth House barn of its angry, often violent ghost, that of a servant girl, Maddy, who hanged herself there several years ago. Because of some girlhood trauma, Maddy cannot abide men, so Alastair arranges to hire a female assistant. Sarah Piper ekes out a living as an employee of a temp agency, so when she’s sent to interview with Alastair, she cannot resist the chance for a bit of adventure, not realizing that much more will be required of her than simple transcription.

Simone St. James’s description of Sarah’s first encounter with Maddy is atmospheric and chilling, and she spins out this tale in an effective Gothic style. The ghost hunting team quickly recognizes that, before they can hope to calm Maddy and send her on her way, they must ferret out the source of her terrible rage. Interestingly, each of the three comes to encounter her in very different ways, and by comparing their experiences, they begin to tease out the truth. The author enlivens the remote country village setting with good period detail and an array of very English characters, ranging from the new owner of the manor house to the suspicious inn keeper to the surly churchyard sexton. Having recently read, enjoyed, and reviewed Bellman and Black, in which crows play a prominent and symbolic role, it was pleasantly surprising to me to encounter crows in this book as well, fulfilling an even more active function. Maddy’s ghostly behaviors are anything but trite, and while Sarah’s budding romance (I won’t say with whom) could easily have detracted from the book’s central theme, it was well integrated into the plot as a whole. Alastair, Matthew, Sarah, and Maddy herself emerge from their brief but intense relationship quite changed.

The Haunting of Maddy Clare is an impressive debut novel. If it has an outstanding flaw, it is that some of the characters telegraphed their implication in Maddy’s mystery. But the overlying ghost story maintained its appeal, and readers who enjoy modern Gothic will probably enjoy this book.

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Intriguing Nonfiction: The Hermit in the Garden, by Gordon Campbell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes it really is true that fact is stranger than fiction. You know those little men in the pointy hats that we generally refer to as garden gnomes? They now have a history. You know those classical little “folly” buildings that dot the stately English garden landscape? Well, it turns out that some of these were not strictly decorative.  Gordon Campbell, a Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, has published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome , the first book to describe the phenomenon of the ornamental hermit in Georgian England.

Professor Campbell believes that during the Reformation, the ancient custom of religious persons, sometimes called hermits,  choosing to shut themselves away from the world for constant prayer and meditation came to an end with the dissolution of the great religious houses.   During the 18th century, it became fashionable among the educated and the elite to be “melancholy”, devoting time to the admiration of nature and the study of philosophy. Gradually, some began constructing small rustic cottages, to use as retreats for deep thinking, or, in many cases, to impress visitors with their erudition. It wasn’t long before the wealthy began to  hire men to live in their garden “hermitage”, pretending to be a reclusive but romantic part of the landscape. Although this book is a serious and impressive work of research, Professor Campbell injects threads of humor where appropriate, as when he describes the difficulties inherent in finding men willing to don rough robes, go barefooted, allow their hair, beards, and nails to grow, and, perhaps hardest of all, remain silent, for a period of seven years.

Much of the book is a survey of historic and modern “hermitages” in England, Scotland, France, and parts of Europe, many of which are illustrated. There are numerous extant sites that can still be visited, though they’re no longer inhabited; health regulations prohibit! It ends with some speculation about how the ornamental garden hermit morphed slowly into the ornamental garden gnome, helped along by Disney’s Grumpy, Sleepy, et al.

It’s probably safe to say that there is no  more extensive compilation of information on this topic than The Hermit in the Garden. It’s a valuable addition to the field of garden history, and has much to say, or imply, about Western Civ.

Now I must search out the perfect gnome for my own garden.