#BookReview A Prince of the Captivity by John Buchan #ReadJB2020

A Prince of the CaptivityAbout the Book

Adam Melfort is an officer and a gentleman with a brilliant career ahead of him until he is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.

Afterwards, he embarks on daring missions in the service of his country including espionage and dangerous work behind enemy lines in World War One.

Format: Hardcover (464 pages)  Publisher: Nelson
Publication date: September 1935 [1933] Genre: Fiction, Adventure, Classics

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My Review

My Buchan of the Month for August is A Prince of the Captivity which was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1933. My own copy is a later Nelson edition from September 1935 with its rather tatty dust jacket. You can read my earlier blog post introducing the book here.

The book opens in one of Buchan’s oft-used settings – a gentleman’s club – with a group of its members discussing the trial of Adam Melfort for forgery. Despite his defence counsel being none other than Sir Edward Leithen (first introduced in The Power House), Adam is found guilty and sent to prison. It means the end of a brilliant military career. The group cannot understand why Melfort should do something so out of character and, moreover, seem to welcome the punishment meted out to him.

When the point of view switches to Adam, the reader learns the motive behind his actions: a combination of misplaced guilt, chivalry and grief. As he languishes in prison, his one comfort is a repeated dream in which he revisits the Scottish island owned by his family where he spent childhood holidays. However, his sense of guilt is such that he feels the need to earn the right to go back there once his sentence is served. This leads him to embark on a series of adventures, seemingly heedless of the danger involved.

The first of these sees him go undercover in occupied territory during the First World War, gathering information useful to the Allies but also spreading misinformation. It’s no doubt informed by John Buchan’s own wartime roles as Director of Intelligence and Minister of Information. Next, Adam embarks on a mission to rescue Falconet, an American millionaire, lost in the frozen wastes of the Arctic. The scenes in which the two men over-winter in a small cave are brilliantly described.

Adam comes back from that experience convinced his role is to seek out the leadership the world needs in order to avoid another war, to be a “midwife to genius” as a character puts it. It is at this point he meets Warren Creevey who, like other Buchan villains, is possessed of a superlative intellect but not the moral scruples to go with it. As one character observes, “Tonight two remarkable men for the first time saw each his eternal enemy”. Unfortunately, the story then gets rather bogged down for a time as Adam explores contemporary politics and trade unionism in the city of Birkpool.

Things pick up again when the focus moves to Germany. Adam once more uses his remarkable linguistic skills and his ability to assume different identities to protect the Chancellor of Germany (a man he first met in very different circumstances during the war) from enemies who seek to prevent his attendance at a conference that might mean the difference between peace or another European war.

A Prince of the Captivity is at its best in the episodes of adventure, culminating in the final climactic scenes in the Alps, in which an earlier prophecy that “somewhen, somewhere, somehow you will do battle with him” becomes reality. The end of the book features familiar Buchan themes of sacrifice and duty. The less successful and, frankly, somewhat tedious parts of the novel are, as some critics have observed, a case of Buchan trying to cram too many ideas into one book. I wish also that he had relied less on racial stereotypes in his depiction of some of the characters. Nevertheless, the bits that are good are very good.

Next month’s Buchan of the Month is something quite different, The Magic Walking Stick. Published in 1932, it’s a children’s book and therefore will be a first time read for me.

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John BuchanAbout the Author

John Buchan (1875 – 1940) was an author, poet, lawyer, publisher, journalist, war correspondent, Member of Parliament, University Chancellor, keen angler and family man.  He was ennobled and, as Lord Tweedsmuir, became Governor-General of Canada.  In this role, he signed Canada’s entry into the Second World War.   Nowadays he is probably best known – maybe only known – as the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps.  However, in his lifetime he published over one hundred books: fiction, poetry, short stories, biographies, memoirs and history.

You can find out more about John Buchan, his life and literary output by visiting The John Buchan Society website.

#BookReview The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce #20BooksOfSummer20

TheMusicShopAbout the Book

1988. Frank owns a music shop. It is jam-packed with records of every speed, size and genre. Classical, jazz, punk – as long as it’s vinyl he sells it. Day after day Frank finds his customers the music they need.

Then into his life walks Ilse Brauchmann. Ilse asks Frank to teach her about music. His instinct is to turn and run. And yet he is drawn to this strangely still, mysterious woman with her pea-green coat and her eyes as black as vinyl. But Ilse is not what she seems. And Frank has old wounds that threaten to re-open and a past he will never leave behind …

Format: Hardcover (336 pages)    Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: 13th July 2017 Genre: Fiction

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My Review

The Music Shop has been on my bookshelf ever since I heard Rachel Joyce talk about the book at Henley Literary Festival in 2017. You can read my review of the event here. Now I’ve finally read it, I’m kicking myself that it took me so long.

Set mainly in 1988, the book conjures up a vivid picture of that time – lava lamps, Ritz crackers, high street shops such and Dolcis and Tammy, using the Yellow Pages to find a tradesman. I know I’m showing my age now but I can remember browsing in record shops for the latest vinyl releases. This passage especially, as Frank takes delivery of new stock, evoked such memories.

Boxes of vinyl began to arrive the next morning. Rare original pressings, bootleg copies, white-label promotional labels, as well as entire box-set collections. Seven- and 12-inch singles in the shape of hearts, birds and hats; limited-edition releases on coloured discs in blue, red, orange, yellow, white and even multicoloured splatter. Soundtrack records, popular favourites. World music, second-hand classics, demos. Rare mono recordings, limited-edition audiophile pressings… Plain sleeves, picture sleeves. Albums with posters, fold-out flaps and signed covers.”

In the residents of Unity Street, Rachel Joyce has created a fabulous community of diverse individuals who nevertheless feel a growing sense of togetherness, especially when outside forces threaten to bring unwanted change. “Here they were, living together on Unity Street, trying to make a difference in the world, knowing they couldn’t, but still doing it anyway.

The book has a wonderful cast of secondary characters such as Maud, the owner of a tattoo parlour, Father Anthony, the owner of a religious gift shop, “Saturday” Kit who helps out in Frank’s shop, Mrs Roussos and her chihuahua…oh, and not forgetting the matchmaking waitress of The Singing Teapot.

I loved the little stories about the customers whom Frank helps with music choices, such as the man who ‘only listens to Chopin’. Frank’s uncanny ability to prescribe the music others need for their current predicament leads to some unexpected choices. My favourites were his selection of the perfect lullaby for a sleepless child and an album to rekindle a marriage that has lost his spark. In fact, I could have read a whole book of such stories.

Interspersed with events in Unity Street are Frank’s memories of his childhood growing up with his mother, Peg. Sadly for Frank, Peg lacked the conventional instincts of motherhood – “show Peg a boundary, she crashed straight through it” – but she was at least responsible for inspiring his passion for music through her wonderful stories about composers and musicians. As the reader will discover, she’s also the reason Frank cannot bear to listen to a particular piece of music. Unfortunately, Peg’s actions will come to influence Frank’s relationships with others as he grows up. “Frank was so busy loving other people he had no room to accommodate the fact that someone might turn round one day and love him back.”

Will meeting Ilse Brauchmann change things for Frank? Obviously, I’m not going to tell you but all I will say is, that if you’ve read any of Rachel Joyce’s previous books, you’ll know she has a knack for taking readers on an emotional journey. The Music Shop is no exception. I was advised by a fellow blogger who had read the book to have tissues ready at the end; they were right.

The Music Shop is just the sort of warm, uplifting story perfect for the times we’re living through. As Kit says at one point, “I can’t imagine a world without Frank”. Hallelujah to that.

In three words: Charming, funny, uplifting

Try something similar (in the spirit of Frank): In My Life: A Music Memoir by Alan Johnson

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116433648_3250124005044448_5505438321894254958_oAbout the Author

Rachel Joyce is the author of the Sunday Times and international bestsellers The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Perfect, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, The Music Shop and a collection of interlinked short stories, A Snow Garden & Other Stories. Her work has been translated into thirty-six languages.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Rachel was awarded the Specsavers National Book Awards ‘New Writer of the Year’ in December 2012 and shortlisted for the ‘UK Author of the Year’ in 2014.

Rachel has also written over twenty original afternoon plays and adaptations of the classics for BBC Radio 4, including all the Bronte novels. She moved to writing after a long career as an actor, performing leading roles for the RSC, the National Theatre and Cheek by Jowl. She lives with her family in Gloucestershire. (Photo credit: Facebook author page)

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