[reading] What have you read recently?

Maddz

Rune Priest
I think my favourite is Rule Britannia. Given the way things are going politically, it’s probably due a re-read. Still got my print copy around somewhere.

You know, there’s something about re-reading a school set book in later life. Do you think you have a better appreciation of the book?

This is partly why I like Jane Austen - Pride and Prejudice was my ‘O’-level set book, and I come back to it every so often. Jane Eyre was my sister’s set book, and I don’t think she’s read it since (unless she got a new copy, she can’t because I’ve got it now).
 

Guvnor

The Guvnor
Staff member
I think my favourite is Rule Britannia. Given the way things are going politically, it’s probably due a re-read. Still got my print copy around somewhere.
Ooh, how prescient
Rule Britannia (Virago Modern Classics Book 766) https://smile.amazon.co.uk/dp/B008258S5Y/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_i_kp1zEb6ZPSBS6

You know, there’s something about re-reading a school set book in later life. Do you think you have a better appreciation of the book?
Yes. All good books give more on reread. It shifts to study as well and depth and insight come through.
 

ltd

Rune Priest
I think my favourite is Rule Britannia. Given the way things are going politically, it’s probably due a re-read. Still got my print copy around somewhere.
I liked that one as well.

For me I find reading former school books more enjoyable because there's nothing compulsory about it, you're reading the book because you want to, and you can enjoy it on your own terms rather than having to analyse and criticise all the time.
 

Maddz

Rune Priest
Ooh, how prescient
Rule Britannia (Virago Modern Classics Book 766) https://smile.amazon.co.uk/dp/B008258S5Y/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_i_kp1zEb6ZPSBS6
I'll stick to my print copy unless there's a price drop coming soon ;)

I liked that one as well.

For me I find reading former school books more enjoyable because there's nothing compulsory about it, you're reading the book because you want to, and you can enjoy it on your own terms rather than having to analyse and criticise all the time.
I wonder - I agree it's because you're reading them on your own terms, but is it more enjoyable because you've got past the analysis and criticism?

Mind you, I seem to recall reading A Tale of Two Cities at school and I've not touched Dickens with a barge pole since. (Probably because I find Victorian authors too sententious.)
 

ltd

Rune Priest
I wonder - I agree it's because you're reading them on your own terms, but is it more enjoyable because you've got past the analysis and criticism?
I think I've forgotten most of it now Maddz. I thought Great Expectations was all right when I did it at school but for the life of me can't remember a thing I wrote about it . Read Bleak House a few years back when the TV series was on. The opening chapter is great but it had a tendency to ramble on after that, and yes, definitely sententious in places. I liked Thackeray's Barry Lyndon - now there was a a man with an uncompromisingly bleak view of human nature. Keep promising myself I'll read Vanity Fair at some point. When I go on holiday this year, for sure.;)
 
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ltd

Rune Priest
Operation Mincemeat by Ben McIntyre. Update of The Man Who Never Was – the WW2 scheme to float a corpse carrying bogus documents off the Spanish coast in the hope of fooling the Germans as to the location of the 1943 invasion of S. Europe. McIntyre has his usual eye for the colourful and often downright absurd characters working for both Allied and Axis intelligence agencies. Deserves praise too for restoring some human dignity to Glyndyr Williams the unfortunate man whose corpse was commandeered for the operation. He seems to have led a wretched life blighted by mental illness and grinding poverty before dying a horrible death caused by eating bread crusts treated with rat poison. Being described as a “ne’er do well” by one of the spooks intent on making use of his cadaver seems grossly unfair. Very noticeable that his mortal remains were treated with considerably more respect by the submarine captain responsible for setting them adrift.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn: Middle aged couple receive the double whammy of having their home repossessed and one of them being diagnosed with a terminal disease. With literally nothing to lose they set off along the South Coast Path, wild camping pretty much all the way. Having walked a couple of stretches of the path and found it tough going I admired Winn and her partner’s achievement, and enjoyed her writing about nature and landscapes, not quite so keen when it takes a new age turn.

Creatures of the Pool by Ramsey Campbell. Veteran Liverpudlian horror novelist’s paean to his home town via Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Chock full of scouse history, much of which is very interesting although some of it is rather shoe horned in at times. I’m a great admirer of Campbell’s early work, novels like Incarnate and The Parasite, but think he went off the boil in the early nineties – his distinctive off kilter writing style becoming so convoluted as to be unreadable and he seemed no longer capable of writing believable dialogue: All his characters sound like they’re answering questions nobody’s asked from out of the side of their mouths. Creatures… isn’t the worst of his late period novels. I managed to finish it unlike say The Count of Eleven or Thieving Fear but there are far too many elliptical conversations that don’t really go anywhere and the story isn’t substantial enough to justify the book’s length. Could do with being about a third shorter. Not a total waste of time but Campbell’s a long way off from his glory days.

Adventures on the High Teas: In Search of Middle England by Stuart Maconie. Not a big fan of Maconie’s music journalism or his other books Cider with Roadies and Pies and Prejudice, and the ghastly punning title of this volume didn’t lead me to expect great things but...really enjoyed this amiable wander around assorted English towns much enlivened by the occasional penetrating insight.
 

Maddz

Rune Priest
Been a bit behind on my reading - the cold meant I couldn't concentrate, but:

The Violent Century, by Lavie Tidhar

An alternate history in Wild Cards territory as if it was written by John Le Carré. In the mid 1930s a quantum device built by a German scientist is triggered. The resulting wave changes some people into Übermenschen - basically superheroes, We follow a group of British superheroes through WWII up until the new century.

An oddity of a novel - the action skips up and down the timeline, and it's effectively a cold war novel. The British superheroes work for an espionage operation, and the hero is spotted by Arnold Deutsch (well known in spy circles) when he was up at Cambridge. I found the non-linear story a bit hard to follow, but it meant that it was relatively easy to pick up and put down the book.

OK but I doubt I will read it again.
 

ltd

Rune Priest
A couple of slices of Cornish gothic:

Ritual by David Pinner. Famous, if that's the right word, as being the source novel for The Wicker Man. An absolute shocker of a book in which the basic storyline of a puritanical copper at large in a rustic pagan community is presented as a lumbering black comedy. I gather Pinner has been successful as a playwright but as a novelist he's barely coherent. The whole thing reads like the halluciniation of some kind of sex maniac - a lot of the attitudes on display to women, gays and children are deeply distasteful even by the standards of the time.

The closest book I've read to it in terms of its haphazard style is James Mitchell's much maligned last Callan novel, which feels like a strange coincidence given the Edward Woodward connection. Pinner doesn't have the excuse of having been quite ill though.

Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier. Rather more to my liking. Brilliantly evoked setting and some interesting psychology - Du Maurier's "Eric Avon" alter ego seems to be running the show once or twice. The storyline relies on coincidence a couple of times too many e.g. chance meetings on moorland lanes with eccentric vicars and colourful Romany types but that seems a small minded objection given how good the rest of the book is. The thieves fall out scrap after the Christmas Day wreck is an astonishing piece of writing. As someone far more perceptive than myself said its like something from a Sam Peckinpah film.
 
Clouds by Aristophanes. This is my second ancient Greek Old Comedy by Aristophanes (who is the author of all the surviving Old Comedy plays), and rather more strange but also more prosaic than my first encounter, which was the fantastic Lysistrata.

The plot of Clouds concerns the bumbling Strepsiades, who is deep in debt thanks to his son's lavish lifestyle. He concocts a plan to learn the rhetoric skills of Socrates, that can use the Worse Argument to win any case even if blatantly in the wrong. For some reason Socrates agrees to teach him even though he's a blithering idiot, and introduces him to the new goddesses that he exclusively worships, the titular Clouds.

Strepsiades turns out not to be able to remember enough of the teachings to form a coherent sentence, so instead forces his son to take up residence in the school. There then follows a scene where the Worse Argument and the Better Argument appear personified, and have an... argument, with the Worse Argument inevitably winning.

Next Strepsiades sends his creditors packing with some confused but rude words, confident that his son can get him out of act trouble. What actually happens is his son comes home and gives him a good hiding, and then uses his new rhetorical skills to convince Strepsiades that it is the new way of the world.

Strepsiades is once more confused, until the Clouds appear again and reveal that all this is his punishment for being a wicked man (that is, trying to welch on his debts). Good old Strepsiades realises the error of his ways, and so goes and burns down Socrates school (what?!). The end.

Like I said, kind of strange. And I missed the bit where the author complains directly to the audience about not winning first prize the first time he presented the play.

Not for the casual reader, I would say, but pretty interesting for the would-be Greek scholar (like me). Unless you are really into 2400 year old fart gags, I would recommend Lysistrata instead as a play which stands up well even in the current day (see for example the recent Spike Lee/Samuel L Jackson version Chi-Raq). And it has better knob gags.
 

Maddz

Rune Priest
Snow White Learns Witchcraft, by Theodora Goss. A collection of reimagined fairy stories and poetry.

Interesting. The stories were reminiscent of Angela Carter or Sylvia Townsend Warner, being familiar (and not so familiar) stories reimagined. The thread I saw was snow or bears; most stories contained one or the other. There were a couple of variations of The Snow Queen; one where the focus is the Queen not Kay or Gerda.

I didn’t like the poetry as much, probably because it’s more prose poetry rather than traditional structured poetry and I don’t find it rhythmic.

Recommended.

The Fair Folk: Six Tales of the Fey, edited by Marvin Kaye. Contributors are Tanith Lee, Megan Lindholm, Kim Newman, Patricia McKillip, Craig Shaw Gardner, Jane Yolen and Midori Snyder.

Slightly uneven; I thought the Gardner story the weakest, and the Lee story read more like Storm Constantine, but the others were enjoyable. The Yolen/Snyder collaboration was a prequel (or the forerunner to) their Except the Queen.

Recommended.

Otherwise not much reading has been done; I‘ve been condensing the library to clear space so we can both work comfortably from home. The stacks of books dotted around the place are now shelved, and new stacks are in the porch (I hope the postie will take a few). I’ve read a couple of Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion over on The Faded Page. I've also caught up with my laundry (4 loads in as many days, 3 loads dried and put away the same day, the last didn't quite make it before the rain started). Also, I've been clearing up the aftermath of my main freezer quietly defrosting over a couple of days - we caught it before anything went off, so I had to cook the meat and fish into casserole base.
 
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ltd

Rune Priest
The Burden of Proof by James Barlow. Some of you may know the film adaptation VILLAIN with Richard Burton, Ian McShane and a whole host of other British acting luminaries. The novel has a rather different emphasis to the film, being written with a strong sense of moral and physical disgust at the permissive society of the 1960s. It doesn't always work - the relationship between the corrupt politician (Donald Sinden in the film) and his mistress is crudely drawn - and Barlow does bang on a bit too long sometimes. On the whole though it's still an impressively sustained piece of writing. Like reading an account of Ronnie Kray's misdeeds written by an old testament prophet. Or Peter Hitchens.
 
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Maddz

Rune Priest
The Glass Magician, by Caroline Stevermer.

Probably the start of a series (the ending suggests more to come), this is an alternate history set in New York at the start of the 20th century. Humanity is divided into 3 races - the Solitaires, who are 'normal' humans, the Traders, who are shape-shifters with a specific animal alternate which runs in families (and who are leaders of society), and the Sylvestri, recluses with an affinity for nature. In this story, the Sylvestri are mostly Native American descended.

The story opens when Miss Thalia Cutler, a Solitaire stage magician unexpectedly shape-shifts when a trick goes wrong. The only problem is that she does not know what she has turned into, and is told that unless one of her parents is a Trader, she must have been mistaken about what happened. She and her manager travel to New York to take up an engagement where they perform the Bullet Catch; unfortunately, they run foul of another magician who has exclusive rights to perform that trick in New York (no matter that he stole it from Thalia's late father, another magician). They are let go from their engagement, with no prospect of getting another. Then the other magician dies in performing the trick, and Thalia's manager is arrested for murder, having been at the theatre the previous evening.

Thalia is hired to teach a Trader daughter stage magic - she is unable to leave the house until she passes her coming of age ordeal to be accepted in society (shift to your animal form on command, back to human on command, and don't shift no matter what). While there, Thalia discovers in fact she is a Trader - she is a swan may. It seems her late mother came from a European Trader family...

A coming-of-age story, it's billed as YA, and does, in fact, read that way. The main thrust of the story is the intersection of 'real' magic and stage magic, the clearing of Thalia's manager's name, and the uncovering of the mystery of Thalia's family. The last is not resolved in the story, which is why it's thought to be a first-in-series. I would have liked to see a little more complexity in the writing - it reads as though it's aimed at a young teen not an older teen, but is otherwise charming. There are hints of a budding romance between Thalia and the head of the Trader family she becomes involved with. The other interesting thing about the story was the lack of racial prejudice - blacks and whites, and Native Americans seem to mix freely at all levels of society - the social barriers are between Solitaire, Trader and Sylvestri, not what race you spring from.

Recommended

The Grove of the Caesars, by Lindsey Davis (Flavia Albia 8)

Flavia is on her own while Manlius attends to family business outside Rome. His aedileship is coming to an end, and they are setting up to return to normal life with the building business they are building up. While checking up on their workmen who are demolishing a fake grotto in the sacred grove in Caesar's Garden, Flavia is shown a bunch of scrolls uncovered when the workmen were clearing out the grotto. She takes them home to look through them so see if they are worth selling.

While the workmen are still at the grotto site, the main garden is taken over for a private party. During the party, the wife of the host is abducted, raped and murdered - the latest victim of a serial killer who has been operating in the area for years. Normally, he preys on the night workers, and the vigiles tend to turn a blind eye. Now a respectable woman is the victim and her husband complains to the City Prefect - who responds by appointing Karus, the Imperial assassin to a taskforce to uncover the killer. Flavia teams up with the vigiles to uncover the real killer - Karus having arrested the first vaguely plausible suspect and forcing a confession.

Entwined with the murder plot, is the story of the scrolls and Manlius' family - he went haring off to his sister who was critically ill while pregnant, with an inadequate husband and 3 young sons.

Recommended
 

ltd

Rune Priest
This Storm by James Ellroy. Once great crime novelist continues his descent into rank self-parody.

Betjeman's England by John Betjeman: Rather curious volume made up of transcriptions of the poet laureate's televison programmes over the years. Doesn't always work and, philistine that probably I am, much of the poetry strikes me as doggerel. At its best though it does give a vivid portrait of various places in the British Isles and did prompt me to seek out a number of the original programmes which I really enjoyed, especially Let's Imagine A Branch Line

How Not to be a Boy by Robert Webb. Enjoy the man's comedy, less taken with this memoir. It is occasionally funny and it sounds like he had a tough time growing up which deserves sympathy, but ultimately I found it all a bit too solipsistic.

Landskipping by Anna Pavord. A look at the British landscape through the eyes of various painters, poets, and writers. Found the stuff on artists heavy going. Enjoyed the chapters on Cobbett, Hardy, Pavord's birthplace near Abergavenny and her adopted home of Dorset.

Before You Sleep by Adam Nevill. Three story "taster" for a larger collection. Very unsettling, with a definite touch of MR James about two of the stories. The other one interesting for its Japanese setting – though I suspect it might help to know a bit about the folklore of Japan to fully appreciate it.
 
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Maddz

Rune Priest
Whistling Bagpipes, by Irene Radford (Whistling River Lodge Mysteries 3). This was a free book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewer programme in exchange for an honest review.

The 3rd instalment in the series. I read book 1, wasn't entirely impressed, missed book 2 as there were other LTER offerings I wanted more. Got this one because there was nothing much that appealed to me that month.

In this book, time has moved on. Glenna has now got her BA and is really promoting the Lodge. Her relationship is developing with Craig, her security chief, and she is still attracted to Miles the ATF agent. Now a Highland Games has come to the area and booked the Lodge. The usual unpleasant people come with the convention - one is Craig's ex who he nearly arrested for booze smuggling, one is a potentially abusive parent, one is a much-married champion piper complete with ex-wife #1 and current wife.

One person dies, and enough people wanted them dead - yup, it was murder. Loose ends get tidied away, and there is some resolution around the meta-plot.

It's an OK read - I do find it a bit of an odd mix of cosy and gun culture, but that may be the setting. I also take issue with a plot point around the inheritance of British titles - it's very rare for the title to descend in the female line although the female can inherit the estate. Given current events (April 2020), I wonder if the series will continue.

A bit lightweight for me.
 

Maddz

Rune Priest
Money in the Morgue, by Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy

Set in New Zealand during WWII, this incomplete novel was started by Marsh, but never completed at her death in 1982. It was completed recently by Stella Duffy. Although badged as #33 in the Roderick Alleyn series, chronologically it's set between Colour Scheme (#12) and Died in the Wool (#13).

Roderick Alleyn has been sent to New Zealand during the war where he is spy hunting following Japan's entry into the war. He is posing as an author recuperating from a breakdown and is staying at the debt-ridden Mount Seager Hospital which has partly been taken over by the military. The hospital is at the end of a road in an isolated area, and it and the nearby pub are reached by crossing a rickety bridge which is barely passable to vehicles.

On Midsummer evening, the payroll driver is forced to overnight at the hospital because of a flat tyre; he has over £1000 in notes and specie with him, and the Matron suggests he puts the money in the hospital safe, along with some racetrack winnings of one of the nurses. During the night, the money is stolen, and the theft discovered...

Cue a murder that is not a murder, two pairs of lovers, a death that is not natural causes, and a set of tunnels that end in a glow worm cavern that is sacred to the local Māori tribe.

As with the Elizabeth Peters posthumously completed novel, I felt this was not particularly well done. I didn't think Duffy had caught Marsh's lightness in characterisation, and the writing felt rather ponderous in places. We don't know why Marsh never completed the novel, but I suspect it was because the spy plot was already used in Colour Scheme, and she may not have have wanted to continue it.

OK, but to my mind for completists only.
 

Maddz

Rune Priest
Reading the above inspired me to read Colour Scheme, by Ngaio Marsh (Inspector Alleyn #12)

As with the above, this is set in New Zealand during WWII. Alleyn has been sent to New Zealand to hunt fifth columnists. As with the above novel, he is working undercover, but in this novel he only makes an appearance part way through. The story focuses on the Claire family, owners of the thermal resort Wai-ata-tapu, their guests, and their dependents and their Māori neighbours. Staying at the resort are Maurice Questing, a vulgar businessman, and Geoffrey Gaunt, a celebrity actor, and his entourage.

The Claires are a somewhat dysfunctional family, consisting of Colonel and Mrs Claire, their children Barbara and Simon, and Mrs Claire's brother, Dr James Accrington who has retired to the resort to write a book on anatomy. Colonel Claire was formerly in the Indian Army, and is by no stretch of the imagination a businessman - by the time the story opens, he is in debt to Maurice Questing and is about to lose control of the resort (which is shabby and run down). Part of the problem as well is the Claire's Edwardian attitudes - they only want guests of the right sort. On the other hand, they enjoy good relations with their Māori neighbours; actually treating them decently. Also resident at the resort is Herbert Smith, a remittance man, who theoretically is the resort's odd job man, but in fact does as little work as possible and gets blotto monthly when his allowance arrives.

Maurice Questing is now the de-facto owner of the resort as Colonel Claire is behind on the interest on the loan, and the term of the loan is up; and Colonel Claire is in no position to repay the principal. Questing has plans to modernise the resort, and will be kicking out the Claires, with the exception of Barbara Claire (to whom he has proposed marriage) and her uncle, Dr Accrington, who he plans to retain as an on-site doctor. Geoffrey Gaunt has been recommended to the resort by an acquaintance of Dr Accrington; he didn't want to go to Rotorua because he would be disturbed by people after autographs and the like. He is accompanied by his secretary, Dickon Bell, and his manservant, Colly.

The story opens following the sinking of a ship, the Hippolyte, by what is thought to be a Japanese submarine (this would be around 1942). Dr Accrington believes there to be a fifth columnist in operation in the area as lights have been seen at night on Rangi's Peak, a coastal extinct volcano on the Māori reserve which was a burial ground and hence off-limits to all and especially paheka. Simon Claire has also seen the lights. It's also possible that the lights are from curio hunters, operating at night. Accrington has communicated with the authorities, and apparently got nowhere. Into this mix, Gaunt and his entourage arrive. Cue a rather explosive mix of personalities, another ship sinking (probably based on the sinking of the RMS Niagara in 1940), culminating in Questing's disappearance while crossing the thermal reserve at night (it being a short-cut to and from the Māori village).

I preferred this to Money in the Morgue, reading the two back-to-back showed Marsh's hand to be much better than Duffy's (almost certainly because of the generational and background differences). Marsh herself was also a theatrical director (this is why she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire) and the theatrical references in this are handled much better. It was also adapted for New Zealand television - I seem to recall seeing it in the 1980s.

Recommended.
 

Maddz

Rune Priest
Died in the Wool, by Ngaio Marsh (Roderick Alleyn 13)

The third New Zealand novel by publication order, and the 4th chronologically. (The first New Zealand novel was set before the war on an earlier antipodean trip. Alleyn meets his wife-to-be on his journey back to the UK.)

As with the earlier WWII novels, the story is again set in a remote place; here it is on a sheep station in the mountains, a 4 hour drive over bad roads to reach any form of civilisation. The murder actually takes place before the story proper starts; the victim is the wife of the station owner, who is also a MP and first-class bossy-boots. Alleyn is asked to investigate 15 months later after the initial investigation founders; there is suggestion of espionage - two of the suspects are engaged on secret work, and a copy of their work found it's way into the hands of a spy.

It's a variant of the country house mystery with a limited pool of possible suspects. The murder is caught by laying a trap and Alleyn's application of psychology to analyse the character of the deceased and other people's interactions with her.

Recommended.
 

Maddz

Rune Priest
The Luck Runs Out, by Charlotte MacLeod (Peter Shandy #2)

A cozy mystery on a rare price drop. These are US published by Open Road Media who frequently discount their titles in the US market, but rarely do so in the UK market. As far as I am aware, none of the books were ever picked up by a UK publisher.

Charlotte MacLeod had several series of cozy mysteries, principally the Sarah Kelling & Max Bittersohn series, and the Peter Shandy series. Most books are set in New England. The Peter Shandy series are set in and around the Balaclava Agricultural College where the eponymous Peter Shandy is a professor and plant breeder.

In this book, the local farrier is murdered among various strange happenings in and around the college - the kidnapping of a prize pig, the horseshoes on the stable doors are turned upside-down, the college waggon is vandalised and the vault at the local gold- and silver-smith is emptied. Various dramatics happen, as do various plot-twists before the villains are unmasked and arrested.

Stylistically, it's written in a markedly whimsical style; the whole area is apparently populated by eccentrics, and the background harks back to the 1940s or 50s (if not earlier) even though this was first published in 1979 and is supposedly contemporary. It's probably not to everyone's taste - the writing borders on twee Americana, and can be cloyingly domestic at times (a bit like Charlaine Harris can be). I enjoy the writing; it's light and fluffy and doesn't require much in the way of mental effort.

Enjoyable, but probably not to most people's taste.
 
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