[reading] What have you read recently?

Brass Jester

Acolyte
Staff member
Rereading The Mote in God's Eye; the Moties are surely one of the best alien races ever created? On the gripping hand, you may think otherwise.
(actually, I've got all three books on my Kindle; I didn't know that Jerry Pournelle's daughter had written a third book.)
Also, the whole Second Empire of Man, the Langston Field and the Alderson Drive would make a great a setting (I'd be very surprised if someone hadn't done it already, it is tailor-made for Traveller/ Cepheus.)
 
Read these in the last few weeks:

Where Did it All Go Right? by Andrew Collins. Music journo’s amiable account of growing up in 1970s Northampton.

The Lingering by SJI Holliday: Unusual hybrid of crime novel and ghost story set in an East Anglian commune. I thought the two elements didn’t quite hang together but you can’t fault the author’s ambition. I’d be interested to read more of her work.

Judge Dredd: Year One Ominibus by various authors. Three novellas covering the stoney faced one’s first year on the beat. All competently done with the requisite amount of violence and dark humour. If you’re a longstanding Dredd reader there’ll be a few characters you remember from the early days but given a bit more depth (e,g Rico, Gibson, Chief Judge Goodman). Bit puzzled as to why all SJS judges are tall, dark haired amazons with skull earrings though – they must clone them that way I guess.

John Le Carre: The Biography by Adam Sisman. Doorstop sized “official version” of the novelist’s life. He comes across as an often difficult character, perhaps not surprising given his family background. Sisman is good at showing how Le Carre’s novels often draw closely on the man’s own life. Less enamoured of the later chapters which seem to be an endless round of scraps with agents, publishers and...er...Salman Rushdie.
 
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Maddz

Rune Priest
Various odds and ends:

The Life of Cesare Borgia, by Rafael Sabatini (available at Project Gutenberg but I was reading it online at the FadedPage.com).

Of Italian descent, Sabatini wrote the first debunked biography of Cesare Borgia. Rather dated in style (I was reading it with the assistance of Google Translate, which doesn't do Church Latin very well), and by todays standards not very scholarly, Sabatini took the accepted stories about the Borgias and debunked them. The other thing he did was set the Borgias in context; one of his peeves was that later writers were not considering the context of the era and were judging his actions by their eras.

However, being published in 1912 it suffers from poor readability by modern standards, being littered with quotations in Latin and Italian with no translation. Partly this was the tradition of the time - anything thought disturbing to women and the lower orders was chastely veiled in Latin.

Also, it read like Sabatini took the previous biographers accounts and disagreed with their conclusions. Where Sabatini stood out was in being able to read several languages, and was likely reading the Italian contemporary and near-contemporary sources in the original instead of relying on translations.

Recommended as a good introduction, but don't take it as a good piece of scholarship.

The Marriage Mart, by Patricia Burns

A Regency romance, which I've owned for years. Sadly none of Bishop's Regencies are available in a Kindle edition; only her later novels.

Catherine Melmonte is earning her living as a governess; her father having died at a low ebb of his fortunes. His widow and children are living in reduced circumstances. After being dismissed from her post, Catherine returns home, where the local Squire (a man twice her age) pays clumsy court to her, desiring a wife. Catherine is not taken with him, even though it would solve her family's problems, and her mother discloses a letter from some relations, the Priors offering a visit to Catherine as companion to their younger daughter, Lydia. The Priors are in trade, and have acquired an estate in Norfolk and are seeking to establish themselves in the local gentry.

The story is about the visit and what comes of it; Catherine must decide whether to follow her heart and marry a penniless younger son, or accept the hand of the stuffy Walter Prior or the local Squire.

Light, but fun.

Also reading: The Tiamat series by Joan D Vinge (The Snow Queen, World's End, The Summer Queen and Tangled in Blue - so far I've finished the first 2 and barely started the next), and A Very q**** Family Indeed: Sex, Religion, and the Bensons in Victorian Britain.
 
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Some more lockdown reads:

Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu. Undeniably atmospheric, suspenseful and even occasionally funny, but also over long and melodramatic in the Victorian style. The climactic chapters are faintly ludicrous e.g the Dover deception. Prefer Le Fanu's short stories, although if I was in the mood and with plenty of time on my hands I would give another of his novels a try.

London Rules by Mick Herron. Another episode in the ongoing series about a section of disgraced intelligence officers, the "Slow Horses". Darkly
comic and I laughed a few times, but the mixture of one liners and pratfalls interspersed with terrorist atrocities ultimately left me feeling queasy,
more so than the previous books, of which this seems a rehash (most obviously its immediate predecessor Spook Street).

The Fens: Discovering England's Ancient Depths by Francis Pryor. Got this on the Amazon daily deal. Was hoping for a history of the region but much of the book is taken up with minutely described accounts of archaelogical digs. If archaelogy is your field you'll probably find this interesting but as a layman there's only so many tales of trenches cut into drainage dykes I can take before boredom sets in. In the latter part of the book Pryor does venture into the region's history, architecture and environment and is sporadically interesting but it's all very discursive with not much structure to it. He also unfortunately comes as sententious and self-regarding at times (predicted the last recession dontcha know, but not the year - how modest).

Greybeard by Brian Aldiss. Post-apocalyptic novel where society has collapsed due to nuclear testing making most larger mammals, including humans, sterile. The eponymous hero, his wife and a couple of companions sail down the Thames encountering various bizarre characters and situations before the novel reaches an ambiguous conclusion. Post collapse Oxfordshire is brilliantly rendered by Aldiss, and he creates some memorable grotesques such as the mad doctor/charlatan Bunny Jingadangelow and the trio of aged academics still running one of Oxford's colleges as if it were a medieval manor. A minor character named Gaylord K Cottage is probably over doing it though.

Black Sun by Owen Matthews. Thriller set in one of the Soviet Union's secret cities during the 1960s. A KGB officer investigates the mysterious death of a scientist in the week before the USSR tests the world's biggest atomic bomb. Matthews is really good on the details of Soviet life, the paranoia of state security, and the sheer madness of the military-industrial complex on both sides, east and west. The story limps a bit though, getting bogged down in too much talk and ultimately it feels like nothing much happens, other than a big bomb going off of course.
 
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Maddz

Rune Priest
Artists in Crime, by Ngaio Marsh (Inspector Alleyn 6)

This is set after Alleyn's original trip to New Zealand (the 3 books I reviewed earlier were his 2nd trip). It starts on the way home, and details Alleyn's meeting with his future wife, the artist Agatha Troy, in Fiji. Back in England, Troy is running an art class at her family home, and in the course of the class, the model is murdered by being forced onto a knife while being posed. The kicker is that the method had been worked out by the class earlier - one of the class had a commission illustrating some Decameron-like stories, one of which had the plot where a man killed his mistress accidentally by making love to her on a bench with a hidden knife.

The story is the typical country house murder mystery with a rather Bohemian cast of characters. Of course, the entire setting comes across to modern eyes as rather quaint and dated. The other issue with Marsh's books is that they can seem rather stagey - her other career as a stage director shows up quite strongly even when the plot doesn't involve a theatre setting or actors.

Light but recommended.
 

Maddz

Rune Priest
Colin, by E F Benson. Read on-line at the FadedPage.com

A stand-alone novel, by a well-known master of horror. Ostensibly this is one of his society novels, but it's actually a bit more horrific than that.

The Earls of Yardley derive their wealth and pre-eminence from a Satanic pact made by the founder of their line in Elizabethan times. Fast-forward to Victoria, and we meet Philip Stanier, heir to the earldom. At outs with his father, he eventually gains permission to travel in Italy, eventually settling on Capri. Here he meets (and eventually weds) a girl from an impoverished family, the wedding taking place 2 1/2 weeks before she gives birth to twin boys. She dies shortly afterwards, and Philip returns to England with the boys; he has now inherited the title, his father dying when he read the letter announcing his marriage and the birth of the boys.

We then skip forward 20 years, and the boys have grown up. Raymond, the elder, is a dark, sullen lout; Colin, the younger, is a handsome golden-haired lad bearing a marked resemblance to Colin Stanier, the founder of the line. Colin is his father's favourite. The twins hate each other; Colin wants the estate and Raymond's fiancé (their cousin) and is prepared to do anything to achieve his ends (mind you, Raymond isn't averse to attempted murder either).

An interesting novel. Published in 1923, the themes cover homosexuality (very much undercover, but in the 1920s Capri was a well-known haunt of wealthy homosexuals, and the theme of the handsome boatman telling lewd stories about Tiberius are suggestive), family love (or the lack thereof), and the psychological portrait of the corrosive jealousy of the brothers.

Recommended.

Flesh and Blood: A History of the Cannibal Complex, by Reay Tannahill

A rare print purchase; I've given up waiting for her non-fiction (and her other historical fiction) to be digitised. (She wrote the Earl of Moriston Mysteries under the pen name Annabel Laine.)

A pop science book; Tannahill takes as her theme cannibalism through history, and includes vampirism and lycanthropy as both deal with cannibalistic themes. I thought it a bit disorganised and rather anecdotal in style; she would skitter around both geographically and historically within the same chapter, and also discuss the three themes at once.

Recommended with reservations; it could do with a serious re-edit (which it almost certainly will never get - Tannahill died in 2007).
 

Maddz

Rune Priest
Thanks for this. Am reading his short stories at the moment - definitely interested in something in the same vein at novel length.
I've just started the sequel (also on the FadedPage.com). Some reviews I saw online suggested it wasn't as good.
 

Maddz

Rune Priest
Colin II, by E F Benson. As with the first in this duology, it was read online at FadedPage.com.

I went into this after looking at some reviews. Most commented that it was overly repetitive and not as good as the first.

Colin is now the Earl of Yardley following his father's death. He is the father of a son, Dennis who he intends shall follow in his footsteps and make the same demonic bargain that has been made for 500 years by the Stanier line. In order to do this, he must destroy Dennis' affection and love for himself. As with the earlier novel, it is in two parts - the earlier is set when Dennis is a young boy, the second when Dennis is entering puberty.

There was some repetition, but to my mind it was a valid part of the story; this was the story of a family incapable of love and how things were being repeated through the generations, culminating in the the story of Colin and his son, and whether the demonic bargain would again be made. The Satanic elements in this instalment were more overt, as was the religious aspect. The ending I found to be rather over the top, but I suppose it had to happen that way (given just whose son Benson was).

Recommended but rather spoilt by the trite ending.
 

Maddz

Rune Priest
The Dame Constance de Clair series: Having the Builders In and Having the Decorators In by Reay Tannahill.

Set in the time of Richard II and the Peasant's Revolt, these historical novels are rather witty. Although both are technically romances, they are rather more than that; the first has a mystery plot, and the second is set during the Peasant's Revolt and has feminist leanings.

Having the Builders In

The widowed Dame Constance is mistress of the castle and estate of Vine Regis, set somewhere in Southern England (probably western Hampshire as Salisbury is fairly close), and has been running things for many years. Initially, she was regent for her son Lord Gervase, and when he came of age he found it more convenient to let his mother go on managing things even during his marriage. His wife having died, leaving him with two young daughters on his hands, Dame Constance decides he should remarry and has arranged a match. However, Vine Regis is rather a grim fortress with little in the way of creature comforts, so Dame Constance has decided to have an extension built to improve things. The builders arrive at the same time as Gervase's intended...

Having the Decorators In

Following the marriages in the first book (no, Gervase did not marry his affianced bride - she married another man), Dame Constance is back at Vine Regis having sent her new husband off to his estate near Northampton (he's a Justice of the Peace and a potential target for the revolting peasantry). Various locals and travellers take refuge at the castle, including a rather plain young lady with advanced views on marriage. Also in residence is an Italian painter who has been hired to decorate the newly built Great Hall. Shockingly (at least to the local abbot), a frieze of classical gods has been decided on.

I'd read the first many years ago - there was a small book swap at work - and thought it not bad (and at the time not worth keeping). I came across the series when I was checking to see if Annabel Laine had written any more Earl of Moriston stories (she hadn't) but found that in fact Reay Tannahill wrote those as by Annabel Laine. I've been keeping an eye out for other books by Tannahill to be digitised, and decided to get these and some non-fiction by her.

They are well-written and rather witty, although they do come across as being a bit mistorical in their tropes.

Recommended.

Jack and the Ghosts, by Patricia Finney

I picked this up because MobileReads flagged an omnibus of one of Finney's mystery series at a good price, so I checked it out and checked Finney's Amazon page.

This is the blurb:

"Hi! Hi there! How lovely to smell your friendly smell again, snff snortle, snff snff, you smell happy too!
Happy dog! Happy happy happy, meeting friends again! Can I smell your...
Oh. Sorry.
I am JACK, old fashioned yellow Labrador who is Very Thick.
I have a Great Big apedog Packleader called Tom Stopes and also Dad, and a Fierce apedog Pack Lady called Charlotte and also Mum, and I have three ape-puppies in my Pack called Terri and Pete and Mikey. Apedogs go on their back legs all the time and they have no tails (Poor Apedogs). I love everyone in my Pack.
Also there are funny-looking dogs with hidden claws.* They say it is their Pride, not my Pack. They say I am a Big Stupid. I think this is good, maybe.
{*Cats, CATS, CATS! Obviously it is our Pride and Our Lair because We are the Cats and We are in charge. Signed, The Cats ^-^}

Jack has his own website at www.gooddogjack.co.uk, where you can find out about his other adventures, and his very own author, Patricia Finney."

I LOVED this! It's a blast and just what I needed as a pick-up! Written from Jack's point-of-view {with snippy interpolations from the cats ^-^}, it was hilarious and I kept reading bits out load.

Recommended.
 
Linking almost seemlessly with @Maddz post, the book club of the Edinburgh Indie Meetup this month read A Night In The Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny. One of favourites, this is very pleasant little fantasy tale as told by Snuff, the dog companion of a late Victorian gent by the name of Jack. Highly recommended if you haven't come across it before. I would avoid the Wikipedia page if you don't want plenty of spoilers.
 
Reading the latest edition of Deadlands The Weird West. Shane Hensley knocked it out of the park again. So happy with the new Savage Worlds Adventure Edition and its pioneering setting rebooted yet again. Really good layout, nice Old West themes throughout, a wonderful read of Weird West tropes just begging for a session. And if you missed the Kickstarter, late pledges are still open.

deadlands_the_weird_west.jpg
 

Maddz

Rune Priest
3 loosely-linked historical novels by Judith Merkle Riley. Set at different times, the common thread is the presence of the in-period supernatural element and the common setting of the court of France - during the reigns of Louis XII (1514 - 1515), Henri II (1556-1559) and Louis XIV (1675 - 1679).

The Serpent Garden
This historical novel deals with the miniaturist, Susanna Dallet. Left in poverty by the death of her philandering husband, she becomes paintrix to Thomas Wolsey, and accompanies Mary Tudor to her wedding with Louis XII of France.

Deftly written, I enjoyed this. Susanna is not a simpering miss of a heroine, but a woman who isn't sure she wants a man back into her life after the way she was treated by her late husband. Certainly not the mildly misogynist Robert Ashton who is told by Thomas Wolsey to look after his investment.

There is some period fantasy - angels and demons, along with Black Magic, but not enough to mark this as a historical fantasy.

Recommended.

The Master of All Desires

After her father is arrested for heresy, Sibille shoots an intruder with her father's gun. This turns out to be her betrothed; thinking that she has murdered him, Sibille goes to take a petition to the local bishop to free her father. She meets Nostradamus and acquires a mysterious box en route, and discovers it contains a rather nasty living head, the Master of All Desires - who grants wishes at the expense of one's soul. She and her aunt refuse to give into it's blandishments, and end up travelling to Paris at the behest of Catherine de'Medici, Queen of France who desires the use of the Master.

Queen Catherine is trying to break Diane de Poitiers' hold on the King, and wishes this to come about. Unfortunately, Diane de Poitiers also makes the same wish - that Queen Catherine does not gain a hold on the King. The story deals with the consequences of that wish, and along the way, Sibille breaks the Master's power with the help of Nostradamus.

Fun and light-hearted, this historical novel has a smidgen of fantasy - the living head and the angel of history (who passes foreknowledge to Nostradamus).

Recommended.

The Oracle Glass

Genevieve Pasquier is the youngest daughter of a disgraced financier (who fell with Fouquet). Growing up in a straightened household, her spendthrift mother believes her husband squirrelled away a fortune and does her best to get hold of it, murdering her husband and mother-in-law. Believing Genevieve knows where the fortune is, she threatens her life. Genevieve runs away and falls into the clutches of Catherine Monvoison, Queen of the Witches of Paris.

La Monvoison grooms Genevieve as a water diviner, disguising her as Madame de Morville, a 150 year-old cursed with eternal life. As a diviner, Genevieve makes an excellent living, coming to the attention of Madame de Montespan, who is desperate to keep the affections of the king by any means possible. Along the way, Genevieve gets mixed up with Hugenots and playwrights.

There is less overtly supernatural elements in this book, although it is suggested that Genevieve has true visions of The Terror.

Recommended.
 

Guvnor

The Guvnor
Staff member
Family Trade
Charles Stross
Mmmmmm
Very American. Took forever to get going.
Felt written in a 1950s US SF style.
Talked down to me a lot.
Started to get interesting 90% in..
But I have all five and he clearly has a story arc or two. I shall I read the next one.
 
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